Event Expert Insights: Carrie Abernathy, Lead Planner, Industry Engagement, Altria Group
Events were never the “plan” for Carrie Abernathy, much like many of her colleagues. So how does someone initially on the path to become a psychologist end up completely changing direction and evolving into one of the most influential event professionals in the industry? It all boils down to passion.
While she was studying psychology at Virginia Tech and planning many social events for her dorm, a fellow student commented that she was so organized and passionate about logistics and events that she should do it professionally.
“I had a good laugh about that idea at first—and then I found out that I could make a career of my quirky attention to detail and organization,” Abernathy said. “The rest is history.”
Abernathy headed abroad to study event planning at Victoria University in Australia and started her career with a third-party planning company in the Washington, D.C., area. She has since spent 10-plus years in nonprofits and another five-plus in the corporate sector, all the while blazing impressive new trails that have spurred action throughout the industry for causes close to her heart.
A champion for change, Abernathy is behind some of the industry’s most impactful initiatives, including the Association for Women in Events (AWE), the Events Industry Sexual Harassment Task Force, the “Like an #EventBoss” podcast and the “Events: From Black to White” video chat show, among many others.
She has also served on numerous advisory councils and committees for prominent industry organizations and, not surprisingly, been honored with major accolades recognizing her infinite drive for excellence and elevating important causes in the industry, from female empowerment, equity and inclusion to sustainability.
We checked in with Abernathy to discover what propels her enthusiasm for her career, how she has thrived by taking a step back and reevaluating, what she sees as industry challenges and trends, and what advice she has for fellow colleagues and the next generation of event professionals to successfully evolve with the changes and truly make a difference.
Why do you love your job as an event professional?
As a planner of events, I have the chance to constantly reinvent. No two events are ever the same. Even for annual conferences, I have the chance to elevate my work—I love the constant change! The workload is intense, but I thrive under pressure, and the best high comes from a flawlessly executed meeting. Also, the people in the industry truly are the best.
Can you share a few of your biggest career accomplishments and what you are most proud of thus far?
Several years ago, I started the Association for Women in Events when I felt there was a need for a community that celebrated and elevated women in the meetings industry. We quickly grew to a group of over 1,000 meeting professionals. With that organization, I launched pet projects such as the Events Industry Sexual Harassment Task Force, which is now under the Events Industry Council. In the past two years, I launched an event-centric Podcast called “Like an #EventBoss” with Juliet Tripp, another incredible event prof out of the U.K., and I also just wrapped 33 virtual events over the past 18 months on equity in the events industry through “Events: From Black to White,” a discussion-based “talk cast” series co-hosted by colleague Derrick Johnson. I have loved giving back to the event industry and feel passionate about elevating and empowering others in this industry we all love! I am most proud of being named a two-time top industry “Changemaker” by MeetingsNet magazine for my work elevating women and diversity.
What important lessons you have learned over the past two years—professionally and personally?
Resilience is key. I’ve also learned to give myself a lot more grace. As a “recovering perfectionist,” I’ve leaned into progress, not perfection, during this tumultuous time. I’ve put my mental health first over the last 18 months, and in doing that, I’ve given myself breathing space by taking on LESS. If I am going to make it through difficult times, I need to keep my personal cup full. That means saying “no” quite a lot. I’ve rolled off of committees, and I’ve said “no” more than ever to offers to be a part of many focus groups, boards and other opportunities. I’ve given a lot of myself to the industry during the last 15 years, so I needed to step back and reevaluate what it means to be “happy.” I highly suggest everyone read “The Desire Map” by Danielle Le Porte. It is an incredible book if you are doing some personal and professional soul-searching.
What is one of the most difficult challenges event professionals are facing in the current climate, and what advice would you give to overcome it?
I think that burnout is a real issue we all face—especially in the event industry. We are working to produce the most compelling events with less. Fewer staffers in hospitality, more restrictions, less attendees at times. I think going back to the topic of resilience, it is a time to take care of yourself and give yourself grace. Reach out to your mentors and colleagues—they may be struggling too! This is a great time to tap into collective knowledge.
What are some trends defining the corporate event landscape right now, and how can event professionals capitalize on them?
I think there is a big push for diversity in events and meetings, and I love the direction in which our industry is moving to elevate new voices and different opinions! My ask of you as meeting professionals is to not only utilize diverse voices in your DEI (or IDE) panels. Utilize different opinions, ages, backgrounds and cultures throughout your entire programs! Make sure that your RFPs also “walk the talk” by asking vendors and hotels to outline not only their diversity practices but sustainability practices. I think you will see more of a focus on sustainable “green” events into the future—at least I am hoping that we are continuing to move in that direction to take care of our future.
What do you predict for the future of corporate events, and how can event professionals best prepare?
I believe that you haven’t seen the last of virtual events. I am hoping that hybrid will stay around and that we will continue to reach more audiences that may not be able or willing to travel. There are a lot of wonderful virtual/hybrid software providers. I think we can best prepare by keeping an eye on the evolution of this space. Challenge yourself to continue to stay up on what providers in this space are offering. The evolution of digital has been fast and furious. With AI (artificial intelligence) already here, we will see so much more of that in the future! We must all stay educated, up to date and smart on how we engage those vendors and our customers/clients.
Is there any additional advice or insight you would like to share with fellow event professionals, particularly the next generation?
I’ve said it before, and I will say it again—hard work and passion are what will truly set you apart from others. Volunteer, get involved, raise your hand, speak up. Now, more than ever, event professionals have a platform through virtual, in-person and hybrid events to reach just about every human across the globe. That is a real responsibility when you think about it! You have a voice, platform and power to effect change in your communities and beyond. You have the power to showcase diverse voices, opinions and ideas throughout the world via your meetings. Make sure you understand that responsibility and engage!
What's next for Carrie Abernathy?
I’m deciding on how to contribute to the events industry next. The path that feels most right currently is elevating new voices and ideas and showcasing others. I’ve spent a lot of time in the spotlight, so I’ve taken on quite a bit of coaching and mentoring others in the meetings industry over the last two years. I also will be working on season 2 of "Like an #EventBoss.” Stay tuned!