Planners You Should Know In 2022 Series- Heather Odendaal, Bluebird Strategy & WNORTH

Heather Odendaal, of Bluebird Strategy & WNORTH, 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 spotlight's 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: Heather Odendaal

Company Name: Bluebird Strategy & WNORTH

Job Title: Founder and CEO

Years of Experience: 18

How did you get your start in the events industry? What made you pursue this role?
My passion for organizing events started in University when I was an executive leader of the largest club on campus, the Ski and Snowboard Club. I was part of the team that established a nationwide student seasons pass program for Canada's top ski resort, Whistler Blackcomb. After University, I was offered a position in the Marketing Department at Whistler Blackcomb and moved up to Whistler. 6 years after working various festivals and events, I established Bluebird Strategy which is now the largest event planning and experiential marketing company in Whistler. What I absolutely love about working in events is creating the environments that establish new connections and where belonging thrives. Yes, the hours are sometime long, but the feeling of pulling of an unforgettable experience for someone is unmatched.
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 a post-pandemic world has an additional number of layers involved. For one, flexibility is key. We now need to plan for a scenario A, B and C. Exact attendance is very difficult to predict right now, there are so many factors playing into whether someone attends an event or conference: travel difficulties, health, schedule permitting, childcare, etc. I truly believe that the appetite to attend in person events is higher now then ever before, but it is just a matter of getting past the barriers that may prevent your guest from attending the event. As a planner, my best advice is to over communicate to your attendees. If flight prices are rising, advise your attendee to book their flights and accommodation. If restaurants are filling up, make some reservations for your guests just in case. The more you can do to mitigate last minute panic the better!
What was your number one challenge in hosting your first in-person event(s) and how did you overcome it?

Our first large event post-pandemic was a corporate retreat with guests from all around the world. The number one challenge was navigating (and staying current) on all of the ever changing travel restrictions. I took extra time every week reading various travel bulletins and subscribing to newsletters to ensure I had the most current information so I could accurately inform my client. It was that attention to detail that they cited as a reason for rehiring us to do their next event.
What is the top learning that you uncovered from the last two years that you’re implementing in your planning process today? (any other tips or tricks you want to share?)
Play to your team's strengths. In any event company, the team is required to wear a lot of hats. Some individuals thrive doing certain work, while they struggle in other areas. To ensure your team doesn't get burnt out or lose their passion, make sure that you are empowering them to do the work that they love or can do best (as much as you can, of course.. it's not always possible to love everything!).
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?
Utilize the DMO's (Destination Marketing Organizations) in the area that you wish to travel. They can often assist with getting the information you need from the properties, Hotels prioritize them and they can help you navigate the best spaces for you and your group.
Are you approaching contracting with hotels differently, post-pandemic?
I am planning slightly smaller events that have the room for growth or movement to make bigger (as opposed to the other way around). With the challenge of attrition, it's best to make some conservative estimates and not over commit. Generally, events post-pandemic have seen between 20-40% less attendees than those same events pre-pandemic. It's best to plan for a lower attendance from the beginning. The benefit, often you can try out unique spaces and venues that you may not have fit in before!
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?
I am always most impressed with the hotel sales teams that will customize proposals for us based on the needs of our group. I know that this can be slightly more time consuming, but if the venues are the perfect fit, I am more likely to book with that hotel again.
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?
An incredible outcome of the pandemic is the proliferation of event technology and event support software. Among many platforms, our team has been engaging and using Airtable in our planning process. The collaborative nature of the tool has been a game-changer.
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 first things that I did post-pandemic to re-energize my love of the events industry was to start attending event planner conferences again. Conferences in this industry were some of the first events to return post-pandemic and it's a fantastic way to stay connect with others in the industry and meet new connections. Some of the conferences I like to attend are IMEX, Connect Marketplace, CEMA and BizBash events.

This post is part of the HopSkip Planner Spotlight Series where HopSkip spotlight's 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. 

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