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Be Ready for Anything

The Sports, Entertainment, Event — Management (SEEM) Leadership Conference tasks students with rigors of the event planning they hope to do post-graduation. One of the key lessons learned? Be ready for anything.

THE STUDENT PLANNING COMMITTEE has met weekly for months, listing possible speakers, negotiating sponsorships, recruiting volunteers and triple checking every detail to make sure that the third annual SEEM Leadership Conference at the Providence Campus is a wild success. They have partnered with stakeholders inside and outside of Johnson & Wales University — collaborating with administrators and staff, brainstorming menus with culinary students, and engaging alums and industry leaders as panelists and keynote speakers. They’ve packed goodie bags and surveyed every inch of the venue. Suddenly, the day has arrived.

An hour before the events start, the hustle and bustle of students outside of the Xavier Academic Complex has already begun. Planning committee members like Zoey Hall '18 stand smiling at the parking garage exit with dozens of lanyards looped around their arms like garlands. They greet their guests and walk them to check-in.

The first of the day’s events is a networking breakfast, where students and speakers cluster around tables. Their conversations are an eager exchange: alums ask about classes, professors and construction on campus, while students give them the scoop and ask for insider industry tips. From the first event of the day, the conference succeeds in its goal of uniting new and emerging leaders in the field.

THE SEEM LEADERSHIP CONFERENCE is a rare event in higher education: a large-scale conference that is solely planned and executed by students. Associate Professor Patrick Leary conceptualized the event several years ago as a way to integrate the SEEM major with the experiential learning principles at the heart of JWU. He envisioned an event that would be researched, planned, implemented and evaluated by a team of students participating in Directed Experiential Education (DEE).

The resulting DEE course is 11 weeks long, worth 4.5 credits and capped at 10 students. Enrolled students meet weekly. A full-time student intern works closely with Leary to oversee the planning process. In addition to those enrolled, others apply to volunteer as student ambassadors on the day of the conference.

The entire SEEM community has embraced Leary’s bold vision — in each of its 3 years, the conference has expanded to offer more sessions and panelists. Although currently the event is geared to JWU students, Leary’s goal is to build a conference that draws attendees from outside of JWU. During the past few years, he and his students have worked to iron out logistical challenges such as parking, securing sponsors and following university protocols.

“The biggest lesson learned is that you can’t do this on your own,” commented Leary. “A group of 10-plus students on a planning committee have a vision, but that vision can’t be realized without the help of an army of people on campus.” Although that army is largely invisible on conference day, their efforts show in the success of each event.

The biggest lesson learned is that you can’t do this on your own. A group of 10-plus students on a planning committee have a vision, but that vision can’t be realized without the help of an army of people on campus. ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR PATRICK LEARY

Ready, Set, Pitch

AS BREAKFAST WINDS DOWN attendees make their way to a nearly packed auditorium. They skim the conference agenda and sift through the bags they received as they entered, finding sunglasses, notebooks, mints and pens. Just before the morning keynote address, a fleet of students in suits power-walks down the aisle. They scan the room and step backstage to greet the speaker. With the nod of one head, introductions are made, and Dusty Rhodes, president of Conventures Inc., steps on stage. An industry leader with more than 30 years of event planning experience, she knows the lay of the land.

She begins by congratulating student planners and admitting that she may have underestimated their sophistication when she created her presentation. However, like any true event planner, she’s ready for anything. She scraps her prepared talking points and tells them about the 14 building blocks of event planning and management, stopping to share photos and stories of successes and challenges. If her event-planning essentials were a checklist, JWU students would have marked every box.

As the Q&A begins, student planners gather with culinary students inside Bistro 61, the university’s student-run café, to review the menu and check each table setting. The hallways are a hive of excitement. Some attendees file toward a networking luncheon. Others pace nervously, mouthing words of the speeches they have prepared for the Elevator Pitch Competition. Inside the auditorium, a conference planner requests more competitors in two of the categories, and without hesitation, student planner Jordan Lacey '17 volunteers.

THE ELEVATOR PITCH COMPETITION consists of 3 categories — sports, entertainment and event management. Shortly before the competition, entrants received a job description and were asked to create a short speech to convince the judges they’d be a good fit. After an initial round, the judges select 3 from each category to compete in the final round.

The field of competitors is somewhat uneven. While some students struggle to connect their skillsets to the job prompt, others clearly reference the job description and incorporate the judges’ feedback between rounds. Senior Kennedy Lawton’s confidence and likeability stand out as she makes a strong enough pitch that lands her a place in the final round of the sports category and a chance at a sponsor-donated gift basket. The next round is entertainment and includes Lacey, who wows everyone with calm self-assuredness, made even more impressive by the fact that she volunteered only moments prior. When she finishes, the audience claps and one student shouts, “That’s my girl!”

Lacey is no stranger to networking at the event. During her first year at JWU, she was a liaison to keynote Cher Przelomski, founder and CEO of the Planning Factory, an event planning firm. Przelomski learned about Light the Candle, the nonprofit that Lacey founded at age 17 to help foster children in her community, and was so inspired by Lacey’s initiative that she offered to mentor her and donate to the cause. Months later, she brought Lacey and her mother to Delaware.

“She set up a panel with two of her friends who run their own nonprofits so that they could give me advice,” said Lacey. When Lacey received a leadership award, Przelomski surprised her at the ceremony. “She was just really proud of the work I was doing and she still mentors me today.”



Make Your Own Breaks

AT THE TWO PANELS that bookend the competition — one composed of industry leaders, the other of recent alumni — students have additional networking opportunities. Both panels dispense career advice. Professionals such as Mia Hall (public speaker and career transition consultant, Mia Hall 19 Inc.) advise the audience to have “verve and vigor,” and to look both vertically and horizontally for mentors. Ian Noble (senior producer, Metropolitan Entertainment) and Megan Duclos (senior manager of corporate events, Alex & Ani LLC) emphasize the importance of making the most of one’s position, even if it’s entry level.

Alumni panelists share the life experiences that led them to this industry, from planning homecoming dances to playing the Madden videogame franchise. When Brittany Abber '14 (touring and events coordinator for Columbia Records, where she interned while at JWU) shares a scheduling error she made during Adele’s recent tour, the audience collectively gasps. Everyone visibly relaxes as she shares how she solved the problem and assures them that it’s okay to make mistakes so long as one learns from them. Afterwards, students like Allyson Jennings ’17 praise the alumni panelists for proving that “all of your hard work, money and everything that you are putting into this institution can get you somewhere.”

THE DAY CLOSES with Jeff Mann, general manager at Live Nation, an international concert and entertainment-show promoter, who talks about an early internship at TD Garden, where his boss gave him what he thought was a ridiculous assignment. They were replacing the arena’s floor and he was asked to create a plan for turning a profit on the old, worn parquet tiles.

Mann identified tiles where the Celtics had executed historically key plays and devised a plan for framing and selling the tiles to fans. It was a huge success that led to advancement in his career. For this reason, he advises young professionals to “make your own breaks.”

After Mann’s speech, the conference planners adjourn for the day. Once the auditorium empties, they change shoes, trading high heels and leather oxfords for tennis shoes and soft loafers. With comfy shoes and smiles, they begin to break down the event and discuss the day’s successes.

Zoey Hall, the student who greeted attendees in the parking lot, admits to losing sleep the night before, worrying about whether or not people would come. “It made me feel proud of myself and the people I worked with on this,” she says. “To see it all come together and have a general manager of a huge company say, ‘I was really impressed by everything you guys did today’ was really emotional.”

The planners head to an evening networking event at the Harborside Campus. There, in a room that overlooks the Providence River, planning committee members and student ambassadors network in earnest with speakers, faculty and staff. Gulls float on the the tidal river as business cards and handshakes are exchanged. Slowly, the sun sets on the water and the day in an orange and purple light show, heralding the successes of students with a well-made plan and a school that trusts their vision.

Student planner Paige Zuber '19 kicks off the elevator pitch competition.

Patrick Leary, Maria Kanellis-Bennett '17, Alycia Kasperitis '17 and Cassandra Tondreault '18

Alumni panelists offer career advice at the SEEM Leadership Conference.

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