B.C. event planner handles behind the scenes tasks at MEDA conventions
Ann-Michele Ewert works hard to be low-profile.
Not that the gregarious event planner is unhappy to chat.
It’s just that Ewert, who has helped organize MEDA’s annual Business as A Calling convention for 20 years, measures success by how well she can blend in. “If you do your job well, people don’t notice,” she says.
“In order to get that (anonymity), there’s a million small things,” she noted, comparing the work to a duck on a pond, placid on top but legs moving rapidly below the water’s surface.
On the move is a fitting description of her life story.
An only child, Ewert was born in Florida. Her father, a Jewish packaging designer, moved the family to British Columbia when she was two.
After her parents’ divorce when Ann-Michele was five, her mother remarried, to an Anglican (Her mother had been raised Anglican and converted to Judaism before her daughter’s birth).
Ann-Michele met her husband Steve, who was raised Mennonite, during high school in Richmond, B.C. “That was super intriguing to me, the whole faith side.”
Ironically, while Ann-Michele and Steve came from different faith backgrounds, there were parallels in their grandparents’ life journeys. “There was a similar story of exodus.”
Steve’s grandparents tried to get out of Communist Ukraine to Germany. His grandmother succeeded.
Around the same time, Ann-Michele’s Jewish grandparents were trying to escape Berlin under the Nazis and resettle in Ukraine.
Ann-Michele was baptized by a Mennonite pastor who also performed her wedding.
After marrying Steve, a builder, she found outlets for her artistic leanings by helping to design houses, choosing colors, tiles, carpet and other components. “God also then, equips you with the ability to do different things.”
One of two jobs she juggled while in university, a summer position at an educational toy store, provided her first entrepreneurial opportunity.
During her first summer selling toys, residents of northern BC came to the store wanting educational toys for their children. Word of mouth led to letters requesting similar products, and many more sales.
She filled so many orders from distant customers that she was asked to become marketing director as the firm expanded across Canada.
During her second year, she did a national sales convention, organizing a boat cruise, tours, product knowledge seminars, and sales training, heady responsibilities for a 23-year-old, teaching much older women.
“With convention planning, it’s never about the person doing the planning,” she said. “That person just has to listen to all these great people that surround them, for ideas.”
Energized by the sales convention, she wanted more. A Hawaii trip for top salespeople was her next project. At a car rental there, she wasn’t old enough to rent the vehicle to drive her guests. “I was mortified, but they (salespeople) made it so fun.”
Sadly, the adventures didn’t last. That Christmas, the toy company’s owner panicked after department stores entered the educational toy market. He disappeared, leaving behind a lot of debt.
Ewert, then 24, had to deal with the bank. A supplier told Ewert to move on, introducing her to a firm that needed a buyer. She did that for a year, after which the Ewerts did a round-the-world trip.
On her return, pregnant and with no job, she became a stay-at-home mom for six years.
Satisfying as it was to watch her children grow, Ewert sought ways to connect with other adults. “I missed people terribly.”
She started a biweekly, mother of pre-schoolers group at her church, a gathering that grew to 120 moms. Organizing those meetings gave her an outlet for planning events.
In 1996, she heard MEDA board member Ted Andres talk about MEDA. She and Steve began attending local events and travelled to the MEDA convention in Winnipeg that fall.
After she helped organize local MEDA gatherings, MEDA staff asked her to provide on the ground support for a future B.C convention.
“I probably should have been more nervous, if I had known it would be a job interview for the next 20 years.”
Her first MEDA convention was in Norfolk, VA in 1999.
Ewert works closely with Carol Eby-Good of MEDA’s Lancaster, PA office. “Carol’s skill set and mine are very different. She is this detail-focused, talented gatherer who is so focused on details, which is what you need to have the management information to run with a convention. ”
Balancing budget concerns with satisfying clients is the biggest challenge in event planning in the non-profit space, she said. “You always feel like you’re holding the client’s money like it’s your own, and yet I have such a desire to do things with excellence that that’s a tough compromise, sometimes.”
Managing a volunteer army can also be challenging. “How much do you ask them to do? How tough do you lead them? How do you get them to do what you want them to do?”
Planning each year’s MEDA convention starts in January, deciding hotel arrangements, mapping out seminars and tours. Through September and October, Ewert is fully committed to convention work.
She sees the job as a service and relationship role, one that occasionally requires discreetly dealing with people’s medical emergencies. “This job is a gift because you get to touch people’s lives.”
“I like serving people. I like being around people. That’s where I get my energy.”
Other events she has planned include small corporate boards of directors’ gatherings, fair trade events for an Ontario company, and golf tournaments held by former NHL player Trevor Linden and Cadillac Fairview to expand a hospice camp for children.
She also organizes large gatherings for a Richmond Christian school. “Any of the events that are beyond the scope of a volunteer capacity, they call me.”
When Ewert first began helping plan MEDA conventions, the organization was booking a year in advance. As she did more research into event planning, she joined a professional meeting planners’ organization.
After 15 years in the industry, a person can apply to become a certified meeting planner professional, a designation that gives credibility in dealing with hotels and tour companies. “When they see that designation, they know that you know what you’re doing.”
Planning further out gives convention organizers access to the hotel they want in a given city, lower room rates and other perks. After seeing the benefits of planning two years ahead, MEDA moved to planning three years out. In late winter every year, she sends a request for proposals to a prospective city’s visitor and convention bureau, explaining MEDA’s needs. Typically, she gets back three to four bids.
She ranks hotels based on costs and benefits of each facility. Ewert and MEDA organizers do site visits, touring city attractions, hotel meeting space and food offerings.
Each convention, Ewert arrives four days before supporters. She spends that first day going through all the convention details with a hotel events manager. Each meeting room is diagrammed for any events.
She has a week’s worth of paperwork to do post convention. “I get my cold on Tuesday, usually,” she said with a laugh. “Physically, you’re tired. But there’s always a part to me that’s sad.” ◆