Juggling Among the Palm Trees & Roses

Marisa Ayala

Age: 34, “but I feel like I’m still in my 20s”

Occupation: Special events coordinator, San Antonio Botanical Garden

Personal: Single; extended family in San Antonio; would love to have a dog “but not until I can do it right”

Goals: “Never stop learning, but to feel like I’m always moving forward in my life”

Why she’s a role model: Juggles preparations for many events each year that bring thousands of people to the Botanical Garden; thrives on her high-energy job and strives to keep events fresh and appealing to a wide audience.

Own role models: Her mother, Elvira Perez Ayala, and late grandmother, Maria Perez: “I grew up with very strong women who taught me that whatever life throws at you, you’ll have to face it and move on.”

Best advice ever given: From her aunt, Gloria Morales — “Never be afraid of failure; if it happens, pick yourself up and keep going.”

Favorite relaxation strategy: “People automatically assume I de-stress by walking through the garden,” but since that’s part of her job, she prefers exercise — running or walking or working out at the gym.

What she’s reading: “It’s kind of embarrassing, but I do Sudoku almost every night. I skip the easy and medium puzzles and go right to the challenger. It keeps my mind sharp and teaches me patience.”

There’s one plant on the window sill in Marisa Ayala’s office at the San Antonio Botanical Garden — flourishing Italian oregano. “I’m on my second plant,” she confesses. “One of our plant-sale volunteers gave me a cactus and said, ‘You cannot kill this.’ Well, it died, but this one is thriving, so I think I’ve redeemed myself.”

As special events coordinator at the Botanical Center — a public garden operated and maintained by the city with private support — Ayala doesn’t need a green thumb. Her job is to plan events to bring in people from all over the city and beyond. Only four miles from downtown, the garden is an urban oasis of natural beauty that has become a favorite venue for weddings and corporate Christmas parties as well as its own signature events such as Gardens by Moonlight — “one of the most romantic date nights of the year” — Viva Botanica, an official Fiesta San Antonio event, and family-friendly Bootanica at Halloween. “The garden is an amazing place,” says Ayala, who has worked there for four years. “It provides a wonderful service to the community, and it fulfills needs from toddlers running through the garden to adults who want to be entertained with music on the lawn, enjoy a movie or theater on the grounds.” The 38-acre facility receives 100,000 visitors a year and gives them all “time to breathe and leave their stressors behind,” says Ayala. “It’s the Central Park of San Antonio. Once we draw them in, they want to stay and to come back for the next event.” Whether they are children visiting the garden for the first time or corporate employees or wedding guests charmed by the environment, she says, “We want them to experience everlasting memories.”

Ayala doesn’t have much breathing room between festivities. “We are busy all year round, always planning for the next event,” she says. The garden partners with Magik Theater to host Shakespeare in the Park in June, with Slab Cinema for Starlight Movies in the Garden from May through September and presents bands of different genres at Gardens by Moonlight in September. Bootanica attracts families for a costume parade and other children’s activities in late October, and Dog Days bring people with their canine companions four times a year. The calendar also includes a spring Art in the Garden event and summer Concerts Under the Stars. Since the economic downturn, as more people began taking “staycations,” the garden allows visitors to “leave the stress and chaos of the week behind,” says Ayala. “Instead of driving out of town, we invite everyone to drive down to the garden. Whatever life moment you’re in, you’re going to find something applicable to you here.” The facility is a four-season attraction, she says. “Thankfully, we don’t have harsh winters. With seasonal plantings, the garden still looks great in the winter.”

In the spring, the garden “kind of explodes,” says Ayala — not only with blooming plants but with weddings. It takes careful planning to keep such a crowded calendar running smoothly. For instance, to show off dinosaur sculptures for Art in the Garden, the large pieces must be placed for maximum visibility to visitors to that event but can’t show up in the background of wedding photographs. “We have to plan great photo ops, but they have to satisfy everyone,” explains Ayala. For big events that draw thousands of visitors, “We do our best to hold them in areas that can handle it,” she says. “Sometimes there is a footprint that’s left behind (by crowds), but our staff gardeners know how to protect the grounds. The important thing is to remember that it’s our mission to share the garden with the city. We can’t protect it too much.” Nearly all of the garden’s events are held outdoors, which means they’re weather-dependent. “We rely heavily on forecasters,” says Ayala, who has rarely had to reschedule an event, although “There have been times when we thought we were going to have to cancel an hour before the gates opened.” She also has to think of not just one Plan B but several. “There’s always something (for an event) that doesn’t show up, so you have to do quick thinking to make it work anyway,” she says. “I try to do what I would want done if I were the guest or the renter. Our No. 1 priority is to make them happy. We’ve had some close calls, but the best result is when nobody (else) knows it.”

Ayala’s work experience before coming to the garden helped her prepare to handle the challenges of her fast-paced job there. After graduating from Texas State University with a degree in sociology, she worked in production on San Antonio Living, a popular morning show on WOAI-TV, where she had done an internship. As a producer, she says, “I loved planning and coordinating a story and seeing it all come together. TV can be hectic and crazy right up to the last second, and it’s the same with events here.” She also dabbled in on-camera work, appearing in the show’s Producer’s Pick segments — “a great experience and one that has helped me represent the garden in the media.” She left WOAI to work as communications and special events coordinator for City Council member Justin Rodriguez, then representing District 7 in Northwest San Antonio, where she helped plan community events, such as senior citizens’ luncheons and annual Christmas and fall events. “The scope was smaller,” she says. “Those events were specifically targeted to that community. What I do now crosses all economic levels and parts of the city.”

Ayala credits her upbringing and early education with giving her confidence and coping skills. Raised by a single mother with help from her grandmother and an aunt she calls her “second mother,” she says, “I saw my mother struggle and persevere, and I learned that’s how you deal with struggle — you learn from it until you come out on top.” Ayala attended Catholic schools through Providence High School, an all-girls’ school. “I highly recommend single-sex education,” she says. “It’s an environment where girls can mature openly, without worrying what boys will think of them. They are taught to be leaders as women, and I feel blessed to have that experience.” She remembers her mother bringing her to the Botanical Garden, and she often brings her nieces, ages 3, 7 and 10, to her workplace. “It’s fun to get their perspective, to see it through the eyes of a child,” Ayala says. “A lot of people have the misperception that the garden is for older, more mature people, but it’s really a wonderful place for children to feel free to run around. For some, it might be their first real experience of nature.”

Though most of the garden’s events are annual or even more frequent, planning them never gets old. “We continue the events that people like,” she says, “but there are always opportunities to do it better, and a good event planner finds ways to do that. Talking to people, seeing their reactions (to an event), helps you to think outside the box and make it even better next time.” Two years ago, for instance, the garden’s beloved Fiesta event, Walk Across Texas, was revamped. As Viva Botanica, she says, “It’s more of a Fiesta fun party, but there are always educational values in everything we do.” The garden itself never ceases to impress her. “It still amazes me how beautiful a tulip or some other familiar flower can be in this setting, I tell people that the garden gives people time to stop and smell the roses, but it’s true that if you take a moment to appreciate whatever it is that’s in front of you, you’ll be awed at the beauty of nature.” Though she doesn’t plan many parties of her own, Ayala is always willing to help friends and family with theirs. Successful entertaining is “all in the details,” she says. “Most people don’t realize that if you want all these different things to occur at your event, it takes a lot of time and energy to make even one of these elements happen.“

She recommends doing as much advance planning as possible: Start early and make lists and timelines. “Chip away at it, and you won’t get overwhelmed,” she advises. “Organization helps so much. It gets me through to the last minute (of an event).” Then comes her favorite part — “seeing people leave happy and asking, ‘When is your next event?’”

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