Planners You Should Know - Tarah McMaster, WCM

Tarah McMaster, of WCM, 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: Tarah McMaster

Company Name: WCM

Job Title: Senior Director, Events, Program Strategy, and Stakeholder Management

Years of Experience: 12

How did you get your start in the events industry? What made you pursue this role?
I have always had a passion for hospitality & creating those small moments of joy that add to a memorable experience. I am also motivated by working with people, understanding what makes them "tick," and working with those with diverse experiences and backgrounds. When I was trying to sort out what I would do with the "rest of my life," a friend's mom asked if I had considered event management. I looked into it more and was in love! Throughout the years, my experience was in membership associations, and then briefly a few years as a 3rd party planner. During Covid I knew I wanted to get back to membership associations, and WCM was presented to me. In this role, I am so fortunate to do what I love by working with people and planning events, combined with making a true difference. Every workshop that I curate, every event that I plan, and every meeting that we hold is centered around Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion- that makes me want to get up in the morning!
How would you describe your role or responsibilities as a professional event planner?
In this role, I work to plan career development programs and events across the country. Our offerings are all centered around two things: education, and community building. Through education, we work to reduce systemic barriers in the finance industry. I work on everything from workshop course planning (sourcing speakers, defining content etc) to managing registration to the day of logistics. Through community building, we work to create professional networks across Canada. I work with our Steering Committees to host events in Vancouver, Calgary, Regina, Winnipeg, Toronto, and Montreal. As well as plan national events in Toronto- such as our Champions of Change Gala.
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 biggest thing to consider was everyone’s safety. A new direction was coming out daily from public health officials, so a big part of the job was understanding safety requirements and ensuring we were on top of them. In Canada, it looked different from province to province. In this role, I work across the country, adding an extra layer of complexity. In addition to safety, event attendee behavior has changed a fair bit. Attendees register far closer to the event date compared to pre-Covid, this also means things such as hotel rooms are booked much closer to the cut-off date. I found that constant communication and reminders to our membership base were needed.
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?

Inflation is the current issue that comes to mind. We are needing to build inflation rates into our 2023 budget. It is challenging to find that balance between a reasonable ticket price for attendees that still covers expenses. One way to cut back is to focus on sustainable initiatives. Things that were once printed can go on PPT slides and mobile apps.
How do you determine which vendors are best suited for your stakeholder's needs while also finding those providing competitive services at affordable rates?
As an organization that is centered around Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, we try to incorporate that into sourcing vendors. It is important that we send out RFPs to companies that are owned and operated by folks from equity-seeking groups. Another important factor is sustainability. The events industry can often see excessive waste, and as a planner, I am constantly looking for vendors that are innovative and focused on sustainable solutions. Lastly, networking is extremely important. I attend as many tradeshows as possible, such as the Canadian Meetings and Events expo- this allows me to stay updated with industry trends and make those connections.
Are there any key lessons or insights that have shaped your approach to event planning over the years?
Be agile! It is so important to constantly be sourcing feedback from your stakeholders and doing 360 reviews on your offerings. Are you currently meeting the needs of your stakeholders? Are you offering a unique enough product that you will stay relevant in one year or three years? Are you on top of industry trends and creating those “wow” experiences for attendees? Most importantly, are your events inclusive? Inclusivity matters, things such as gender pronouns on name badges, gender-neutral washrooms, ensuring your event has women and those from equity-seeking groups as speakers (not moderators), and closed captioning, these are all part of my event planning process.
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?
Empathy, Communication, and Clarity.
Are you approaching contracting with hotels differently, post-pandemic?
Heather Reid from Planner Protect offers great education around this. The biggest thing I have learned is to ask for an advanced time around force majeure and ensure the contract has language around "impractical" in addition to "impossible." Contracts should be balanced and fair to protect the hotel and the organization's booking. Contingency and having backup plans in place from the very start are also critical. I will never wait for the catastrophe to strike- instead, I will be proactive and prepared.
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?
Industry associations are important. MPI offers great education and membership connections. I believe you get what you put into these things. So if you are going to sign up for associations, it is very important that you make the time to attend events, volunteer and join webinars/seminars. Be fair with yourself, if you don't have the bandwidth right now you can always join next year.
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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