#Eventprof of the Month

Karna Zelidon

Each month we profile one inspiring individual who is raising the bar in the meetings & events industry. Read on to learn why Karna, Senior Sales Manager, is our June 2020 #Eventprof of the month.

I first met Karna back when I was living in San Francisco while working in-house for Taulia. I was searching for our next venue for their annual user conference, Taulia Connect, and she was my Sales contact at The Palace Hotel San Francisco, a Luxury Collection Hotel. While we didn’t end up hosting the program there that year, we’ve since had the opportunity to work together on multiple projects over the last few years at two different hotel venues. It’s safe to say she’s always been an absolute pleasure to work with and continues to be one of my favorite hotel partners to this day. When it comes to the site selection process, her personal touch literally makes all the difference!

As of this release, things are slowly beginning to open back up amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. And while it’s been a wild few months for the hospitality industry, I’m comforted in knowing that when we get back to in-person meetings, there are trusted partners like Karna who we can rely on to help our clients get back to meeting safely and successfully.

You’ll see why she was the first person we thought of as an #eventprof to feature “from the hotel side of things” in reading her feature below!

– Chrissy

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Here’s 10 questions with our June feature, Karna Zelidon.

1. What initially drew you into the events industry?

I started in the hospitality industry in high school, where I worked at my first hotel job on the weekends for extra money. After high school, I took up jobs in other industries, collecting various professional lessons and experiences. I was born and raised in Sweden, but in my late twenties I had an opportunity to move to the U.S.

Once I got to the States I was trying to figure out what I wanted in a job, exploring possible career paths and industries, when I remembered my time spent in hospitality and simply felt drawn back.

I got a job as a front desk receptionist at Pan Pacific in San Francisco (currently the JW Marriott), and over time, worked my way up in operations which ultimately landed me to where I am today in Sales. That upward mobility and opportunity for growth is the beautiful thing about the hospitality industry. Sure, you can earn a Hospitality degree, and many people nowadays take that approach. But, most people I’ve come to know from my years in the industry (myself included) happen to have fallen into hospitality or had a seed planted at some point, to which they’ve returned to. Because there are so many educational offerings and opportunities along the way, it’s easy to pivot and move up in (or across to) different departments until you find what suits you. With a ton of hard work and passion, anything is possible!

2. What’s a day in the life of Karna like?

Ha, well, that’s more a matter of Pre-COVID and Post-COVID, because my days now look very different from what they did a few months ago!

Before the quarantine, I’d start my days early, mapping out my to-do’s, like emails, follow ups, and checking in with the team. Pre-COVID, I was able to work from home here and there, as needed – which is something I love about the Hyatt Regency San Francisco. They’re so flexible and supportive of their staff and (as long as everything gets done and communication is open, of course) we’re free to work from home or in the office at our discretion. That said, as much as I love the freedom of working from home, I need human interaction and connection with the team – the kind of connection you can only really achieve in the office together.

And, as you know, in March everything changed, and I was furloughed along with so many others. So the adjustment to that new normal was a bit of a challenge. I’m so grateful that my family and I are healthy and well, but so much of my identity stems from my work life, so the shift in mindset was something that I had to figure out how to manage! I found that I needed to stay both physically and mentally active to help ground me through all the change and uncertainty.

Thankfully, there have been so many free online courses offered during this time, and numerous resources. The enormous outpouring of support across communities and industries is really great to see. And I think we all benefit from working towards our goals, and are motivated by gaining that sense of accomplishment. So that’s what I’ve redirected some of my energy towards. That, and getting back into running!

3. How do you feel your role helps advance your company’s overall goals?

As a sales manager, you’re very much an entrepreneur. Of course, you’re still a part of a team that’s working towards a greater goal, but as the manager, you’re the one behind the wheel. You’re the one that makes it happen. There are always quotas to meet and parameters to operate within, but it’s up to you to form the relationships with clients and successfully manage and facilitate their needs. And ultimately, that’s how you solidify return customers and future business for your company, which is great for everyone!

4. How many events do you work on per year? What’s the mix?

At Hyatt, I handle large groups – the room block, the meeting space, so mostly larger conferences, hotel buyouts, etc.

I handle the greater San Francisco area, so most of my groups are corporate (about 75%) and the others are association businesses (about 25%). I haven’t worked with association groups in a very long time. I really enjoy having this newfound market segment. It’s been a great opportunity to broaden my growth and understanding within the industry.

5. What is your favorite venue you have worked in, and why?

I’ve worked in many hotels around the world, but a few of my favorites are:

They have a very strong and thoughtful brand culture, and they’re forward-thinking and collaborative spirit is really enjoyable. I love what the brand stands for.

Palace Hotel:
With its rich history, anchored in the SF culture and scene, the space can easily take your breath away! Truly one of a kind!

Capstone Hotel:
When I lived in Alabama I worked at a Starwood property (currently Capstone Hotel), located on the University of Alabama campus. After a few years of working there they decided to go independent, which dramatically shifted the way things operated. Even though I had a couple of other job offers during my tenure there, the reason I decided to stay was because our General Manager and the owners were hyper-focused on developing their staff by offering us opportunities to grow professionally.

At the time they didn’t have a Director of Revenue (can you believe that?!), so the owners and management started an initiative that provided access to Revenue classes for me to learn more about that side of the business.

Naturally, I jumped right in, eager to learn more about the analytical side of things. Working as a Director of Revenue was very rewarding in many ways. But, after some time, I realized that I was missing the client relationship side, which was one of my favorite parts of my position in Sales.

Eventually, when the Director of Sales left they asked me if I wanted to take on that role, which I happily accepted! I haven’t looked back since.

6. How do you measure success for the events you manage?

The way we measure success (aside from formal metrics) is simply having a client come back to us at the end of an event with glowing reviews. Hearing those grateful affirmations like, “you hit it out of the park!” or “we’re so happy with the way things went, you did such an amazing job!” makes it all worth it and proves to our team and company that our services were exceptional and the job we did was a success.

7. Where do you see the events industry going in the future? Any trends?

Unfortunately, we don’t have a crystal ball and there’s so much uncertainty these days, but I’m staying positive. I believe our industry is incredibly resilient. In my personal opinion, it will definitely take some time to get back to where we were and we’ll have to overcome many challenges, but that’s to be expected, right? We’re all trying to figure out how to manage expectations around moving to virtual meetings vs. resuming with live events.

I believe that humans want to find their way back to live events and meetings. After all, there’s so much that happens when you gather people in a room that simply cannot be achieved in virtual meetings. There’s something organic about striking up conversations with new people, fast-forwarding a few years, and now that person you met while grabbing a coffee between speakers is someone you’re working with or someone who’s just offered you that dream job.

8. Where do you find inspiration?

Podcasts, books, webinars – sure! But, I also find a ton of inspiration from my team and peers. Team-building activities, nurturing relationships, and working towards a common goal with others are the most inspiring for me.

9. How do you find balance outside of work?

I’m definitely the type of person that wants to respond right away when an email or request comes through. I find a lot of pride in showing up and being there for people. But, it’s something I need to be better at managing when I’m “off the clock.” I’d like to be more conscious of carving out time to recharge and reset, and focus on family and myself. What can I say, finding balance is a work in progress for me!

10. Any advice for #eventprofs just getting started?

I’ve dedicated my career to the hospitality industry, and while it’s been full of challenges, it’s also been so rewarding. All the positive feedback from clients, my team, and colleagues (and everything in between), really assures me that I’m in the right place.

There are so many facets in the hotel industry, especially concerning the event planning process. But, it’s seeing all the parts and people come together that is the real bread and butter of my job.

When I first entered the industry, I didn’t realize how many career paths were available. The mobility between departments and the possibility of promotion is astounding. When you apply passion and motivation to your course, you’d be surprised how quickly you get to where you want to go.

Sure, it’s fast-paced and stressful at times, and because of that, you’re bound to make mistakes. However, the goal is to avoid making careless mistakes (…because rest assured, you will make mistakes). But, as long as you’re open, flexible, and eager to learn, you’ll grow.

The last thing I’ll say is you need to remember we’re not brain surgeons. We’re not saving the world. The work we do is important and impactful, but don’t take yourself too seriously and find humor and joy in your daily tasks. Being in the trenches and finding your way out on the other side is the most rewarding part of this industry – I promise.

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