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The traditional role of a PA (personal assistant) was to co-ordinate the day-to-day life of a company bigwig. However, managing directors have come to realise that their assistants’ skill sets – impeccable organisation, venue knowledge and a unique resonance with company culture – are directly transferable for organising larger events.
A survey of 1,500 UK personal and executive assistants (EAs), conducted by Late Night London, found that 96 per cent of respondents were responsible for their company’s events, with 68 per cent saying their employer strongly valued such events. Meanwhile, 16 per cent of PAs and EAs managed budgets of £90,000 or more.
Randa Benham is PA to the vice-president at laboratory equipment firm Sartorius UK. She says event organisation has become deeply entrenched in her role. Her events range from business lunches in local pubs to full company Christmas parties in exclusive central London venues.
“I usually get involved in the whole planning, including visiting the venue and getting acquainted with our event’s manager for the evening who I can liaise with directly throughout the months over the planning of the event,” she says. “For our Christmas party in December 2013, planning started as early as February of that year.”
While the general planning for the Christmas event was left to an agency, Benham organised transport and accommodation for 100-plus guests, and she says the majority of her events are undertaken entirely on her own.
Such multitasking is also second nature for Jazmine Cloughley, PA to general counsel at Smiths Group, who juggles working with venues, caterers and travel companies. “A PA would know what is expected of the event, how it should look and feel, and also, of course, know what the business expects of the event – so therefore can set it all up fairly swiftly,” she says.
These are traits that event agencies have come to admire, and the PA is often the key link with a corporate organisation. Andy Ashley, managing director at Corporate Events, says PAs’ skills are directly transferable in the events industry. He adds: “The PA has a lot to juggle, but this is proof of their value to an organisation. With so much data going through a PA about varied aspects of a company, they will have unprecedented knowledge of its culture, both good and bad. When it comes to shaping an event’s message, a PA can be consulted about the pulse of an organisation and what the mood is on the shop floor.”
These skills mean that PAs’ job roles are expanding, according to Kate Gunn, head of logistics at event agency Line Up. But she asserts that while many PAs have all the requisite skills to make great in-house event managers, they won’t necessarily have the specialist experience of a dedicated event manager. Not surprisingly she says a “strong collaborative working relationship with your agency is key”.
Others also point to a big shift in the responsibility that PAs are entrusted with, including Russell Allen, founder of event agency Crescendo. He says corporate PAs play an increasingly critical role in ensuring the ‘hard’ requirements of an event are met, such as location and venue, but also the ‘soft’ elements – things like the brand and the “voice” of the organisation.
He says: “There is a huge responsibility on PAs not only to work with the right venue, but often to select the right agency at the right price, and to transpose and echo the brand. A PA’s experience on the ground, working across all levels of an organisation, means they are great navigators of a business who know its people and complexities intimately.”
Keeping people informed
After four years in her role, Benham is now considered a ‘navigator’ of Sartorius UK, assisting everyone in the company, and keeping staff up to date and informed of any changes. “I am very familiar with each one of our 115 staff in the UK, Ireland and Nordics, including senior managers in our parent company in Germany, where there are staff who have been there for over 20 years who still don’t know some of the team members they are working with,” she says.
Smiths Group’s Cloughley says it’s helpful if the PA has attended an event and knows what they expect as a delegate. She says: “A PA should also always be at least one or two steps ahead of the person they are supporting, and anticipating things is very important. I mainly organise meetings at hotels around the world and usually don’t attend them myself. However, I have attended very good conferences and try to replicate the professionalism for the events I organise.”
As PAs’ remits widen, ensuring recognition of this, and credit where it’s due, can only benefit the business. However, Crescendo’s Allen says the PA’s job is often supplementary to their regular duties, and sadly often overlooked. “Our experience is that a PA is often only recognised if something is not going right,” he says. “But we do find that our most successful clients firmly recognise their role in helping to bring the event to life and, in turn, help tell the corporate story.” n
Top’s tips for PA-event organiser relationships
Leadership event specialist Top Banana has worked with PAs from organisations including Danone and Barclaycard. Managing director Nick Terry says PAs and event managers are both working towards a common goal – presenting a corporate organisation and its leaders in their best light. Here are his tips for a successful union between event agencies and corporate PAs...
1. Be open minded
“A good agency will challenge a corporation’s status quo. By understanding the management’s event objectives, embracing change is far easier. In practice, this can be anything from helping choose a unique venue to recommending good artists and theming. A good PA knows what will resonate well with their employers and staff.”
2. Access is everything
“Leaving decisions to the last minute can impact on the quality of an event, so providing a dialogue between your agency and your decision makers from the outset ensures that everyone can understand the objectives and move forward more quickly.”
3. Get the logistics right
“Understand how small logistical decisions can make or break an event, be they the politics of a table plan or the order in which your speakers appear. Work with your agency to help post event cascades and drive your senior managers’ diary access to make sure they happen.”
4. Be a trusted advisor
“A PA can help an agency understand a brand better. They know who the company mavens are, and are well placed to be a sounding board about company culture. PAs make a valuable part of any event’s steering committee.”
5. Be accurate and diligent
“There are common skills in being a good PA and being a good event organiser. Knowing how to make a project run smoothly, interpreting instructions and keeping your diary on hand at every step of the journey is vital. Importantly, though, this should be a fun and creative process.”