Business

Event Operations CEO, Laura Hammarstrom, Shares 9 Things She Wish She Had Known Starting Out in the Event Industry

With an amazing marketing, communications, and events career at a large corporation, Laura Hammarstrom knew she could stay there forever. Hammarstrom was fortunate to be on the fast track working on global special projects, yet she kept asking herself what she really wanted out of her career and for her life. Her mind kept going back to what she loved the most – international events and travel. “Here I was midway through my career, deciding it was time to leave my comfortable corporate job, do what I really loved, follow my passion, and dive into the exciting world of events full-on,” said Laura Hammarstrom.

Hammarstrom has spent the last five years educating herself on any aspect of the event industry she can, including receiving her Certified Meeting Professional and Certified Incentive Specialist designations. Needless to say, the knowledge and expertise she’s acquired during that time are impressive. For those aspiring to fulfill a career in the events industry, our team was lucky enough to connect with Hammarstrom to discuss the nine things she wishes she had known starting out in the events industry.

1. Be a Travel Director (TD).

If you want to get your eyes on nearly every aspect of the event industry, become a Travel Director (TD) for an event agency. Travel Directors are the boots on the ground (also known as on-site managers) that help execute the event that the event planning team has spent months meticulously planning. You will have the opportunity to provide first-class on-site services, such as supporting registration, excursions, and transportation, for the world’s most exclusive events. Although the role may have you living out of a suitcase for months on end with long hours at the lower end of the pay scale, the experiences you garner and the relationships you build will set you up for event career success.

2. Are you a Buyer or Supplier? 

I had no idea how big the event industry was until I registered for my first event conference. Are you a buyer or supplier? What type of business? What role? What certifications do you have? What organizations are you part of? Immediately my mind was buzzing with all the new opportunities ahead and things I needed to learn.

My recommendation is to start with thinking through the two biggest buckets – Buyers and Suppliers. Do you want to be on the Buyer side of the business planning events (corporate, association, incentives, weddings, etc.), or do you want to be on the Supplier side of the business providing a service (hotel, caterer, airline, DMC, rental company, audiovisual, etc.)? Both sides are equally important, and having strong relationships between the two are key.

I would strongly encourage you to get experience on both sides of the industry as your career progresses. It will only make you a better event professional and more attractive as a future candidate as you progress through the industry.

3. Find a niche that you love and become a subject matter expert.

Following the question of “are you a buyer or supplier,” the next question I often get when I say I am an event planner is, “what is your specialty?”. As an event planner, I have prided myself that I have had my hands in everything – registration, food & beverage, transportation, operations, VIP experiences, event design, etc. However, as my career has progressed and I have worked with bigger event agencies working on bigger events, I have also found it valuable to be a subject matter expert (SME). While it is valuable to have broad experience, they want to know that if they put you in charge of a certain role, you can own it and run with it. Finding what you love and what you are great at will be invaluable, whether it is knowing the ins and outs of registration or ensuring every aspect of food and beverage is meticulously planned. Find that niche you love, learn everything you can about it and get certifications. That doesn’t mean that is all you will do; however, it will give you an advantage as a subject matter expert.

4. No matter what role you land on, continue educating yourself.

Even if you have landed your dream job, find time to continue educating yourself on different aspects of the event industry by working for others, seeing the industry from other perspectives, and getting your hands dirty. Whether it is volunteering at a festival, helping with a wedding, serving for a caterer, or marshaling a bike race, you will always learn something that you can take back that will make you stronger as an event professional.

I had been hiring an audiovisual company for years and signing off on proposals for $100K’s but never truly understood where that money was going. I decided to do some freelance work for that same AV company to better understand their business. I worked in their warehouse learning about all the equipment, I crawled around convention centers running cable, I was a stage manager for challenging clients, but most importantly, I met the crew and learned about them and their roles. Will I be an expert in the AV world? No, but I truly feel it has made me a better event planner and a better client. It has made me better at communicating my needs and ultimately makes the process more efficient and cost-effective.

5. Incentive Travel – who knew?

As someone who thought I had to choose between sitting at my desk for a corporate career … OR … go travel the world, I never realized you could do both. It ends up there is a whole event industry out there called Incentive Travel, where you can travel the world planning events and experiences of a lifetime for others. Incentive Travel is traditionally focused on industries, such as insurance, financial, and multi-level marketing companies, where they want to incentivize and reward their employees for exceeding business goals. When my insurance agent told me that he went on an all-expenses-paid trip to Paris with his company, having a private, luxurious dinner at the Louvre Museum and a VIP experience tasting champagne in the French countryside, I knew this is what I wanted to be doing. Having personally traveled the world and loved each of my experiences, I immediately knew I wanted to be part of planning these once-in-a-lifetime experiences for others.

6. DMC’s and CVB’s are your friends.

Destination Management Companies (DMC’s) and Convention Visitors Bureaus (CVB’s) are the local experts. When I first started planning international events, the company I was working for was extremely budget-conscious, so I avoided asking DMC’s and CVB’s for support because I thought it meant big money. I thought I had to figure it all out myself. That is one of my biggest regrets. The DMC’s and CVB’s are truly local experts and will bring ideas and resources you would never think of. You won’t know the possibilities unless you have the conversations, and it will more than likely pay off for you when you see the smiles on your clients’ faces.

7. Having a plan is important. Being flexible is more important.

I am a planner. I love having a clear, thought-out plan for everything. Having started my career as a project manager in the corporate world, I excelled at building out very structured, detailed project plans. While that is incredibly beneficial as an event planner, I quickly learned that as a planner, not everything always goes to plan, and you must be flexible and adaptive. The weather, clients, and vendors can throw you some curveballs you would never expect, and you must be ready to adapt – quickly and calmly. This has taken me years to get used to, and I wouldn’t say I have mastered it, but I definitely know how to handle it better now. It is just part of the business.

One instance that stands out in my mind was after spending months planning a corporate dinner for 400 attendees to be held on the lawn of a private residence; I received a call the day prior to the event that the residence was no longer available. I literally had 24 hours to modify a plan I had worked months on. After a quick cry (yes, it happens) and a few deep breaths, I quickly swung into action, finding a new venue and contacting all the vendors. When it was all said and done, the attendees never knew a thing about the last-minute scramble, and the new location actually turned out better.

8. Get involved in event organizations.

The event industry is truly a family. Especially with the challenging times of Covid, it has been incredible to see the industry come together to support each other. I highly recommend that you join any organizations that align with the facets of events you are interested in and truly get involved in. Just a few to note are Meetings Professional International (MPI), International Live Events Association (ILEA), Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA), and Society for Incentive Travel Excellence (SITE), just to name a few. The great news is that as a student or new professional just moving into the industry, there are often discounted rates or scholarships to help you with any membership fees. These organizations will also help steer you toward beneficial accreditations, such as getting your Certified Meeting Professional (CMP) designation.

9. Hard work. Huge reward.

When reading about the events industry, you will read a lot about the stress, long hours, and the amount of work. I won’t sugarcoat it. These things are all true. However, when you have that moment to step back, breathe, and see that your event vision came together and the attendees are enjoying the experience you created (or were part of delivering), it was all worth it. I promise.

Are you an event professional with things you wish you had known when you entered the profession? Or are you a student or new event career professional with more questions? Please contact Laura Hammarstrom at Laura.Hammarstrom@gmail.com.

More About Laura Hammarstrom

Laura Hammarstrom is a professional event manager, travel director, and entrepreneur with a diverse skill set and professional background, including domestic and international initiatives for Fortune 1 executives, high-net-worth families, and the Northwest Arkansas community. She spent over 10 years in event management and communications roles at Walmart Corporate. Notably, she was Senior Event and Project Manager for the Walmart International President and CEO, Director of Special Projects in the United Kingdom, and Director of Global Associate and Executive Communications. Pursuing her passion for events, she received her Certified Meeting Professional designation and served as the Events and Experiences Manager for the Walton Enterprises Family Office. In 2017, Laura started her own event business, Laura Hammarstrom, CMP, LLC, to provide a comprehensive suite of professional, customer-focused, on-site event management services on a global scale.