CEO Stories: Designing Powerful and Engaging Events

Jennifer D. Collins
President & CEO of JDC Events

Jennifer Collins, author of Events Spark Change and owner of event planning business JDC Events, talks about what she learned on her journey from organizing family reunions to becoming a professional event planner.

After doing event planning on a part-time basis while working in public relations, Collins decided she needed either to devote herself to the business full time or leave it behind. She chose the former, but her timing was less than auspicious: just two weeks before 9/11. The hospitality and travel industries, which fuel event planning, ground to a halt. Determined to make the business work, she rebuilt it slowly over the next few years, getting her big break when she answered an ad to be a D.C.-based event planner for UC Davis’s Cocoa Symposium, in partnership with candy company Mars.

To Collins, the logistics of event planning aren’t nearly as complex or as interesting as the idea of bringing people together for a shared purpose and the challenge of helping to create change. She learned to think of events in very business-like terms: to be successful they needed a mission statement, measurable goals, and to be able to meet the needs of the various stakeholders. She also developed the SPARK model – Sensory; Purpose; Activations; Resources; Know-how – as a reminder of the critical elements for creating connections among people and making an event memorable and impactful.

This Is Capitalism: Jennifer Collins

RH: Jennifer Collins, on the Campus of American University in Washington DC, I want to understand as you explained to some degree in your book, Events Spark Change, the journey that brought you to being an event planner.
JC: I was doing events for my family, family reunions, And I felt that it was something that I was good at, at that time.

RH: Okay, so tell me a little bit about your family, the size, and where you would hold these family reunions.
JC: So, my family. We have about a hundred people that normally attended my family reunions on my mom’s side. And we would hold them in all sorts of different locations, Boston, Atlanta, Cincinnati, Washington D.C., Philly, all sorts of locations where there were a majority of family. But then we just started going to places we wanted to go to.

And from that experience, I was really able to see that I really loved the affect that the reunion had on the family. It was just so joyful, it was just so much of a connection, and that people really walked away feeling as though they were really just able to bond deeper on another level. And that is what really sparked my thought process of “I really like to do events. Maybe I might even be good at it.” So that’s sort of what happened there.

RH: And by this point you were a professional in public relations, right?
JC: I was in college at the time here, at American University. And then, when I graduated, I got jobs within several public relations firms here in D.C. and so that’s really when it started. But really, the birth of it was when I was in school.

RH: Well, how young were you when you did your first event-planning job for the family?
JC: I think I was either 19 or 20, somewhere around there. So it had to have been around my sophomore year at AU.

RH: Had someone in the family done these things before you?
JC: They had. My grandmother was very involved with her brothers and sisters and managing it. And so we had a contingency. My grandmother’s from Atlanta. And so the majority of the family were from there and that’s really where we started to have them. And her brothers and sisters were those that started to really get it going initially. And then we found that, you know, I had a feeling of being able to do it as well, and so that’s when I started getting involved in the process.

RH: Did you learn a lot of lessons from her, did she take you under her wing to do this?
JC: I think really what my grandmother did for me was she really instilled the importance of family. And so there might have been other hands that were in the pot that were all helping to bring this about.

At that time we weren’t as complex, the reunions weren’t as complex. I say complex now because they’re a little more involved. We’ve really come into our own of how we plan them. But back then it was just a cookout, bringing family together. So she really instilled the importance of family coming together. So that’s really the impetus of why we continue to be active involved in that.

RH: So it was later that you added the zip-lining events and so forth?
JC: [Laughs.] Yes. Not that much but we do tours and we travel to different cities and we get involved in all sorts of different activities there. So we have dine-arounds we’ve had at one of our reunions here in Washington. So we do a lot more than we did then, yes.

RH: So tell me about the first professional event you planned.
JC: Oh gosh, the first professional event. Oh. It was a 60th birthday party for a dear friend, who is now deceased. And she wanted to bring about 30 or however many would go, of her closest friends to Jamaica to celebrate her 60th birthday party.

Now I have to say that that was during the time in my company where I was doing more social events–the weddings and the anniversaries and those sorts of things. But then I gravitated it away from that a little bit later on. But that really was the first one.

RH: Now tell me about starting the company. Tell me about the company, I assume you were employee No. 1 and the only employee for quite a while?
JC: Right. Yes, yes, I was employee No. 1 in my basement apartment, not too far from here, at American University. And it really was a time when I just enjoyed doing the work. And so that’s really what I was looking for were other ways to plan some sort of event for someone that needed the support. And from there, I was able to continue to really develop it and build it into more, especially as I was working in my public relations firm. I was doing it part-time so then I would be working, of course, full-time.

But in the PR firms, I noticed we were starting to do events there too. So I was like, “oh, well maybe I can make this into a business.” And so that’s really what started to hone my interest and my attention as to how to develop it into something that was even more professional than I thought it was at that time.

RH: And how much risk was involved when you finally went out on your own? How long did it take you to go out on your own?
JC: Well, I did it four years. I managed the business four years on my own, part-time. But then I found it was just too difficult to do it part-time and so I had to just fish or cut bait. And why I went ahead on my own is because I got one client who was looking for an event. It was one of the largest nursing home companies in the United States at that time who was looking to celebrate their sales team and build an incentive program. That helped me to get out on my own.

However, it was also two weeks before September 11th. And so that did not help in the sense of those that remember at that time, everything stopped. Hospitality stopped. People stopped traveling, getting on planes. And so we lost that one account, or I lost that, but he still did pay us, which was really great. But he just felt, given the tone of the country at that point, it really wouldn’t be the best thing for us to move forward with what would be considered to be a celebratory type event.

RH: And so how long did it take you to regroup after 9/11?
JC: It took about two to three, maybe even four years to really start to come back. And so at that time, I was doing other things, whether it was substitute teaching or what have you to just stay in the fray and continue to remain out on my own.

And then we just started to continue to build from there, getting referrals from those that I used to work with in the public relations firms, and then decided to go more so into the government contracting market, which helped to be able to get those longer term, higher value contracts.

RH: How do you get into that?
JC: Oh, you have to have a stomach for it. [Laughter.] It is not for the faint at heart to work with the federal government. I had to learn what kind of certifications would be helpful that would help us to be able to better compete with other companies. And I had to do a lot of networking, a lot of going to industry days, a lot of trying to meet contracting officials and small business representatives and figuring out what the agencies were buying and how much of it they were buying of my service. So it was a lot of footwork, a lot of leg work.

RH: And in the meantime, because the business is not taking off yet, you obviously were doing these other things like substitute teaching.
JC: Right, right.

RH: You had to find the time to do all this. What other jobs did you take during that period?
JC: You know, it really was that but I also worked with other companies where I was able to be an on-site event manager. So they were doing a lot of the work but they would just need somebody, maybe they were based in New Jersey or Connecticut or other locations, New York, and they needed somebody that was here. And so it was sort of like a temp quote/unquote a temp agency for professionals and I would get projects from that, which helped to really not only continue to keep my skills sharp but it also paid the bills.

RH: Now those first events that you planned, how much did you know compared to what you know now and write about in your book?
JC: [Laughs.] I thought I knew a lot then and I know a whole heck of a lot more now though. I had very much a very curious attitude and personality in the sense of I always want to know more, how to do something different and better, how to build it. So I was always in that mindset. So I was able to really, from what I thought I knew then to hone it, to develop it, to make it better because I got involved with industry organizations.

And then I became certified as a Certified Meeting Professional. And so I was really keeping up with the professional education and the continuing education so that I would know how to continue to do what I do but to do it better.

RH: And how do you get involved. I know one of the things you talk about in the book is an event that you did with U.C. Davis, I mean way out there in farm country.
JC: Right.

RH: And you’re sitting here at A.U., which has been your base and you started in a basement apartment, not far from here. How do you get involved with a client so far away when you’re just starting out?
JC: Well, it’s interesting because U.C. Davis was looking for a planner here in the Washington D.C. area because they wanted to…they built a campus, which was just a building downtown, but they had a campus here and they needed a planner that would help them to develop a cocoa symposium. And the cocoa symposium was in partnership with Mars, Incorporated. And so Mars, of course, is based here but they’re also a global company.

And they had this partnership and they needed someone here that could help to build this symposium that would happen in D.C. about a year later. And they just put out an ad. And it was an ad that I answered and I met with them and the rest is history.

RH: That was your break-through moment?
JC: I would have to say yes. That probably was the largest at that time event and relationship that I was able to develop.

RH: And how many years ago was that?
JC: I want to say that initially started about 2004 or ’05 or so. So it’s been that long.

RH: Since 2005, up to the point of Events Spark Change, your book, 2018, is there one particular concept that you thought you had in 2005 and realized over time that you really didn’t have?
JC: [Laughs.] think the management part of all of the different pieces that would have to go into place. I got that but I didn’t understand the extent of how to actually run a business. And the business in the sense of all the different parts and the different pieces that would have to go into it, but the scope of it and me not being able to do everything by myself.

And so I had to bring in other pieces, I had to bring in other partners, and I also had to corral people, I had to be a diplomat, I had to be a therapist, I had to be the doctor, I had to be so many different…I had to play so many different parts to really bring people together to understand how to build it.

And there were politics involved as well that I really did not account for, dealing with different organizations, different people. They had different cultures. That has nothing to do with the actual logistics of planning the event, that’s trying to bridge people together so that it actually can produce what they need it to. So that I think is so much more different than anything that I would have even thought of at that time.

RH: There’s a great quote in your book, “the event building business is a puzzle that when carefully assembled can yield amazing results.” A puzzle, that never would have crossed my mind.
JC: Yeah. It is. It’s very much a mosaic. It’s almost even like…I can give you another one, it’s like being a conductor in an orchestra, you know, bringing in different parts, and different instruments at any given time, holding back those that need to just stay until we’re ready for you and then bringing them in when it’s their part.

RH: How much did you understand of that, say 12 years ago?
JC: I don’t think I looked at it as that. I just think I looked at it as a task. I had a list, I just knew I needed to check things off of my list and get things done. But I didn’t necessarily look at it as a bigger picture continuum of how everybody needed to work together.

RH: And another quote from your book, “An event without a mission statement is more susceptible to failure.” It never struck my mind that there would be a mission statement involved with event planning although naturally there should be, right?
JC: Yeah. You would be surprised to know how many organizations just decide that they want to have some sort of event but they don’t think anything about how to get there, or even why they want to do it. And there are so many factors that go into it, especially money and people, power, resources and they really haven’t thought anything about it. So if you want this to do something, you really have to get at the mission as to why and what it’s going to change and who it’s going to impact.

RH: And you mention in the book another very specific point, that you have to set measurable goals.
JC: Yes, because it’s like looking at a map. If you don’t know where you’re going, how do you know that you were successful in it. So you have to really use this event as a way to drive your message. Events drive messages. And people need to understand that if…and it can be so impactful and it can be such a powerful way to do so.

But if you’re not able to really drive it in a way that people will receive it or be able to understand what you want to impart to them, the message that you’re trying to get across, then it’s not going to be successful. So that’s so, so important to really spend the time upfront, identifying what that message is going to be.

RH: Give me your best example of a message that was really delivered through an event.
JC: Why don’t I go back to the cocoa symposium that we talked abut earlier? That was a symposium where they wanted to, the partnership between U.C. Davis and Mars, they really wanted to be seen as the leaders within the cocoa science field. And that they were. Because it is a small community, but because they were able to develop these particular symposiums, it really helped them to be able to be positioned as such.

But we took that on the road to West Africa, and we went to Ghana, where we held another symposium. And that symposium we went to because that’s where the majority of cocoa is grown, for those that eat chocolate, that’s where the majority of your cocoa beans are coming from. But the message from that was, we were able to develop from that particular symposium, and ones that happened before it, that they were able to develop the first ever plan for the continent of Africa of how to keep the cocoa farms more productive, how to provide them with the tools and the skills that they needed, how to help them to earn more money in the cocoa production.

So that message of really helping the cocoa farmer to be able to do something different so that every other part of the cocoa production aspect could still flourish as well is something that was really a defining moment for the partnership but as well as for me and being able to have a part in it.

RH: And for you, when you land in Ghana, did you look in the mirror or think to yourself, all I did was answer a want ad?
JC: ([Laughs.] Right, yes that’s all I did, I just answered an ad and I went for an interview and I was hired. But that’s what I love about events. You know, there are some that think the big and glitzy and glamorous events are only those that are the most impactful. But they’re not. It could be 10 people, or 25 people, or 200 people, whatever the case is, what’s most impactful is their purpose of how they bring people together, how they can create certain connections, how they can create that engagement that can potentially be life-changing, or changing for your organization, or you as personally, professionally. So they have so much more of an impact than people would consider them to be.

RH: And within an event, you have various stakeholders.
JC: You do. These are the people that you need to know who need to bring something to your event. It could be resources such as money, sponsorships, but also credibility. We have a lot of organizations that we work with, with our events at my company, JDC Events, where we have people that are coming to the table with their expertise, you know, they are subject matter experts or maybe they have other constituencies that would benefit from whatever is happening at the event. But it helps to really bolster the reach as well as the impact by having all of these different factors and factions that are involved with the event.

RH: I have to talk about a word that you mention in the book, which is actually in the title, spark. The spark model. You’ve created this for planners everywhere. Let’s go through that letter by letter.
JC: Okay.

RH: S is for sensory.
JC: Sensory, making sure that you build the five senses into your event. People will be like, well, what does that mean and why?

RH: Yes, what does that mean and why?
JC: [Laughs.] Because there have been studies that have shown that when you engage the five senses, it creates a much more memorable and engaging experience. Think about going to a wedding or think about going to some sort of event where you see the lights, and you feel maybe some sort of give away. So that’s the touch. And then you have the sight and the hearing, music, taste, food. It just creates a more memorable experience for the guests. So that’s the S.

RH: Okay, and the P is for purpose.
JC: P, purpose, which is just that. What we talked about earlier, in that you really have to spend the time identifying why you’re going to do this and what it means and what you’re trying to achieve.

RH: Okay, the letter A is for activations.
JC: Activations is putting everything into motion. So all of those plans and everything that you brought to the table to help to build this event, that is putting the objectives into motion.

RH: No, here’s a quiz, what’s R?
JC: R is resources. And so the resources is really, you know, your time, talent, all your funding for it, all of those particular details that people to work on it, you have to have all of that in place.

RH: Final letter in Spark is K.
JC: Know-how, meaning your expertise, the people that you need, the skill sets that you need, the relationships that you might need to best make it a success.

RH: Now, how is all that you’ve learned over the last 15 to 20 years of serious event planning going to inform you in the future?
JC: Well, I think what it has done is, it has really shown me the power of connections. But it has also shown me that all it takes to create change in this world is one person, one community at a time, in that any role that any of us are in, we have the opportunity to do something different, to learn something different and to have whatever it is that we learned to help somebody else.

And so that’s really what events have done for me, to see how they can change people and how it doesn’t have to be so complex, you don’t have to be in the evening news, you don’t have to be in front of major audiences, it’s really your involvement, your engagement and what you can take away to help pour into somebody else’s life.

RH: And your book is entitled Events Spark Change, A Guide to Designing Powerful and Engaging Events. Continued success, Jennifer Collins.
JC: Thank you, Ray, appreciate it, really appreciate this, thank you.

RH: A most fun conversation.
JC: Yes, absolutely, absolutely, and a beautiful day at that.

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