Event Planning: My MacGyver Moments

In my current search for a position here in Silicon Valley, I’m doing a lot of research about how to be better than every other candidate in the job pool for a position with the big players, Google, LinkedIn, Amazon.com and Apple.  Every LinkedIn comment, tweet, blog post and cover letter has to be perfect. “Kelsey Leighton” on every single social networking site has to be reaching out, connecting and presenting the best qualities for a chance at connecting with the right person to get my foot in the door at a great company.  This, is exhausting- but fun.  To add some levity, I’m taking a witty approach to analyzing my job interview performance.

Everyone knows the interview question “Tell me a time when you faced a challenge. How did you react and what was the result?” What they are really asking is: “Tell me a time when you did something obscure and unconventional when you had no resources at all that was successful and ended with you crowd surfing and people cheering for you?” This sounds like a MacGyver moment.

With almost 4 years of event planning experience, I’ve accrued some true “MacGyver” moments to answer the above interview question.

Howe Hall

  1. The Fire Evacuation

I enjoy shadowing the director of an FLL Championship at Iowa State University in Howe Hall Atrium (see photo) for over 3,000 youth, coaches and parents.  The kids were on the ground floor doing competitions, while the attendees were distributed among the higher floors watching the competition. Suddenly, the fire alarm goes off.  I’m standing next to the MC and he’s asking me what to do.  WHAT ARE WE SUPPOSED TO DO?! I didn’t read that part in my volunteering materials.  I say- “let’s get everybody out.”  The MC starts yelling into the into the mic: “EVERYONE- THIS IS NOT A DRILL- EVACUATE!”

Now, imagine telling frantic parents to leave their children and go outside in  January Iowa weather (20 F). Not easy. I had to improvise and ran to the nearest exit and told anyone and everyone who was there that they NEEDED to get out. NOW.  Mothers, coaches, dads saying “Oh, I’m trying to text my kid blah blah” Needless to say I had to be authoritative in a time when I really had no idea if this was the right thing to do, or how to do it. Whew- good thing it was a false alarm.

It turns out that if we had not evacuated, the event could have faced charges from law enforcement.  The next year I volunteered, the fire alarm was pulled in the same building. This time, instead of squabbling with saying “please….sir….please…. can you please walk this way out of the building” and getting little to no response, I just said “EVACUATE. THIS WAY. NOW.”

Lesson learned: Always err on the side of the law with events. Better safe than sorry.

2. The Chocolate Fountain

During my role with Bickford Assisted Living in Ames, I was responsible for planning and managing all large events.  One of the biggest events is the holiday party.  If you aren’t from the midwest, you should know that especially for older folks the holidays are a big deal.  The night of the big holiday party at Bickford we were expecting over 130 people in 3 smaller community rooms.  A part of this was a chocolate fountain that had been a huge hit at the November event which people were anxiously awaiting for the holiday party.  During set-up before the event Zach, the cook preparing the food popped his head around the corner to mention:

Bickford 2011 Holiday Potluck

“Kelsey, ummm the chocolate fountain caught on fire. No big deal. I put it out. But no fountain tonight.”

What? We quickly came up with an idea and had the table that was supposed to display the fountain become a Paula-Deen-like holiday display of delicious cookie treats and hoped that people would be so full on the meal they might forget the absence of the centerpiece. It worked! Whew.

Lesson Learned: Heat up chocolate chips before putting them into a chocolate fountain.

3. Closets Collide

While attending Iowa State University I created a student organization, Closets Collide which hosts clothing swaps and donates the extra clothing to local organizations in need.  The inspiration came from an English project and materialized when I decided to take the project outside the classroom- what would happen if I actually planned a clothing swap?

After weeks of planning, publicizing and recruiting volunteers the day came for the clothing swap at a little pizza joint in January 2010. About 30 people RSVP’ed for the Facebook event, so I was expecting a little more than 20.  Before the actual start time of the event, a few people came to donate clothing and get tickets for the exchange. (1 ticket=1 item of clothing) But people weren’t brining a few shirts, these were huge garbage bags full of clothing. And before I knew it-it wasn’t a few Facebook friends- the line to get into the swap had filled the restaurant to capacity and out the door. We had over 250 people attend the event that day.

So, what happend? Instead of having everyone in the swap area at once, we started to split people into groups of 10 and let them browse for 15 minutes and then they could either get back in line or just grab what they could.  Then, volunteers (Apparel Merchandising Students) had 5 minutes to reorganize the swap area before the next wave. I had to make sure all the volunteers were on the same page and the attendees still had a good time.  It was a black friday-sized sale in a small pizza shop.  But, in the end everyone benefited! We took 4 truck loads of clothing to a local church to donate to families in need.  Closets Collide continues today as a student-led organization at Iowa State University.

Lesson Learned: Be ready to change your entire game plan. Quickly. Be confident in your choices, you made them with all the information you had at that point in time.


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