My years leading expeditions in the backcountry made me a better event planner.
My love for event production began in the most unlikely of places: the middle of the woods. After college, I promptly packed up and thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail, only to return to earn a master’s degree in experiential adventure education (yes, I am literally a master of adventure).
I spent almost a decade working in the field of outdoor education, instructing and directing expeditions for organizations like Outward Bound. There was a multiyear span during which I spent most nights sleeping in tents, not thinking for a moment about producing luxury events to take place under them. Instead, I was focused on designing and implementing experiential curriculum for young people that would challenge them physically and emotionally and—most importantly—provide opportunities for personal growth.
Little did I know that designing educational experiences in the backcountry would provide such a transferrable skillset when I entered the world of event production years later.
Refining My Emotional Compass
While working in outdoor education, I experienced myriad emergency situations. I’ve been lost in the Sierra Mountains, miles off trail with nothing but a topographical map, my compass and a group of 15-year-olds looking at me expectantly. I’ve responded to all sorts of medical emergencies from broken bones to mysterious stomach bugs. I’ve even found myself on the African island of Zanzibar orchestrating an emergency student evacuation that relied on boats, airplanes and the kindness of more than a few strangers.
While the technical skills and medical response training required for these situations can’t be overstated, the reality is those skills alone were never enough. What has really made the difference in any emergency situation are two things: a highly tuned emotional barometer and my judgment. Because, of course, none of these situations were happening in a vacuum. While working diligently to triangulate our location on the map, I also had to attend to the physical and emotional needs of the students, not to mention my own rising anxieties (because, seriously, where are we?). While assessing the injuries of the student who had slipped and hurt his arm, I also had to consider the rest of the crew who was now sitting and waiting in the cold rain. What did they need to stay safe?
It is this ability to simultaneously and accurately prioritize critical issues that has directly served me well when producing complex events. And having honed this skill in such a high-stakes industry has provided me with a level of confidence, empathy and calm that I bring to each event we produce.
This is an extremely turbulent time to be in the events industry. For me, there have been two risk assessment concepts from my outdoor education days that have continued to guide me through it all.
The first is weighing the probability of risk vs. the severity of consequences. Imagine you are planning an outdoor event and considering whether or not to invest in a rain plan tent. How likely is it to rain on your event day? (Hint: this is Michigan, folks). And if it were to rain without a tent, how severely would your event be affected? This is a fairly straightforward example, but we come across the need to weigh risks throughout the planning process, particularly as we support clients as they navigate the ever-changing COVID pandemic. Last summer, we worked with clients to reimagine what was originally designed as a 200-plus guest, gala-style event to an intimate dinner party for 30 VIPs. The additional guests were invited in waves for a socially distanced cocktail-style reception.
The second risk management perspective that I continue to both rely on and develop is my judgment. Judgment is not merely common sense; it is the ability to apply learning from past experiences to come to conclusions about a new situation. And to develop it requires not only experience but the willingness, ability and, frankly, humility to process those experiences.
After each event, we connect with clients to debrief and listen to their feedback (I’m certain that if you are a current client, you are the benefactor of some of these sessions!). We touch base with creative partners to unpack what worked, what didn’t and what we could all do more effectively moving forward. We’ve learned so much from this feedback over the years and implemented changes ranging from big-picture processes like the style of oversight we bring to a production site all the way down to the smallest details, like the amount of hands-on support we provide to clients on the day of their events.
I can think of a million ways that producing an Outward Bound course is vastly different than producing an event. And yet, I continually find new ways to apply learnings from that world to produce the most intentional, safe and meaningful experiences for my clients and their guests. If you still don’t believe me, I’ll gladly show you our emergency supply kit.