Like thousands of people in the business events industry who lost their jobs during the pandemic, Jennifer Salerno struggled with anger, grief, and confusion. Facing an ever-shrinking job market, she realized she was ready for a change — and that she wanted to bring a little positivity to others feeling the same way she was. Salerno jumped out of her comfort zone into the world of podcasting with The Room Block podcast.
Salerno, a 20-year veteran in business events, had worked the past seven years at onPeak, a hotel booking company for the events industry. At the time of her April 10 furlough, she was the director of hotel industry relations with her own contracting services team. Salerno and 14 others on her team were laid off officially on June 30 — part of the 22.3 million jobs the U.S. economy shed between March and April alone, according to Bureau of Statistics data. And while 14 million jobs have come back since then, the business events and hospitality industries have been slower to recover.
For Salerno, the shift was a long time coming. “For years, I have been feeling like there was something more that I wasn’t able to tap into” in her career, Salerno told Convene. “I was asking myself, ‘What’s really going to make me tick? … What really is meaningful to me?”
‘The Human Experience’
Prompted by her husband, she decided hosting a podcast could “scratch that itch.” What has made her most excited throughout her career has been connecting people and facilitating conversations, she said. “I was super energized by those kinds of encounters,” including being part of a panel discussion at PCMA Convening Leaders 2020 in San Francisco, she said, adding, “I felt like I was able to make a difference by participating in that kind of discussion.”
As she thought about creating a podcast, she knew she wanted it to make a difference for those in the business events industry, but also keep her connected to people she knows in the industry. She also resisted the idea of inviting guests to discuss how the industry can recover because those theories are “just predictions or guesses, right?” she said. “No one knows anything.”
“I want to have conversations that are going to be uplifting to listeners and try to bring some kind of joy and unity into this industry where I know so many of us are just feeling lost and sad,” Salerno said. “I really want to kind of get more into the human experience.”
In the podcasts, which can be heard at roomblockpodcast.com or Apple, Google, Stitcher, and other sites, Salerno chats up her friends from the business events and adjacent industries about their professional and personal experiences in relation to loosely formed topics like leadership, a manager’s mindset, and pursuing harmony.
In the “Designing Your Direction” episode, entrepreneurs Dahlia El Gazzar of the DAHLIA+Agency and Keri Kelly of SoulMining Inc. tell their stories of “how a combination of marketable superpowers and the undying support of the events industry helped each of them take a life-changing leap of faith.”
Rethinking and Reskilling
To make her own leap of faith, Salerno had to acquire if not superpowers, at least a new set of skills. Again, she isn’t alone in that quest. In Convene’s September COVID-19 Dashboard Survey, the large majority of the more than 800 planners and suppliers who responded said they currently are learning or planning to learn new skills for the future.
Salerno knew nothing about podcasting — except that she listened to them — before beginning the process of creating hers. She has since learned and honed her interview and marketing skills as well as the technical aspects of the project. She learned how to build a website, to speak into a microphone, and how to use Audacity sound editing software. “This is all stuff that I’ve never had to do before — I never thought I would do,” she said. “Fortunately, I have found so many people to learn from.”
She launched her website in early August with a welcome message and published her first podcast on Aug. 12. Since then, she’s added five more episodes and reaction has been positive, she said. One listener commented, “I have to say, [the episodes] have lifted my spirits when having a not so great day (or week).” Another wrote, “It was like having dinner with treasured friends. Truly a delightful and insightful conversation, and I laughed out loud more than once.”
Salerno couldn’t be happier with those responses, and feels humbled that she “could possibly do something small to try to help move our industry forward,” she said. “That is all I need. That reward for me is huge, because it is tangible proof that I have touched someone.”
‘Don’t Be Afraid’
Salerno currently isn’t getting paid for the podcast; she’s hoping to monetize eventually but that was “never really the point,” she said. She hopes it will lead to gigs as a speaker or facilitator, like she did for the Age of Conversation Summit in September, where she talked about her journey on the Shift Happens stage. She explained how she took all the negative energy she was feeling when she lost her job and channeled it into her podcast despite that shift being uncomfortable and scary.
She hopes her journey inspires others who may be unfulfilled in their jobs or not finding a job they are familiar with “to stop and think what other possibilities might exist.” And, she advises, “Don’t be afraid to try something new, even if it seems like it’s going to be very difficult and hard. In fact, that might be the best thing you’ve ever done because of the lessons that it teaches you.”
Curt Wagner is digital editor at Convene.