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Building a Future-Ready Event Workforce

Read about the challenges to building a future-ready workforce and tips to strengthen the current work environment according to five industry leaders by Michelle Bruno.

Published by Michelle Bruno in December 2019

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o one knows what the future holds, but technology, workforce diversity (age, gender, experience levels) and the do-more-with-less grind are impacting many industries, including events. Five event-industry stakeholders weigh in on the challenges of building a future-ready workforce. They detail the available resources, current skillsets and where employees and employers need to go from here.

Personal Coach

Lauren LeMunyan, PCC, founder and CEO of The Spitfire Coach, is a certified life and business coach based in Washington, D.C., who spent a good portion of her career working in trade association management. She is the author of two books—Spitting Fire: Your Guide to Reignite and Maintain Your Passion at Home, Work and Beyond and Prioritization Hacks: 5 Key Tools to Maximize Your Day—and in her practice regularly addresses the concerns and struggles of both CEOs and those new to the workforce.

LeMunyan’s CEO clients are concerned that the incoming workforce lacks the training to tackle the challenges of the current work environment.

“[Leaders] have growing needs for technology, problem-solving, interpersonal-communication and critical-thinking skills that they’re not seeing in people coming out of school,” she says.

Managers who deal with people, she adds, are also apprehensive about getting people to work together in a climate of “growing sensitivity about how not to offend them.”

If there is one theme that runs through today’s workforce, LeMunyan says, it’s insecurity. Many CEOs suffer from “Imposter Syndrome,” having feelings of self-doubt despite undeniable success. Workers just starting out are insecure also, having been conditioned to seek external validation and lacking the confidence to ask questions or get their needs met. It’s a problem, she says, that is exacerbated by a real-life lack of job security—many companies no longer provide pensions or job guarantees— and social media, which has “created this need to consistently ask, ‘Am I OK? Am I good enough?’” she explains.

A future-ready employee, LeMunyan says, needs to develop a mindset that provides clarity and supports curiosity. The process involves identifying an individual’s vision and mission and teaching them how to gather the information they need (through active listening and direct communication) to do things more efficiently and powerfully. Clarity and curiosity, she explains, help workers curb the impulse to do things the way they’ve always done them and innovate instead—a competency that future work requires.

Trade Association

As a major trade association in the global exhibitions and events industry, the International Association of Exhibitions and Events® (IAEE) has pioneered several workforce development programs. With its Art of the Show, An Introduction to Exhibition Management textbook now in its fifth edition, IAEE focuses on the requirements for planning and executing business-to-business and business-to-consumer events. For decades, the text has been the centerpiece of a robust certification in exhibition management and continuing industry education.

The Certified in Exhibition Management® (CEM) designation was initially designed for people with three to five years of industry experience. Today, says Marsha Flanagan, M.Ed., vice president of learning experiences at IAEE, “We now have what we’re calling a CEM Learning Journey.” New-to-industry workers can take a Workforce Ready Assessment comprised of 100 questions derived from the Art of the Show text. CEM holders with more than 10 years of experience can qualify to become a CEM Advanced Professional. The program gives the CEM Fellow and CEM Emeritus designations to CEM holders with 20 years or more industry experience.

In 2014, IAEE began working with the U.S. Department of Labor to establish a comprehensive competency model for the Hospitality, Tourism and Event (HTE) industry.

“The model identifies the knowledge, skills and abilities that provide a foundation for workers in our industry, specific even to trade shows,” Flanagan explains.

The model was revised in 2017 and will be changed again next year. IAEE uses it to inform colleges and universities that have HTE programs about the skills students need to enter the event industry job market.

As part of its work with the Department of Labor, IAEE developed a Skills Matrix based on more than 400 industry job descriptions. The matrix details job tasks, purpose, duties and responsibilities, qualifications, working conditions and physical requirements.

“It helps employees see what they should be getting paid and what they should be looking for in a certain job,” Flanagan says. “It also assists HR with annual job reviews.”

The government will use IAEE’s 2020 matrix and Art of the Show update to revise the industry’s competency model.

One of the significant challenges of preparing an entire workforce for the future, Flanagan says, is the wide variety of members.

“We have to meet the needs of female leaders, young professionals, organizers, salespeople, marketers, executives, students and faculty,” she says. “We also try to help people both personally and professionally.”

So, in addition to education on the fundamentals of the profession and specific job requirements, IAEE addresses what Flanagan calls pop-up skills in webinars, its annual Expo! Expo! trade show and conference and its online discussion boards.


Paul Treanor, senior manager, content and community at Informa Markets, sees two challenges for the current and future event workforce. One of them is event technology.

“There are so many great software and technology solutions out there, but they’re coming in fast and from so many different directions,” he says. “It’s hard to keep up.”

The other is the need for employees to do more with less. As a veteran of the exhibition industry, Treanor observes that show teams run much leaner than in the past. And because they have to “wear more hats and cover more bases,” workers have to learn new skills continually.

Employers play a huge role in preparing the future workforce. Treanor credits Informa with providing him and his colleagues with professional support “whether it’s in-house learning from trained experts, access to LinkedIn education modules or going to industry events.”

Working for a large company has other benefits too, such as access to deep internal resources.

“I can go to my supervisor and say, ‘I’ve got a big project coming up and it’s going to take some project management skills,’” Treanor says. “She will look inside the system and see what Informa has available to help me.”

Freelancers, consultants and contract workers have always been a staple of the event industry. And while they add some temporary meat to the bones of lean teams—getting a high volume of sales calls done in a short time or adding more marketing experience to the department when it’s crunch time—they also serve another function, Treanor says. Besides specific expertise, consultants also bring with them new ideas and best practices from other clients and projects.

“They can be worth their weight in gold with one little tip,” he explains.

Staffing Company

Placement firms have much to say about future-ready skills. Dawn Penfold is the owner and president of Meetingjobs, which specializes in the placement of permanent and temporary meeting professionals worldwide. While the qualities that employers seek are dependent on the job, Penfold says, most employers want people who are both tactical and strategic, have event management experience and are at the cutting edge of social media and technology. Knowledge of event security is also a requirement that comes up more frequently from employers.

To build a future-ready workforce, employers have to be able to attract top candidates, especially when there are more jobs than applicants.

“When a hiring official is open to a candidate working virtually, they’re going to find a higher quality candidate. I’m also finding more and more candidates who want to work virtually,” Penfold says.

While some employers promote “in-house espresso machines and kegs that open up at five o’clock,” many also offer education reimbursement, student loan payback programs and liberal vacation policies.

“If you’re going to try to recruit millennials, they want to know what the company can mean for them,” Penfold explains.

The most recent generation to enter the event industry is looking for mentoring, corporate social responsibility programs and companies with a purposeful mission. On the other hand, new-to-market job-seekers need to have a four-year degree, as well as an openness to “learn new things in new environments.” They may also have more luck in finding a job, Penfold says, if they specialize in a specific industry segment—incentives or association, medical, pharmaceutical or corporate meetings, for example.

Learning Institution

Academia is a major pillar of event industry workforce preparedness. Janet Sperstad, CMP, program director, meeting and event management degree at the Madison Area Technical College, finds that the most effective event-industry education is delivered in “layers.” The foundational layer helps students develop a competency in meeting logistics—managing room sets, food and beverage, audiovisual, housing, risk management and contracts.

“You have to be rock solid on that,” she says.

The next layer includes project management, marketing and financials, elements of running a business that are essential for managers and leaders.

As meetings and meeting professionals become more sophisticated, Sperstad explains, educational institutions are responding with courses (likely at the master-degree level) in behavioral and cognitive sciences and social physics (using mathematical tools to understand the behavior of human crowds). These competencies are “looking at how we design datadriven experiences that also take into account that we are working with humans to shape their behavior, influence how they think and feel and impact how they do business,” she says.

Colleges and universities that serve the event industry are reflections of event professionals today and in the future. They are flexible, offering part-time and evening programs that suit working professionals. Some, including Sperstad’s two-year college, offer certificates that “package a suite of competencies together” to accommodate students for whom event planning and execution is only part of their job responsibilities or event professionals who want to become proficient in a different area of the industry.

Sperstad sees academia as more of a rolling train than a rocket ship shooting for the stars.

“Our job isn’t to chase the tomorrows,” she says, referring to technology and new risks that are bearing down on events. “Our job is to teach people to do the work. The industry is counting on us to deliver timeless skills. We’re built to be 100 percent sure of the competencies we’re delivering. [Besides,] the industry hasn’t really changed that much. The fundamentals and business models have remained the same.”

Academia works closely with industry trade associations to understand how to build curriculums that meet the needs of event professionals. Groups like IAEE and MPI, Sperstad explains, invest in research and work with government (referring to IAEE’s work with the Department of Labor) to define the profession and outline workforce requirements.

“Our trade associations are leading the conversation,” she says.

To build an industry, it takes an industry. Employees who take the initiative, employers that invest in training and learning institutions and associations that provide a continuum of education are helping the event industry become precisely what it wants to be. The work required to build a future-ready event workforce is continuous, steady and interconnected.


Michelle Bruno
Michelle Bruno

Michelle Bruno is a writer, blogger and technology journalist. She publishes Event Tech Brief, a newsletter and website on event technology. You can reach her at or @michellebruno on Twitter.

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