“I definitely think that sometimes we don’t trust the interns,” said Liz King, CEO of Liz King Events as well as the techsytalk event-technology platform. “So many people hire interns and then let them stand around at an event. They’re overstaffed because they hired people they feel like they can trust, and then they have all these extra interns that are just running around.”
In 2014, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicted a 10-percent increase in the number of meeting-and-event-planning jobs by 2024. “According to the Harvard Business Review, one of the biggest concerns for CEOs of the Fortune 100 companies is talent,” said Cynthia Vannucci, Ph.D., CHME, CHSP, CMP, CHE, who in addition to teaching classes at Metropolitan State University of Denver, serves as a faculty adviser for the school’s hospitality, tourism, and events management department. “Internships are a way for students to be able to demonstrate talent, gain experience, and learn new skill sets.”
If you want to retain the best talent as the industry grows, start now by not only recruiting and hiring the best interns, but also helping them reach their full potential within your organization.
THE DEEP END
A successful internship exposes the student to a wide range of industry-specific experiences. “We really try to spend some time teaching them about the entire process,” King said. “We loop them into all of the main communication. Then we try to give them ownership of a project. It could be managing speakers. It could be making sure that all of the sponsor needs are met. Whatever it is that they’ve been committed to, we would walk them through every step of it. We want them to walk away feeling like they’ve gotten to really go deep in an area or two, but that they also understand how what they’ve done fits in to the bigger picture.”
King stresses the importance of building on what your interns are learning in school by throwing them in to the deep end. “They might learn in the classroom about how a communications plan comes together, but that obviously is different client to client,” she said. “In the real world, just because we think that something’s a best practice, it doesn’t necessarily mean that our clients agree that it should be done that way. So the interns should learn how you negotiate that type of situation.”
Peggy Marilley, founder of Alexandria, Virginia–based Precision Meetings & Events, thinks working with students keeps her ahead of the curve. “At this point in my career, bringing interns into my organization keeps me on the cutting edge,” Marilley said. “I know how these young people are thinking, and how we will be doing business in the future. I always learn from them.”
Marilley gives every intern a roadmap for their tenure at her company. “Create a valuable experience. Have a plan. Know what four weeks, eight weeks, and 12 weeks are going to look like,” Marilley said. “I put that plan together so that it’s very clear and it’s not just going to be a daily task where the student or the intern would become bored. I think they need to be energized and really inspired.”
With the number of academic programs built around meetings and events on the rise, the intern pipeline has never been more robust. That’s created a sort of “town and gown” relationship between meetings industry organizations and colleges and universities. “We have given them the competencies in school. We have given them the theoretical foundation,” said Godwin-Charles A. Ogbeide, Ph.D., an associate professor of hospitality management at the University of Arkansas, who both advises students on internships and helps meeting-planning organizations design well-rounded programs for them. His students are required to plan at least two events before graduation as part of their classwork.
Ogbeide has seen firsthand how poorly designed internships can backfire. He’s heard from students that they don’t have enough work to do, or are stuck pouring coffee or cleaning the bathroom. “[These are] things that are not relevant to what they expect to be doing as an intern or as a future manager or director,” he said. “It would be nice for those who really need interns to really need interns.”
He stresses the importance of making each internship challenging. “When we send our students out there, they are ready,” Ogbeide said. “You test them, see how good they are in some of the things that you expect them to be able to do, then you know they’re ready. You know their strengths and weaknesses, and you can base the task you assigned to them around their strengths and weaknesses…. If your internship is three months or six months, these various competency areas and skill sets can be spread around those months, so that the student will have a hand in as many as possible areas that he or she needs to be able to do confidently before completing the internship and moving to the real world.”
But it can be rare to find an internship that’s so well thought out. “Many universities do not have a culture for students to do internships,” Vannucci said. “I’ve done comparative studies of 14 other universities that have hospitality programs with event-planning tracks or some event-planning classes. Internships are lacking, and if students don’t have to take an internship they won’t, because for many internships — and in our industry in particular — it’s a 10-hour-a-week commitment.”
Vannucci thinks that building an internship around competencies rather than specific tasks is the key to ensuring a good experience for both the student and the employer. She herself turned to the Convention Industry Council’s CMP International Standards handbook to get a sense of the components needed for a comprehensive on-the-job learning experience for her students. “I did what any scholar would do,” Vannucci said. “I looked at the table of contents, flipped over, then thought, Okay, this is what my students need to know.” Vannucci encourages event planners to take the same approach. “Of the 27 competencies listed in CIC’s handbook, it could be site inspection, contract negotiation, promotions, and publicity. It could be programming. It could be room setup, or audiovisual.
“If somebody is going to be there [at an internship] for 15 weeks and it’s 150 hours,” Vannucci said, “I often say to the sponsoring agency that I speak with, or to the students who I am talking with, so that they can go in with a better mental picture of what they hope to accomplish in those 15 weeks: ‘Look, here are a wide variety of competencies. Why don’t we focus on the area that you may have some knowledge base to improve upon? Then choose two others that you’d like some exposure to that will round out your education. That will give you 50 hours, let’s say, reviewing contracts with your supervisor, or that will give you 50 hours of on-site logistics with your supervisor, or it could give you 50 hours on sourcing without your supervisor.’
“This way, they have assigned tasks, instead of showing up and saying, ‘What am I going to do today?’” Vannucci said. “We know your resources are stretched, but how can you do what you’re doing better with the same amount of effort? The answer is by being more individualized, by really taking a hard look at what you’re having these students do. I think people don’t get organized upfront, and then it’s too late.”
She suggests that planners who are looking to create internship programs either consult with a professor or turn directly to the CIC handbook. “It’s a great framework,” she said. “It’s not overly complicated. It gives a lot of room for individualization, based on what the firm does and what the student wants to do.”
10 Essential Experiences for Interns
1. THE 36,000-FOOT VIEW
Liz King focuses on giving her interns wide exposure to the meetings industry as a whole. “Make sure that they have experience with different types of events,” she said, “and different stages of the event-planning process.”
2. A TYPICAL DAY ON THE JOB
Peggy Marilley makes sure that interns get on-site experience. “Maybe we stand at the table and we count all the chairs,” she said. “We count all the plates. We count all the glasses and I explain why, so then they pick that up and then they finish the task.”
3. WORKING WITH STAKEHOLDERS
“They need to be able to work with both internal and external stakeholders in order to ensure a successful event,” said Godwin-Charles A. Ogbeide, Ph.D. “The sponsors can make or break your event.”
4. THE EVENT LIFE CYCLE
“Ideally, the internship involves starting at the very beginning of a meeting or an event,” Marilley said, “and participating in the process all the way up to writing thank-you notes to vendors and clients, to making sure that everything’s in order for the final invoice.”
5. THE ART OF THE DEAL
Ogbeide sees negotiation experience as essential. “They have to be able to manage a contract,” he said, “depending on the kind of meeting they’re having.”
6. RISK MANAGEMENT
Ogbeide wants his students to learn to mitigate risk as it applies to meetings and events. “The day of an event they need risk-management skills,” he said. “How do you identify a risk?”
7. GRACE UNDER PRESSURE
“I really like to push them in regards to timing,” King said. “We know that we all work evenings and weekends, and obviously when we’re paying them by the hour we’re committed to them working a certain number of hours. But we try to push them a little bit past those hours, just to see how they handle working in a very fast-paced industry like ours. Obviously they’re not working until midnight, but we might push their hours at the last second, because we need to see how they handle that.”
King makes sure her interns have many opportunities to perfect their networking skills. “We really spend some time helping them figure out how best to network, how to follow up with people,” she said, “and how to create meaningful relationships with people.”
“You need to have some financial-management skills,” Ogbeide said. “Asking, for example, what are we going to charge for a registration fee if we’re going to charge people for this event?” Students should also learn about the details of managing event funds. “What about control of the money we’re collecting?” Ogbeide said. “Where is it going to be deposited? Who’s in charge of it?”
10. EVENT MARKETING
Ogbeide also wants his students to understand the essentials of reaching out to attendees and potential attendees. “How do you market this event?” he said. “Who is going to come? Who is your target market? How are you going to reach them? How are you going to manage your communication channels? How many communication channels are you going to use to reach your different market sets?”
PAY IT FORWARD
Both literally and figuratively, you need to pay interns — but that’s not necessarily intuitive for the industry. “Our business doesn’t budget for interns,” Vannucci said. “In other words, what they want is volunteer labor in most cases, couched in the idea that the students will get great experience.”
“I’m a really big believer that all internships should be paid,” King said. “There’s also a benefit from an industry perspective. Eventually these students go out, they get jobs, they’re working in various companies, and they become allies for you in the industry.”
Besides making room in your budget for interns, designing a well-rounded program will help you attract the best talent. “In regards to my program, we have some great opportunities with internships, because our students can affiliate themselves with hotels, restaurants, and event-management companies,” Ogbeide said. “As a result, they are able to get internships easily. Students will apply for an internship because it offers exactly the competencies they want, or vice versa. Our students can have the competencies, apply to an organization, and they just work together. And a good internship is always accompanied by an evaluation from the direct supervisor.”
Talk to your interns about what they’d like to be doing 10 years down the road, and work backward. “Let’s assume you want to be an event coordinator or director of events,” Ogbeide said. “There are so many industry competencies that a director of events must have. If that is your goal in the future, your internship should include some of those competencies. If those competencies include budgeting, your internship should touch on budgeting.”
Giving your interns a seat at the table will pay off for years to come. “I have really been blessed with amazing people that have worked with me,” Marilley said. “They’ve worked hard. They’ve had a great work ethic. Probably the biggest thing that I see is they move on to other opportunities. I often refer to this company as graduate school. They come here and then learn a lot, and people steal them away from me, which is good.”
Managing the Internship Process
Two event planners and a hospitality professor share their advice for managing the internship process from start to finish.
RESEARCH THE LEGALITIES “It was a bigger experience than I thought it would be to start off. Just managing W2s and payrolls and insurances and things like that,” said Liz King, CEO of Liz King Events. “From a business perspective, it was more complex than I thought it was going to be. Be very conscious of what is necessary legally to have interns.”
GET ACADEMIC ADVICE “One thing the planner can do is communicate with the faculty, and they do a lot of that with us here,” said University of Arkansas professor Godwin-Charles A. Ogbeide, Ph.D. “They call us and say, ‘We need an intern. Our intern will need to be able to do this, this, and that.’ If they tell us what they need, then we will tell them what we want our intern to be able to accomplish before the completion of their internship.”
ADVERTISE Precision Meetings & Events’ Peggy Marilley begins her intern search by reaching out directly to hospitality programs. “We list opportunities with the local schools in close proximity of our summer programs, like East Carolina University, James Madison University, and the University of Delaware,” she said. “The professors know us and know me.” Similarly, King has found many interns simply by word of mouth. “A lot of times,” she said, “we’re interacting with students at either networking events or if they attend our events.”
INTERVIEW CANDIDATES “We’re looking for people who we think are going to actually contribute to the industry in the long term,” King said. “It’s a little bit harder for us to justify spending all of our resources training someone who said, ‘Well, I’m not sure if I want to do events or these 10 other things, so I just figured I’d get some experience.’”
ONBOARD YOUR INTERN “I want to have a plan, define their role, establish the expectations, and discuss goals,” Marilley said. “What does the end of the internship look like for them? What do they want it to look like?”
SCHEDULE FORMAL REVIEWS “We do an evaluation at the middle of the internship and we do one at the end of the internship to see if that student is actually learning or able to do what he or she is supposed to do,” Ogbeide said. “At the end of the internship, we want to see if there’s an area of improvement or if there is an area that needs improvement.”
STAY IN TOUCH “A lot of my interns I’ve hired full time once they graduate,” Marilley said, “because they’ve had a good experience and they want to come back, they want to be in this environment.”
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› “Best Practices for Employers With Interns,” an article and video from About.com.
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