Leader Spotlight – Melissa Critchley, Founder, Critchley Events LLC

I met Melissa Critchley while working for the Event Marketing Association (EMA) in 2015 in London. At this time, she worked as an in-house event manager at one of the leading global law firms in London. Later on, I also had the pleasure of welcoming Melissa as a speaker at the Event Planners Talk event in 2016 about ‘buyer and supplier relationship — the decision-making process’. Since then, Melissa and I have stayed in a good relationship and follow each other’s career journeys around the world. When I moved to Heidelberg, and Melissa to New York almost two year ago, both of our careers took a new turn.

Looking back at my own career, I aspired to work as an in-house event planner in the financial or legal sector. But if you are new to the events industry, as I was back then, with little experience and no network, it’s very hard to set foot into the corporate event planning world because these jobs are rarely advertised, and a lot of it goes by word of mouth. After unsuccessful attempts to find such a job in the corporate event planning sector I just gave up, and by the time I figured out who’s who in the events industry, I decided to continue to work on this blog. That’s why I want to share this interview with you today about the exciting world of corporate event planning. That if you are reading this, and no matter what stage of your career you are in right now, it will be a useful guide and hopefully provide you with hints and tips about where to start. And if you already have this dream job, it will inspire you with new ideas, based on Melissa’s over 12 years’ experience in the corporate event world. 

Melissa’s experience is international and she knows how to network like a pro. Since moving from the UK back to the US, she transitioned from in-house to the agency side, so I also asked her what the main differences are between these two geographic markets and between the in-house and agency roles. Melissa’s journey is very exciting, and she’s very active and knowledgeable at quickly adapting to new situations and progressing her career. I’m very excited to share this interview with you because it contains valuable information about career progression, trends and good business advice. 

Let’s start from the beginning. Can you tell us about your career journey?

I graduated from Lehigh University in Pennsylvania with a degree in Journalism and a Public Relations concentration. Universities at that time did not really offer courses or degrees in Events or Meeting Planning and our industry was not really defined. The next best option to gaining some experience and knowledge of events management was to specialise in Public Relations or Journalism. I am so happy to see how far Universities all over the world have come in offering specialised courses and certificates on Meeting Planning. 

I started my career at a Public Relations agency and my client accounts were a music industry retailer called FYE and Hard Rock Café, both very cool clients and never boring to say the least! My first introduction and exposure to events was through a variety of brand events and also through hosting a red-carpet event for the show—the Sopranos—with special VIP guests at the Hard Rock Café NY. I also got to host some amazing music artists because they would do in-store performances and autograph CDs for fans when music stores were still around and sold CD’s! From meeting the most incredible people and having that exposure to high level celebrities and clientele, I knew I was hooked on hosting events for life! I loved everything about events, particularly in using and working with unique venues and creating a vision. 

My next step opened up an opportunity to the corporate event planning world. I had a friend that I worked with in PR who started working for a large law firm in NY. She was doing business development with a team and the firm was looking for an events coordinator. I never in a million years thought I would work for a law firm, nor did I think or know that law firms hosted events?! I wound up interviewing with the Events Manager at Weil Gotshal & Manges and she hired me that same day (I was very lucky that the stars aligned!) My former Manager literally taught me everything I know about legal events and we worked together for 5 years. She eventually became and is still is one of my mentors and a close friend. 

I then went on to another large global law firm, White & Case and I was there for ten years (six in NY and a little over four in London, where I had a truly incredible experience and exposure to both the NY and EMEA markets). Over the ten years, I got to work with incredible and talented lawyers, fantastic colleagues and influential industry colleagues and suppliers from around the world. I travelled quite a bit, especially over the four years while I was based in London because my role became more EMEA facing, building a team of event planners to manage over 300 events a year! I had some amazing career highlights and learned a great deal about traditional British sporting events including Rugby and Cricket and opportunities that brought me to Dubai to open the W&C office, to Istanbul and as far as Tokyo to host a large event during the International Bar Association conference.

A little over a year ago, my husband and I decided to move back to the US to NJ. It was bittersweet leaving Europe and White & Case; however, it was a decision for us and our future and my family are in the States. I took some time off and freelanced a bit and reconnected with the NY events industry. Through connections, I had the opportunity to take on a 7-month contract with an Events Agency, FIRST in NY and worked on high- touch Board of Director events for their client, Mastercard; I also got to host in Tokyo, which was challenging and rewarding! 

During this time and over the past year, I have created my own events company, Critchley Events LLC. I am currently working with clients in the legal, corporate and financial sectors on planning their meetings, social events and retreats in the Northeast region and hopefully will continue to work with the European market in the near future. I also contract and partner with DMCs and event owners to support their client events on the project management and planning side. I really enjoy the variety, it always keeps me busy! 

What’s your typical day look like?

I like to get up super early and feel productive, a cup of coffee is always a plus and needed! I TRY to do a 10-minute guided meditation on an app or on YouTube and I do some writing the old-fashioned way with a pen and paper to get my mind wandering first thing in the morning.

Every day presents something new and as a business owner/independent event planner and contractor, I need to keep myself organised and on top of things because I work on a variety of scheduling/hosting conference calls, follow ups, new business leads, invoicing and admin. I like to tackle my emails, I read event blogs and see what is new and upcoming in the industry because our events industry is evolving literally every day! I dedicate some time to researching new venues both in NY and globally and depending on the day, I work remotely but I am also in NYC meeting with clients throughout the week.

I always take some time to walk outside for some fresh air during midday because nature grounds me and at the end of my day (never really an end) I am either at an industry event (depending on a venue launch, etc.) or I cook dinner with my husband and go to a yoga class. Every night, I have a cup of tea to unwind after a busy day of hustle in the Big Apple!

How can someone who is looking to move into the corporate environment get their foot in the door?

A great question and I get asked this a lot. My answer, CONNECTION! It’s all about who you know, putting yourself out there to meet people and referrals and doing your research. Networking is a massive part of the events industry and communication is key to reach out to those individuals within an organisation or industry that are through a LinkedIn contact or perhaps an Alumni contact from a University that is already at the company. I also think it is extremely beneficial to network at industry events sponsored by MPI, SITE, EMA (UK based), etc. because you never know who you will meet and so many amazing relationships are formed at these industry hosted conferences, meetings and events. Always follow up on those leads and promote yourself and your expertise as well.

We all know that suppliers want to connect with corporate event planners. What do they like/dislike when being approached by a supplier? Any tips you can share?

I really despise the typical sales and cold calling approaches, not to mention email spam! I do think these tactics and strategies are outdated, particularly in 2018, and I do find that the supplier and corporate planner relationship has changed to a more collaborative working one. I find that a relationship is built on trust, value and something in common. I prefer a supplier to approach me through a personal email with something different and unique to offer and how his/her product/venue/ etc. will meet the needs and wants of my business and my clients. 

I love when a supplier asks, ‘How can I help you or your client to better achieve your goals’? It seems like a simple question, but significantly impacts the dynamic and start of a mutual relationship, I look for authenticity and the suppliers that are genuinely engaged with both my business and how best we can connect – not just the one-sided conversation of ‘this is what I can offer you…’ 

I find that attending industry conference and tradeshows catered to the needs of the corporate planner are also extremely beneficial! While based in Europe, I was able to join and participate in FAM trips and industry conferences that were specific to my/my client’s needs and I gathered a lot of knowledge, especially in emerging industry trends and new hotel openings in various EMEA regions. I attended conferences hosted by ‘The Meetings Space’ in which I was present as a hosted buyer and met many hoteliers and DMCs that I wound up hiring from this annual conference; I particularly liked the ‘speed networking’ format in which I could pre-select suppliers in advance and I met with them one on one in a ballroom space at the conference where I could spend some time getting to know their services, etc. 

In London, there is also a great exhibitor showcase for suppliers and planners to meet called ‘The BNC Show’ where my team and I gathered a ton of ideas for events; the format worked well for meeting planners to stop by each booth and get to know the suppliers and collect information pertaining to their meeting and event goals.

The difference between working ‘in-house/corporate events’ vs Event Agency facing

My events career until recently has always been working ‘in-house’ for law firms and my clients were the partners and senior level executives of the Firm in the corporate meeting planner space. I recently had an opportunity to work on the events agency side and it was a completely different experience from what I was used to working for ‘internal clients.’ The corporate environment is based on structure and more flexible budgets; also, there is a different reporting structure and perception within a corporate working environment as it is in any corporate sector.  

On the events agency side, there are many clients with a large number of different objectives, formats, goals and budgets. Further, as an agency, you are providing a ‘service’ at all times and therefore it is a different demand and approach in the relationship formed between the role of the agency project manager and the corporate client. One aspect that I found very interesting is the billable hours on the agency side, in which project managers and all functions within an agency are billed at an hourly rate to clients and all of the invoicing that needs to be done to include outsourcing and mark-ups at times in order for an agency to be profitable. It was also eye opening and impressive to see the different levels of expertise come together on one client project; for example, the lead client account manager to manage the ‘client team’ to ensure that all was aligned throughout the project timeline and utilise the skills on the creative and production side to carry out the end results of the event.

How do you keep up with industry trends?

I read a lot of event industry publications and attend events sponsored by MPI NY and SITE Northeast. I also follow influential industry blogs and in NY specifically, I receive daily emails from popular industry trade emails, BizBash, ‘The Infatuation’ and Skift’s updates. I read a great deal about incentive travel updates through LinkedIn posts, including inVOYAGE.

If there are new restaurant openings or event spaces, I proactively reach out and introduce myself to the Event Manager at the venue and book a site visit to see the private event spaces. I also look to attend FAM trips, particularly in a destination that is up and coming and may provide a great opportunity and selling point to propose to my clients for their retreats or meetings.

What destination is currently most popular among your clients?

I am seeing a few places on the radar as popular destinations, especially on the meetings and incentives side. Canada, Asheville and North Carolina have been doing a big marketing push lately, as well as Nashville, Tennessee and I see a lot going on with international destinations, Iceland especially being an exotic destination for US travellers/groups and cities such as Barcelona and London are always popular and desirable for US travellers.

For the larger conferences, Orlando/Miami seem to be the place to host and tend to have larger hotels that can accommodate larger size audiences, while Mexico is back on the radar as well for the incentive side—known for its sandy white beaches and fantastic hospitality!

What trends do you currently see in corporate events?

Trends are always changing. Coming back to the NY area, I see groups and clients looking for more teambuilding and experiential activities and being interactive with hands-on opportunities to create something or be competitive vs sitting and being reactive to presenters in a typical conference setting. A lot of discussion and implementation of event apps and event technology to enhance the client experience with on-site iPad registration with CRM integration and also more ‘farm-to-table’ offerings on the food and beverage side is taking place. Venues, especially hotels, are becoming more actively sustainable and aware for their clients and guests which is fantastic because we need to ‘Save Planet Earth!’ 

If you could change one thing in the events industry, what would that be?

To increase and promote mentorship and coaching involvement – there is a strong need for mentors and coaching, particularly amongst the more ‘seasoned’ and veteran event planners in the industry and in sharing industry knowledge transparently with venues, suppliers and seek overall advice. 

Work life balance or integration?

When to say ‘yes’ and when to say ‘no’ is important to me, especially now that I am a business owner. I spent many years in our industry going to everything to ensure that I was involved and felt exhausted from it all, my best advice is don’t over commit as those evening events catch up to you over the years! 

It is important to be selective in what you say yes to and participate in as well and don’t make yourself too available and spread yourself too thinly and under deliver.

What is your favourite quote?

‘Where there’s a will, there’s a way’- I like to apply the meaning of this quote in my personal and professional life.

What is your favourite business book? 

The Success Principles by Jack Canfield

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