PCMA Board of Directors Chair: ‘It’s a Matter of How’ Events Return

Kirsten Olean, CAE, reflects on her time as 2021 Chair of the PCMA Board of Directors and discusses the opportunities that the pandemic has created for business events professionals.

Author: Curt Wagner       

Kirsten Olean

Kirsten Olean, CAE, outgoing chair of the PCMA Board of Directors, speaks Monday from the Main Stage at CL22. (Jacob Slaton Photography)

During her term as 2021 Chair of the PCMA Board of Directors, Kirsten Olean, CAE, IOM, has, like everyone in the business events industry, faced the ups and downs of planning events during a fluid COVID-19 environment. But as she leaves office, the director of meetings at the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation is optimistic about the the industry’s ability “to plan business events under always-changing circumstances.”

Olean discusses the past year that saw the return of some face-to-face meetings and the opportunities ahead for business events professionals.

What highlights from your term as chair stand out to you?

As face-to-face events started to return this year, it’s been amazing to be able to gather with industry colleagues at events locally, nationally, and internationally. EduCon was the first of these events for PCMA, and it truly felt like a family reunion. The Visionary Awards, always a special event for PCMA, felt even more meaningful this year. Finally, Convening EMEA in Lausanne was an event that I will not soon forget. Getting the chance to meet and connect with our European colleagues and experience the real enthusiasm for PCMA in that region was a real highlight of my term.

What do you think are the biggest challenges and opportunities facing event professionals?

It’s been an incredibly challenging couple of years for our industry. With no definitive end to the pandemic in sight, we are now challenged to plan business events under always-changing circumstances. It’s not a matter of if our events come back, it’s a matter of how. Although we knew it before, these past two years have confirmed for us how critical face-to-face events are to the success of our organizations and the advancement of our missions. We are learning how to host events safely, how to incorporate a digital audience, and how to plan with a greater degree of uncertainty. This is no small task, but if anyone is up to the task, it is the mighty and brave event professionals!

Have the last two years changed how you think about leadership and innovation, and if so, in what ways?

While business events have always carried a certain level of the unknown, it was never on the scale of what we’ve experienced during the last two years. We’ve always been an industry of professionals who can think on their feet, make miracles happen, and find a path to success no matter the obstacles. We’ve proven now that we can do that under extreme conditions, and we’ve had a real chance to shine as leaders in our organizations. Innovation is often born out of necessity, but I think this time has given us a greater appreciation for the need to constantly evolve our events even without the outside pressure of a pandemic. And the leadership our event professionals have shown in their organizations has highlighted that you can lead from wherever you are — even if you don’t have an official seat at the table.

If you could wave a magic wand and make one thing happen for PCMA, what would it be?

An end to the pandemic is too obvious an answer, right? If I could make one thing happen, it would be to restore event professionals’ ability to travel and participate in professional development to pre-pandemic levels. As we see in our own organizations, there is real power in gathering face to face — it advances our own professional development, advances the mission of the organization, and advances the industry. While PCMA has done an extraordinary job of delivering resources, learning, and connection to members, nothing beats the energy, momentum, and power of being together in person.

Curt Wagner is digital editor at Convene.

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