Experience Creators You Should Know - McKenzie Hollenbaugh, Deka Lash

McKenzie Hollenbaugh, of Deka Lash, 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: McKenzie Hollenbaugh

Company Name: Deka Lash

Job Title: Events & Brand Experience Manager

Years of Experience: 7

How did you get your start in the events industry? What made you pursue this role?
I got started in the events industry in a bit of a roundabout way. I changed my major three times while studying at Boston University before finally discovering my passion for hospitality. While at BU, I completed internships at Harpoon Brewery and Big Fish Promotions, where I gained valuable experience working in the events and beverage industry. It's a running joke that I started out in the "brew industry" as Harpoon specializes in beer distribution, while at Big Fish, I primarily focused on the Dunkin' Coffee account. After graduating with a Bachelor's in Hospitality Administration, I went on to work at Siagel Productions, starting with weddings and bar/bat mitzvahs, but I quickly realized that I preferred corporate events. This was short-lived in seeking to bring my lifelong goal of playing professional soccer to fruition, I decided to pick up and accept a spot with Le Havre Athletic (HAC) in Normandie, France. I played for two years before returning to the United States. Upon my return, I landed a position at Deka Lash. Since 2019, my role has expanded significantly, and I now work on a wide range of events, from our National Convention to smaller internal company meetings, cultural initiatives, and ongoing training for our Franchise Business Owners and in-studio staff. My journey highlights the importance of being adaptable and open to new challenges when pursuing a career in event planning.
How would you describe your role or responsibilities as a professional event planner?
Within Deka Lash, I would say I am a connector & a facilitator. There are 3 main groups: Corporate, Owners, and Lash Artists. I connect all 3 of these groups to each other through in-person and virtual events to facilitate education, networking, and business growth opportunities. At Deka Lash, I would say ideas flow more freely during in-person events vs. virtual ones. The beauty industry is constantly evolving, as are our clients' needs. To ensure we continually provide the best service to our clients, it starts with having the best foundation from Corp to Owners, to our Lash Artist who provide the service. My main responsibility is to facilitate and execute events that allow all 3 groups to gather, brainstorm, network, and leave with actionable items that will ultimately make their business flourish from a financial and employer standpoint. And, of course, it's my job to make sure it's fun. Business, events, co-workers, and friends, should be enjoyable. I aim for everyone to leave feeling invigorated and energized, ready to take on or face their next challenge with confidence.
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?
There was a lot more red tape when coming back from COVID, that's for sure. Distancing, sanitation stations, no buffets, attendee proximity tracking, etc. The abundance of caution from attendees and co-workers was very noticeable as well. Pre-Covid, it seemed everyone wanted to be in-person, wanted to network, and wanted to help out. Post-Covid, everything got turned on its head. Virtual, hybrid, and recordings of live events were preferred. This made networking very difficult. Almost all the serendipity or hallway moments were lost. Chance encounters are gone. Going to the lobby bar, gone. It's currently been a little bit of an uphill battle getting everyone back in person. But those that do attend seem to be more exuberant and more engaged. It's a little bit of a give-and-take here. Post-Covid, we have fewer attendees, but their participation is through the roof. Where pre-Covid, there were more attendees, and most simply went through the motions. Something that is different post-Covid is the amount of "free" time attendees prefer. Shorter events, with more transition time between sessions and longer breaks. They want more time to network and chat freely, less time actually in a chair and listening to a session. This has led to the need for more lounge space and alternate seating within the event. Before, everyone was fine with crescent rounds, classroom, or theater set up's. I have now seen an uptick in mixing couches, with crescents, and high tops in the back for standing, and so on. It really is quite unique.
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?

AV seems to always be a tedious task. It's the same run around every time with pricing and staffing, and outside vendor fees. The 3 strategies I have utilized are; to have a simpler setup that you can execute on your own, work with the AV team and hotel to come up with a reasonable solution that still accomplishes your goals, bring in a reliable outside vendor that has worked with the hotel before and can negotiate the fees on your behalf. Make sure the latter is done prior to signing the hotel contract.
How do you determine which vendors are best suited for your stakeholder's needs while also finding those providing competitive services at affordable rates?
Communication and research! First, communicate with your clients or the department that is requesting the event. Start by nailing down what the overall goal is for the event, what business value they want to achieve, and most importantly, what monetary means are available to accomplish this. In simple terms, "why", "what", and "budget". Once this is on paper, we start to discuss how we will accomplish their goals. This includes the theme, F&B, space requirements, attendance, location, etc. Now that you are armed with all the necessary information, it's time to research. Research your current list of vendors and any network connections you may have. The best vendors are usually ones you have a connection with. I tend to research a few new vendors as well, especially if the event is being held in a new location. Options are always good. Once you have done your research, it's time to communicate! Reach out to all of your vendors and clearly communicate all your needs and ensure they understand your event. Nothing is worse than a disconnected vendor. After the initial communication, the vendor will either say they are a good fit for your event or not. It's then your job to communicate and conduct further research alongside those vendors to determine which will be the best fit. When it comes to pricing, doing your research can eliminate vendors right away, it can also introduce you to other vendors. The most important thing when it comes to pricing is, be honest about your budget. If you are open about your budget right off the bat, the overall business relationship will be stronger, and they can provide you with realistic expectations.
Are there any key lessons or insights that have shaped your approach to event planning over the years?
Your network is everything. Talk with vendors, event planners, suppliers, whoever. Join a group like MPI, or if that is not available to you, find a local event group on FB or through a school. Hop on webinars once a month to see what others are doing and to hear about upcoming innovations.
With hotels short-staffed, and RFP lead time shortening, what is your advice to other planners to overcome these obstacles when requesting hotels for proposals?
My biggest piece of advice is to connect with your decision makers on the event regarding their goals, objectives, outcomes, attendance, and expectations right away. Try to get as much information as possible upfront. Yes, things will shift, but being able to give the hotel as much information as possible right out of the gate will move the contract and negotiation process along more smoothly. It will also ensure you are choosing the most appropriate venue. One other small piece of advice is to know your attendees. Do they like to drink, are they demanding, are they chill, do they wander, do they expect food to be available all the time, etc? Providing this to the hotel will better equip them to meet the expectations and needs of your group.
Are you approaching contracting with hotels differently, post-pandemic?
I will say that since our budgets have stayed constant, I do have to approach hotels with a more stringent process, as I do not have as much leeway post-covid as I did. However, I would say, overall, no.
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?
I have always felt that the events industry has been at the forefront of tech integration. However, the pandemic did accelerate the adoption of technology. For instance, hybrid and virtual events were not a new concept and did not require completely new tech, but they weren't widely utilized before the pandemic. But, there is no doubt the tech has become more accessible and easier to navigate. To adapt, I have embraced video conferencing platforms such as Zoom and Google Meets, which have become essential tools for remote communication. Additionally, other meeting platforms such as Swapcard, Hopin, and Airmeet have evolved to serve the needs of virtual, hybrid, and in-person events through agenda building, meeting schedulers, and the ability to live stream directly through the app. The most recent tech I have begun to explore is AI. AI has emerged as a game-changing technology in the events industry, and I have just started to scratch the surface in learning about its potential applications. While events will always require a human touch to create those serendipitous and genuine moments, AI has been an excellent tool for idea generation.
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?
Oh, education and relationships are most certainly two critical pillars and are tightly linked to any event's success. I have personally experienced the value of networking, having recently joined the MPI Pittsburgh Chapter as part of my journey toward obtaining my CMP. Through attending MPI events, I have forged relationships that have led to new opportunities, including my upcoming role as the VP of Marketing Communications. The best advice I can give is to become involved in a local events chapter or association. Get to know your local CVB and your local planners. I promise they have seen it all. Each planner has forged their own path in this industry, and each has their own unique background. When you embrace your local network, it enables you to branch off to make even more 3rd party connections. My last piece of advice would be, if you are able, to go out and attend an event conference. The wealth of knowledge between the plethora of session speakers, attendees, and vendors is overwhelming, but in an eye-opening and endless possibility kind of way.
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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