How do you create an entirely unique experience for some of the most well-traveled people in the world? When most people think of a corporate job, cubicles and blinding hours of computer screen work come to mind. But Sandy Joyce has shown that while it can be challenging, some corporate jobs might be the most interesting in the world.
Even for most planners, when you hear “corporate planner” you tend to think of dinners and business meetings, and probably travel arrangements and calendar management. However, within corporate planning there is a wide range of work, with a wide range of difficulty, and arguably large corporation, international event planning ranks at the top. I myself have often been curious about International Event Planning, so when I came across Sandy Joyce’s LinkedIn profile, I wanted to know more. She is the Head of Global Event Marketing for Discover, and was kind enough to offer me an interview to share what it’s like to work at the global company.
Sandy has been with Discover for 13 years, but like many planners with an innate ability for the job, event work was not her background. She has a Master’s degree in counselor education, and her first professional position was as a child and family therapist.
“The skills I learned in that profession are helpful in any industry but certainly in meetings and events. In my personal life I was already planning parties, and as an attendee, when I would go to events I found the women who worked in that industry interesting. I talked to them and thought ‘I’d like to do that.’ Then, a few years later, I had a friend who approached me and thought I would be a good fit for a corporate planning job and asked if I would consider applying. Needless to say I got hired and the rest is history.”
Sandy started with a company that focused on manufacturing before working as a corporate planner with Hewitt & Associates and Sidley Austin. Now, with over 20 years of experience in corporate planning, she has worked her way up within Discover from Project Manager to Head of Global Event Marketing.
“When I came to Discover, I kind of started over. Over the course of time, leaders saw potential in me and moved me into a management role, and only recently did I move to marketing. It’s because of good leadership that I was lucky enough to move up.”
Great leadership, and being part of a good company, is what allowed Sandy to grow and work into a role that requires dedication, patience and not just attention to detail, but an ability to find unique details. It’s her job to create unique experiences for Discover and their most important clients. For Sandy, it’s not just about doing something fun, but taking an event everyone knows about and making it one of a kind.
“One of the most challenging events I managed was in Switzerland at a chalet that normally doesn’t host events. I knew if I could pull it off it would be a memorable experience. We had an opportunity to tour the home of Claude Nobs, founder of the Montreux Jazz Festival. Seeing his home I knew this could be an opportunity to do something none of our guests had experienced, and asked if I could bring our small group for dinner. For context, Montreux brings in some of the top musicians in the world like Mick Jagger and David Bowie. During the festival they would come and play at the chalet, leaving memorabilia behind such as autographed guitars, pianos, photographs etc.
All the plans were approved by the chalet’s caregiver leading up to the event so there was no anticipation of the possibility of potential issues. Conversations had occurred with the chef and I went to the chalet early to confirm the event was progressing as planned. It was then I learned the caretaker was having second thoughts about hosting the dinner in the chalet and was talking about cancelling it. We were working with a local DMC who fortunately was able to reassure the caretaker. We strive to provide an experience our attendees can never get on their own – or we do it differently or in an unexpected way. I knew no one had been there, and it was really exciting. To this day they still talk about it!”
“This experience reinforced the necessity of working with local DMCs who understand the culture and can step in to assist when difficult situations arise.”
It’s a big change to go from children’s counselor to inevitably creating a first-of-its-kind dinner in a chalet in Switzerland. Sandy says when she first shifted into the corporate planning world, she realized how different it was going to be and enlisted some help.
“I had no idea what to do in Corporate America, and I had to learn everything. It’s one thing to experience an event as an attendee, it’s a whole other world to create these events for a corporation. I knew I needed help and joined MPI. I participated in all of their education programs and it really helped me grow more than anything. I highly recommend it.”
The tools provided by MPI helped Sandy grow into her career, where she now leads a four-person team that manages dozens of events a year ranging from small intimate gatherings all the way up to very large experiences with hundreds of participants
“We mostly focus on crucial events meant to drive business forward. We work on experiences for attendees that expect superior service.
Sandy went on to explain that they have a well-organized process to manage such important events among such a small team.
Often in events, many of the planners I have spoken to, especially those who got their start before there were educational degrees in events, come from different backgrounds. The events industry is a very specific world that requires a special kind of person who can be successful, and Sandy agrees.
“In this industry, it’s more about your personality. Can you be flexible and deal with the stress? Can you deal with leadership not always being aligned with what people are trying to accomplish? You either love it or hate it. And if you’re going to create magic, you have to know how to do it. If you trust your gut I think you can go far.”
While the work is extremely detailed, and can at times be complicated, Sandy elaborated about why she loves her work.
“I love my job, I really do. I love the adrenaline, I like creating experiences, I like coaching my team – I have an amazing team of people. I enjoy learning how to understand and work with people of all levels – what is interesting to them, what don’t they like – and providing them with what they are looking for before they ask for it or before they even realize they want it. It’s important to understand who the final decision maker should be when they all have different priorities that may make it difficult for certain things to align.
And how does Sandy best decide who should have the final say with these details?
“We consult with the business leaders in each region for the location of our partner meetings and make recommendations based on venue research. With our other events we most often mutually make decisions with our internal business partners. Event management decisions are made by my team and me.
When it comes to looking at events on a global scale, I was curious as to how Sandy and her team work with all of the different languages.
“Interestingly, everything we do is in English because most countries do speak it. We do have translators for business meetings. For example, we may have someone from China who either travels with a translator or sometimes we hire translators for an event so everyone can understand the content and engage in discussions. Many of our relationship managers are local and can speak the language of the region they work in which is tremendously helpful.”
To help with the process on a local level, Sandy and her team will enlist local event companies and DMCs (Destination Management Companies) to assist with certain events.
“We do a lot on our own because we feel such a responsibility for creating the event. In the end we are responsible for the entire event. We have vendors who share that vision with us, and then help us create it. We did a cool event where there was a violinist who played in the fireplace of a castle in Montreux. If the location is where a tourist goes, we’re not going to do it the same way.
For instance, we’ll do it after hours, with people in character… When we have collective minds, then we can create the environment we want, and create the magic. It’s fun to do some brainstorming about possibilities …
“Exclusive doesn’t always mean elaborate”
“Our clients and partners like to experience the local culture so we create engaging experiences and activities for our partners. We find local restaurants, as part of our excursion options. For instance, in Montreux we went to a restaurant known for their fondue and local foods. After lunch the group went up the mountain by trolley so that they could go hiking.”
“We held a dinner at the restaurant of a well-known actor/director, a lovely location where you’re sitting outside on a large deck overlooking a grassy area where sheep are grazing and the ocean is in the distance. That event was stressful because the establishment was adamant we could not hold the dinner there as we were not local. It was an hour before dinner was to begin when one of our amazing vendor partners and his staff worked their magic and we were welcomed to host our dinner. In the end it was a beautiful event .”
Balancing elaborate with exclusive isn’t an easy feat and I was curious about what Sandy felt was most misunderstood about her work.
“People think that it’s all fun and games, and very glamorous with no idea what it takes. International events include everything a domestic event has, and then you have to add culture, language, and a shopping list of different things to know and understand. Then there are the site visits and the actual event. There are time changes, jet lag and you have to hit the ground running. It can be extremely exhausting and a lot of unexpected things can happen. Different countries have different work ethics. But culture is also what makes it interesting. That’s what motivates us at the end of the day. You do get to travel, and we are lucky to see a location we might never have a chance to go to otherwise. When I first went to Mauritius, I had no idea where it was – it’s a gorgeous island nation in the Indian Ocean, and I’d love to go back. You learn so much, and it’s such a great opportunity. And while it is a nice perk to the job, you earn it. If you’re aspiring to plan internationally, you have to embrace everything that comes with it.”
Working on a global level means that her department has faced a different set of challenges during the pandemic, especially with the complexity of ever-changing international regulations surrounding COVID-19.
“Some of our events were either cancelled or moved to a virtual format after two years of planning. It was really difficult at first. You get used to such a fast pace, and then everything came to a screeching halt. We’re used to traveling all the time – but Discover has been great. We have been hosting virtual events and planning for in person events in 2022. I planned an in-person event
Planning internationally, but working for one company who would need to adopt a set, corporate policy made me curious as to how Discover battled a consistent COVID-19 standard.
“No matter what, Discover has put the employees health and safety as their number one priority. They are giving us so much flexibility with our schedules. For our events we need to follow all of the CDC, WHO, country and local protocols. A recent study showed that the vaccination rate of conference attendees is over 80%, and the risk of attending a large event is less than going to the grocery store.”
Changing the way that the events operate may be challenging but isn’t a far stretch for someone with experience like Sandy’s, and it reflects qualities she believes are necessary for anyone interested in getting into the world of global event planning.
“I would just encourage people, if this is what they want to do, to have confidence in their abilities, network with other conference professionals, take advantage of event focused groups, get a mentor, and create all the business relationships that you can. I started in this field because a friend of mine thought I’d be good at it. One person on my team used to work as the event manager at a local restaurant, was then hired as a meetings professional with a pharma company. She didn’t have global experience, but now she’s a pro after three years. It’s about flexibility, the ability to be open minded and knowing how to create the magic.”
With her established experience and knowledge, how does Sandy keep herself fresh in the industry? Networking.
“I’ve been involved in webinars and round tables and have met so many people in different industries – I like variety because I learn so much. For instance, what’s working in the financial industry might translate to someone who works in pharma, and what is working for someone in another industry might be a great solution for us.”
When Sandy isn’t attending a webinar, or traveling for work she likes to spend time with her two dogs, bike, garden, and travel even more on her personal time.
“I can’t wait to go back to Europe. I fell in love with Scotland, but have only been to Edinburgh and St. Andrew’s. I’d love to go hiking in the Highlands and explore that country more. I also fell in love with Spain – if I retired today, I’d go to Girona, connect with local people and drink their wine!”
It’s hard to disagree with those goals! And while it’s undoubtedly hard work, Sandy does make it seem pretty glamorous