Episode 9

Published on:

12th Oct 2023

Building and leading a strong event team

What does it take to manage a successful event? How can you maintain your composure and treat everyone involved with respect? In this episode we reflect on our conversation with Rachel Coddington and we talk through the process of assigning roles and responsibilities, fostering a supportive environment, and keeping the gears of productivity and responsiveness moving in a team.

Key Topics and Takeaways

01:22 - Team Productivity and Responsiveness

We reflect on our conversation with Rachel Coddington and how she crafts a team structure so everyone knows their role and has the support they need. We explore the insight we gained from Rachel and our own experiences of working with her and managing large events.

14:10 - Managing Events With Composure and Respect

We talk through the importance of maintaining composure in front of the attendees, treating all members of your event team well and respecting the time, energy, and expertise of vendors with clear communication.

19:11 - Vendor and Volunteer Relationships

We examine the idea of anti-human versus pro-human dynamics, and how this impacts the event experience. Maintaining strong relationships with vendors is important, and we touch on the power dynamics of client-vendor relationships.

Want to dive deeper? Take our free 30 minute training, Community Event Mastery. Access it here.

Next episode: Surprising and delighting audiences with Jedd Chang

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Welcome to Make it Kickass, where we help leaders of growing communities bring their people together with purpose and lasting impact. Join us as we explore how to make events engaging, exciting, energizing and profitable so that you can build a healthy, sustainable community. I'm Isaac Watson, founder and lead strategist at Kick Ass Conferences.


And I'm Nessa Jimenez, operations Manager, at Kick Ass Conferences.


Now let's make it kick ass together. Hi everyone, we are back with another episode of Make it Kick Ass. I am joined, of course, by Nessa Jimenez, the fabulous, fabulous Operations Manager for Kick Ass Conferences. Hey, nessa, hi.


Isaac. Hi everyone, how are you, Isaac?


I'm doing pretty good. Wow, what a conversation we just had with Rachel Coddington. Please go back and listen to that episode. If you already listened to it once, please listen to it again, because she dropped some fantastic knowledge bombs. Is that what we're still saying these days?


We'll say it Forget about other people.


I'm a geriatric millennial it can't be helped and all of the things that we talked about with her. I adore her. As I mentioned in the introduction, I've known Rachel for a number of years. I consider her my event bestie. I have learned so much from her over the years and I'm constantly like I will text her questions if I don't know something or if I need ideas. She's just a fantastic, fantastic person.

So this is our chance to talk a little bit about what we talked about and go a little deeper on a few things that stood out to us and, honestly, she talked a lot about knowing your attendees and how to create great event experiences. But I feel like our focus right now is really around the team that you work with, because I think that there's so much that she pulled out about working with a team, what that team is made up of, that we can just dive fully into that and spend a good amount of time talking about it. So what was the thing that stood out to you, first and foremost, about what she was talking about?


Yeah. So I'll start off by saying like I also have known Rachel not for as long as you have, but I had known her for a couple of years and I've had the opportunity to work with her, especially in on her teams as support. I've helped her do speaker support and attendee support and things like that. So I really loved when she got into sort of the hierarchy of responsibilities on a team and how onsite and in planning.

Like you really need to think about every person, where they fit in and their relationship with other people. And, having worked on teams with Rachel, like she definitely is incredible at like building those relationships and making sure that everybody is where they need to be and everybody knows what they need to know and who they can reach out to Like she is fantastic at that and like I've learned a bunch from her. But there was a point where she was talking about I don't know if it was specifically about the security issue, but she was explaining how she explains to people. Like okay, this is, this is your role, this is what you do.

If X, y or Z happens, then you do, you know ABC, and then this is the next step and then that person will take care of it and you don't have to take care of it anymore. You know that level of foresight and pre planning and just like making the staff members' lives as easy as possible, especially when we're talking about like groups of volunteers. They're here for free, they want to help, but they don't necessarily like know any of like how this stuff works. So I really appreciated her sharing that explanation, because you can really go down a rabbit hole, especially at the projects, at the size that she's worked on them of. Like, all the people need to know all the things and it becomes this web like a spider web, super complicated with all these levels and things to keep in mind.

So I thought it was fantastic listening to her explain that. Having been someone that has been on her team, you know yeah, I absolutely.


I think for a lot of us producers and planners who have come up through the freelance path, right, we are accustomed to and I struggled with this, like you remember, I still struggle with this, nessa we are accustomed to having full ownership and control of everything, yes, about the event, and so therefore, we think that it is entirely our responsibility and so when something comes up, whether that's a security issue, a medical issue, some other you know less urgent concern, we quickly dive in and assume that it's on us to sort out as the independent.

Where I think Rachel has excelled and I've seen this in another example that I'll give here in a second is in really embodying this notion that you're, that you have this extended event team where everybody has a role to play, and in order to let them play that role you need to let them play that role you have to identify what that is and identify that scope and those responsibilities and such. The first time I really experienced this myself, I was doing some freelance work as on-site support for some really large conventions in Vegas and I, at this one particular event, I was in charge of a handful of ballrooms, meeting rooms, on a particular floor of this convention facility and it was essentially just managing access to the sessions and keeping things running and everything. We had a massive. This was like a 28,000 person event, absolutely massive. There was a whole binder from the agency that was running it for operations and all the plans. This was like plans on crack, like it was just plans within plans.


Plans on plans.


And so that was all well and good, but a lot of it you just kind of absorb and then move on.

Well, what happened was during one of the sessions, an attendee collapsed, passed out on the floor and we had to go into medical action plan, right. But I had the resources available to me. We knew that there were on-site medics, that they were like 200 yards away, I knew who to cut radio and there was a protocol in place for dealing with that. We notified the medics first, because getting them down to the person was the most important, then we notify who was in charge of my team of facilities people, we notify the property manager and then, as needed, we, then the medics, would call for an ambulance and whatnot. And it ended up being nothing particularly terrible, right, like this person had just had low blood sugar and passed out or something Like it was not a major medical emergency, but there was a plan in place and the confidence and comfort that I had in knowing what my piece of the role was and where it ended was really really important, where I could then let go and go back to my regular duties.


Yeah, and that's a good point. It's not just knowing what is it you're supposed to do, it's also knowing like, ok, you did your thing, now you're done, you know and now it's not your problem, you don't have to worry about that, and most people don't think about that part, right, like you think about OK, this is what you're supposed to do, but having people have that information of, like, yeah, ok, once you do this, you're good to continue, right.


Yes, and to me that comes down to empowering your team to do, to perform their roles, to own what they have to do and to also to do what's right or what's best for the attendees. Like Rachel talked about that, that freedom of responsiveness that comes through good planning, right Doing the work up front to get the like known things out of the way so that when the unknown does pop up because it will inevitably you have the space and the capacity to respond to that in a thoughtful, helpful, useful way, instead of being the person who just collects all the feedback at the end and tries to make next year better.


Right, and it is comes down to this idea of when you're planning. There are the known unknowns, right. So the known unknowns is things that could happen but you don't really know, like OK, what are the odds right? Or like, what would the exact details be Right? So you take care of stuff like that, or risks that you know about, risks that you don't really know about whether it could be possibilities.

And the point of doing that up front and doing all that thinking up front is that at an event, there could be an unknown unknown happening, a thing that you all did not think about, a thing that never occurred to you that could happen, and so at that point the team's focus can worry about that, whereas you've already thought of all the other things.

So people aren't bringing you the the things we already thought about. You know. They're bringing you this like extreme thing that we just did not plan for, because we didn't know about, and that's where you should be spending your energy at that point, right, I think a simple example would be you have staff, volunteers, and somebody comes up to them and asks them where's the bathroom, and the volunteer doesn't even know that. So what is the volunteer going to do? They're going to go up the line and bring that to somebody else, and that's not something that they should be wasting energy on doing so, you know like that should have been information they should have had so that they could handle that request and not bring it up the chain.


Yeah, exactly. I can give you another real example from an event several years ago at the closing party it was about, I think, 2,500 people or so we were having we had a hot air balloon on deck and it was doing like you know, vertical rides up and down so you could get a nice view of the space and everything, which was fun and everything.

It was August, and August in Portland is usually just hot and dry, but on this particular day, when the party was about to happen, our freak thunderstorm comes through. And so, like our team like this was not, I was not in charge of the party, I was working backstage on the main stage and there was just a lot of chatter amongst the team about oh no, what are we going to do about the thunderstorm? What do we do about the hotter balloon? Are they going to pack up and go home? How's that going to affect the experience?

But the planner who was in charge of the party took charge of the situation because that was her lane, that was her role, and she worked with the vendor to figure out what needed to happen, what's the go-no-go point, what are the options here and what are the actions we're going to take and how are we going to compensate for that.

And it was like sure it's alarming to hear like oh no, thunderstorms coming in, freak winds, like imagining a balloon floating away with 10 people in the basket. You know like it's easy to spin out about that kind of stuff, but because we knew who was in charge of what, I and the other members of the team who weren't in charge of that were able to let go of it, let the professional do her job and figure out the solution, and it turned out in the end we didn't have to do anything because the storm came through and passed before the party started and the balloon. I think maybe the balloon got up and running a little later than planned and that was it, and it was no big deal, right? So just having those plans in places is really, really important and empowering your team members to do what they need to do, because that's their job.


Because imagining the lack of planning in that same situation, right, like if they had not planned, they had not thought of. Everybody knows their roles, they know what to do, right, everybody would be freaking out like confused, asking like, oh, what should we do? Who should do the rest? How do we fix this? Like what's going to happen and then everything else has to stop. Everybody has to stop all the things that they're trying to do, because now we need to figure out this thing that we didn't. You know, there was no planning.


And when that happens, anxiety, fear and risk take the charge on the decision-making process and that can get really, really messy. Because you're often not working with enough information, you aren't trusting the people who actually know what they're like. The balloon operators are the ones who know whether or not they can go up and down right. You have to trust that. They know what's okay. If you know the host of the event was just like nope, I'm not doing that right, like just shut it down, then that just harms the experience and that was unnecessary.


And unnecessary. Yeah, exactly Like there was no need to do that. But again, that's what good planning and thoughtful planning does, right? So when things do come up, everybody knows what to do and, more importantly, the attendees don't find out about it, because that's another thing, like attendees could tell when the staff members don't know what's happening.


Oh, my favorite thing in the world is when some like dramatic crisis is happening behind the scenes and nobody is the wiser on the front end of it, right, like the attendees just, and it's almost fun.

Like I wish there was like a confessions of an event planner thing where we could actually divulge some of these stories, because people would just think it's so wild that some of this stuff happens.

And I had, when I worked on the World Domination Summit team, the wife of the man who hosts it.

She would always say when training the volunteers like you know, if something goes wrong, just note that, like, when you are in view of the attendees, you are calm, cool and collected, you're walking, you're not running, like it's just a thing. And then once you are backstage or in the belly of the theater or you know out in a private space, then feel free to run, yeah, exactly, and you know like and cry and freak out and whatever you need to do, but like you have to maintain that composure, because this is to me it's like this is how we present a good show, is that we are handling all of this stuff because the attendees do not need to be concerned about it, and only at that point in the case of like a real emergency where they need to be notified, is when we do that right. So we're we're essentially we're protecting the attendees from having to exert any kind of decision making process or or express any anxiety around a situation that they don't need to.


Right, and that that's also demonstrates good management skills, because you're leading your team, you're telling them what to do, you're telling them like OK if something goes wrong, this is how you handle it, Right and then you're going to be OK. And talking about, like, managing teams, rachel also brought up a great point about treating your team well, treating your people well, and I know that's something that that I mean Rachel is known for and we also, like we really want to follow that example. So what were your thoughts?


around that. So she specifically said I'm so glad that she said this, we were talking about the security risks and she talked about how the security vendor was became part of the event team. And I think that too often, especially event hosts I think planners have a good Rap for, or good rep for, building good relationships with their vendors the event hosts can often disregard or delineate between Staff which are the like core people who are working on the event, vendors, who are the third parties hired in to do a very specific job, and volunteers who are the boots on the ground labor, and a stellar event host and organizer and curator and Really good producers Treat all of those people as valuable members of the event team because they are, and this is something that has been really like. I've seen a Lot and it's it's become really frustrating me for, but I've seen a lot of disregard and disrespect levied at, for example, av vendors or volunteers who are putting in a lot of time and energy and and and expertise and All kinds of stuff into the work that they're doing and often not getting the recognition that they deserve for it. And Someone may say to me Well, isaac, you know, I'm paying my av vendor through the roof for these services. And yes, yes, you are.

But if you started that relationship by lowballing their offer and negotiating them downward on scope, if you are Not including them in your communications, if you are throwing last-minute changes at them and not working with them or offering to help Provide solutions around it, you're disrespecting their time and their energy and their expertise.

And I have found time and time again that if you do treat your vendors and your volunteers as extensions of your team and Treat them with the respect to defer to their expertise, involve them in the decision-making process where appropriate, you are going to have an event that is so far beyond your expectations, like everybody's going to deliver, and that is like that's a hill.

I will die on from this point on, because and it's not just because, like Part of me says, oh Well, you know, you just have the vendors you like working with, and maybe a client would challenge like oh, why do we have to work with this vendor? That's because I have a good relationship with that vendor, because I we have good trust, we have good respect, I know the quality of their work, we've worked together, we know how to work together, like all of that is really, really valuable. I'll go quote out with other vendors and see you know what we can do. I'm not opposed to building a relationship with another vendor, but that is a shortcut to getting to a much better product at the event.


Then starting from scratch every single time absolutely, and Maybe someone makes the mistake of like oh well, this other person is like a thousand dollars less right, but right, we don't know them. They say that they're good at what they do, but until we we see it I think you know the proof is in the pudding like are we? Do we want to take this risk and Give it a shot some times? Yeah, but it's always good to have those approved like Vendors that we know and love and have them in our back pocket and just be like yeah, nothing to worry about. I mean you with like my or pro, it's like you know. You barely even have to Even talk about the project and they're like yes, yeah, I mean, and that's a good, that's a good feeling to have that.


Like that a vendor is willing to like jump at the chance to work on one of our projects right and at the, and I love that. Like that is that's, that's gonna be a win for everybody. They get great work. They appreciate the kinds of events that we work on. They like working with us. They like our clients. Like that's. The clients love them as a team because they're like delivering a hundred and ten percent. Like every when everybody's on board and everybody's Excited to do this, everybody's working just that much better and the result is better. Like I don't.

Like events are built on human relationships. I mean, all work is right, like and this kind of gets back to our running theme of anti-human versus pro-human but like, at the end of the day, if we can't maintain and develop and build really solid human relationships, then why are we even doing this? Right, if we're going to treat our vendors like sh**, then that's going to come through to the attendees, because what difference is the attendee as a customer than a vendor? Is somebody that we're paying money to provide a service? Like it gets into that like that weird dynamic, power, dynamic of oh, I'm the client, you're the lackey, kind of thing.

And that to me that's just that's unfair and pro-capitalist.


I mean honestly. In event production, most of the work is people work.




Right, we're just constantly communicating, with people coming together and making group decisions, and when you don't work well with the vendors, you don't work well with your volunteers, you don't work well with your staff. People see that from a mile away. It is very obvious. When you go somewhere, you know that the staff is just not happy, right? Yeah, it is very obvious, and people talk, especially when we're talking about volunteers. If you treat your volunteers like crap, they are going to talk about it and they're going to tell everybody and you're going to have a hard time recruiting volunteers in the future.


Like come on, like throw a couple hundred bucks at a pizza party or like you know, like it doesn't take much to show that you respect them. It's not about like I'm not trying to say that you should buy them off, but like recognize the work that they're doing, find ways to thank them, show your gratitude, put your money where your mouth is. Like they're giving up their time and energy to support your event and they have their own reasons. But you need to make sure that you're not abusing that, that labor that they're putting forward for you, and showing them in return that you're, you're grateful and that you, that they, you know you couldn't do it without them.


Absolutely. And lastly, in this conversation I wanted to touch on the talent of our conversation with Rachel Were. You asked her question about being more human and what we see increasingly as an anti-human world. Right, first of all, her answer was not what I was expecting at all. I don't think I had an expectation, but it wasn't that you know.

It was a doozy of an answer, that one that I was just like wow, yeah it's not even worrying about that, Like cause I could tell as well, like as she was speaking, like you also were pretty surprised, I mean it, it.


it tracks with what I know about Rachel right, I think, the insight. It's interesting hearing her perspective, you know, getting to know her in the event world and then seeing her assume this role within an agency and both applying what she learned in the event world to her work and also learning new things. It's really interesting. I think the core, the standout thing for me, is this this principle of honesty with people, knowing what your constraints are and doing what you can to to support people. Within that, I think that communication is key.

We, I think as, especially as event people, we have a tendency to say yes to everything, yes, Right, absolutely yeah, especially if we're yeah, the people pleasing, especially if we're talking about the, the space to react and to, to you know, accommodate requests and things like that. But I think it takes a lot of self awareness and self reflection to understand and and I mean self in the context of both ourselves individually and the self of the event right, like the team and and what you're trying to achieve, to be really clear on your goals and your constraints and your limitations. I mean, not every event has an unlimited budget. Like, no event has an unlimited budget. Right, there's always going to be a cap.


Right, there's always a cap, yeah.


Obviously, if somebody goes and asks, like a speaker asks, for a private jet to get to the event, you're going to say no, right, like that. Yeah, there are limits, but I think it's.

I think it's really easy for those types of accommodations and the for the people pleasing nature within us to over accommodate what people are asking for.

And if we can keep the event strategy in mind, if I can kind of bring it back around a strategy for clear on the purpose, if we know what our resources are, if we know who's you know how we've delegated responsibilities to our team, Then we can respond to that kind of stuff in a way that is emotionally intelligent, that is resource intelligent, that is that is event intelligent, right.

So like we can actually create experiences for people in a way that is that fits within the context of why we're all gathered there in the first place, and I think that that's really important, especially as budgets get tighter, especially as events get smaller, which is a trend that we're seeing, right Like, fewer people are attending, especially in person, and so you have a higher ability to make an impact on people, but you also have a higher risk of failure, right? Yes, Because you have a smaller crowd to work with. So all of that is really important and I think I will continue to reflect on what she was saying about this honesty and this transparency around how human we are and the constraints that we face to be able to integrate that into the work that we do.


Yeah, that point about just being honest. This is so simple, right. This is so profound and day by day, the truth, right, and being honest, like it seems like we're losing that right and so, definitely, as we try to become, as we're trying to resist this anti-human, like late stage capitalist nightmare that's having, like telling the truth, because, at the end of the day, I'm a human being, you're a human being and I want you to tell me the truth, just be, straight up, you know.

Thanks for listening to this episode of Make it Kick Ass. We hope you found it entertaining and helpful. If hosting a community event is on your radar, visit geteventlab.com to take our free 30-minute training called Community Event Mastery. That's geteventlab.com, or use the link in the show notes. Make it Kickass is hosted by Isaac Watson and Nessa Jimenez. Post-production audio by Chris Nelson at Mittens Media. Our theme song is Feel it by Dojo for Crooks. Make it Kickass is a production of Kickass Conferences, an event strategy and design agency serving leaders of growing communities.

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About the Podcast

Make It Kickass
Community Event Mastery
Make It Kickass explores how leaders of growing communities can make conferences with impact, gatherings with purpose, and an attendee experience that knocks their socks off. We uncover the strategies, tactics, and tools we use every day to bring our clients’ conferences to life. If you've ever wanted to host a life-changing conference, this podcast is for you.

Find us at kickassconf.com or geteventlab.com

About your host

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Isaac Watson

Isaac Watson is the founder and Executive Producer at Kickass Conferences, an event strategy and production studio based in the Pacific Northwest. Isaac helps community leaders develop and deliver transformative events for their audiences and inspire them to build a better world.

A maker and introvert at heart, when he’s not working his magic behind the scenes in event strategy and production, he’s usually at home in Vancouver, Washington working on remodeling projects, gardening, cooking, learning to sew, and building LEGO.