I speak at a number of universities about careers in event planning and advise budding events management students on landing their first job in this field and thereafter, in building up a career in the events industry. I tell these students that landing that first events ‘dream job’ after graduating will not be easy; you have studied hard for three years and are full of youthful enthusiasm and an eagerness to harness everything you have learned on your course. Then, the horror… you realise that a ‘degree’ alone is not enough; employers want you to have ‘experience’ too, before they will hire you.

How do you get that all important and coveted ‘experience’, the special attribute which enables you to leapfrog over your competitors in an overcrowded jobs’ marketplace …and get noticed?  If you are starting out and keep getting the ‘have no experience’ line, then volunteering can seriously improve your job prospects!

How to get that all important ‘experience’?

Whilst I held down a full time job in a completely different industry, I wanted to gain experience in events management to see if it was a career I wanted to pursue.  I volunteered and became part of an organisation called Junior Chamber International (JCI) and was given many opportunities to organise conferences, charity events, training events and meetings.  The practical experience  I gained through volunteering, helped me stand out in a crowd of similarly qualified candidates, as I had acquired a useful array of practical,  transferable skills – all of which enabled me to change career and  form the CHS Group UK. 

Volunteering also provides an opportunity to develop new skills or build on existing experience and knowledge, which takes me to my next point;  planning your work experience to ‘stand out’ from the crowd and get yourself  noticed!

Standing out from the crowd to get noticed

It is a truism that nowadays organising a school prom, or a charity dinner is no longer enough to get you noticed and to ‘stand out from the crowd’, volunteering can give you the edge and land you that dream events role.

Volunteering has a number of benefits: 

  • Useful for gaining experience in different areas of events management allowing you to work on different types of events;
  • Helps you to understand what kind of work you would like to do in the long term – are you more akin to outdoor sporting events, or association conferences?
  • You can learn about all aspects of the industry  and  demonstrate your knowledge in future interviews;
  • You get an honest look at the industry, not just the glitzy side.  I’ve known people ask to work with us, because they see the glamorous side of the job. They think it’s all about meeting celebrities, attending parties and planning exciting activities.  Little do they realise that the team and myself were at the venue at 3am overseeing the stage building, bringing in boxes full of delegate brochures and name badges, filling out health and safety forms and stuffing 500 goody bags for conference satchels.  By volunteering you get to see the ‘hard slog’ side of event management, which is an excellent preparation for your future career;
  • You get to meet potential new employers.  You never know where or what volunteering might lead to.

Key routes into volunteering in the events industry

There are different ways to access volunteering in the events industry. Some opportunities are easy to find; others will take a little extra effort and a bout of lateral thinking; for instance, not all events and opportunities fit beneath the umbrella of the events industry, such as organising a fundraising event for charity. Here are just a few suggestions about finding out about volunteering:

  1. Student volunteer programmes  at university 

Keep your eyes open at your university campus for volunteering opportunities.  You may see  a poster asking for volunteers for a certain event, or activity, or your lecturer may alert you to opportunities as they arise. Be prepared to put some effort into volunteering, (even though you will not get paid you may still have to go through a selection process to be accepted).

My team and l run the CHS Group Student Volunteer Programme, which has proved very successful. Every year, at our industry trade exhibition, The Conference and Hospitality Show, we work with local universities, who run the event management degree course.  Students are alerted to the programme via their lecturers and they are asked to apply on-line if they would like to be considered.

Once we have selected a group of people we run a briefing session at the university to make sure that everyone is committed to the programme and is reliable.  This is one of the key areas of concern for people who want to offer volunteer positions.  Lynda Clayton who runs our Student Volunteer Programme comments:

Make sure you demonstrate that you will be at the volunteer location on time, wearing appropriate clothing, full of energy and ready to learn.  This will make a big impact and will result in you having a better experience.  When I see people who are keen to help and actively want to learn, I’m likely to rely on them more and therefore they will get the most out of their volunteering experience. Too many student volunteers come to us with a lazy attitude and aren’t prepared to pull their sleeves up – I worry about how long they will last in the industry

Students who have been through our programme have found work in the industry, as a direct result of meeting people during their time with us.  Equally, we have given references for people who have gone on to do some great work, both here in the UK, and overseas.

Whilst you may not get paid for volunteering work, remember that there are so many more benefits than a pay cheque – career advancement is your focus and motivation, not money!

2. Trade exhibitions

Event industry trade exhibitions like ours, will often take a group of volunteers to help set up stands and gain valuable experience in promoting our organisation.  However, there are lots of other exhibitions that take place all over the world that are often run by  small management teams  and requesting a volunteering opportunity will not only gain you valuable experience, but also give you an insight into other aspects of the industry.

3. Events management companies

Many events management companies/agencies offer internships to students and sometimes these come with a salary.  Do not restrict yourself to applying for work during your internship, however.  Can you offer your services as a volunteer during other times of the year, in order to gain experience in a specific aspect, or discipline?

4. Work in the community/charity events

If you look around you will see lots of opportunities to give your services for free in return for gaining valuable experience.  You also have the added benefit of giving something back to your  community.  Examples might include organising a fundraiser for a local school, or charity, joining organisations such as the, Round Table – who regularly hold fundraising events – or helping at sporting fundraisers at your local Football, Rugby, or Tennis club.

5. Look out for national and international projects

The London 2012 Olympics certainly championed volunteering by holding the ‘games makers’ in high esteem.  What better event to volunteer at than one of the largest  and  most prestigious events in the world?  You don’t need to be restricted to volunteering in the UK with large international events. If you’re a sports fan you might like to consider volunteering at the Football World Cup, or the Commonwealth Games.  There are also opportunities to volunteer at cultural events, or music events and art exhibitions. Research volunteering opportunities that are aligned with the skills you want to develop and the lifestyle experiences you want to achieve and target those special areas of interest.

Make the most of your volunteering project

Volunteering should be a win-win situation.  The company you’re working for gets a team of volunteers to help deliver a project, and you get the valuable experience that you need.  Work is required on both sides, from the employers having to recruit, delivering training and briefing sessions and managing an inexperienced team, through to the volunteer going through an application process, giving their time for free and actively engaging in the project. What is important is that when you have been given such an opportunity that you make the most of it and make sure it benefits you in the long run.

Top tips for making the most of your time volunteering

  1. Set objectives

Why are you volunteering?  Is it to get general event experience, or is it because you want to hone a specific skill?  Are you looking for a long term project where you can get an in-depth understanding of the industry or a one day project where you can work onsite to see how the mechanics of the event are put together?  Do you want to be customer facing, or do you want to get involved in the behind the scenes logistics?

From here you can identify if there are any skills gaps that you need to fill, or any specific experience you need to gain.  This will help you to work out what kind of volunteering work you want to go for and help you narrow down your options.

2. Communicate the kind of work you want

When applying for a placement, and again when you are in situ, communicate your objectives to your employer.  They won’t be mind-readers and you could spend a lot of time volunteering without it actually helping you in your career.  Ultimately, there may be specific roles that they need to fill, but most employers will try to give you as much experience in your chosen field as possible.

3. Make sure the work is valuable 

Whilst you need to make sure you operate professionally and engage fully with your placement (i.e. do anything that’s asked of you!), you do need to make sure that you’re time and skills aren’t abused.   Remember that volunteering should be a win-win situation, not simply an opportunity for a company to get free labour.  Assess opportunities as they come along and if you find yourself working with a company over a long period of time and find that you’re contributing/adding value to their organisation,  then you need to consider whether you should be  paid,  or not.

4. Obtain  testimonials and photos

Remember why you are volunteering?  What were your initial objectives?  It’s important that after your volunteering project that you are able to demonstrate the value in your CV that is has added  for your future employment prospects.  As a basic step, ask for a testimonial or reference and ask if you can either take a couple of photos, or whether the organisers can give you access to one or two for your portfolio.  If you are volunteering on a specific project, then there may be a formal certificate, or record of your employment that you can use.

Final word on volunteering

The benefits of volunteering are immense, not only do you gain some impressive experience for your C.V, but you also get to travel, meet people from different cultures, experience first-hand some or the worlds’ most exciting events and network with other people who might  hold the key to your future success.

Links to other related articles 

How to run a successful student volunteer programme

To find out more about the CHS student volunteer programme please contact, Lynda Clayton at: [email protected]

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