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ESPA Leader Julie Brakenbury Details the Role of Event Service Profs in the Recovery

May 12, 2021

Event service professionals, who facilitate meetings and conventions as a liaison between facilities, destinations and meeting planners, have taken it on the chin during the pandemic as in-person meetings came to a halt.

Meetings Today’s Tyler Davidson talked with Julie Brakenbury, president of Event Service Professionals Association and director of destination services for Visit Raleigh, about what role those in this critical position will play as we reboot the meetings industry.

Read the transcript below:

Julie Brakenbury

[Start Transcript] 

Tyler Davidson: Hello, and welcome to this Meetings Today Podcast. I’m Tyler Davidson, vice president and chief content director of Meetings Today, and we’re really excited to have as a guest of Julie Brakenbury, the president of Event Service Professionals Association and also director of destination services for the Greater Raleigh Convention and Visitors Bureau, Visit Raleigh, in North Carolina. So, thanks for joining us today, Julie.

Julie Brakenbury: Tyler—thank you. It’s my pleasure to be here both to represent ESPA and always to represent Visit Raleigh, as well as our profession, for event service professionals.
Tyler: And why don’t we start off just by explaining what event service professionals do for our audience, who are primarily meeting and event planners?

Julie: Sure. As far as what an event service professional is, I always look at that position as being the glue; it doesn’t matter if they’re an event service professional for a hotel, a convention center or a destination, they’re the glue between the client and the clients’ attendees, and then the venue or the hotel, or the destination resources. They hold it all together, and without them, a planner just loses their opportunity to be as successful as they can be. 

And ESPA, the organization of event service professionals, has now existed for over 30 years, and we’re totally focused on that role, what it’s about. We’re a community of event service professionals; we’re an education resource; it’s a networking organization, so that we’re in touch with our peers and what they’re doing; and it’s a place to be heard and to be an advocate for the role, as well, for the impact that event service professionals can have on the success of events.

Tyler: And I think now...I’ve interviewed a lot of event service professionals, and a lot of times sort of how it works is they say a sales team will get the contract signed and then hand it off to an event service professional to really make things happen, to execute the different items, or to take care of any emergencies that happen, or get permissions from various entities to do specific aspects of an event. I mean, they’re sort of like the people in the know—they know everybody in the destination. And I think you mentioned that they’re really the glue. 

I think right now, as we’re hopefully coming out of the pandemic, everybody’s going to really need the stickiness of that glue. And I was just wondering, how do you see people in your position really help meeting planners as we get back to in-person meetings?

Julie: So just to be clear, Tyler, do you mean my position as a destination services manager?

Tyler: I would say, as an event service professional, so your colleagues—speaking for them—and then what you do just in your day-to-day job, also?

Julie: Sure. Well, I think when you look at what I said about the event service professional being the glue, and you pointed out—we’re responsible for knowing anything and everything. And that’s really part of our success, is the resources that we have—all of us, whether we’re in the hotel, whether we’re in a venue or at a convention and visitor bureau—we’re all about information, we’re all about resources and we’re all about knowing how to get things done. And I think that’s incredibly important now as we’re coming out of the pandemic.

[Related: Why Convention Service Managers Deserve Our Respect]

If I’m a meeting planner or an event planner, it’s very likely that I’m juggling more than one event at a time that’s probably being held in more than one location. And trying to keep up just with the regulations related to COVID is really hard. But you’ve got an event manager in the hotel who can tell you how it is that things are at that particular hotel in that particular city.

You’ve got a convention venue or convention center person who does the same thing, and then you’ve got the destination person, and we’re in tune with local health authorities—with all of the partners in terms of what they’re doing to make the experience safe for attendees.

Capacities are changing all over the place, and nobody is going to know that but the event manager in the building as well as in the convention center, and for the destination overall—mask regulations, air service, all of the things that they need to know as they’re planning their first events coming back from COVID. That event manager is going to be able to do it for them.

Tyler: Do you really see this time we’re in right now—the services that you and your colleagues provide—are probably the most needed that they’ve ever been. Would you agree with that?

Julie: I definitely agree with that. I think the importance of our role has ramped up. The scary part was in a lot of areas and a lot of venues, that role went away for a year. But I’m starting to see those people being rehired. 

So, you’ve got people coming back into the industry who are very experienced, but also know in real life what their job is, and that is to be able to make sure that the event planner they’re working is successful, and it’s going to be about safety; it’s going to be about capacities; it’s going to be about knowing what event service providers in every destination are still in business or what new ones exist.

If you think about it, we can’t do an event without a convention center or a hotel, and without knowing what the destination is about, but we also can’t do it without other event service providers, like transportation, audiovisual, decorating companies—all of those resources are important, too. And it’s the role of the event service manager at a convention or visitor bureau, like [unintelligible] and my team, to know what of those businesses are still in business or have new businesses that have opened. 

They need all of that put together. That’s our job.

Tyler: That is really a good point, too. I mean, unfortunately, there have been so many businesses that have shut their doors, especially entertainment venues, restaurants. So, you and your colleagues know the situation on the ground and can probably immediately provide that intelligence to a meeting planner who wants to create a very interesting program, but might not know if, say, the same organization or venue that did a great job for them a few years ago is even the operating still.

Julie: Exactly. And it has, over this last year and a half—it’s changed a lot. Here at Visit Raleigh, I credit our marketing team for working so closely with us because we’re all the time exchanging information and helping to maintain our database so that, at least on the CVB side of things, we can refer to that database and be able to put out that information quickly for planners. 

But the other part of it is the relationships. You know, the business is successful, in many cases, when you’re doing an event because of the relationships you have. And we all work hard on the event service side of the industry to make sure we maintain those relationships. 

We were not too far into COVID last year when our team launched a series of what we call fireside chats. And it was just reaching out to different groups of event services providers, just to talk with them about the lay of the land—what was happening, what we felt like was going to be needed as we go into recovery—just to help them hang in there and, frankly, stay in business until business came back. 

But now it’s our role to help them understand what it’s going to take to provide that experience safely. It’s always interesting to me—and I’ll try not to go to off point on you there—but we’ve always been able to sell destinations and hotels and convention centers on what great buildings they were or what a great city we are. Now we have to also sell it on all of that plus how safe we are.

Tyler: And what are some key questions do you think meeting and event planners should be asking to event service providers? 

Julie: I think a really important one is to know what businesses have done to prepare themselves for the recovery. You know, we can stand back and say this restaurant is safe, but how is it safe? in many cities, there’s at least a convention and visitor bureau, or in the case of North Carolina, the North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association, who’s created a healthy certification program. 

You know, it’s up to us to know that they have done that, so know which restaurants have achieved their certification, which hotels have nationwide. For convention centers, the GBAC certification certainly is a big one. And it’s up to us to be aware of that as well, and be able to convey that to the planners. 

I don’t think the need for that is going to go away quickly. Because if you think about it, even when we reopen, we’re still going to have to win the confidence of the event planner, as well as all of their potential attendees.

Tyler: You know, it’s one thing for the meeting or event planner to be confident that the event is going to be safe, but like you said, there’s thousands and thousands of potential attendees who all have varying levels of comfort with even traveling. 

What do you think meeting planners should tell them or communicate to them? And what details that maybe would make them feel a little more secure?

Julie: Sure. Well, first, it’s knowing which airports they’re coming into and what practices those airports have in place for safe arrival and safe departure. Because that’s their first touch with arrival, right, is that airport experience? And we want to know that they’re safe, not just on the plane, but once they get here. 

I think it is, with the hotels, what specific practices that hotels have in place, where they’re going to be meeting and what specific practices that meeting venue has. And then, overall, the destination, because it never is just about inside the hotel or the convention center. Getting out to do things, knowing there are enough restaurants that are open in the area around the convention center, knowing that there’s good safe transportation when they’re on the ground is important. 

All of that adds up to the overall attendee experience, and the planner needs to be asking about those and knowing even from the time they start planning the event, Tyler, through the arrival, if anything has changed. Conveying all of those changes I think is hugely critical. And that’s where the role of the events manager/event service professional comes into play as far as importance.

Tyler: And I think especially, too, as we’re coming back to in-person meetings, staffing is a huge concern. Unfortunately, so many people have been laid off or furloughed in all the industries in the hospitality industry. How can event service professionals step in to take up that slack or help the meeting or event planner in that regard?

Julie: Sure. I think that it works a couple of different ways. First is that that events service professional has the rapport either internally with their organization or internally with their destination, to be asking that question, and to help to convey to the community at large—the host community at large—when that group is coming in and what the needs of the group are, and just raising awareness for it. 

Many destinations have done that for a while now—put out what we call an arriving groups alert or a convention and sports event alert—it’s called different things in different communities. But part of the value of that is letting all those businesses know who’s in town and that they need to step up. 

If those businesses don’t know who’s coming, it’s hard for them to know what the lay of the land is going to be and what business impacts they could see. But that’s part of our role, is to be asking that question and promoting it, for sure.

Tyler: And what has it been like for you personally? You’re like me, [having been] in this industry for a long time, and it’s a very relationship focused, person-to-person industry. And a lot of us have been sort of put on ice for a year. How has that been for you, and how much are you looking forward to things getting back to at least to some semblance of normal?

[Read also: Virtual Tools and Hybrid Meetings in Raleigh]

Julie: I guess the big question there, Tyler, is what is normal, right? But, for sure, just knowing that events are coming back certainly gives me hope.

I think it’s been—I know for me personally and professionally—it’s been a really difficult year because I’ve seen so many colleagues out of work around the country in DMOs who do what I do. So, knowing that they’re starting to come back into the roles is a sign that we’re headed in the right direction. As we see hotels ramp up and convention centers re-staff, I think that is giving me hope for the future, too. 

It’s been hard. And one thing that I’ve learned about our part of the industry—and I won’t say that this is the case all across the board—but you know, salespeople, I think by and large tend to be competitive. They’re collegial, but they’re competitive. In the events services side of the business, we’re maybe competitive, but were much more colleagues. And one of the great things that I saw happen this last year was a lot of people like me, who do what I do, we all banded together. 

You know, we tried to provide resources to each other. We leaned into each other for how they were getting through and what they were doing. With the DMOs that lost people—not just DMOs, but everybody—that suddenly found themselves as a director down to being the director, the event manager, the event coordinator; doing all of those things. How are you doing more with less people? 

We wouldn’t have done it if we didn’t have each other, and I know that almost sounds like a song, doesn’t it? But you know, it’s true. We could not have made it through the last year without sharing resources. 
I’ve learned from…I’ve got great friends in convention and visitor bureaus all over the country, and the tools that they have built, and we all have built, we’ve shared with one another. And ESPA also has done a great job of putting those out and sharing those resources with our member-connect service. 

But we’ve done it together. And that feels good to know that we’ve been able to do that and support each other to get through it. And it’s not going to be an automatic return; we know it’s going to be slow, and that’s probably no surprise to anybody listening to this today. 

But, here in North Carolina, we’re seeing sports events coming back first. We feel like by the end of the summer and then to fall we’ll start to see regular meetings and conventions coming back. And it’s a similar thing all over the country. There’s a lot of hope. There’s a lot of optimism. 

I don’t think anybody could have foreseen the world that we’re a part of, on the events side of the industry, go away, but it did. And now having it come back is like the biggest joy. We’re anxious to do it, do it well, and continue on that success as we move into the future.

Tyler: Well, you and your colleagues are going to be a big part of that future. So, thank you for joining us today. Where can people find out more about ESPA?

Julie: Sure. ESPAonline.org.

Tyler: Excellent. Well, thanks for joining us today, Julie.

Julie: My pleasure. Thanks for having us. Take care.

Tyler: I will....and that was Julie Brakenbury, ESPA president and also director of destination services for the Greater Raleigh CVB, Visit Raleigh. I am Tyler Davidson, vice president and chief content director for Meetings Today. 

Thanks for joining us for this Meetings Today Podcast. And if you’re interested in listening to more Meetings Today Podcasts, head on over to MeetingsToday.com. We have a wealth of podcasts available in our podcast section, as well as one of my favorites, Dare to Interrupt, with Courtney Stanley, where she is really interviewing lots of interesting women who are making a huge impact on the meetings and conventions industry and beyond. 

So, thanks for listening today. And wherever you’re at and whatever you’re doing, make it a great rest of the day, and I hope you can tune in again soon.

[End Transcript]

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About the author
Tyler Davidson | Editor, Vice President & Chief Content Director

Tyler Davidson has covered the travel trade for nearly 30 years. In his current role with Meetings Today, Tyler leads the editorial team on its mission to provide the best meetings content in the industry.