Corporate Event Planner and Business Owner – Mentor, Cynthia McFerrin
This mentor has an interesting career that is not well known and one many people would not immediately consider as a career possibility. Yet the most recent government labor surveys in 2012 show there were 94,200 event planners in the US . Their number is expected to grow by 33% over the next ten years, much faster than other occupations. Event planning at this Mentor’s level is a career that allows you to travel and meet many interesting people. But it is also one that requires hard work, a substantial time commitment and can also be very stressful. Cynthia is a mother with twin boys and started her own firm rather than continuing to work for a large corporation in order to better balance her career with her family. This is a common theme for many YPNG Mentors that once they gain experience they are then able to start their own businesses. Also like many other YPNG Mentors, she grew up in a small town where she developed a strong work ethic, which is one of the reasons she has been able to be so successful in this highly competitive field. Her article should be read by everyone interested in any kind of career that offers opportunities for travel and interaction with people who have a high public profile.
I grew up in Dodge City, Kansas, a town of about 23,000. Growing up in a town this size with a small school system had a particular advantage. I was able to try a lot of things in high school like varsity sports, cheerleading, theater, and drill team. In a larger school, it would have been difficult to be involved in many of these activities because of the limited number of people who can be on a school’s athletic team or in a theater class. Kids in Dodge City were bred for export, you were expected to leave and go on and do bigger and better things. My class had quite a few smart, talented, and motivated leaders and we all competed and worked with each other. It was cool to be smart, I took advanced classes at every opportunity. When I graduated from high school, my parents told me that I could look at all of the colleges I wanted, but they would pay for the University of Kansas. SO I chose KU, a state school where I was a third generation student. There I started with a major in the School of Journalism in Advertising with a minor in Graphic Design. I always loved to travel and the school travel abroad program offered a fabulous opportunity to study in England. I added a second major in history to justify my boondoggle trip. I paid for of my tuition from summer jobs plus I had several smaller scholarships. My parents paid for my college room and board and I worked small jobs during the school year to help with living expenses. But I still ended up with about $13,000 in student debt. One of those jobs was in PR at the performing arts center at KU where I worked with art students designing posters for upcoming events, and did some event planning. My favorite volunteer stint was with the Student Union Events where we brought in speakers, bands, and planned events for the students. This is where I started on my resume building experience that geared toward event planning.
After I graduated from college, I got a job working for Hallmark Cards at Crown Center, their retail center. I was in visual merchandising where we would design store windows, create exhibitions in our exhibit hall, and decorate for special events. The job was so fun and creative but paid so little that I couldn’t even meet the salary requirement for a renovated historic building with low income requirements. My goal was to transition into a creative job with Hallmark, but with the downturn in the economy that took a lot longer than I had expected.
I married my longtime boyfriend Tim and we transferred to Dallas a few months later. The Dallas economy was booming and I easily found a job in Visual Merchandising with The County Seat headquarters. After a year I switched to Southwestern Bell Wireless doing visual store merchandising, special events and sponsorships. After a very busy year of 60+ hour weeks, I was able to get a job as an event planner at Sprint through the recommendation of a previous co-worker. This involved planning internal meetings and conferences, event sponsorships. Many of these were high profile events, for example, I planned customer events for two Emmy Awards, two Super Bowls, two Masters Golf Championships, two NBA all-star games, several NASCAR races, and many others. I was promoted to planning international events and was working on events in Phuket, Gstaad, and South America when 9-11 hit. Not long after half of our department was laid off and most all international and domestic events were cancelled. Personal life took over and I had twin boys, actually perfect timing. I started up my own business, Cynthia McFerrin, Events By Design Inc., as friends asked me to contract with them on individual events. I’m back contracting with Sprint as my largest client.
While a career as an event planner has glamor, it also requires a huge time commitment. Plus it can be difficult to plan your own personal life because you can often be on call 24/7. Many of these high profile events are on the weekends. That is especially true for event planers I know who work for the NFL, NASCAR and in other professional sports. The job also requires a lot of travel. Pre-children, I once did 32 events in one year and spent the majority of my time on a plane.
Event planning also requires you to be well organized in the front end while you are planning an event but also flexible when you are producing that event. For example, something like transportation is always an issue. No matter how well you plan, you can’t control traffic, accidents, lost drivers, etc. Transportation also comes into play when a plane doesn’t land on time making your guest speaker late, leaving a large room full of people waiting. You also often have to shuttle your clients between venues, and traffic congestions or mechanical problems can put the whole agenda off schedule. There are also AV problems that happen with your presenter’s microphones, projectors, corrupt presentations, or Internet speeds not able to keep up with multi-location conferences. You have to find ways to deal with these issues and have contingency plans. I always had a plan A then plan B but also plan C, D and by the time you get to E you are just flying by the seat of your pants!
You MUST play well with others! Working well with a group is imperative, you have to rely on catering and banquet managers, décor/design groups (whether it’s flowers or a whole themed room), sound and lighting technicians, transportation groups, hotel rooming agents, etc, etc, etc. Trust me, people are much more willing to help you in a pinch if you are kind and funny than yelling and unreasonable. I’m not sure why so many people haven’t learned this lesson in all aspects of business.
Very few event planners who stay in this career for many years are married and those who are often don’t have children. As an independent contractor, I not only can work at home and be there when my boys come home from school, I can also make as much money working independently as I did working as an employee for just one company. But I was only able to go out on my own after I had gained considerable experience and built a good reputation in the industry.
What I Like and Don’t Like About Event Planning
- · Event planning is a career where you get to travel and meet a lot of interesting people. Because I love meeting new people and traveling, event planning has been a good career choice for me. A desk job would never work for me.
- · I like the ability to be creative and be the primary person in charge of the theme of an event. Some of my favorites have been: “Spend the Night with an Old Flame” – a boat ride down and around the Statue of Liberty, A pool party with synchronized swimmers to highlight the coordination of new products with Fast Company Magazine, “Up On The Roof” – an evening with a James Taylor concert including a “How Sweet It Is” dessert reception.
- · Owning my own business has allowed me to maintain my income and given me more time with my twins and my husband, plus the flexibility to pick and choose which projects I take.
- · While I love to travel, event planning on a national and international level will keep you away from home a lot. Many of these events are also on the weekends. This can make it difficult to plan your own personal life.
- · There is a lot of stress in the job. Event planning as a career always ranks in the top ten occupations for stress. This year it was ranked number four.
How to Prepare Yourself for a Career in Event Planning
Event planning is something that is not taught in a college course. There is no particular major that will automatically get you hired as an event planner. But at the same time it is not likely you can enter the field without some kind of college degree. It is also not the kind of job where you can usually find an internship to allow you to gain some initial experience. My suggestion is to start out find volunteer work doing event planning to gain experience and make contacts. I started planning events with the Red Cross, The Dallas Junior League, and at the Nelson Atkins Museum Young Friends groups. There is also an association called Meeting Planners International (mpiweb.org) where you can get some ideas on the professional standards for the industry. The organization can help you make contacts and look for job opportunities. I was only able to enter the field because of contacts I had worked with and recommended me for a position.
If you are interested in international travel, you should focus your job search on large corporations that do international business. They have the budgets to fund these kinds of events because it is a key part of their international marketing strategy. It is also an area of event planning that is growing the fastest because of the globalization of business. Additional languages and knowledge of the differences in cultures are a must in this sector of the industry.
Personal contacts and recommendations are the way most event planners are able to get good paying positions. So it is important to build your network as you gain experience in the field.
It is also important that when you go to college you consider the cost and what the benefits are for attending a more expensive school. Whether it is event planning, nursing, teaching or many other careers, there may be little to no benefit of going to an elite, private school as compared to a more affordable public college or university. It is important you do this kind of cost/benefit analysis especially if you think you are going to have to take on some student loans to be able to complete your college degree.
US Bureau of Labor Statistics for Meeting, Convention and Event Planners
The median annual wage for meeting, convention, and event planners was $45,810 in May 2012. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $26,560, and the top 10 percent earned more than $79,270. Corporate events in the marketing department of large companies are on the upper end of the pay scale.
According the the Bureau's most recent 2012 survey, there were 94,200 people in these positions. Employment of meeting, convention, and event planners is projected to grow 33 percent from 2012 to 2022, much faster than the average for all occupations. As globalization increases and businesses continue to recognize the value of professionally planned meetings, demand for meetings and events is projected to grow. The Bureau says that job opportunities should be best for candidates with a bachelor’s degree in hopitality and tourism management. But for higher paying corporate positions, Cynthia recommends a degree in Marketing.