This is the first post in our “Project Your Voice” series where we talk to meetings professionals about their experience in the industry, what advice they have for others and their hope for the future.
In this Q&A, we sat down with Josh Henry, meetings manager at the Society for Optics and Photonics (SPIE), who focuses on creating events that are welcoming and inclusive.
Q: What led you to the events industry?
A: Growing up, I had no idea what I wanted to do. Like a lot of kids, I went through different phases. I wanted to be a pilot for a while, and then a veterinarian, but nothing seemed like the right fit. As I got older, I took a lot of those career aptitude tests, and they always showed a high aptitude for details and logistics. I’m also very creative, so with those tests, the same problem kept coming up: I had no interest in many of the careers that aligned with those aforementioned traits, like accounting or bookkeeping.
When I was a teenager, my mom opened a catering company, and that was my introduction to events. In college, I started exploring the idea further, and some of my professors opened my eyes to this whole new realm of events––a global industry that I had never even heard of. It’s a great melding of creativity, details and logistics that just worked for me. It felt like the right space, and I am lucky to have found it.
Q: What advice would you give to other people starting out on a path similar to yours?
A: The events industry has a habit of consuming 26 hours of your day if you aren’t careful. It is fun work, and everyone surrounding you is so passionate, that it can be easy to get swept up in all of that. My advice would be to be mindful of your own bandwidth. Early on, I made the mistake of overcommitting myself. Now I realize that as a passionate and committed person, there will always be more opportunities than I can reasonably participate in. I would advise others to be mindful of the opportunities you take, and protect your time and mental health along the way.
Q: What has become your biggest passion, career-wise?
A: Creating experiences that feel welcoming and engaging. I’m in the associations space, and we so often create events for people who are outgoing and social, with an existing friend group and network. I have found, however, that these characteristics actually only describe about 30-40% of our audience. We are designing events that are not as inclusive for first-time attendees, introverts, those with social anxieties, neurodivergent individuals and a whole host of other people.
Looking for ways to correct this is a huge part of what drives me in this career. It is mentally and emotionally exhausting for someone who walks into an event and thinks, “I don’t know where I fit into this.” If I can create spaces where someone walks into a room alone, and leaves with a group of people – or even one new acquaintance – I know I have done my job. That person came to make a connection, and I helped make that happen. That’s a win.
Q: What are some things you use to make spaces more welcoming?
A: The best way to reach people is to understand how they think. Some people will find someone to talk to within five minutes, while others stand back until there is some reason to engage. So, we seek to create those engaging experiences. We include activities that are hands-on, but not necessarily collaborative. For example, we might have an opened-ended bracelet-making activity, with beads set out in front of chairs, so someone can sit down with the intention of making a bracelet, and as other people join, conversations start organically. Additionally, providing something for people to do with their hands can alleviate a lot of awkwardness.
We are also experimenting with what kind of – and how much – structure can help cultivate engagement. For example, gamifying the experience or providing conversation starters.
Q: As an events professional, how do you go about networking and finding the people who can help you thrive professionally?
A: People in our industry tend to have a very similar way of perceiving the world. We’re all passionate about the same thing, and most of us are people who want to see a networking activity work, so we’re willing to put the effort in to make sure it is a success. If I’m at a networking event, I’m with other professionals who are there because they like supporting people and bringing people together. It’s an easy group to connect with.
One challenge to “thriving professionally” for me has simply been the intensity with which industry professionals live and work. This intensity is inspiring and contagious (in a good way), but can also be intimidating. I have learned that I need to carve out time for myself and maintain a good work/life balance. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, I think a lot of people are starting to see that more, and taking that time to rest and recover, which is so critical to thriving in meetings and events.
Q: Is there anything you would tell your younger self or another young professional that you wish you would have done differently?
A: Slow down. Take a step back and evaluate your goals. There are so many different avenues within the event planner industry. You don’t have to silo yourself into a single aspect of event planning. Recently I have started looking at different parts of the planner career including marketing, audience engagement, client communication, collaborative relationships, data analysis and more, and incorporating these ideas into what I do.
Q: What has it been like working for an association? They all have a unique identity. How do you incorporate that into your own career focus?
A: That is actually something I have thought a lot about recently. I work for an optical science association, and when I applied for the job, at the end of the interview, when they asked, “do you have any questions for us?” I said, “I don’t know anything about optics or photonics, is that going to be a problem?” Their answer was, “No, your job is to manage events, you don’t need to be a scientist.”
There have been times that I wish the people I was connecting with and serving through my events did something I could relate to more. But the more I think about it, the more I believe that it is better (for me) to have that degree of separation from the subject matter. Instead, I am fully focused on the event itself and how people are experiencing it. I can be more objective about how effective people are learning and engaging when I’m not immersed in the content itself.
Additionally, I get to interact with people who are very different from me. This means that I am learning all the time about new ways to engage and present things.
Q: Where should people look for mentorship and insights?
A: All of the community support organizations are a great place to start. I have been involved in both PCMA, LGBT MPA and MPI. Any organizations doing the type of work you do can help you with resources and connections, and most have student memberships or early career discounts.
These organizations are a great way to surround yourself with inspirational people who will support you where you’re at, and you will have great connections to reach out to for future needs. You will also find friends to hang out with at events and different niches you can fit into. There are lots of layers to events that many people don’t know about. Meeting new people is one way to learn more and dive deeper, which ultimately helps you find solutions that really work for you, instead of just using what you know.
I would advise getting involved at the local level, and getting involved as early in your career as you can. Being part of these associations has propelled my career beyond what I ever would have expected. As I got more involved in my chapter, I was asked to serve on the board, and next year will be my first as association president. This has opened doors on more of a national scale, and I have met people from all over.
Q: Tell us about your work with the LGBT Meetings Professionals Association.
A: A lot of my work is in diversity and inclusion; being able to tie that into events is always my goal. I attribute a lot of my success in this area to my involvement with LGBT MPA. I have been able to help them partner with other organizations to expand that message.
For the most part, my experience as a member of the LGBTQ community has been very positive in the meetings industry. When you have found a space that you fit in, it’s easy to forget about the people that don’t. The people that I meet at conferences are all event professionals with different perspectives, and that has informed the way that I plan events as well. I challenge people to have conversations about diversity and inclusion at their events and not be afraid of being uncomfortable.
Q: Are there any resources, people or groups you want to share with readers to help start or spread awareness of these conversations?
A: One of my biggest concerns is that, in many cases, trans people are not being thought of when we’re talking about the LGBTQ experience; this has been a focus of LGBT MPA recently. There are a lot of conversations happening right now about how we can change the climate and create a more inclusive environment, and we have some big questions to wrestle with. I think the important thing is that those conversations are happening and we are fighting for everyone to feel welcome.
I’d recommend anyone interested in creating more inclusive, equitable and safe experiences look into the work we’re doing, and consider joining.
Q: What is your hope for the future? Are there areas the industry still needs to improve?
A: There is absolutely always room for improvement. If we aren’t pushing to be better, what is the point?
COVID-19 helped to show the world the importance of events, of gathering together in person, but it also gave us the chance to pause and think about the ways we were doing things, and to reset. A lot of communities are not being served in the way they should be, and there is more we can do to make events inclusive.
One of the things I see from my own perspective is the severe lack of people of color in leadership roles within the events industry. I am hopeful as we are starting to see some change in the last couple of years.
I have also been having a lot of conversations about the fact that when we go to these events, you most often see people interacting with others who look like them. I think it is a disservice to organizers, attendees, and the goals we are all working towards if we continue to operate this way. I have challenged myself, and I challenge everyone else at events to talk to at least one person that looks different than you or has a different background. You never know what types of ideas, opportunities or connections a person might have for you, or vice versa. There’s no downside to expanding your network base.
If you or anyone from your organization would like to be a contributor to the “Project Your Voice” series, please let us know at email@example.com.
More from “Project Your Voice”
[Part Two] Talking About Connection and Responsibility with Cassie Mancera, AAOMS
[Part Three] Talking About Making a Collective Impact with Paula Eichenbrenner, AMCP Foundation
[Part Four] Talking About Growth Through Facing Down Fears with Yolanda Simmons Battle, AHIMA
[Part Five] Talking About Putting Mental Health First with Dana Johnston, IDSA