• Meet Susan M. Diamond, CSEP, owner of Jigsaw Unlimited
• Loving the variety of events in the industry, remaining ethical and eclectic
• More than award winning - rewarding events
Susan M. Diamond, CSEP is the owner of Jigsaw Unlimited, an event promotion firm specializing in corporate, non-profit, association, and special events in Minneapolis, MN. She currently holds a position on the International Live Events Associations (ILEA) Board of Directors as the Director of Strategic Planning.
Her How Did You Get Here nomination came from Comedian Chris Shaw of Chris Shaw World who said, “In the past 15 years of attending her events, hiring her to stage events, as well as providing my services as a part of several of her events, I have seen her grow her business, not just by volume, but by the tremendous detail and scale she is able to produce.”
When Susan isn’t conducting site visits, meeting with clients, and coordinating the special details of another spectacular event you can find her enjoying time with her husband, Gary, while partaking in some of her favorite activities; gardening, cooking, and traveling to spend time with family and friends across the country.
Midwest Meetings: What was your first experience with the meeting/event industry?
Susan M. Diamond: My first job after college was in marketing support in the sales division of a large commercial real estate firm. After about a year, I was asked to help plan a remote, 3-day sales conference for our team of 40 people. Helping coordinate seminars, accommodations, catering, and entertainment is probably how I got the event planning ‘bug.’ Over the next two years, I coordinated tenant and broker parties, holiday parties, picnics, and summer concerts on the plaza.
When I moved to The Ackerberg Group as Marketing Director, planning events continued to be part of my job – and we had some great ones, including ribbon cuttings and grand openings, award celebrations, picnics, corporate celebrations, and many community-related events.
MM: Tell us about yourself and your job.
SMD: Starting Jigsaw in 1997, I essentially had the same job as at Ackerberg, but was offering my services on a freelance basis. Having spent several years in the commercial real estate world, those were the people I knew and who I marketed my services to. I developed a wonderful portfolio of clients providing them marketing and event planning services. When the condo boom started in 2002, the events side of my business took off, both in number of events and geographically. I was doing events across the country for a variety of developers, peaking at 87 events in 2007 in places like Dallas, Norfolk, Detroit, Memphis, Cincinnati, San Antonio, Chicago, St. Louis, and Denver.
When the recession hit in 2008, it was an abrupt wake up call to not have all of my clients in one industry. Realizing that I was powerless over the economy, I used that “downtime” to obtain my Certified Special Events Professional (CSEP) designation through the International Live Events Association (ILEA), formerly International Special Events Society (ISES), which I had been interested in for several years but had not had the time to pursue. I also built my website and invested a significant amount of time networking.
During 2008-2009, I still did a fair amount of events, but the scale and budgets were significantly reduced. There were a lot of teambuilding and networking events on shoestring budgets to still meet the need for an event and maximize limited resources.
Since 2010, I have been able to expand my corporate clientele well beyond my existing real estate clients, including a wide variety of professional associations and non-profit organizations. I have also been fortunate to partner with industry colleagues on several large corporate projects. For the past two years, I’ve collaborated with Ryan Hanson, CSEP of Minneapolis-based BeEvents, to produce the all-employee meetings for Alerus. In 2015, this was an event for 700 people in six cities and three time zones, taking place simultaneously. It grew to 850 people in seven cities in 2016. While it was logistically complicated, the process was smooth as everyone on the team appreciated and utilized the others’ specific talents and areas of expertise. Together we helped Alerus achieve some lofty goals.
For the past few years, I’ve averaged around 30 or so events a year and started traveling again having recently done events in San Diego and Chicago.
MM: What do you like most about your job?
SMD: I love the variety – the variety of size and scope of projects that I work on, the variety between corporate, non-profit, and special event projects, and especially the variety of people I get to collaborate with both on the client and vendor sides. We have so many amazing vendors in this market. Producing a wide range of events allows me to partner with the right vendor for the right project.
The sense of accomplishment at the conclusion of an event is also invigorating. It is so rewarding when a client is happy with the outcome – whether it’s raising funds or boosting morale. When the event delivers, it’s a good day.
MM: What is your approach to planning meetings and events?
SMD: I believe in collaboration and know that no event succeeds without a lot of people working together as a team to make sure that each element is planned and executed well. That means treating the client and every vendor respectfully and being inclusive throughout the process. Then, everyone feels that they’ve been part of the team and will likely go the extra mile.
Of course I’ve built some standard practices for organizing the work, but I approach every event by asking the client why they are having the event – which may not always be clearcut. In one case, I asked the question of a non-profit. The CFO said, “To raise funds, of course.” The CEO disagreed and said, “To show appreciation to our donors.” Those were two very different goals, so strategies were employed to accomplish both and that’s how each project begins, with thoughtful strategic planning.
MM: Tell us more about what prompted you to obtain your CSEP designation and do you have any advice to those looking to get their CSEP?
SMD: I became interested in obtaining the CSEP in 2004 when I joined ILEA, but just did not have the time until the recession. It was a more complex process involving earning points in a variety of categories and documenting them before you could sit for the 4.5 hour exam. So using my new “free time,” I finished accumulating those points and preparing my application binder.
MM: What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
SMD: One of my mentors, Stuart Ackerberg, gave me a clipping years ago titled, “Don’t Promise What You Can’t Deliver.” The clipping still hangs above my desk. It seems obvious enough, but sometimes human nature gets in the way and we over-promise, then under-deliver. That’s one of the easiest ways to lose business or jeopardize relationships.
SMD: I think it has evolved depending on what stage I was in during my career. Early on, it was probably a little bit of what I knew and who I knew combined with a lot of luck and being in the right place at the right time. But since I’ve been able to sustain this business for almost 20 years, I think wisdom does come with experience and I’ve learned over time to retain those experiences and use them to inform decisions going forward. I’ve learned it’s ok to say no when things aren’t a good fit and I’ve learned to adapt well to styles and personalities to best suit the needs of the client.
From a practical standpoint, I think my business is successful because I am personally engaged and hands on with each client and vendor. That personal connection and accountability is so important.
Finally, I believe that taking an ethical approach in business is essential. I think that when clients and vendors know that you are trustworthy, it goes a long way to building lasting relationships.
MM: What is the most rewarding part of your job?
SMD: It’s very rewarding to see something that took months to plan come to life as an experience that will impact people’s lives.
The relationships I have developed with clients, vendors, and event colleagues are the best part of this job. While it can be very hard work, and often not terribly glamorous, the friends that I have made and get to work with on a daily basis make the job so much fun.
Just For Fun
My Favorite things:
Time of year: Spring
Dessert: The chocolate martini at 112 Eatery, but that’s not really a dessert.
Movie: Scent of a Woman
Often there’s not a lot of time to decompress with events coming one right after the next, but a pedicure or massage can be a nice treat.
People who know me would NOT be surprised that: I am a big believer in mailing greeting cards with hand written notes– thank yous, birthdays, anniversaries. It feels special to get something in the mail, not an email or text.
The last book I read: Rick Steve’s Pocket Paris
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