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: Hannah Van Nortwick
Company Name: Byrider
Job Title: Director of Event Planning
Years of Experience: 6
How did you get your start in the events industry? What made you pursue this role?
I stumbled upon the events industry purely by chance. Due to the complementary nature of events with Executive Assistant roles, I was fortunate enough to work with leaders that supported my interests and professional growth, which allowed me to grow my passion for event planning. My background is actually professional ballet, which I retired from. I was uncertain about what other opportunities might be out there for me to pursue with equal zeal. I am particularly drawn to the level of meticulousness required in the events industry, where attention to detail is paramount, and the end result is a tangible creation. The events industry offers a unique sense of gratification, given the strict deadlines and the satisfaction of witnessing the fruits of one's labor come to life.
How would you describe your role or responsibilities as a professional event planner?
My position is constantly in flux, as event planning demands a versatile skill set. As an event planner, I assume multiple roles, such as a designer, strategist, accountant, and coordinator, among others, and each event presents a unique set of challenges. Adaptability and agility are key, as failing to manage an event proactively can lead to setbacks. With each new event, I have gained valuable insight into streamlining certain tasks, but at the same time, there are always additional responsibilities to tackle and master.
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?
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?
The COVID-19 pandemic presented an unprecedented level of challenge for our team. I had the opportunity to organize my first event at the tail end of Covid. We tried a hybrid event, which combined in-person and virtual elements to accommodate attendees who did not feel comfortable traveling amidst the pandemic. In addition to enforcing mask mandates and safety measures, I had to navigate the complexities of live streaming the event with limited staff onsite, which was a new experience for me. We strived to deliver as similar an experience as we could for both in-person and virtual attendees. While challenges are common in event planning, my most recent experience involved navigating a hurricane, which tested our team.
One of the major challenges I face is securing a highly specific floor plan with limited availability of room nights. Fortunately, I have the support of an experienced hotel sourcing specialist who possesses an in-depth understanding of our program and aids me in navigating this challenge with ease. For instance, we have been striving to host our November event at a very specific property for a while now, but we couldn't meet the required space needs for the number of room nights given. However, by maintaining a positive relationship with the sales representative, we were able to capitalize on a gap in their schedule and successfully secure the location. While such opportunities may not arise frequently, event planners must be creative in overcoming these obstacles.
Are there any key lessons or insights that have shaped your approach to event planning over the years?
Avoid procrastination at all costs. We all know that events can be subject to constant changes, and unexpected situations may arise. Therefore, it is crucial to be meticulous and comprehensive in the planning process. My early experience in event planning taught me a valuable lesson about the importance of adapting to room assignment changes which could render printed materials obsolete. To address this, we now utilize QR codes to ensure that last-minute modifications are reflected accurately, without discrepancies in the printed material.
Due to the impact of Covid-19, it has become necessary for us to secure our annual convention venues three years in advance, as opposed to the previous two-year timeline. However, an advantage we have benefitted from a few times recently is the ability to book last-minute properties due to numerous cancellations, many of which were highly desirable locations that were previously out of reach, at a favorable room rate. We always inquire with the hotel management about potential accommodations, even if they seem out of reach, as there may be unforeseen opportunities to secure better deals.
Are you approaching contracting with hotels differently, post-pandemic?
Our priority has been to increase the number of Request for Proposal (RFP) submissions, broadening our search beyond the traditional options. Many properties are now more inclined to accept smaller programs in order to boost their sales revenue. It is important to consider a wider range of venues in the post-pandemic world.
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?Due to the pandemic, our events community had to evolve, adapt, and grow. Many planners started to embrace new technologies as a result of the pandemic. What new tech are you using today in your planning process as a result?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?
One of the obstacles we face in the RFP process is the difficulty in obtaining a prompt response from prospective hotels. This is attributed to the current understaffing in the industry or the delayed recovery from the pandemic, which has resulted in a reduced capacity. As a result, it has been challenging to secure a timely and consistent mode of communication via phone or email.
Hybrid events were good for a period of time but began to impact onsite attendance, which is challenging when you are signing hotel contracts years in advance with specific room attrition. We’ve also heard great feedback from our franchisees as we’ve added more novel technology into our events, for instance, making improvements to our event text messages, increased QR code usage, a dedicated events website via Google sites, and rethinking promoting our events with fun content to drive attendance. Finding new tools that cater to our attendee's communications preferences has proven highly effective in sharing information with them.
I strongly recommend subscribing to whatever content you can find that talks about best practices, even if it seems outside of your own industry. This can include regular updates from event planning websites, CMP certification organizations, as well as news related to new hotel openings, among other relevant sources. By staying informed, one can maintain a competitive edge and keep abreast of the latest trends and developments. Even consider reaching out to other planners to spend a day at their event to observe, if the logistics make sense. Additionally, I have also found value in joining my local MPI network. It’s worth keeping in mind that the event planning industry is close-knit. Therefore, when onsite at events, reaching out to different departments and networking with acquaintances can open doors to new opportunities.