How do you know you’re one of the best planners in Chicago? When everyone knows who you are.
I sat down with Michelle Dallas, events industry powerhouse, who told me she believes it’s important to recognize all of those who work hard in our industry, and that her goal is to be a helpful resource to everyone she works with. The thing about being resourceful to others is that you end up knowing nearly everyone in Chicago’s events and hospitality scene, and she does. To further emphasize this feat, she has also been newly appointed the Director of Educational Events for Meeting Professionals International (MPI), Chicago Chapter.
Michelle first delved into the events world involuntarily, being assigned to help plan student functions after getting in trouble for having a little too much fun when she was a student at Kendall College.
“My community service for getting caught hosting too many dorm parties was serving and managing the events, but soon it was no longer community service and became about me. I started doing the events for students, then made amazing connections, and they were the contacts I began to build upon.”
Graduating in the infamous year of 2008, Michelle didn’t let the economic crisis prevent her from her destiny. No one may have been hiring, but she began freelancing and that is where Events, MD was born. In this role, she got to experience everything, and even started to help with staffing because of her strong network – all while bartending, too. This entry into the professional realm of planning quickly made her a well-rounded event venue manager, and gave her a handle on catering event logistics.
“I was building a machine of skills.” She said, describing her early evolution of experience.
Those skills served her well over the years, as she continued to build her network, and develop what she feels is most important – thick skin.
“In order to go through the long days and nights, the occasional emotional backlash from clients or colleagues, and still be able to pull off a smile, you need to be able to stand on your own and be strong. You have to understand you won’t win everything but you can win a lot, and you have to be willing to fight for the things you need.”
Thick skin is a skill developed through countless event experiences, enhanced by the inevitable confidence of being certain of what you are doing. Clients always have a variety of ideas of what they want, and there is an art to balancing budgets and expectations while still infusing your own creativity.
Like anyone starting in the working world, Michelle had her fair share of learning experiences. One that stands out in her mind was the very first wedding she did for a friend.
“My first wedding was a destination wedding in New Orleans that I did on my own – like who did I think I was?” She described, laughing. “It was a gorgeous, poolside ceremony and everything was going wonderfully. I was so proud of myself! During the ceremony, I went to check on the cocktail reception area and realized someone misplaced the food display, which was beautiful – they had pastries, seafood – it was incredible. So I went to the back by myself and started pulling this wonderfully done table to where it needed to be, because I prided myself on being capable of getting things done on my own.
I did not lock the table.
There was an avalanche of this gorgeous food display as the table fell, and I froze. I panicked and walked away – I just left it there, and went to the kitchen staff pleading for help. It was so bad, even guests, now arriving from the ceremony, looked and commented in horror while the team picked up the linen and did their best to put it back together. Luckily we had a gourmet popcorn station so the guests could at least enjoy that while the staff reduced the elaborate display to nice platters in the back. We made it happen, but I will never move a table with food on it by myself ever again.”
There isn’t a planner reading that story who doesn’t have a tragedy of their own. Thankfully for Michelle, weddings went from being her foremost horrifying memory to a segment of events she continually feels most proud of. Often teaming up with her friend Brianne Garritano, who is owner of Marquette Avenue Events, Michelle assists to deliver exceptional experiences. Initially Brianne was Michelle’s client and the two became fast friends. Michelle still works with Brianne, who she looks up to as a dynamic wedding planner and events professional.
“I’m proud of the weddings because they are so beautiful. We don’t play around with our designs! For things to look great, and to maintain a beautiful environment, everything has to work seamlessly. Most of the awards I have received are for the work we have done together. We compliment each other so well with our different work styles. Brianne is very good at being attentive, and really getting to the heart and emotions of the couple, and creating what they want, while I am more behind the scenes working on logistics and getting those things done. It’s a great balance that we have, and I don’t see us not working together anytime soon.”
While Michelle may be executing a variety of classic American and multicultural weddings, it’s only a slice of the type of work she does. Some planners have entire careers doing weddings, but for Michelle those are just her side gigs. She primarily works on corporate events, currently working for an association that hosts events all over the U.S. In her role there, Michelle oversees a complicated event schedule consisting of 5 conferences a year (1 international) with 10-35 events each, and last year she did over 300 virtual events in response to the pandemic.
She has also been recruited by Happily.io to produce large-scale, branded virtual events with other producers from around the world. “It’s super cool learning tricks from my teammates in Egypt, and Spain,” Michelle described of the opportunity.
As to be expected, creating flawless events outside of Chicago was in Michelle’s repertoire long before her current roles. She cites one of her most challenging events as her first foray into a new city, planning a large, 4 day conference for a very well known, global tech company.
“I had to rely on brand new vendors for everything and we had to understand how to work with one another — from our organizational processes right down to our vocabulary. Event people are a team of superheroes, and it was challenging to have to just trust a whole new group of people. The experience made me toughen up for international events and encouraged me to grow outside of Chicago, which is a huge feat. There are many amazing vendors who are excited to get weird, think outside the box, and show off what they are good at, just like you want to show people what you are good at. And these impressive professionals are all over the world, and that’s what I find to be really exciting when I think of pushing my ambitious self outside of my comfort zone.”
The thought of international event planning for many professionals spans from impossible, to daunting to exciting. Getting to that level requires far more than just planning a few dinners or college parties. The skill and intensity of the job is often underestimated in the working world when the job description of “event planner” is mentioned. Many experienced planners like Michelle know the pain of the underrepresentation of our industry, particularly in terms of workload and complexity. For Michelle, the part people don’t expect or think about is the key to successful events.
“People are not always aware of the nitty gritty details of event logistics and strategy. My value comes partially because I have researched and thought through everything – and there can be a lot of trash to filter through! But you can’t be confident in your events without a thorough strategic plan, that is the result of thinking through every possible scenario – good or bad.”
In addition to thinking things through, there’s also the paperwork and tracking that any good planner needs to have. The more elaborate the event, the more complex it gets, and Michelle specifically prides herself in having a great system in place.
“I’m proud of my production documents – my excel sheets would put accountants to shame!”
But perhaps the challenging aspect of getting more credit for the skill required for event planning, is what Michelle describes as very much the point of the job.
“It’s nice to let people know what you do, but I also don’t really want them to know what I do because part of my job is making the experience easy, and allowing the client to handle what they need to handle, and enjoy the event the day of. They hire me so they don’t have to think too much about the logistics, strategy and details.”
So what’s the ammunition behind all of the planning, logistics and strategy building?
“For me, the evolution of the idea is my favorite part. It’s about collaboration. I love to collaborate with other professionals who think the way I think and come up with things people have never seen before. I’m creeping in the shadows by the doorway so I can hear gasps and oohs and awes when people first walk in and see the room. That’s what it’s all about.”
But while people may generally not understand all that goes into an event, underrepresentation about events doesn’t exist just from the outside looking in. Even within the events community, there’s another side of underrepresentation that often goes unacknowledged: people of color are rarely planning in higher-level events. With Michelle’s role as the new Director of Education for MPI’s Chicago Chapter, she’s hoping that as a black woman, she can make efforts to change that. There is a new Diversity Equity & Inclusion (DEI) Committee within the Chicago Chapter of MPI, and she also hopes to influence the educational portions of the association. These efforts speak to Michelle’s hope for the working event world, as the United States is grappling with how society in the 21st century is still treating people of color. Her ambition speaks to her ferocious love of the event planning industry, and culminates into what she defines as the hardest part of her job: taking a break.
“I’ve lost boyfriends over it!” Michelle revealed about just how ingrained planning is in her blood.
“Knowing when not to work is the hardest part, and I mean that in a few different ways. Yes – space, mindfulness, creating a balance. But even when I’m out as a guest at an event, I can’t help but step into action. I think ‘look at the line at the buffet, what happened and how can I fix this?’ Over time I’ve learned to be better about that because I have realized that it makes planners and others look bad, and that’s the last thing I want to do. Now, if it’s my day off, it’s my day off and I have learned to just enjoy the show.”
Speaking of days off – where does the planner who knows all the venues and puts together the best parties and events go to have fun?
During the pandemic, Michelle, who has a black belt in karate, created a kickboxing gym in her garage, and enjoyed meditation and cooking to help her decompress from her demanding work. But now, as a fully vaxxed boss lady, she chooses to hang out at one of her favorite spots, aliveOne.
“It’s the happiest little gem on Halsted. On Thursday night there’s a brass band. It’s the diviest bar, that’s funky and soul-filled with a dance floor, and the most eclectic group of people, in all shapes and all shades.”
So in between a few fun nights out, what’s next for the event queen of Chicago? While she hopes to one day do an event in Australia, or be a planner for the Super Bowl, for now, the goal is to keep up with the good and healthy habits she developed during quarantine to help her stay on top of all of her projects. But if anyone can kick ass at organizing lots of things at once, it’s a multi-city planner with a black belt.