Suzan Patrick, CMP, a professional planner in Denver, Colo., has worked in many realms of meeting and event planning, from corporate sales incentive meetings and the 2008 National Democratic Convention to volunteering for non-profit organizations and everything in between. Recently, she left corporate life to follow her passion as an independent planner with her new company SP Meeting & Event Consultants. I was able to catch her between her many “gigs.”
Suzan, tell us your story. How did you get started in this industry?
Officially, I have been a professional planner since 1999. Prior to that, I was in medicine, as a cardiac technician. The national tragedy of the Columbine High School incident was so traumatic — [I was] directly involved with it at my place of employment at the time — that I decided I needed a career change. I followed my interest, which at the time, was to become a professional speaker and facilitator. I accepted a job with a local company in Denver that provided internal corporate leadership training. My position required me to handle their logistics and bookings. In 2001 the company went through a re-organization and my position was eliminated. Many of the facilitators also owned their own businesses, and a few of them approached me to plan their seminars and market events. I was charged with “putting butts in seats,” and all that fun stuff. I helped one get a book published and planned spiritual adventure tours for another. I was skeptical and nervous at first, but it worked! So it was from there that I realized my calling and transitioned into the world of independent and contracted meeting and event planning. Planning and organizing come very naturally to me – it’s in my blood! I have been planning events most of my life, from high school dances, to pep rallies, to student government sponsored events; but it was at this time frame in my life that I actually feel I began my career as a professional planner. So, it just kind of grew from there.
It grew into the corporate market, too …
Oh yes, I feel I hit the mother-load when I got hired at Coors. There is nothing like planning beer incentive trips. (laughs) Working for that company was one of the most fun things I’ve ever done, however it was there that I learned about “work-aholism.” They charged me with two of their four regions (I covered the East and South). I planned anything that was over $10,000 aggregate for these regions – about 80 events in one year. I also handled distributor events, incentive trips, and internal sales meetings. I was able to create some really cool events. One of my favorites was held on top of the USS Intrepid in New York City. The meeting was in the belly of the boat, followed by a reception on the flight deck. I am very fortunate that I have been able to do so many extraordinary things that a lot of meeting planners do not normally get to do.
I worked the Democratic National Convention in Denver; and I worked with organizing transportation companies during the Hurricane evacuations in 2008. In October of that year, the jobs started diminishing and there was no pipeline, so I decided to pursue a corporate position. There is definitely something to be said about the stability of a corporate job, as opposed to contracted work. I accepted the full-time meeting planner position with Allstate Insurance Company in November of 2008. However, a new challenge presented itself in early 2009, when the economy started to get so chaotic. Meetings and incentives were being canceled company-wide! Allstate kept our team in tact, but realigned our positions, so that the focus was more on promotions. I certainly learned some new skills, but it just wasn’t my passion. I kept telling them “I’m not a graphic designer, I’m a meeting planner!” I realized I wanted to do something that I’m really good at. So here I am back out in the contract realm and very excited to be here!
What challenges have you faced since returning to the world of contracted planning?
You know, I am really happy being a contract planner. I had been independent for eight years prior to the corporate position, so it was a natural next step forward for me. It’s a little scary, because of the economic climate; but I believe this is a great time to be an independent planner. You just have to do your homework and have a great pipeline. The word I’ve received from other independent planners is that they’re turning gigs away, due to such high volume. I’m very excited about the possibilities!
What do you like most about your job?
It’s a combination of flexibility and variation of work. As an independent, you get to pick and choose what you want to work on. And, it’s always something new. There is very little redundancy. A new client means a new gig, as well as new challenges. I really enjoy that.
The Democratic National Convention was one of the largest events I ever worked. I coordinated the transportation. It was so different from anything I’ve ever done. It was a lot of work, but so much fun. I also worked on an NFL International event for the Super Bowl, back when it was in Detroit. This was the first time the Super Bowl was held so close to an international border, and I worked with a group in Canada. We actually mirrored a lot of the pre-game events that were taking place in Detroit. My focus was on a VIP evening event, which was an over-the-top soiree.
You work for numerous non-profit organizations. Can you provide more details?
Charities are my passion. I enjoy getting involved with anything that gives back. Having once been on the side of needing charity when my children were very small, I am especially grateful that I can now be on the giving side. I volunteer with an organization here in Denver, Family Tree, which allows me to work with women and children in need. When I get the opportunity I also like to volunteer in classrooms with Junior Achievement and I do a great deal of volunteer work in my son’s school with the prom committee.
You still find time to get involved with industry organizations too?
Well, yes. I appreciate the networking that they offer for sure. But, I limit it, because it can get to be overwhelming. I am a member of our local Rocky Mountain Chapter of Meeting Professional International (MPI). It is such an active organization! I do try to get out to the International Special Events Society (ISES) events too. I also affiliated with the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, which keeps me busy. They do networking events in conjunction with the CVB. And, I love their newsletters. I read them each month from top to bottom. Excellent information!
It is frustrating to see the corporate sector pull out from allowing their planners to go to attend industry events and educational opportunities. In our industry, relationships are the name of the game. The opportunity to meet and network with other planners is priceless. This is why the PYM LIVE Events are so valuable to me. Also, the Senior Planners Industry Network (SPIN) events are quite good. Both organizations provide really good think-tank sessions and fabulous networking opportunities.
What advice can you share with our readers?
What I have learned the most is that with meeting planning you wear so many hats and have to be so many things to so many people. The service we perform is really project management at its finest. You have to learn to manage expectations. And, flexibility is key. Also, learn to ask really great questions. Assume nothing. Learn how to listen and intuit in a positive way. Keep yourself in the flow and listen to your intuition.