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This is Capitalism: Up Close, Inspired, Explained

Oct 11, 2018

Ray Hoffman interviews Jennifer Collins, President and CEO of JDC Events. Jennifer’s first events were her own family reunions which she evolved from cookouts to city tours and dine-arounds. She worked on social events while in college, and when she started working at PR firms, she saw how they were handling events and felt that she could make a business of it. She turned to business events, and then to government contracting. Jennifer has taken what she has learned through planning purposeful events over the years and written it in her book, Events Spark Change. She shares the importance of the mission statement for every event and how events bring about change.


Key Takeaways:

[:21] Ray Hoffman welcomes Jennifer Collins and asks about her book, Events Spark Change: A Guide to Designing Powerful and Engaging Events and the journey that brought her to becoming an event planner.

[:34] Jennifer planned reunions for her family and felt she was good at it.

[:43] About 100 people would normally attend the family reunions, held in Boston, Atlanta, Cincinnati, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and other locations, first where they had a majority of the family and then where they wanted to go.

[1:05] From that experience, Jennifer saw that she really loved the effect that the reunion had on the family — so joyful and so much of a connection. People felt that they were able to bond deeper on another level. That sparked Jennifer’s thought process about planning events, that she enjoyed it and she might be good at it.

[1:38] These thoughts came to Jennifer while she was a college student at American University. After she graduated, she got jobs with public relations firms in Washington, D.C.

[1:56] The first family reunion she planned was when she was around age 19 or 20 as a sophomore. Her grandmother from Atlanta and her siblings had originally organized the reunions as cookouts. The importance of families coming together is the impetus for Jennifer’s involvement in the reunions.

[3:17] Later reunions included zip lines, tours, travel to different cities for activities, dine-arounds, and a lot more than cooking out.

[3:37] The first professional event Jennifer planned was a 60th birthday party for a dear friend. She wanted to bring around 30 of her closest friends to Jamaica to celebrate it. That was during a time when Jennifer’s company was doing more social events.

[4:10] Then Jennifer started getting away from social events and moved into corporate events.

[4:17] When Jennifer started her company, she was employee #1 and the only employee for a while, in her basement apartment near American University. She enjoyed doing the work and was looking for events to plan for people who really needed the support.

[4:43] From there, she was able to develop it into more, still part-time, in connection with her full-time work in the public relations firms. As the PR firms started doing events, Jennifer realized she could make that into a business. She wanted to develop something even more professional.

[5:13] Jennifer managed her business on her own for four years, part-time. When she found it was too difficult to do part-time, she had to ‘fish or cut bait.’

[5:34] She went full-time on her own when she got one of the largest nursing home companies in the U.S. at that time as a client, who wanted to celebrate their sales team and build an incentive program.

[5:48] That helped Jennifer to get out on her own. It was also two weeks before September 11, 2001. At that time, events stopped. Hospitality stopped. People stopped traveling and getting on planes. Jennifer lost the account, although they did pay her. The client felt, given the tone of the country, it wasn’t the best time to celebrate.

[6:20] It took about three or four years for the industry to come back. So Jennifer was doing other things, such as substitute teaching, to stay on her own. She built up again, getting referrals from her former co-workers in the public relations firms. She decided to shift into the government contracting market for longer-term, higher-value contracts.

[6:54] You have to ‘have a stomach for it’ to get into government contracting. Jennifer learned what kinds of certifications would be helpful to compete with other companies. She had to go to industry days to meet with contracting officials and small business representatives and figure out what agencies were buying. It was a lot of footwork.

[7:29] Meanwhile, Jennifer continued in substitute teaching and started working with other companies as an onsite event manager. She got projects from a temp agency for event professionals.

[8:09] Jennifer thought she knew a lot then, but she knows a whole heck of a lot more now. Jennifer has a very curious attitude. She always wants to know more — how to do something different, better, how to build it.

[8:38] Jennifer got involved in industry organizations and became a certified meeting professional. She kept up with professional continuing education to learn how to plan events better.

[9:13] UC Davis was looking for a planner in the D.C. area. They had a campus building in D.C. They wanted a planner for a cocoa symposium in partnership with Mars, Inc. Jennifer answered their ad, met with them, and “the rest is history.”

[9:57] That was Jennifer’s breakthrough moment. It was the largest event and relationship she was able to develop up to that time, in 2005.

[10:20] In 2005, Jennifer was just learning the extent of running a business with all its parts. She realized she could not do everything by herself. She had to bring in partners. She played many parts in her business to bring people together to build it.

[11:20] She hadn’t accounted for the politics of dealing with different organizations and cultures to bridge people together to produce what they needed. Jennifer describes event building as a puzzle and the event planner as a conductor leading an orchestra.

[12:10] Earlier in her business, Jennifer just looked at it as a task. She had a list and she had to check things off the list and get things done. She didn’t yet look at it as the picture of how everybody needed to work together.

[12:34] Jennifer wrote in her book that an event without a mission statement is susceptible to failure. She explains the importance of the mission statement. Many organizations decide to have an event, but don’t work out what it takes to produce it. There are so many factors that go into it, especially money.

[13:06] If you want an event to do something, you have to really get at the why, what it’s going to change, and whom it’s going to impact.

[13:15] You have to set measurable goals. It’s like looking at a map. If you don’t know where you’re going, how do you know that you were successful?

[13:30] You have to really use this event as a way to drive your message. Events drive messages. If you’re not really able to drive it in a way that people will receive it, or understand what you want to impart to them, then it’s not going to be successful.

[14:09] The cocoa symposium was an event where UC Davis and Mars Inc. wanted to be seen as the leaders within the cocoa science field. This symposium helped them position themselves as such. They took the symposium to Ghana where the majority of cocoa is grown.
[14:51] From the symposium, the first plan was developed for Africa on how to make the cocoa farms more productive — how to provide the farms with the tools and skills needed and to make more money while all parts of the cocoa product chain could flourish. It was a defining moment for the partnership and for Jennifer to take part in it.

[15:35] There are some who think the big, glitzy, glamorous events are only the most impactful. No matter how many people are involved, what’s most impactful is the event purpose — how they bring people together and create certain connections — how they can create engagement that can change lives and organizations.

[16:25] The stakeholders of an event bring sponsorships, money, and credibility. Having a variety of event experts together creates impact.

[17:06] What is the SPARK model? Sensory — engage the five senses to create a much more memorable and engaging experience. Purpose  — identify why you are doing this and what you want to achieve. Activations — put everything into motion. Resources — use the time, talent, funding, and venue. Know-how — bring experts and expertise.

[18:49] Jennifer has spent the last 15 years learning the power of connections and that all it takes to create a change in this world is one person or one community at a time. Events help you to think differently and bring that change to help someone else. It doesn’t have to be elaborate. It’s what you can take away to help another.


Mentioned in This Episode:

Jennifer Collins, JCD Events

American University, Washington, D.C.

Events Spark Change: A Guide to Designing Powerful and Engaging Events,
by Jennifer D. Collins

JDC Events

UC Davis

Mars, Inc.

This Is Capitalism