Special events pay off: Growth seen in career opportunities, event numbers

May 8, 2006

Special events aren't just fun and games-they're big business, generating careers and economic activity that are anything but frivolous.

Special event spending in Indianapolis is nearly $3 billion a year, according to Bob Shultz, public relations director for the Indiana Convention & Visitors Association. Annual spending for special events worldwide is $500 billion, according to research conducted by the Chicago-based International Special Events Society.

In Money Magazine's annual "Best Jobs in America" survey, meeting and convention planners were ranked in the top 50 best careers, based on salary and job prospects with a projected growth in the field of 22 percent over the next 10 years.

This year is shaping up to be a good one for event planners, according to Lisa Perrin, publisher of Special Events Magazine. In a survey conducted for the trade publication, more than half of in-house event planners said they expect to produce more events this year than last, and almost 70 percent of independent event pros expect growth this year.

Jennifer McKinney-Seet, special events manager for the Indianapolis Zoo, agrees the field is growing, both in terms of events and the people planning them. "There are definitely more independent [special event planning] startups and some independents have joined forces, like Detail + Design, to be real powerhouses," she said.

And as Indiana is revving up its tourism engines with a new slogan, "Restart Your Engines," more events attracting a wider audience of visitors are anticipated-something that's good for the economy and for event specialists.

"Between all the sporting events, conferences and other events, there's enough [work] to go around," said Kari Strolberg, owner of Indianapolis-based Eventful Marketing Solutions Inc., which specializes in coordinating large civic events. "We can all create the career that we want, and still co-exist."

Planning perfection

Whether it's high-profile events like the recent NCAA Final Four or local festivals like Indy Jazz Fest or a host of others, it takes special event professionals working in the trenches to ensure they come off successfully.

"When people hire an event planner they are looking for perfection," Strolberg said. "They want every detail covered. It's a challenge trying to think of every little scenario and every little thing you need to do to make the event exactly what the client is looking for, but I love it."

Florence May, owner of Indianapolisbased Simply Hospitality Inc., has planned many of the special events associated with the U.S. Grand Prix and recently worked on the Big 10 Tournament and Final Four events. Prior to starting her own business, she worked as a tourism specialist with the ICVA.

She knows that planners must orchestrate an event like a seasoned conductor while possessing the skills of a diplomat when dealing with unruly guests or opposing points of view.

"Sometimes the biggest challenge can be achieving consensus on the end result when dealing with committees, boards or staff who have opposing ideas," May said. "Typically there are a lot of people who have to be involved with making the decisions, and many times the timelines are very short."

Compensation for pulling off such challenges varies. Independent event planners typically charge a percentage of event sales for large corporate events. A flat fee is typical when working with individuals, smaller organizations and not-for-profits.

Seeing events come together successfully and smiles on the faces of clients and guests is often the best reward for event planners like Sarah Bean, building rental and events manager for the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art.

"When the mother of the bride tells her friends and coworkers that the reception at the Eiteljorg was phenomenal-the food was excellent and the ambience was perfect-that's where I find my biggest reward."

For Kari Eisenhooth, owner of McCordsville-based Exclamation Point Events Inc., the thrill is in bringing new experiences-like the Simply She Lifestyle Show-to Indianapolis. She developed the annual show in 2004. It features fashion, beauty, cooking, home-decorating and wellness information for women of all ages.

Eisenhooth is currently working on the inaugural Broad Ripple Street Festival-a day-long event featuring music, food and activities scheduled for July 22.

The best laid plans ...

Even with months of planning, event planners know to expect the unexpected. For Strolberg the unexpected was excessive heat that caused a portion of Ohio Street to cave in during a Kroger CircleFest event. The entire children's area had to be moved.

"You can't plan for something like that," she said. "You just have to figure out how to solve it when it happens."

While weather can be disastrous, the human element can be equally capricious. When the 2004 Taste of Broad Ripple drew to an end at 11 p.m., and the 15,000 attendees started leaving, Eisenhooth breathed a sigh of relief thinking her job was over. She soon found otherwise.

"The cleaning crew was so overwhelmed, they walked off the job," she said. "We [the event partners] had literally 30,000 beer cans and other trash to clean up in six hours. This was by far the worst experience I've ever had."

With recurring events, the challenge is keeping visitors coming back. Strolberg has organized the Indiana Derby at Anderson's Hoosier Park for the last 12 years. She reads industry magazines and attends conferences and trade shows to keep up with new ideas and technology she can incorporate into her events.

"When someone says, 'I watched the Oscars and saw this blinking thing,' I want to know what it is and where to get it," she joked.

May solicits input from event volunteers to provide fresh ideas for ongoing events like the U.S. Grand Prix. And this "mother of invention" created her own online volunteer registration system out of necessity when she couldn't find a product to handle matching volunteers to needs. She now markets The Registration System to other event planners. The system, May says, was "built out of pain," referring to her experience the first year of the Grand Prix.

"We had 2,600 volunteers in 29 venues," she said. "Every site had a different schedule and in many of them they had to speak multiple languages. It was a nightmare."
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