Experience Creators You Should Know - Alyssa McArdle, NeuGroup

Alyssa McArdle, of NeuGroup, discusses how she honed her skills over the pandemic to now be in position to overcome the challenges that the new meetings/events landscape brings.



This post is part of the HopSkip Planner Spotlight Series where HopSkip spotlights planners across the industry to bring awareness of how they adapted to COVID-19, communicating and lessons learned and sharing how they are viewing the meetings and events industry in a post-pandemic world. 


Name: Alyssa McArdle

Company Name: Included Health

Job Title: Director of Events

Years of Experience: 8

How did you get your start in the events industry? What made you pursue this role?
I started on the venue side of events, selling and running events at luxury hotels. I made the shift to the corporate planning side in 2019, which turned out to be a very fortuitous time to step away from the hospitality industry. Events work is this surprisingly perfect alchemy of my talents and interests. Every day, I draw on my experience in fine dining, journalism, communications, and marketing. Even the time I spent in law school aids the contract work and negotiations I manage. I couldn’t have planned a better roadmap for a career in events, yet I did so completely by happenstance.
How would you describe your role or responsibilities as a professional event planner?
As the Director of Events for a small but impactful organization, I am responsible for the strategic and detailed logistical planning of all NeuGroup member events, including over 40 in-person meetings each year. I build and execute memorable events with creative and impactful programming and creative opportunities for engagement in unique venues. I create and manage a hefty fiscal event budget, allocating to and creating individual event budgets, and tracking actuals to ensure profit margins are maintained. I act as project manager for all pieces of the event planning process, large and small, and liaise with peer group leaders, sponsors, venues, and vendors to ensure adherence to milestones and objectives. I source and negotiate contracts with venues, including resorts, hotels, restaurants, corporate offices, etc. I create and manage the event calendar; manage all event communications from registration announcements to attendee guides and post-event surveys; design and maintain registration pages and event websites; procure and manage event supply inventory, including swag, signage, and other event collateral. Maybe most importantly, I build strong relationships with stakeholders, sponsors, speakers, and additional key collaborators.
How do you compare planning your first in-person event post-pandemic, to planning meetings/events pre- Covid? What was different and unique? What was similar?
Planning and executing an event always feels like juggling 100 balls at once. The first event I planned after COVID felt like I was juggling those same 100 balls plus a chainsaw. You have all the same intricate details, project milestones, communications, etc. to stay on top of, plus this giant COVID wildcard. Not knowing when the next variant would pop up, how members and their organizations would feel about traveling and/or amassing in a group as the event got closer, ever-changing COVID policies that varied not only by state and city but even by specific office or hotel location, contingency planning for cancellations, an outbreak, sick staff members. COVID not only added about 25 planning pieces to an event project plan, but it also added what most event planners detest more than anything: uncertainty.
What challenges have you faced in your work as a meeting and event planner, when working with suppliers or sourcing a venue and how did you overcome them?

I think the biggest struggle we are still feeling in this COVID recovery period is staffing shortages. Hotel and vendor response times, and sometimes the quality of customer service overall, have greatly shifted since COVID and its impact on the hospitality industry. Building relationships based on trust and partnership is so important. We need and want the vendors to succeed, and they us, so I find success in a careful mix of empathy and frankness. I try to be softhearted about delays or minor challenges that pop up, but I am also firm in asserting the expectations of my organization. Especially as prices continue to rise, there are standards that need to be met in order to deliver on our brand promise.
How do you determine which vendors are best suited for your stakeholder's needs while also finding those providing competitive services at affordable rates?
Planner networks and site visits. I belong to a slew of event planner networks where we share experiences, look for recommendations, and brainstorm ideas with one another. There is almost always someone in one of the groups that know the venue or vendor I'm considering or has a recommendation in the price range I need. I also think it is really important to visit as many venues as possible physically. There is no substitute for walking space, and I've found that the most successful contract negotiations happen face-to-face.
Are there any key lessons or insights that have shaped your approach to event planning over the years?
Have a contingency plan, or two. Don't run on a shoestring staff, or you will run out of options. The same goes for budgets. Keep your budgets tight but not too tight that they can't withstand an emergency expense. Pay attention to your attendees; make sure they look like they have what they need and are having a good time. Be kind to the people working at your event. Always have a Sharpie and a band-aid in your pocket. Remember that no event is ever flawless, but it's your job to create the best illusion possible. Keep your sense of humor.
Are you approaching contracting with hotels differently, post-pandemic?
Again, it is all about partnerships. Hotels have to protect themselves and will not back down on certain clauses. But you can find collaborative common ground regarding rescheduling, attrition, reductions to F&B minimum, etc. If you are reasonable in your asks, you will get farther.
What is the biggest area of improvement that you think hotels can make when either responding to your RFPs or during the contract phase of your event?
Speed and responsiveness.
Since education and relationships are two major pillars in the meetings and events industry, any suggestions on how other planners can learn and network with their peers across the industry?
Join a peer networking group, attend industry events, and get your CMP. 
This post is part of the HopSkip Planner Spotlight Series where HopSkip spotlights planners across the industry to bring awareness of how they adapted to COVID-19, communicating and lessons learned and sharing how they are viewing the meetings and events industry in a post-pandemic w,orld. 

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