Outside of work, Sarah takes great joy in her family; husband Chad, daughter Riley, and the family boxer Lexie. They are all anticipating the arrival of their newest addition, with baby expected to make an appearance the end of this summer. Family time is spent reading ‘lots’ of books, renovating their home, and working in the garden. Luckily the book reading allows her time to put up her feet once in a while.
Midwest Meetings: What was your first experience with the meetings/events industry?
Sarah Ruzek: My first (real) job out of college was at the Roseville Visitors Association (RVA), a convention and visitors bureau in the Twin Cities area. My job was to help promote the area for leisure tourism, meetings/events, and group tours. I was also tasked with helping plan the Roseville Hospitality Awards, a new event to recognize outstanding service in the industry. We were a small office and I jumped at the opportunity. I was also involved as a member of MSAE, MPI-MN, SGMP, and two chambers of commerce where I attended events and volunteered on several planning committees.
MM: Tell us about your job(s).
SR: MSAE is the association for associations in MN, ND, and SD. We are a small staff (I am the education department) with just over 1,100 members (including about 150 allied or vendor members). I plan the overall development, marketing, and delivery of education programs, conferences, and social events at MSAE. I negotiate contracts, solicit sponsorships, manage budgets, hire speakers, write scripts, and coordinate details for all of our meetings, events, and tradeshows. On average, I plan one in-person meeting or event each month (ranging from 30-450 attendees), along with bi-monthly webinars and networking groups. This is an exciting year for MSAE as the organization is celebrating 60 years. In the works are the 60th Celebration in August, member appreciation events throughout the year, rebranding, and new diversity and inclusion initiatives.
MM: What is your favorite part of your job?
SR: I get to work with great people! We accomplish so much with a small staff and budget… and I get to work with the best members! Our members are engaged, enthusiastic, and awesome proponents of the meetings and association industry. I learn so much from them and they make us better. In addition, I get to be creative and make a difference in the lives of our members.
MM: What is your favorite meeting/event to plan?
SR: Right now, it’s our 60th Celebration in August. It’s a new event so it brings different challenges, but more importantly an open canvas. We’re getting out of our comfort zone and really trying to make every aspect of the event an experience, with surprises around every corner. We will celebrate our past and focus on the future, all while creating memories.
MM: What has been the most memorable moment in your career?
SR: One of the most rewarding was our Annual Meeting & Expo in 2012 when we surprised attendees with a flash mob during the tradeshow and member-led band performance of “Come Together,” the conference theme that year. I wasn’t sure if we were going to pull either of them off but both were fun and memorable.
MM: Any interesting challenges you’ve faced and overcome over the years?
SR: As the association for associations, we are in a good place to negotiate better deals for venues, speakers, printers, etc. as our members are hiring these same vendors. With that said, I have always been expected to do more with less and many times negotiate something for free or at a reduced cost. Naturally, I am not someone who asks for a discount, let alone anything for free so it’s taken me out of my comfort zone. It’s been a challenge at times but I always try to make it a win-win for both sides.
MM: Have you ever had a ‘save the day’ moment during a meeting/event?
SR: We’ve always been pretty lucky with the weather at our annual golf tournament. Well, last year was the exception. We knew a thunderstorm was coming but we didn’t know how bad or how long it would last. Golfers were prepped in advance that the tournament was still on and that we would play it by ear, in case of inclement weather. I beat the rain that morning, but others drove into it on their way to the course. The rain started innocently enough, then turned into a downpour. Our shotgun start time came and went, and it was still raining. Less than an hour later, the rain had stopped but it was going to take the course an hour to clear the water before golfers could get out on the course. I got to be the bearer of bad news – I will always remember addressing the group, I heard an overwhelming “UHHHH,” sheer disappointment to the extended delay. Then, I went on to tell everyone our plan to make it a great golf tournament, despite the delay. We were going to golf nine holes and everyone would receive a 9-hole golf voucher for that afternoon or to come back later in the year, the bar was open, we were moving up the raffle prize drawings (normally after lunch), and we could get started with the Mega Putt Challenge (everyone shoots for the same hole at the same time) after the drawings. It turned out to be a great day and we got on the course sooner than anticipated. I don’t know if I’d call it a “save the day” moment but we definitely made what could have been a bad situation into a good one!
MM: What do you like most about the meetings/events industry?
SR: I really love the innovation and creative ideas coming out of the industry… there’s always something new to get inspired by and bring back to our members.
MM: What is the best compliment you have ever received from an attendee?
SR: I planned our first-ever Meeting Planners Symposium last year… for meeting planners. Hosting a program strictly for meeting planners was exciting but also nerve-wracking - what if we didn’t fulfill expectations, what if we couldn’t deliver? We put together an awesome committee and planned an exciting new program with micro-learning sessions, hub groups to meet and gather throughout the day, unique furniture layouts to experience, an idea board and other spaces to learn and reflect on one’s own, plus other new experiences for attendees. One of our most-seasoned meeting planners in the industry continues to refer to this program as the best event she’s ever attended at MSAE. Now, the goal is to create an even better symposium this year!
MM: What is your most successful sponsorship solicitation technique?
SR: We’ve really tried to customize the sponsorship experience for sponsors. By developing a relationship, finding out their goals and budget. We are able to customize a unique offering for each sponsor to suit their needs. We stay in touch throughout the year to continue growing the relationship and check back in to make sure we’re hitting the mark. In addition, we’ve found success creating sponsorship levels that include value-add items (like a free exhibitor booth) to help the sponsor’s bottom line too.
MM: To what do you attribute your success?
SR: I’ve been lucky to be surrounded by others who allow me to be creative, run with an idea, make mistakes occasionally, and provide guidance when needed. In addition, I am motivated, driven, am open to suggestions, and want to continually learn and grow. I don’t always have the answer but try to find the best possible solution.
MM: What challenges do you feel meeting and event planners face today and what is the approach to those challenges?
SR: Attendees expect customized communications and a meeting and event experience. It’s not okay to assume everyone wants the same meal, educational offering, or communication vehicle. Some attendees prefer online communications, others print, texting, or social media. The needs of nursing moms, bachelors, those on a special diet, introverts, and extroverts all vary - we need to be aware of this and know more about our attendees. I think we’re going to start seeing more tools to customize the experience beyond choosing a track, selecting your meal choice, etc. I’ve been reading a lot more on building quiet time into conferences - I see that as a trend too. More emphasis on making the meeting feel like home - comfortable seating, shorter sessions, more time to reflect, etc.
Thank you to Angela Kisskeys, Marketing and Communications Manager, at Associations North (Formerly MSAE) for nominating Sarah Ruzek.
Update: MSAE announced a rebrand and the new name 'Associations North' on May 18, 2016 during the MSAE Annual Meeting and Expo. Read more about it here.