Name: Cynthia Kelly
Position: Director of Events
Years with EMP: 15.5 years
Favorite Event to Date: My first favorite I would say was for a venture capital group in Florida, at a little hotel in St. Augustine. It was right next to a Flagler college, so a lot of the people working at the hotel were college students. And the whole experience, it was just so magical. They really know how to do the right touches that make the biggest impact. They were just so friendly. It touched every sense and hit every note, it brought so much of my skill out. It was very exciting. It was a really special place.
Cynthia Kelly has been EMP’s Director of Events for 3 years. She oversees all of EMP’s program managers and their special events. Not a stranger to white glove service, Cynthia hails from the hotel and service industry and would much rather connect with clients on a one-on-one level. Please don’t ever tell Cynthia you can’t do something, she knows you can and will make sure her clients know it too.
What do you hope to achieve as the Director of Events?
Obviously, the biggest goal is to have an amazing event that’s as flawless as possible. It’s always about making the event a huge success because if you make the clients happy then you keep them as a client. Client retention is very important. Creating relationships with people and understanding what their needs are. That’s what we are really all about.
For EMP, what is considered a small event? In the planning world, I’m realizing that can be a very subjective thing.
There’s small in size and small in complexity. I would say that generally speaking smaller events would be things like VP meetings, limited partner or venture capital meetings, pretty straight forward in the 100 to 150 person range. In terms of small in size, we do a meeting of 35 couples, so 70 people. But in scope it’s a pretty intense, complex event that we do with the client. So size doesn’t always dictate the complexity of the event or, in terms of the business perspective, that it’s any less profitable. Just because it’s a smaller number of people doesn’t mean we aren’t handling a very complicated process.
I recently did a 2 day local event with 400 people, but it was very simple. It didn’t take an extraordinary long time to plan. So size and numbers doesn’t really always correlate to project scope.
On the flipside, what is considered a larger event for EMP to produce?
From our registration side we do events in the 5,000 range. For planning side, I would say we typically don’t go over 2,000. That’s not to say there haven’t been bigger ones, but I would say 2,000 is comfortably what we would consider larger for us.
Do you have suggestions for your program managers on how to successfully manage the needs of the client?
My personal theory on handling programs is that it’s all about the chemistry you have with the client, your vendors and suppliers. In order to be successful, if you have a good relationship with the people who are helping to make the program actualize, you can overcome any kind of challenge. Certainly you need experience on the technical side and with planning and logistics, but the team building sets you apart. If you form a good relationship with the client they see you as an extension of their own team, as a trusted advisor, as opposed to a vendor or supplier. So you have more synergy. Your event is so much easier to make hugely successful.
Where can problems arise in the planning process?
Problems come out of personality conflicts and it’s harder to do your job. There’s a trust level you have to build with your client. If you can speak candidly and honestly then you can cut through all the stuff that doesn’t matter. Then you’re able to give them a better product because you understand their corporate culture and what their needs are. The programs I’ve had the hardest time with, regardless of how challenging they are, are the ones where you just don’t feel like you’ve gone beyond that wall of a business relationship. Sometimes clients don’t share things they feel aren’t important, but those things really help to shape the program. If you have a candid relationship, then you can get that information from the client and give them more value.
Are there unforeseen challenges that appear specifically in either smaller or large programs?
(Laughs.) Every program has some kind of unique challenge. There is always something! That’s the constant. There’s always a new thing you have to deal with. You can lock down what you can and then just be ready for all the surprises. No matter how well you plan an event, the universe just happens and you have to roll with it.
Is there a false sense of security with new program managers that a smaller event is going to be easier?
Yeah. Honestly, I would say the smaller programs are in a lot of ways more difficult. First – the reason is you generally put your newer people on smaller programs. Why? Because they are smaller. Second- you don’t get as much attention internally from your vendors. Why? It’s a smaller program. It’s not as important as a 5,000 person meeting and won’t bring in as much money. You have to be a cheerleader for bringing attention to your group. You have to work harder. You have to champion for your client. Yes, the event is only 75 people, but it’s all top CEOs, higher-level people, and they have their own agenda that needs to be addressed. So yes, it’s definitely a big misnomer.
Regardless of size, what are the key things clients typically ask for in an event?
They want the world and they don’t have the budget for it. (Laughs.) The bottom line is always important. Unless the client has done events for a while and worked with corporate planning companies, they don’t see the value in the dollar. They are shocked at the price of things. Even if they don’t bring a meeting planning company. For example if the lunch at the hotel in New York is $120 a person, people wonder how that cost comes about. It’s overcoming the cost ignorance.
I really want to get value for those dollars. I am going to get them the best. I just don’t freely spend people’s money. How do I get the best for what I am spending? That’s how I reassure clients.
What is your advice to a new program manager starting out?
To forge relationships. Relationship building is important. You really want to understand what it is the client wants and needs. There’s a delicate balance there. Being an active listener. Understanding what the goal is and what is the big picture. You need to have good strategy and know why you’re doing what you’re doing. It’s harder to teach people the softer side of things. Their job is not about picking out a menu, it’s about how to make the client look good and the event successful.