Wavemakers Q&A: Jonnell Gailey

By Rafael Samano

Creating an unforgettable event is kind of like making magic and in the competitive world of meeting planning, Jonnell Gailey is a veritable magician. A passionate event manager with more than 20 years of experience, Jonnell holds both the Certified Meeting Professional and Certified Incentive Specialist designations. Her knowledge and expertise cover a wide spectrum of events, including: large conventions; corporate employee meetings, educational, executive and top sales professional summits; team-building functions; and special gatherings for 10 to 10,000 people. 

This week, we talked to Jonnell for a Wavemakers Q&A about her event-management approach, the state of the live events industry, and what’s changed in 2020.

You’ve managed events for Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices and Disneyland, and even co-owned and operated your own company, Events Redefined. Looking back on all you’ve done, what would you say was a defining moment in your career that continues to influence the work you do today?

I actually grew up in the event industry. My hero and mentor (my mother), owned and operated the largest professional skin care trade show and educational event in the world - The International Esthetics, Cosmetics, & Spa Conference. I started my career at that conference and became fully immersed in large-scale conventions, meetings and event planning. When I left that event, IECSC had more than 50,000 attendees, 1,600 booth spaces, and 250 educational presentations over the course of a three-day event. 

After being in the industry for 20+ years, I can’t pinpoint one defining moment or thing that pivoted my career because I took away something from each opportunity. Whether it was co-owning a successful wedding event planning business or working for major companies such as Disney and Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices, every experience taught me a different but valuable industry skill and lesson. What I can say is this: I’ve been surrounded by incredibly smart, strong and motivated female leadership and colleagues. I’ve learned that this industry is about building long-lasting relationships and working with passion. I’ve come to understand this industry is not for the faint of heart; the work is hard and stressful. It takes dedication, patience, creativity, and drive … but goddamn it is the best job in the world. 

This year has seen countless events cancelled, postponed or heavily modified because of the COVID-19 pandemic. As someone with a great deal of personal and professional experience in event planning and production,what was it like facing such a massive paradigm shift at the start of the year? How do you even begin to meet that challenge?

Events are always throwing you curveballs - from hurricanes to 7.5 earthquakes to loss of AC in Las Vegas mid-July to no-show speakers to disgruntled attendees to stitches after a mainstage presentation (and believe me I could go on) ... I would have to say that Covid has been one of the most interesting challenges yet! “Adapt and overcome” is every event planner’s mantra. This year event professionals had to make the choice to cancel, go fully virtual or reschedule in-person events as far out as 2021. The most successful companies able to immediately embrace the virtual pivot were the ones that already had fully virtual programs or hybrid components within their in-person events. These organizations had a strong production company behind them with the ability to provide high-quality digital experiences and engage their audience. They also hired planners who were eagerly waiting for a chance to add this component to their in-person events anyway.

What changes to the industry have you noticed during Covid?

One of the most important observations since Covid is that education and training must continue under any circumstance. Networking is essential, and in-person events are the most impactful way to combine those opportunities for any organization. Our society was accustomed to face-to-face meetings, and as we start to see the live components of an event make a slow comeback, we also have now recognized the virtual components are just as important for any event to capture new audiences and expand engagement opportunities. Hybrid events were a luxury pre-Covid, now they are essential. Hybrid elements are actually expected for any event moving forward. Organizations recognize the importance of engaging an online audience and providing on-demand functionality.

What are the key aspects of putting on a successful hybrid event?

Hire the right production company with team members who are creative and capable of delivering high-quality digital experiences for a hybrid event. Next, build your virtual offerings to encourage maximum engagement for both the online audience as well as the live attendees. Lastly, adjust your content to match the needs of both audiences and provide impactful and lasting impressions. With everything you do, make sure you have the full support of your stakeholders and clients.

What would you say are some of the most common yet easily avoidable mistakes that people make when trying to put on hybrid production events?

  1. Don’t make it more complicated than it needs to be. Being creative is different from being complex. 
  2. Know your stakeholders and audience objectives and build a program that offers engagement and excitement while fully meeting your attendees’ specific needs.
  3. Engage your online attendees; make them feel like they are part of the event. You have 30 seconds to capture the virtual attendees’ attention before they decide to start checking emails and social media. Make them feel “seen.”
  4. Make sure your microsite easily integrates with your mobile apps, website, and registration system(s). It must be user friendly and esthetically pleasing visually.
  5. Vet your suppliers and make sure they fully understand your goals and objectives and have the ability to deliver the type of hybrid event you envision.

In the future, what do you see as the longer-term effects on the popularity and pervasiveness of hybrid and virtual events?

Hybrid is here to stay and the current pandemic has opened the doors for stakeholders to see the importance of hybrid components. Virtual offerings allow for flexibility among an organization's network, marketability of the live events and generating that all-important FOMO. Virtual event components can also increase attendance numbers, add an additional revenue stream, expand sponsorship opportunities, and facilitate engagement among audience members who would not have otherwise attended. 

What advice would you give to someone trying to start an event production career right now?

At this very moment our industry is making a slow comeback. The best way to get started is to roll up your sleeves and jump right in. Event production, festival programming and hospitality are common majors in colleges now and there are so many avenues for events and meetings. Start investing time in professional organizations like MPI, the Event Industry Council or PCMA. Take classes and find industry network opportunities. Volunteer, intern with production companies, apply for positions at hotels. And while I proudly boast that this is the best industry in the world and has its glamorous moments - it is also extremely stressful and hard, it requires long hours, sweat, and sometimes tears. It is a sink or swim profession and you just have to dive in and make it happen.

What’s on the horizon for you? 

I am constantly looking to push myself and adapt to the changes of the industry. Pushing myself creatively and becoming a leader in the digital event space is at the forefront of my career path and the future's looking bright.

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