If there was an unofficial theme that emerged during Engage!12 at The Breakers it might be "S*** just got real . . . but it's going to be okay." It is too easy, in the wedding industry, to get way too big a head and think that what you are doing is incredibly innovative and cutting edge when it is anything but. It is also too easy to think that you are the only one experiencing a tough time when Twitter, Facebook and Instagram make it seem like everyone else is having their best year ever.
This is one of the reasons I believe the Engage! wedding conferences are so valuable for so many. Engage! has a magical way of both gently cutting you down to size and lifting your spirits at the same time.
While there are some people at Engage! who are just starting out and want to make sure they are getting off on the very best foot, most of the people in the room have established businesses. Most of them have seen good years and bad years and know that it is cyclical. Most of them have had amazing clients and crazy clients and know that those too are cyclical. All of them know that no matter how good you are, you can always get better.
This Engage! was by far the best one ever and as my friend and colleague Amy Zaroff remarked, "almost everyone checked their ego this time and decided to get really honest." Aside from the lush hospitality that The Breakers bestowed on everyone (more on this in a future post), the magic of this particular Engage was that everyone was, well, just plain tired. It is December! We are all exhausted! It has been a rough year in so many ways for so many people -- even for people who have also had amazing things happen this year -- and we are all just ready to shut the door on 2012 and open up a new chapter with 2013. And because Engage is a conference that truly fosters collaboration rather than backstabbing or one-upping among competitors, people were able to sit and talk and laugh and cry and be real.
Marcy Blum, a celebrity "eventiste" who has been in the business since the 1970's*, first on the culinary side and then in weddings, touched on the the need to ask better questions of our clients not on style or taste or personal preferences, but on an emotional level. Not doing so is no longer an option if you want to survive in this industry. It is impossible to have a cookie cutter behind-the-scenes process when you are dealing with people's emotions at a high level. This is all for the better, but it does take a lot more emotional effort on your part as well.
I'm not sure what's in the water, but 2012 seems to be the year of divorce. So many people I talked to this past week are going through or have just been through a divorce or major life partner break up. Divorce can be a taboo subject in the wedding industry where everything is focused on life-long soulmate love, so it was a relief to many when Marley Majcher brought it up in her talk, "Failure Is Not Final." In addition to sharing a bit about her business, Marley shared that she recently went through her second divorce. She talked about how difficult it can be to put on a happy face and talk weddings when personally you are going through a devastating experience and just want to cry all day. Her advice on learning from, surviving and thriving after failure was to: "acknowledge it, face it, glean the message and help someone else." Marley's talk opened the door for many "me too" conversations at Engage! this past week and I know that several people felt a burden lifted because they were able to honestly share with others who are dealing with the same thing. It was a perfect talk to include in the opening session because it helped set the vibe of openness for the rest of the event.
Todd Fiscus talked about having a huge turnover in staff, including losing a few VP's all within a span of a few weeks this Summer. He joked that he worked every day and then spent the evenings standing on his living room ottoman, wine glass in hand, singing show tunes to block out how much everything sucked. He also talked about replacing the people who left and scaling back on the amount of business his companies take on so that he could train the new talent appropriately and not compromise the level of quality his companies are known for.
Ed Libby shared that his 30,000 square foot warehouse in New Jersey flooded with six feet of water because of Hurricane Sandy, causing them to lose tons of event decor and equipment as well as the damage the water did to their servers, etc after it got into the walls and affected their electrical wiring. He also talked about having to change his business model in a matter of weeks after the storm hit. His message was summed up as "when the water gets deep, who has your back?" and the importance of developing solid relationships with colleagues and competitors who want the best for you.
David Beahm also shared about having a tough year and the damage Sandy did to his warehouse as well. He spoke on the importance of being true to who you are and that you are truly only as good as your team. He also spoke on the importance of reframing WTF to "Wisdom, Tenacity and Focus" if we want to survive when the true WTF moments come.
Many of the speakers at Engage!12 are considered to be at the top of their game. I find in my conversations with industry colleagues that when most people think of the wedding pros at the top they think that success for them is an always upward trajectory. The truth though is this: life and business do not consistently move on a diagonal towards the upper right corner. I loved that these speakers were honest enough to share that their road is the same as everyone else's and that their chart of success has its share of dips and valleys as well as peaks.
*I'm sure Marcy would like me to clarify this as the "late 1970's" and that she started in the industry as a prescient toddler, a child savant, really.
Photos courtesy Elan Artists, Scott Clark and Chellise Michael