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Campus & Community

'Our job is to make people happy': A Q&A With Drexel's Head Event Planner

February 10, 2014

Janet Guthart

Hold on. Janet Guthart has to reply to an email. She’s got an event coming up tomorrow night.

Now she needs to find a picture of her with Brian Williams, from the 2007 Democratic debate at Drexel. It’s somewhere on this computer. Now she needs to introduce you to someone who’s walking by the office door. OK, now back to the question.

This was the scene in Guthart’s office when Drexel Quarterly stopped by for an interview recently, and it was clear that when you plan more than 250 events a year, it helps to be a good multitasker.

Guthart, associate vice president for protocol and special events in Drexel’s Office of Institutional Advancement, heads up event planning for the University. Every major Drexel event—from November’s groundbreaking for the new development at 34th Street and Lancaster Avenue and dedication for the new Gerri C. LeBow Hall to the annual Anthony J. Drexel Society Gala and even the memorial for former President Constantine Papadakis—has the fingerprints of Guthart and her team all over it. Her office also handles hospitality for dignitaries or important guests visiting the University, and they team up with every office and unit at Drexel at one point or another.

What goes into the planning and execution of all the events Drexel circles on its calendar? DrexelNow spoke with Guthart about what it takes.

How did you wind up in the event planning business in the first place?

I always knew that I loved events growing up, from holidays to religious celebrations—friends’ first Holy Communions or bar and bat mitzvahs. I’ve loved gatherings my whole life. In school, I would say: “Come on, guys! Let’s go to the Halloween party!” I was crazy. If my mother was hosting Thanksgiving, I took Sharpies and wrote names on every napkin. I’m the one in the drugstore buying the chocolate turkeys to put at everybody’s place setting.

It became clear that I was destined for a career in event planning during my years in the hospitality program in Nesbitt College (now Westphal College of Media Arts & Design). Once I arrived at Drexel (as a student), my participation in event management and social activities just kept growing. I was a member of a sorority, where I became the social chair. I interned at several different hotels and restaurants during my co-ops, but I knew I wanted to end up in event planning.

Besides event planning, what else do you handle in your office?

I head up the Office of Protocol and Special Events. Protocol is the formality of greeting and acknowledging certain customs and certain traditions: how we greet foreign dignitaries or guest speakers. The office serves as the guide for the entire University on protocol. When we had the Democratic debate at Drexel (in 2007), this office was part of that. When the son of the former president of China came to visit in May, I greeted the delegation.

When foreign delegations visit campus, the protocol office comes and makes sure that the University is adhering to all the protocols of the nation or the people who are visiting us. That could be from dietary restrictions to formal customs of greeting or exchanging gifts. And protocols are not just limited to people—we also follow standards and welcome visiting corporations.

Just how many events do you and your team handle?

On average, we handle around 263 events a year and host more than 14,000 guests, supporting the offices of the President, Provost, Government and Community Relations, Corporate Relations and Economic Development, Research and Institutional Advancement. And that does not include our guidance to and support of all ancillary offices. The work is cyclical, and we have to be very flexible.

If a delegation is coming from another country, or the governor is coming for a dedication, my office is involved. We have the great pleasure of getting to see every discipline at this University. It’s such an exciting time here: We just closed the “Dream It. Do It. Drexel” capital campaign. All of our new buildings are opening. It’s the most exciting time to be at Drexel. It is magical; it really is.

What's an example of an event you and your team put on in the last few years that was a challenge?

A good example is when we moved the Anthony J. Drexel Society Gala to the gymnasium of the Drexel Recreation Center. Before, it was held off campus at a lovely hotel or catering venue. It was decided it should move to campus to showcase and highlight all the new changes at the University.

Because we are on an urban campus, we have significant space constraints and we need to maximize everything available. In this case, we had to go into the gym and transform it into a formal dining room. We had to arrange for generators to cook for 500-plus people, and work out acoustics and sound. Converting a gymnasium that has open grates and outdoor windows to a formal dining room was certainly interesting. There is only one bathroom on the second floor. And chefs had to prepare the food in the weight areas. But it was a big success because we were strategic and we thought outside of the box. Now the gala is held on campus every year.

And what's an event where you were proud of what you and your team did?

I am proud of all of our events, but I am particularly proud of our BLOY (Business Leader of the Year), which has been going on for 60 years. It’s been under my office for the last eight years, and while we’ve truly maintained the integrity and the tradition of the event, we’ve also added modern elements. Every time we do this event, the honoree and the people who participate—who are not always part of our community—leave with a sense of Drexel pride. All the proceeds benefit the Bennett S. LeBow College of Business, but the event actually bestows prestige on the entire institution.

The event world is competitive. I don’t want to use the word “competitive” in a negative way; the reality is every college or university has a “business leader of the year” event. What makes ours special is the mission and spirit. Over the past 60 years, honorees have included Gen. Douglas MacArthur, George Romney (Mitt’s father) and former Gov. Ed Rendell. We honor that person’s business and philanthropic and community accomplishments, and we also highlight Drexel University achievements and what we’re doing in the community that people might not be aware of. We capture them in an hour and a half. We make sure that the honoree feels proud that he or she is receiving an award from our school.

If an important guest is coming to Drexel to speak, or maybe just to visit, what sorts of things do you need to think about?

We have to take into consideration everything they’re going to do here, down to the logistical travel: their arrival, their departure from the airport, hotel accommodations, food accommodations. And in 2013, between celiac and vegan and vegetarian and religious beliefs, our office is always aware of dietary restrictions.

However, our most important job is to make everybody who visits feel appreciated and understand our mission when they leave. If we know somebody’s coming to visit our law school, but we know that their private passion is art, we take them to the gallery. We always look to give our visitors a memento of the University, and that could be a sweatshirt to remember us, or a pin, or a framed piece of artwork. We want them to have a lasting impression when they go home, so they remember a little bit of us.

We have hosted dignitaries and academic leaders from other countries, including Israel, Turkey and China, and we have had to research the protocol of gift-giving and make decisions regarding menus. For instance, when do we design a menu reflecting America, with Drexel as the host, and when do we need to defer to the visitor’s pref-erence? It changes based on preferences versus dietary restrictions. We learn something new every day; this job really broadens your worldview.

You're a Drexel alumna. How does that affect your work?

I love blue and gold. I really do. I am blue and gold through and through, like the triangle meets the dragon. After graduation, I worked in the private sector for many years, and it makes me proud to be able to work at my alma mater. I love this place so much. It’s a pleasure to do my job. I am fortunate enough to have tremendous leadership and a wonderful group of colleagues.

Why is the work your office does important to the University's mission?

Our office is often a person’s first interaction with the University, and we want it to be a positive reflec-tion of this place that we love. Whether it’s a donor who wants to feel he or she invested wisely, a visiting digni-tary or visiting students, we want them to come away with a positive experience.

For example, if you look at the opening of Gerri C. LeBow Hall, there were at least eight different audiences there: Trustees, donors, students, faculty, professional staff, politicians, visiting guests and alumni. And everybody came to and left that event with something different.

The students left with a sense of pride in their college. Mr. LeBow left feeling proud of the students and his investment. Each named donor (donors named 20 spaces in the new building) met the students who would benefit from their generosity. All of their impressions were different but important, and hopefully it will benefit the University in the end through co-op jobs, more donations and University pride.

Our job is to make people happy. The world is such a busy place. So if you make the time to leave your office and come to a groundbreaking, it’s important to us that you have a better understanding of the Drexel mission and feel involved in what was going on.

And you know what? We have fun. Everybody asks me about my job, and there can be weeks when it’s 100 hours. They did a list of the most stressful jobs in the country (CareerCast, in 2012), and event planning was in the top 10. But at the end of the day, we’re still having fun.

If someone comes up to you and asks you for advice on planning his or her own event, what might be a tip you'd give?

Throw your party in a way that represents you. If you are a casual or outdoorsy host, plan a picnic. If you are formal-style, organize a formal seated dinner.

Stay true to yourself. Don’t do it because everybody else wants you to do something. Do it because it’s right for you, and then everybody else will enjoy it.

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