Events are Her Cup of Tea: Janet Holliday

Janet Holliday says her career began with a turkey — literally. “My grandmother was an awesome cook,” she says, “and one year, we were all gathered around the table at her house for Thanksgiving when the lady who worked for her came out with this big, beautiful turkey with all the trimmings. It was on a heavy silver platter, and the lady who was carrying it was very small.” Somehow, the server made a misstep, and the huge, golden-brown bird dropped and bounced before landing on the floor. “We were all silent for what must have been only a few seconds,” Holliday remembers, “until my grandmother announced, ‘Enjoy your dinner; we’ll be back soon with the other turkey.’” Less than 10 minutes later, the platter had been reloaded with a perfect-looking entrée, this time already carved for serving. “In the car on the way home,” says Holliday, “my little sister said, ‘Grandma was so smart to have made another turkey, wasn’t she?’” The significance of the incident wasn’t lost on Holliday, who considers it full of lessons she still lives by — keep your cool, always have a Plan B and keep the event’s focus on your guests rather than yourself. Now president and CEO of the CE Group Inc., a company she co-founded 20 years ago with Lainey Berkus, Holliday is at the top of her game. Her event-management and marketing firm has worked on some of the city’s biggest events, such as the Luminaria arts festival, the opening of the Museum Reach extension of the River Walk and the reopening of the new Terminal B at San Antonio International Airport. Recently, the company was tapped by the NCAA to provide fan activities for the next three Women’s Final Four tournaments.

Since its founding, the CE Group has grown from three to 61 employees, including 25 full-time staff members. The company occupies a stunning suite of industrial-chic offices in the Full Goods building at the refurbished Pearl Brewing complex and has opened additional offices in Austin and Houston. All this success has led to one problem, though Holliday acknowledges it’s one that a lot of people would like to have. “People say of us, ‘They do all the big parties in town,’ and that’s just not true,” she says. “We don’t do all of them, we also do business around the state, and I don’t like to call them ‘parties.’ They’re events.” What’s the difference? Party planners, Holliday says, are hired to put together a festive occasion, but the CE Group provides much more. “I always start by asking a client, ‘What is the purpose of this event?’” she says. “Too many companies or organizations have had the experience of throwing a big party, at considerable expense, and nothing happens. They didn’t get the audience they wanted, or (the event) didn’t drive sales, and they don’t think they got any return on their investment.” To avoid costly busts, Holliday and her staff start with the “why” of an event and work not only to make it happen but to make it count, marketing the event and its purpose before, during and after the event.

While she now works with major corporations and has learned to speak their language and analyze their needs, Holliday didn’t start out in the business world. Growing up in Beaumont, where her father had his own business in investments and commercial real estate, she says, “I didn’t know anything about business, and it wasn’t something I thought about for myself.” At the University of Texas at Austin, she majored in psychology and social work and earned a master’s degree in social work. After graduation and marriage to Rob Holliday, she moved to Houston, where she spent 10 years directing Harris County’s Mental Health and Mental Retardation agency. Working in the nonprofit world “was the best training I could have had,” says Holliday, “because I had to be my own event planner and do my own public relations. I learned to do a lot with a little.”

Following her husband’s career to San Antonio, Holliday took a break from full-time work outside the home, volunteering and getting to know people throughout the community and concentrating on motherhood. The couple’s daughter, Melissa, died of a heart condition at age 3, and their son, Ryan, 21, is now a student at Texas A&M University. Rather than dwelling on the loss of her child, Holliday decided to look outside herself for her next move. At the time, the Hollidays lived across the street from Terry Cummings, then a forward for the San Antonio Spurs. Cummings needed help launching his foundation. With Berkus, who now heads the CE Group’s public-relations division, Holliday formed a company called Clever Endeavors to plan and market events. For those who remember that earlier name, yes, says Holliday, “This is the same company. We changed the name because people had trouble spelling it and because we do so much more now.” While Holliday was careful to “fit the business around my family,” the fledgling company took off quickly, taking on more and more-ambitious projects as its reputation grew. “We became known as a little big company that could gear up for whatever a project entailed,” she says.

As the business grew, so did Holliday’s expertise in event management. “This business is based on relationships and resources,” she says. “Early on, if someone would ask me if they could have mariachis at an event, I would say, ‘Of course,’ but I would break out in a sweat.” Gradually, she came to know and rely on the area’s best vendors and entertainers, but that doesn’t mean events were guaranteed to go off without a hitch. “There is no such thing as a perfect event,” Holliday says. “I start out thinking of worst-case scenarios: What could go wrong here? Then I think of ways to prevent it.” People tell her her job is glamorous, she says, but most of it is hard work. “At least 80 percent of what we do is invisible or should be. People don’t come up to you at an event and say, ‘Fabulous sound system!’ but they’ll sure notice if it goes out.” Even with the best-laid plans, the unforeseen happens. At the opening of the Alamodome, for instance, “There was no toilet paper,” Holliday says. The solution was to “borrow some from the Convention Center.” At an event where the menu was built around sushi and dessert, and the sushi caterer never showed up, she says, “We just changed the theme to desserts.” When a headlining entertainer had lost his wardrobe and was prepared to go onstage at an elegant event in cutoffs, “We went out and got him some dress pants.”

As a frequent public speaker, Holliday is often asked to talk about near-disasters like these, probably because so many people approach entertaining with trepidation. “What stresses other people out, I thrive on,” she says. “You have to be able to think on your feet, and above all, you have to keep your sense of humor.” For those planning their own holiday parties, she offers advice for taking the stress out of the season. “Remember, it doesn’t have to be perfect,” says Holliday. “Nobody will remember what the table looks like; the memories are in the people you’re with and how you feel about them.” For the hosts, she suggests doing as much ahead of time as possible: “Simplify everything, so you can be a guest at your own party.” To gain perspective on party pitfalls, she recommends her parents’ childhood advice. “They always told us, ‘Do your best.’ It may not get you where you want to go, but that’s what I strive for and that’s what allows me to sleep at night.” Most important, she says, “This isn’t life or death. There will be disappointments, but you can learn from them.”

As head of her own company, whose mission has grown in recent years to include conference and destination management, sports marketing and venue management, Holliday finds herself more involved in running the business itself rather than the details of individual events. “Thinking a step ahead,” she says, she’s developing a series of seminars, tentatively titled EventFull, in which she’ll share her expertise and philosophy. Especially in tough economic times, she says, “Not everyone can afford to hire us to plan an event, but they could perhaps come to a seminar where I could tell them about a day in the life of an event planner. I’ll be sharing some of the Aha! moments I’ve had and my answers to the question, ‘How do you do it all?’” if all goes well, the next step would be to turn the seminars into a book.

At this point, however, Holliday is still thriving in her role at the helm of the CE Group. “I have the best job in town,” she says. “I love it so much, I’d be doing it even if I weren’t doing it. I always say, for me, every day’s a holiday.”

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