Planners You Should Know - Rika Zuniga, EMC3

Rika Zuniga, of EMC3, 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: Rika Zuniga

Company Name: emc3

Job Title: Senior Event Producer

Years of Experience: 11

How did you get your start in the events industry? What made you pursue this role?
 When I graduated from college in 2008, the economy was in a recession, and every company was on a hiring freeze. I pursued a front desk receptionist job at a high-end hotel in town. While working the front desk, I would take any opportunity during my shift to work with the Catering team on any Weddings/social events they had coming up on the weekend. This was the only way I could get my foot into the door. I knew the best way to break into the events industry was to become an apprentice, even if it meant volunteering my time for free. My goal was to educate myself as much as possible in the field with hands-on experiences. While this can sometimes be a lengthy process, the experience outweighed the money. When working in the hospitality industry, you gain knowledge that is unteachable. You learn nuances and a better perspective of what it takes to plan an event from start to finish.
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?
My first post-Covid event was a large NFT conference in the US Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. With our attendees in the thousands, we had to make sure all aspects of safety were covered. It started to become a topic of conversation early on, and we leaned heavily on local officials and venue sales managers. They helped guide us based on the city mandates and utilize resources they had implemented prior to us being on site. As a planner, this was uncharted territory, but my best advice is to lean on trusted partners.
What was your number one challenge in hosting your first in-person event(s) and how did you overcome it?

The biggest challenge I have faced is hitting the client’s goal for attendees in person. With much of the country still concerned with live events, if you offer a virtual component, that will be the route attendees typically will choose. The cost of traveling has also gone up significantly, so the monetary aspect always plays a part. The best way to overcome this is to harmonize your onsite and online audience. Create maximum opportunities for them to interact with each other. If your virtual audience is larger than in-person, make sure you have a live host or MC to keep them fully engaged. We have always been prepared for 50% attrition for free in-person events. Pre-pandemic, it was similar for virtual events. Now we are seeing trends such as 70% attrition for virtual events.
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?)

Contingency. Contingency. Contingency. The pandemic has affected not only event budgets in terms of inflation on individual items, but also the supply chains in which items are being ordered. There are more items needing to be sourced through planners in our post-Covid world. Air purifiers, tents, generators for outdoor space, etc. With these items being in high demand, you can plan to pay high prices with minimal places to source from.

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?

Be purposeful with THEIR time. A lot of hoteliers were let go during Covid, and while some are back in their position, they are juggling multiple roles. For example: If your client has flexible dates, provide them with all the options upfront. It would minimize the amount of back and forth when discussing your event profile. If you have items that are non-negotiable, it's better to be transparent with your potential planner. The industry is small and built largely on relationships. Build trust with your fellow hotel/venue planners by being forthcoming about the information you may or may not know.

Are you approaching contracting with hotels differently, post-pandemic?

With hotels being short-staffed across the spectrum and employees taking on more than one role, it's important to be transparent with your partners. I always suggest providing your NSO or Sales Manager with all the information you know about the client profile upfront. Even if that includes a budget, it would help manage expectations from both parties and be cognizant of their time.

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?
Be kind and patient to your fellow partners. We are all taking on additional duties with labor shortages in the industry and holding more responsibility than ever before. As a planner, I always try and set the client's expectations on response times up front. This will allow you to protect your time (minimizing the follow up’s) while being transparent with your client.
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?
Although I have not used it at my events, AI has piqued my interest and continues to be top of mind as we plan innovative events. Although authenticity dwindles with AI, we need to find more creative ways to facilitate attendee engagement. True authenticity will always come from face-to-face meetings, but any analytics or routine processes that can be automated are a huge win for the planner!
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?

Event industry participation is always challenging as we are usually overworked and cannot take a few hours out of our day to attend an in-person industry event. We are always too busy with our own brand or conferences, to educate ourselves further. Remember to take time for yourself by continuing your education and staying ahead of the trends, even if it's online for 2 hours. During the pandemic we learned how to be marketers, drive digital demand gen, etc. it’s always worthwhile to learn new skill sets within the larger industry if ever find ourselves in that situation again.


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. 

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