“Most people tend to fall into this industry” – an interview with Laura Capell

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This is a new section on my blog where I’ll look to interview people from different sectors of the event industry and throw in the odd tip or two myself.

My first interview is with Laura Capell, who some may know for her writing of “Event Management for Dummies”. Laura has also had an incredible career and was the Managing Director at Sledge a London based events agency, she did this within a few short years of working there. Her impact on the industry also led her to being chosen as number 36 in the Event Top 100 in 2015.

She’s now left Sledge to start up her own venture “No more ifs or buts”. This interview is to talk about her progression in the industry, what she thinks of how it’s changed, what it’s like for new people coming into it and most importantly her newest project.

How long have you been in the events industry?

I have been in it for probably 14 years I think. It’s one of those things where back then I wouldn’t have said that I was, I would have said that I was more marketing. So 10-14 years ago, when I was like this is events. Not marketing.

So what created that distinction for you? Did you want to do it, or did you feel like you had to do it to manage your role?

Kind of a bit of both. I never thought of events as a career and people in the industry who’ve been in it this long would probably say the same thing. Most people tend to fall into this industry, it’s only in the last few years that I’ve actually seen people try and get into with degree courses. I was working at Toyota head office as a part of my degree, where I spent two years working alongside the course. A really intense sandwich year. So when I was at Toyota I was managing all the content on their website, and you can tell how much technology has changed, we were trying to do the press launch for the Prius and so I was sent off to find people on Yahoo groups who were passionate about the car and when I got to the event and saw them there, all these geeky Prius owners, really excited to be invited to this press launch… it was just really nice and that was the day when I wasn’t working in events as such, other than getting people there, was what made me decide I want to be in this. Working on the website wasn’t nearly as rewarding as seeing their faces.

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How did you end up at Sledge?

I worked for a couple of different smaller agencies and I ended up at what was predominantly a PR company, but they had an events team in central London and worked with some really cool brands. I liked the idea of working in events around PR, and these guys were quite fashion orientated and quite trendy. I got there though and I didn’t like it and happened to find this small boutique agency, and at the time I’d done a lot of work on drinks brands, and they had taken on a drinks brand and they asked me to account manage that. However, when I got there the client had taken all the budget for the product out. So I actually ended up working on some gummy bear type sweet that was geared towards 5 year olds, so I was like this is not quite what I was planning but I got a really nice vibe. One of my original account directors when I arrived got into a giggling conversation at the interview and I realised it was a relaxed environment where people really cared about what they were doing. I came across it through recruitment but the people I met were the reason I went this is the company I want to work for.

I couldn’t agree more about working with the right people…

Events are too stressful to work with the wrong people. You spend a lot of intense working hours with people in the events industry, whether it’s flying to different countries or working until 5am or even if it’s just 3 hours but really intense and a lot of things are going wrong, you need to be with the right people. You can’t work with someone you don’t like or respect. It’s important to decide if you genuinely like the people interviewing you. You might not work alongside them every day but if their your senior then they will be the people deciding on the culture. There are too many hours not to like the people.

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So when you found Sledge and realised it was a working culture you wanted to be a part of, did you imagine yourself being there as long as you were and eventually becoming the director?

Well… no. Not a chance. At no point when I was 24/25 did I expect to be at a business for 8 years. I couldn’t imagine anything beyond 6months. So no, I didn’t expect that. It makes me laugh still I stayed there that long. When I was there I was relatively ambitious but without a plan. It didn’t occur to me to imagine being director. However, I was always thinking about moving to the next level and I’d always be thinking about what the next level was but never went past that step. I did think about leaving once or twice and the good thing about working at a company where you like the people meant I was able to have a conversation with the CEO and said “I’m going to be really honest with you, I’m not overly excited here anymore and I feel like I’ve done all of the events before, the clients I’ve worked with before and I’m not learning anything”. He asked what do I want to do and I said “Well to be honest I don’t really know and that’s why I’m talking to you about it. Because I trust you and respect you and I kind of what your advice”, and he basically said how about you running your own business and I quite liked the idea of doing my own stuff but definitely don’t want to do it now in my mid-20’s so he suggested I give running Sledge ago. And it just kind of happened that it timed that the umbrella business wanted to sell the agency back to the people they’d bought it from who were still a part of it and they decide to buy it back to be able to buy it back again. So it kind of just happened that it was the perfect time for that conversation. They wanted a change of direction and there I was stood waiting for a new challenge, understanding of the business and enthusiastic. So they saw that potential.

I think in part I lucked out, I wouldn’t say that it wasn’t related to my skills, because without those as well I wouldn’t have been given the opportunity. Being in the right place and having that conversation went a long way to creating this chance for me. I wouldn’t go back and suggest to myself to plan it. If I’d done that I would have expected it to be twice as long. Had I said back then I want to write a book and become and MD of a company I think I’d have crumbled under the stress. I seized the opportunities that were given to me.

Would you follow the saying that it’s about know the right people and being a voice in the room?

It’s definitely about confidence and knowing the right people, but not networking the hell out of everyone. There are enough people in the industry and actually I don’t think I know enough. I should know way more people in the industry but I think it’s a little bit who you know, but definitely having that confidence. I’ve always been that way at work, not so much the rest of my life, but in my job I always knew I was good at it and so I was confident and it helped me get into the rooms with people high up client side and I gained their respect, because I had the confidence and talked the talked. Which led to these situations where opportunities did unfold. Plans are good and coaching is important, but in some respects your confidence will always help carry you. That means more opportunities.

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Do you feel like all that confidence that you showed helped secure your spot as the 36 out 100 in 2015 for the industry?

Yeah I think it was like being an enthusiastic wannabe. At that time, I was maybe 26 or 27, so you know I was quite young and I think one element of confidence and enthusiasm. But essentially in this situation it’s your company that puts you forward. You’ve got to get your company behind you. If Sledge can say we have this person who had was the winner of this award and she’s ours it reflects well on them. So it’s a case of it was nice, but what I took from it was the company I worked for were really supportive of me and helped get me more known in the industry. If you impress people you work with, they’re going to want you to do well for you but also for them. It’s a win-win situation.

So in terms of networking the right way, what would you suggest?

For people already in their first events job, I’d recommend signing up to venues to go to showcases, it’s fun and it fits in with your personality wise and the invite is based on remembering the venue and them hoping you’ll book it in the future, whereas a business networking event it’ll be too high level and you’ll be the junior person in the room that no one really wants to talk to because actually most people will try and find the decision makers. Finding events that have people at a similar level, then it’s a totally worthwhile thing to do. I think this is how you make friends who work in your industry that in the future you’ll call upon thorough out aspects of your own career. The people I’m working with currently, and that look most promising, are through the people I already knew. It’s being friends with lots of people.

What do you think the biggest misconception is that people have when coming into the events industry?

I think that there are two things. One is the expectation of the events someone wants to organise. They want to organise fashion events or music events, the expectation for the type of event. A lot of that comes down to the company they apply for. You don’t want to do conferences, don’t apply for one that does conferences. There is a misconception around the sexy vs corporate events and until you get into the industry a lot of people don’t realise that actually the corporate stuff can be much cooler. Because actually the corporate companies are the ones who have a bit more money and have that cool new technology or that DJ to come and do the after party. I think another misconception is to into the events industry because your organised. That is not the events industry. Being organised is not enough to succeed in the industry. It’s not really relevant. Communication skills and common sense are way more important. There are careers where you can be more insular but working in events is not one of those, there is no event I know of where you’d be able to do it on your own.

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Do you think having a degree is important for events? Probably more specifically an events management one?

I wouldn’t say it’s important, but I think it helps. I have had people working for me who didn’t have degrees and they were no better nor no worse than people who did have degrees. I think having a degree is good is that one of the things is, so ok my degree was quite intense and really helped me to have a high work capacity. So I got very good at managing my time, stress management, prioritisation and the ability to take on a lot of work. So my degree helped me hone those skills and they are important skills for events, whereas if I hadn’t done my degree if those skills already where there they wouldn’t have been pushed as much as they were. So when I got into the industry I was like you know what I can do this, keep throwing the work on. Whereas, I think some people can struggle but it’s a very different level of work in the industry as opposed to working on a degree. However, whether it matters if it’s an events degree, I’ve not yet seen a degree that is the answer to all people in events. It’s something that is only really coming through in the last 5 years. I know a lot of people used my book and they use it in structuring the course and there are skills to be learnt, but if someone does this degree and expects to understand the events industry fully and then to get a job out of it, I think that could be misunderstood quite a lot. I wouldn’t favour someone with an events management degree over someone with a business degree. Events is after all better learnt on the job.

Speaking of your book, how did writing Event Management for Dummies actually come about?

By me being a little too helpful and not really realising what I was getting myself into. We had the publishers as a client and we did a roadshow for them, nothing to do with event management. One of the clients emailed one day and asked me to chat with a woman on the team that decided on what book is coming up next, they want to do an event management one. So I went for lunch and she was telling me about how the industry works and what who the right people were. It took about 3 meeting before I realised she meant for me to write it. I wanted to help out and that’s what got me there, if you don’t want to help out then you’re not in the right industry anyway. I initially was like no, I haven’t written anything this long since uni and frankly that was not my favourite time, they basically said as well it was like writing ten dissertations. This flew in the face of my skill I’d honed for years to keeping things to 5 bullet points. I don’t need to relearn this. Then I thought this is ridiculous, but I’m being asked to write a book, when am I ever going to get this opportunity again? So no way am I turning this down and it’s an experience. Now I’m really proud of the fact I’ve written a book, because not everyone gets to write one. It was fun and I ended up enjoying the process. It was really based on being friendly and helpful and showing my passion about the industry.

I found it incredibly useful, and when I started I immediately got a suitcase and was like “I need cable ties NOW” not for anything, but just in case.

Bless you. Haha.

How long did it take you to write it?

I fit it in around my life, not the way in a way it took over but in a way that worked best. It took around 5 months. It was fun.

You recommend a couple of websites/apps in the book, what would recommend right now?

I use Evernote but I’m a massive believer in lists and works quite well because I can share it save web pages or PDFs to things. It’s like a written Pinterest. Use something that you’re comfortable with. I’m still a massive fan of writing in my notebook. My day planner is more of a journal of what I need to do each day. For me there isn’t one way, or any really important apps, just what helps you stay on time and reduce your own stress. Social media is great for finding out trends, or maintaining networking, but in terms of practical use apps just pick one you like. But you can’t beat crossing off a list.

What would you say your most memorable event has been and why?

I’ve really had to think about this, there are certain events where I was proud – which is the overarching feeling when I think of events. Like I’ve had event go wrong but we pull it off and I’m like thank god we did that and there are smaller ones where I’ve been proud because they are maybe the first one I’d done on my own for example. The one I’m probably most proud of, and probably because of how difficult it was with the people involved and the situation it was and that was so different to anything I’d ever done, we ran the opening ceremony of the Dubai world cup. So basically I helped with the pitch and I was the lead on it, which I hadn’t done for a couple of year as I’d moved up. It was such a high level project that no one had skills in, so we decided as a management team it wasn’t fair to put any one more junior on there. It naturally ended up I rather take that stress on myself and it was horrifically stressful. It was the first time working with anyone in the Arab nations regarding the cultural differences. From my side and as the event happened and I was in the audience where I could do nothing, we sort of pressed play and everything went, thinking I know this being broadcast and millions of people watching. That for me was a moment where I was really proud that it had come together and it was so hard and I’ll never do anything like that again because I wouldn’t run it a second time. Overcoming things and seeing it all come together which is big reason why people work in events. There are more, too many.

I love that you have that scale of why you were proud of each one, but wow that sounds intense.

It was and events can be, even that Toyota event I was proud because it’s the event that propelled me into this industry even though I just got those people there. I was still massively proud. I like as well that things go wrong all the time in events and that’s life and anyone who does events know that is the case, and dealing with it then and there can be really rewarding but chances are no one but you will notice. It’s one of the most challenging industries, where you have to think on your feet and be vigilant whilst staying calm. I saw that event manager is either the 5th or 6th most stressful job, after things like police offers, pilot etc. It proves people in this industry deal with a lot of crap and people underestimate that. If you really don’t like stress and lose all sense of control, then events aren’t for you.

I know I find stress as a motivation, do you think though that trying to make it less stressful in the build-up helps even if it’s mega stressful, but then a huge success?

You can have an event where you might get that success but actually you are making your life and everyone else’s more complicated and stressful, so I think to enjoy the industry you have to appreciate and try and make that time less stressful. You spend more time planning an event than the actual event itself. After a wild you see more or less most things that go wrong and that experience makes the difference because from that you can see that it won’t happen again. We did a car roadshow and we couldn’t get the cars in because of the weight over the bridge, we checked the weight of the car which is fine but we hadn’t taken into account the truck, we managed to sort it but it didn’t happen again. Time to plan events will get less because you’ll already know all the answers so things will get slicker.

Speaking of things going wrong, what do you thing is the worst thing about the events industry?

I think it’s an amazing industry, there are things that still need to be worked on such as stress management. I’ve seen people go off sick because of this. I think it’s an industry open to caring about staff and it’s not exactly cut throat but more needs to be done regarding the stress. The people that do well are the ones who can manage their stress levels. I don’t think it’s a bad side and it’s still better than other industries. I don’t think there is anything more dramatic than that.

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Do you think the industry has changed quite a lot since you started?

When I started out social media didn’t exist, which makes me feel mega old, so the nature of what’s required at events had changed quite dramatically. Digital is part of an event whether you plan it or not people will be taking picture and using their phones. Budgets have also massively changed and there was a golden era before the recession where people would spend silly amounts of money on stuff and everyone did it. Everyone made good margins at every level and as the recession kicked it the whole industry had to reduce the money they’d make on any job and become more cost aware. Most clients had enough money to spend on whatever. Whereas now I’ll see a brief and have to say it won’t be done for that, you need to change the brief or the budget.

I have to agree with social media, I live for it haha. So your starting up your own thing “No More Ifs or Buts” so tell us more and what the future holds for you?

I realised towards the end of Sledge that the two things I was passionate about making sure were done well were people and processes. Processes are a massive part of running a successful event but also a massive part of running a business and as I’ve alluded to I’m a big believer in making people’s lives easier and making them happier in doing whatever they are doing as well. I got really interested in coaching and the ability to help people achieve goals. I’ve been in this situation where I’d achieved quite a lot quite young and I wanted to help other people do that. Actually, help people who had those things they were aiming for and help them gain the confidence to do it and also manage stress in a way that could be managed out before the need for sick leave or a counsellor. So for me “No more ifs or buts” came out of a focus on wanting people to achieve stuff. Whether it’s a business or a person and a more supportive technique than saying it’ll get better. The people I’m working with at the moment are people in the events industry as they are the people I know but I’m hoping it will expand out, but for now that’s where I’m focusing my time as I know the struggles as a business owner but also as an individual in the industry. I’m really keen to help people realise coaching is as accepting to pay for as a physical trainer because it’s exactly that but for your mental health, everyone should have someone to ask about their career and bounce ideas off.

I think there is a great element to paying someone for that kind of advice as it’s not the same a friend who looks to just be supportive but you also get a measure of constructive criticism that you might need to push you forward. It sounds wonderful and I wish you the best of luck.

Yeah it’s someone your accountable too. Like a personal trainer at the gym, because you’re paying for it and you’re making a commitment to another person who’s going to ask you how it’s going on.

Finally, what is it you do to relax?

Sometimes a lot of gin…. Haha, also just normal life. Going to the pub with friends or phoning someone you’ve not had chance to, realising there is a normal world around me.

 You can find Laura on Twitter here:

@Nomoreifsorbuts

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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