Experience Creators You Should Know - Zalika Woods, Ceres

Zalika Woods, of Ceres, 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: Zalika Woods

Company Name: Ceres

Job Title: Manager, Events

Years of Experience: 10

How did you get your start in the events industry? What made you pursue this role?
I worked at a few law firms after not returning to college after my freshman year and knew this wasn’t a career path that I saw myself in the future. I did some self-reflecting to see what I really had an interest in and enjoyed doing and party planning stood out as a goal to pursue. After five years of working in the industry for social events, I found myself entering the corporate/conference planning space at the University of Maryland School of Social Work. This was where I began gaining experience and developing a professional interest in advancing the organization’s missions through events. I pursued this role at Ceres to continue building upon my experiences with conference/event planning while gaining experience in event strategies and management
How would you describe your role or responsibilities as a professional event planner?
I would describe my role as a professional event planner to be forever changing in order to be what I need to be to ensure a successful experience for attendees and stakeholders. This is often illustrated by proficient logistical planning, relationship manager with vendors, greeters during the event, and more. An event planner has to wear multiple hats to contribute to the success of the event and also know when to lean on others to carry out all the planning that has been done.
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 in-person events post-Covid has been interesting. The first event after the pandemic created a bit of uncertainty on if people will come as they had before, could we continue to create value in a world of options and distractions with people feeling safe and comfortable in conference settings and not having to leave their home (let alone) their city to receive content, and what will people/could people pay and find value in paying when there were two years of FREE conferences during the pandemic. Of course, having to think about the virtual opportunities and expenses incurred with that was something that wasn’t at the forefront of our planning pre-pandemic. However, now, post-Covid, it’s always a part of the conversations regarding hybrid or virtual components to conferences and how we can expand our global reach while also keeping costs low and getting people in physical seats. When thinking of what may have not changed, I’d say planning for interruptions. As a planner, you always have to plan for possible strikes, labor shortages, transportation hiccups, and now we’re adding to the list of global health pandemics.
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?

Sourcing has definitely become a different world post-pandemic than it was pre-pandemic. I’ve experienced, like everyone else in the industry, increased prices for EVERYTHING that doesn’t always align with budgets. The way I approach this is by being upfront with our budgets and what we can or not forgo to stay within our set budget. There’s seldom room to increase budgets but there are often times when we both (vendor and our organization) can get creative to maintain continuity and heighten experiences of events.
How do you determine which vendors are best suited for your stakeholder's needs while also finding those providing competitive services at affordable rates?
Sustainability is the core of our work. We support union properties, establish relationships with vendors that not only have but also implement sustainable practices, and we seek out these vendors. Thankfully, more vendors are holding the importance of sustainability and reducing gas emissions which in turn makes it easier to keep rates affordable in most cases as it’s not a unique practice but ingrained within the pricing and business model. This is not all the time, but the more vendors become more proactive in sustainability, the more we collectively can make a difference by keeping low competitive rates as well as reducing food waste, air pollution, gas emissions, and contributing to clean energy.
Are there any key lessons or insights that have shaped your approach to event planning over the years?
Remain flexible and always be ready to pivot. I think the pandemic showed us that in the most urgent way. I would also say to see events as ever-evolving. The way we planned events in 2019 is not necessarily the same as in 2023. Vendors act differently. Attendees act differently. We should, too.
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?
What I’ve heard, read, and experienced is that the waiting game is behind us. Hotels are less inclined to wait weeks for decisions and give less information upfront when planners are initially gathering information through RFPs. My advice is to have a narrowed list of locations where you're interested in hosting your event versus throwing out a wide net. The time and willingness to respond is not necessarily the same as it used to be. Be upfront with what your event requires (non-negotiable) vs what would be nice (could leverage in negotiations. Also, ensure you read and understand the hotel’s/vendor’s terms around staffing and shortfalls, as this is likely a direct implication of a successful and unsuccessful event.
Are you approaching contracting with hotels differently, post-pandemic?
My approach has adjusted based on the current environment of a vendor market with the respect of knowing that I may not get the world (all my asks), but I am upfront on what is not flexible and what can be. I’m more conservative than in previous years as we’re still trying to understand our attendees coming back to events.
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?
This is more recent than before, but I’d say providing what is being requested in the RFP. I’ve seen so many RFPs that don't get responses to the specific details mentioned in the RFP. For instance, if I send an RFP that details needs for eight consecutive days, I shouldn’t receive responses that only address the first 3 or 4 days. I can imagine the amount of RFPs certain hotels may receive, but it’s important to notice general details from the onset.
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?
I’m currently a member and hold the designation of a certified Society of Government Meeting Professionals (SGMP). Joining associations and industry organizations is key. At a minimum, subscribe to newsletters to stay on the pulse of the trends and receive inspiration from others within the industry. There are also often free webinars and access to reports on trends., Event Leadership Institute, and event technology companies are where I usually go for free industry content/webinars or paid training/certificates.
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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