Experience Creators You Should Know - Rebecca Simon Barna, FIRST

Rebecca Simon Barna, of FIRST, 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: Rebecca Simon Barna

Company Name: FIRST

Job Title: Team Lead, Venue Sourcing

Years of Experience: 12+

How did you get your start in the events industry? What made you pursue this role?
I graduated from The University of Delaware with a Bachelor’s Degree in Hotel, Restaurant, and Institutional Management and always knew that I had a calling for the hospitality and events Industry. Throughout college, I participated in internships to help me learn and grow. I spent time working in the hotel that was on campus, worked at the student-run restaurant, and even worked a full summer as an Assistant Hotel Manager aboard a small cruise ship. I was offered a job in the Management Development Program by Hilton and got my first big break at the Waldorf Astoria in New York. The program allowed me to experience all areas of the hotel (Operations, Front Desk, Overnight, Housekeeping, Food & Beverage, Sales, and Events). I took a huge liking to events and eventually heard about a venue-sourcing position at FIRST through a mutual friend. Throughout my interview, they asked thought-provoking questions on how I would go about planning a program for 10 people, 100 people, 1000 people, and to list out all of the s I knew I had found my next passion. Every day I get to use my hospitality experience to enhance my event industry knowledge and help myself and my team grow.
How would you describe your role or responsibilities as a professional event planner?
I’m responsible for a small but very impactful group at FIRST, a global brand experience agency. When I started, my role was to support a new account at the agency, and I was responsible for creating the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) and for the onboarding of all new team members. I was hire number 1, and we’ve quickly grown to a global team of 22. In 2022 alone, my team venue sourced over 350 programs. I now oversee all of our relationships with the hotels, national sales, Convention and Visitor’s Bureaus (CVBs), and clients for this account and help source programs for anywhere between 10 and 10,000 people! I’m also responsible for the learning and development of my team.
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?
The response times have definitely been the biggest hurdle. Pre-COVID, I felt like we were all in this rhythm of fast-paced events, and we worked like a well-oiled machine. During the pandemic, while we weren’t planning events, we were postponing and moving events, which took just as much time (if not more) than planning them the first time. There was a brief time when we needed to check to make sure the hotel was open before sending them an RFP, but I do think that’s a thing of the past. Most recently, I feel as if hotels are still trying to get back to pre-Covid staffing levels, whether it be in Housekeeping, Front Office, or, most importantly, Sales. My advice would be to just be human. Everyone is still working very hard to come back from a nearly 3-year hiatus, and great things take time. As long as you’re open and honest with the hotel or client and alert them to your expected timeline, all will work itself out.
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?

With each day comes new challenges. One challenge that we face is for large programs upwards of 2,000 people. We’ve recently relied on the help of CVBs to collate information and provide us with real-time updates from hotels. We may not always be in the same time zone or have all of the necessary contacts to reach out to, but our CVBs have been instrumental in helping us put together large programs in cities all around the globe!
How do you determine which vendors are best suited for your stakeholder's needs while also finding those providing competitive services at affordable rates?
Every program for us is different, and therefore, what was originally the best hotel for an event in that city last week, may not be the best property for this new program. There are many factors to consider, and each is program specific. Do the meeting rooms need to have natural light? Does the hotel need to be within walking distance of an office? Is there a good outdoor space for meals? We always aim to present at least three viable options for available properties to give our clients a range of rates and locations. Once a shortlist is made, I coach my team to strive for at least 10% overall savings per hotel contract. This could be on room rates, concessions, waived room rental, or reduced F&B. Last year alone, our global team saved our client over two million dollars.
Are there any key lessons or insights that have shaped your approach to event planning over the years?
I teach my team two important things, which are great life skills wherever they decide to go.

  1. Be Kind! Everyone has different deadlines and various things going on in their personal and professional lives. We need to ensure we’re firm with deadlines but understanding if something doesn’t go our way.
  2. Be PROactive instead of REactive. Many times we try to put out fires quickly, and sometimes information gets lost. If you’re able to anticipate a small fire, take proactive steps to prevent it from getting bigger.
Are you approaching contracting with hotels differently, post-pandemic?
The pandemic made us all realize how important kindness and flexibility truly are. They are the building blocks to creating deep partnerships with hotels. You never know when you might need a favor from a hotel (or they need one from you), and kindness and flexibility will be key. Having Master Service Agreements in place with large-scale hotel companies has made contracting a lot easier as far as negotiations. While we cannot always guarantee we’ll move forward with a Master Service Agreement (MSA) hotel, we certainly strive for the best possible contract terms at any/all hotels. Also, we consistently advocate for either rebook or resale clauses to be added to the agreement with the hopes that we’ll never have to use them!
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?
The event industry is ever-changing, and with that comes renovated ballrooms and guestrooms (or added meeting space!). Hotel websites need to have clear floor plans listed with capacities, as well as any new photos or renderings. I may not select a hotel based on the photos online if I haven’t had the chance to see it in person. Another thing would be for hotels to thoroughly read through the RFP before responding. Many times, the questions that hold up their response could be answered if they’d read the RFP.
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 started this role in the midst of the pandemic and need to use ALL of our resources to ensure a smooth onboarding of the account. We use different kinds of technologies including CVENT and continue to look at new options to integrate. However, while the new technologies are exciting and everyone is talking about them, we need to be sure these tools meet with legal compliance for FIRST and our clients.
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?
For as large as the hospitality industry is, it truly is smaller than you’d think. Everyone is interconnected through various organizations such as Professional Convention Management Association, Meeting Professionals International and Financial & Insurance Conference Professionals, industry events, etc. My biggest suggestion would be to get involved and try to meet as many people as you can. A big part of our role is to be the expert on locations and venues. It’s important for us to stay up to date with new openings and renovations, and the best way to do that is by seeing them! We also participate in “familiarization trips” around the globe and attend industry events for knowledge building, such as IMEX, FICP, and trade shows!
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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