“Do you want round tables?” the janitor asked.
My first thought was “Does it matter?” but Charissa Bowditch, program coordinator for the Department of Continuing Education, treated the question seriously.
“Can I look and see?” she said.
We look in on a meeting room for the speakers of a conference, and Bowditch quickly scrutinized the room and affirmed that no, the rectangular tables currently in the room will suffice.
Such minutiae are beyond trivial for a normal person’s everyday life, but an event planner needs total awareness of every little detail. Event planning is a lot like football. Months and months of planning are stuffed into a few short moments of controlled chaos.
Have you ever been to a conference and wondered where those programs came from, or how the speakers and audience knew where to show up at in order to discuss technical topics like advanced microbiology research? Somebody like Bowditch is behind every one of those details, and if she does her job right, you probably won’t even notice that she is there.
About 150 people attended the Kansas Grasslands Symposium on the day I chose to shadow Bowditch. The conference meetings were located in Forum Hall, and I arrived during a lull in the lectures when all the biologists were gathered in the K-State Student Union Courtyard for a coffee break. I found her after searching the area for about five minutes, but when she finally found me I realized why she was absent. Event planners are the busiest during breaks, monitoring staff members and the refreshments to make sure nothing is wrong.
Bowditch’s persistently positive attitude and high level of energy seem impossible to maintain for an entire day, but she enjoys the job.
“I’m upbeat at the event because it’s the best part,” Bowditch said. “You prepare and prepare and prepare and all the work you do comes to fruition. I’m a people person so it’s exciting, and even if there’s a problem it’s exciting because you get to fix it.”
Bowditch has been at K-State for two years, but she started event planning in college, helping organize concerts for the University of Montana’s student group similar to the Union Program Council at K-State. Her degree is in dance, and health and human performance.
About a year of planning will go into an event before it actually happens, and a typical program coordinator in the department of continuing education will organize 25 to 30 events a year. The coordinators find sponsors, create a program, organize travel and hotel preparations for speakers, develop a marketing plan and even hire caterers. Bowditch said the busiest period is three months before an event happens, but the planning starts getting busy nine months out. Planning responsibilities do not end once the event finishes, though. The coordinators will not close all the financial accounts till three months after the event ends.
Bowditch emphasized her role as an enabler for her clients.
“Basically a group comes to us; they have a sponsor who’s our point of contact, and they create a vision of what they want and we make sure it happens,” Bowditch said. “We guide them if they want to market, and what type of venue they want.”
As the attendees headed back into Forum Hall, I sat with Bowditch at the registration table and peppered her with questions. She is an accomplished multi-tasker who stays busy by replying to emails, checking her schedule, recycling conference badges and returning lost and found property to the attendees.
It is hard to overemphasize how much work really goes into every little part of an event planner’s job that people barely notice. The program for the conference went through seven drafts before it was finalized. A picnic was scheduled the night before at the Konza Prairie for the biologists, and Bowditch had to monitor the weather, find transportation for the group and have a back-up plan in case things went wrong.
While the lecture went on, Bowditch walked over to the K-State Alumni Center to check on the catering. Once we entered the building, she changed some signs and started folding up some standing, rollable poster boards. It was almost comical watching her pack the 25-foot-long boards, but after she finished and ensured the food would be ready in time, she found some presentations left by a few of the researchers at the symposium. Bowditch left them, but she will be back to make sure they are returned to their proper owners. Event planners are always busy while those who benefit are oblivious. On the day of a conference, Bowditch might arrive as early as 7 a.m. and stay until 9 p.m.
“It takes a lot of behind-the-scenes work,” Bowditch said. “If the conference goes smoothly they don’t think about it, but when it goes wrong they’re like ‘What happened, who’s responsible?’ They don’t realize how good an event is ‘til something goes wrong.”
Bowditch is one of the quickest walkers I have ever been around, but she has to be fast if things are going to turn out as planned. After the biologists returned to the symposium, Bowditch checked three times on a room in which the conference speakers will be meeting. She wanted to know that the group previously in there had left on schedule and that the tables were set up. The prior group ran late, but she took it in stride.
At the registration desk as the participants left, she went into Forum Hall three times after the lectures ended. At first, I confused this checking and rechecking for an obsessive compulsion, but there is an exact science behind this behavior. The first time was immediately after the speaker finishes, and she scanned for left behinds and to ensure the microphones are not accidentally taken. Bowditch later entered Forum Hall again to give money to a man who was selling earthy mugs at the registration table, and she went in a final time to check on the lingerers.
“I don’t want to rush people out, but I want to make sure the group is moving,” Bowditch said.
The Department of Continuing Education organizes events as far away as Baltimore, Md., and Portland, Ore., as long as a K-State faculty member is involved. Bowditch has conferences focused on things like mammals and education coming up in the next year, but she is just one of five planners housed by the department.
They may not be noticed, but even planners ensure over 100 events in any given year will be realized, while enabling faculty to fulfill their educational goals.
“The way I look at it is if they’re happy, I’m happy,” Bowditch said.