When Your Job Is Planning the Most Important Day of Someone’s Life

Jennifer Lucio Vargas, an event planner in Miami, Florida, talks about running a majority-Latina firm, and the stress of getting everything just right.

Jennifer Lucio Vargas (Rebecca Clarke )

The event-planning industry has so far been immune to automation. It relies on human interaction and conference calls—things that cannot be easily outsourced to a machine. The profession is expected to grow by 10 percent by 2024, outpacing the average occupation, in part thanks to the increased visibility of both private and public events. Apps like Pinterest and Instagram have enabled people to scroll through endless visions of what their wedding, political convention, or company holiday party could look like, and planners are often tasked with creating the most realistic version of what people want, given their budgets.

Jennifer Lucio Vargas is the founder and CEO of a communications and events firm in Miami, Florida that targets predominantly Hispanic events. For The Atlantic’s series of interviews with American workers, I spoke with Lucio Vargas about what it takes to put together a large-scale event with thousands of guests, how her job relates to her identity as a Latina, and how social media has changed her clients’ expectations. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Adrienne Green: What inspired you to go into event planning?

Jennifer Lucio Vargas: My background was in public relations (PR), and I was heading up the Spanish-language department for a PR firm. I was exposed to a lot of media rooms and national conventions. I had the opportunity to work with someone who was retiring from her communications and events firm. I went to work with her, and took part in planning a U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce convention. It was there that I really realized that I loved the work; it was engaging and it kept me on my toes. From there, I worked as a contractor for that same organization and pretty soon I was working with five or six different clients and realized I could make a business doing this.

Green: How is having your own events firm different than your job in PR, and what do you do as an event planner?

Lucio Vargas: What I really do now is 90 percent event planning, on top of running the business, which is a whole other job in and of itself. My core responsibilities are planning out the event, executing everything to the most minute detail, while at the same time also bringing in some creativity to the events themselves. What's great about it is that we are one of the few firms that target minority meetings, especially ones that relate to the Hispanic population in the U.S. I think that really drove me to do this, and it motivates me to keep going that there aren't a lot of firms that understand the group or the cultural sensitivities.

Jennifer Lucio Vargas with her colleagues at an event (305 Communications and Events)

Green: What made you want to zero in on minority-focused events?

Lucio Vargas: Being a Latina myself, I saw an opportunity and decided to engage with it. I started working with one organization, and the nonprofit Hispanic groups are very tight-knit. Word of mouth led us to have these opportunities with other groups, but I realized that there was a niche and a need early for these types of meetings and this type of understanding. At the same time, it makes me feel like I'm giving a little bit back to my community by helping to elevate the presence and the professionalism of these Hispanic meetings and events.

Lucio Vargas: For me, a big part of growing up and becoming a professional was having a lot of strong women, and Hispanic women mentors throughout my career path. It’s similar to the way I started working on Hispanic events: It's not intentional that we work with women or Latinas, it's the opportunity that presents itself through our work. With our interns and younger employees, we're promoting the next generation of Latina leaders. As it relates to our clients, it's great to see the faces of Latinas and Latinos working the events that are relating to that specific community.

Green: Do you perceive your work differently now as opposed to when you weren’t working directly with the Hispanic community?

Lucio Vargas: I don't necessarily think it's different. I think it's more familiar. What I really love is that we're starting to actually distinguish that it's not different. Nobody looks at the events now and says, "Oh, this is an African American event or a Hispanic event. " This is just a big, high-profile event.

Green: What is an average day like for you?

Lucio Vargas: Really there's no typical day. Just these past two weeks alone, I was in Washington, D.C., where President Obama and Hillary Clinton spoke at a gala for over 2,000 people; I was in Mexico with IT leaders talking about cross-border collaboration; next, I'm going to throw a Spanish-themed grand opening for a residential community.

The projects and events that we do are so varied that our work days are varied. It's the diversity in what we do that means it’s never a boring career choice for me. Even if it's the same type of meeting for a client, it's a different location or group of people. Every single event feels very unique.

Green: How long does it usually take to plan an event from start to finish?

Lucio Vargas: Depending on the scale of the event, pre-planning can take anywhere from two years to six months in advance. There are different phases: budgetary and contracting, site visits, last-minute details, and then the execution itself. We're looking at 14- to 17- hour long days, just prepping and doing everything. People don't realize that when you see an event come together, somebody had to work to place the napkins down, roll the utensils, get the centerpieces delivered and place them.

Green: Is event planning stressful when it gets down to the wire?

Lucio Vargas: It's definitely a stressful career. I think it's one of the top 5 most stressful career choices. We don't do weddings, but for wedding planners, their everyday work is the most important day of somebody's life. That can be really stressful. As it relates to the work that I do, you always want it to go well. When things are on a large scale, it leads to very busy periods, but I think the reward at the end is definitely worth it.

Green: What's the most interesting event that you've put on?

The cooking competition planned by Lucio Vargas
(305 Communications and Events)

Lucio Vargas: We worked with a fresh-produce company a couple years back. They wanted to highlight their fresh produce line that was coming out of that year. We decided to piece together a cooking competition. We took to Facebook, and we invited the public to submit recipes with ideas and ingredients from our client's specific brand. From there, we had the public vote on the recipe that they thought were the most interesting. We invited the top four recipe chefs to come to Miami, and they did a Chopped-style elimination competition. We used a lot of the client’s products at the event. Instead of using vases, we used pineapples from the client's produce line as centerpieces. Instead of flowers, we used a lot of tomatoes, bananas, and avocados.

Green: Was there an instance when things don’t go as planned?

Lucio Vargas: One of the first events that I did was with President George W. Bush. He was speaking at a client event and secret service told me, "Once he's done with his speech, he's going to shake hands with everybody, and you have about 90 seconds to get your 13 board members to take a photo with him."

When I saw him walk off the podium, I grabbed my board members, and I ran backstage. I immediately crash into the president. He decided that he didn't want to shake hands, and he was just going to go backstage, and I full on tackled him. He said, "Don't worry. There's no rush. We'll get the photo." I just honestly was shaking from my head to my toes. I joke that you can prepare for a lot of things, but weird, crazy, coincidental things happen at some of these events.

He was so gracious about it.

Lucio Vargas: I have owned this business for 11 years now, and I have been working in the industry for 15 years. I can say that it's growing, and changing very rapidly. When I was in college, there weren't a lot of schools that were offering a hospitality degree that’s specifically related to event management or meeting management. Now, there are many university programs out there and we're getting a whole generation of event professionals.

Also, there's a certification called the “certified meeting planner.” It's something that more and more people are attaining every year. It's just as hard as studying for the bar or getting your medical degree. It really is the standard and the ultimate test in our industry.

Green: What is the most challenging thing about your job?

Lucio Vargas: I think balancing the fine line between what clients envision and what can actually be done. I joke that in this world of Pinterest and other social media, everybody is an event planner today. They see stuff and say, "Hey, we can do this." It's our job to say, "Great, love your idea. Here's how we can implement it for your event." Especially working with nonprofits, oftentimes their budgets are smaller, but you still want to have a great impact. There's a fine line between working with what our resources allow versus what the whole scope of the universe could be for events.

Green: What motivates you as a worker?

Lucio Vargas: As it relates to events, I love seeing the finished product. You work on details and you get into the weeds. People don't realize that a napkin color or linen choices are just like pieces of a puzzle. Seeing a creative aspect that you had, and that thought that you had in your mind come to life, it's something a lot of people don't get to do and see in their careers.

Green: How is your work connected to your identity?

Lucio Vargas: I think that being a Latina, and working with Hispanic organizations, that's down to my core. It's who I am. It's everything that I do. The fact that I'm able to bring that to my work life, and have my work life reflect who I am, is important. Planning is also part of my core. My husband jokes all the time that I plan everything: from dinner to a full agenda for our trips. There's a fine line between how I am personally and how I am at work, and they’re one and the same most of the time.

This interview is a part of a series about the lives and experiences of members of the American workforce, which includes conversations with a hotel manager, a travel agent, and a tour guide.