Career, by Accident

By Lorri Panaia Shideler

Lorri Panaia Shideler is Director of Conferences and Events for Juniata.

I often am asked, “how did you get into this business?” and honestly, the answer is by accident!

Did I go to school to do this? Um, no.  Was this ever in my “life plan?” Definitely no.  I really didn’t know what an Event Planner did, nor did I even remotely think I would be doing this as a career, ever.  I was going to be an International Buyer.

Well, guess what?  Reality set in before that was ever going to happen!  So I’m an Event Planner, and have been for most of my career.  An Event Planner (now that I know what one does) is responsible for planning all aspects of events.  From audio-visual needs to room set-up to food and beverage needs, we handle it all.  And events can encompass anything from a meeting to a black tie gala and everything in between.  And yes, while it may not have been my “plan,” I wouldn’t change how things occurred because I I’m happy with where I am.

I will say that I am here because of two pieces of advice I received, and followed, early on.  Those two pieces of advice are:

  • be open to new opportunities, and
  • remember the most important thing you have is your reputation.

These two nuggets helped shape how I approached things when things just didn’t quite go as I had “planned.”  These two gems of advice helped me see that there were other doors to walk through when the one I wanted was closed.  (Let’s be honest, it was slammed, locked and dead bolted.) So,  I had two choices: continue to wait and wait to see if that door would be cracked, or suck it up, put on my big girl panties and re-evaluate. Thankfully, I re-evaluated, otherwise I’d still be sitting by that door that was never going to open.

That’s where the first nugget of advice came to assist me with what I needed to do.  I happened to be working at Walt Disney World at the time, in the theme parks division, so I took a crazy leap that my parents (among others) thought was nuts.  I moved into the resort division of the company!  How is this crazy, well, it’s crazy because I went from selling t-shirts and souvenirs to assisting people with planning their entire stays!  Granted, did I move into the resort division and immediately become a VP, GM, or a Manager?  Um, no.  I was a front desk agent.

Talk about a reality check! I was scared to death, knew no one, and didn’t even know what a front desk agent did.  But I quickly learned that the basic qualities I had already learned transferred into my new role, thank goodness.  Some of those were smiling (A LOT), being courteous, listening and being organized, to name a few.  I did have to learn how to balance a register, which was tough for this non-math person, and also how to plan itineraries, but I quickly figured out this was more figuring out who to call to assist, and that a 5:00 a.m. shift comes quite early!  But, I jumped in, learned the ropes and discovered I actually liked the resort side of things better than the theme park side.  Score one for the non-International Buyer!

Now, here’s where the second advice nugget helped me get to be where I am today.  I was minding my business, doing my thing, when I was approached by a manager about a new endeavor that was beginning and she wanted me to be a part of it.  Who, me, what, why?  She liked the fact that I wasn’t afraid of a challenge, that I rolled up my sleeves, and was a great team member.

The new endeavor was a Conference Services position, also known as Event Planner.  Seriously, me, someone with no experience as an Event Planner?  I didn’t even know what that was!  But, I reverted back to the first nugget and opened myself to this new endeavor.  I will never forget my first event I had to plan, on my own!  It was an internal meeting for our front office staff, and I think I broke out into hives for a week prior because, as planners soon learn, these events are sometimes a “make or break” situation for the other planner, the person on the other side of the desk.  Did it go perfectly?  I wish I could say so, but something I learned early on is that events rarely do go perfectly.  I really wish I could have known that in advance, but my mentor told me later that it was part of the learning process.  She was right, and granted, it was nothing catastrophic (the coffee wasn’t ready on time), but to me the world was ending.  The learning here was how to react “in the moment.”  So, I kept my cool, (while sweating through my suit jacket,) apologized for the misstep and asked what I could do to make things better. Much to my surprise, the world didn’t end, my event still was successful, and here I am today continuing to try and “make the magic!”

Back to how this started: this manager and I had never worked together, so how did she know this would be a right fit for me?  Reputation.  Unbeknownst to me, she had approached my managers and co-workers.  I hate to say it, but it’s true: people talk, and people watch.  Hence, why reputation is so important.  It is often the only information people have about you. Whether at work, or at school, or hanging out with friends, your reputation follows you!  Always.

Women in the work force, I’m sorry to say, do have it tougher than our male counterparts.  People may disagree with this statement, but I believe it, to my core.  My advice on reputation to anyone entering the work force, especially women, would be to be sure you have a strong work ethic, meaning you are willing to put in the time and effort to do a good, scratch that, great job!  Also, be tough when needed, but not just tough to be tough, there is a difference.  Seeking to understand is much more beneficial in the long run, for both you and the others involved.

Be careful, and heed the advice.  Trust me, I knew it, but I didn’t want to believe it.  Both pieces of advice were given to me by my father, believe it or not, when I was in High School.  How on earth is he ALWAYS right?  That’s a whole different story, but he is.  Still, to this day.  He. Is. Always. Right.

I hope you’re proud of me, Dad!