If there’s anything Alicia Riley knows, it’s how to put together an event. Whether a small gathering, large scale gala, or even a graduation ceremony, she does what it takes to create a memorable experience.
She designs roughly 65 events a year at Thomas Nelson in her role as the special events manager. It’s all accomplished (from concept and strategy to logistics and execution) working with different committees, assorted outside vendors, and when warranted, members of the community who represent various sectors.
However, in the age of COVID-19, Riley has had to ramp up the creativity in going from planning live events to figuring out how to bring the same energy through virtual events. Her first big test at planning an online event was Thomas Nelson’s 2020 graduation ceremony in May. The event was a hit, and from there she was inspired to do more.
Enthusiasm to keep students and others engaged by bringing more events online led to Riley’s recent accomplishment. In August, she earned digital events strategist certification from the Professional Convention Management Association, which is recognized by 37 countries.
“It’s an international certification,” she said of the credential, which lasts two years. “This is an eight-week course. In it you learn that there’s a different strategy in the virtual world as opposed to live events. (Planning) a live event, you’re looking at logistics and purpose first. In the virtual world, you’re looking at purpose, to content, then to platform.”
She said the course covered how to create a strategy that can be translated in a virtual world. She learned there’s a technique for speakers and a strategy for determining what platform to use. The training also explored metrics and timing.
“You can determine if someone likes your event within 87 seconds of turning on your computer. You also learn marketing for virtual events,” Riley said.
Even with more than 20 years as an event planner, 13 of those at Thomas Nelson, Riley said she was really excited about the eight-week class, considering the heavy-hitters who have completed it to earn the Professional Convention Management Association’s certification and the types of events these “mega-professionals” manage.
“This is a company that deals with people like Tony Robbins (renowned author and motivational speaker). He did an event for about 7,000 people recently … they have great representation,” Riley said.
Event planning, like most fields, evolves so Riley makes sure she stays on trend, especially now that about “95%” of Thomas Nelson’s events will be virtual. She began researching virtual event planning about two years ago and participated in a three-day conference as a member of a global association for event planners. That’s how she heard about the Professional Convention Management Association certification.
Dr. Kris Rarig, Thomas Nelson’s vice president of Student Affairs and head of the graduation committee, congratulated Riley. The two are frequent collaborators.
“In working with Alicia on any event, whether commencement, Presidential Leadership Awards, Cultural Affairs or, most recently, the presidential candidates’ visits, I have come to rely on her judgment and expertise completely,” Rarig said. “We have a great arrangement: I tell her what I think we need, and she listens, and then she tells me what she thinks, which is always infinitely better, more cool, more relevant, and more fun than what I was thinking.”
She calls Riley “a never-ending well of creativity who is attuned to the pulse of the campus and has an instinct for what type of event is needed.” Admitting she was initially “ambivalent about the idea” of having a virtual commencement ceremony, Rarig was wowed when all was said and done.
“I just could not picture it. But, she’s convinced me of things before and they’ve been amazing, so I decided to take a page out of her book and show some courage. I think it was a huge success; one of her standout achievements among many. I had people emailing me and texting me that they were crying as they watched it. I congratulate her on her new credential, and can’t wait to see what she comes up with next,” Rarig said.
Like Rarig, Debra Godette, president of the College’s Phi Sigma chapter of the Phi Theta Kappa honor society, offered congratulations. She is among students working with Riley in the College’s new podcast studio. There, numerous virtual events are in development this semester, such as interviewing candidates for the College’s presidency. A few podcasts already are on YouTube.
Godette said an honor society project requiring Thomas Nelson’s chapter to create a way to speak directly to students and address the topics that matter most led to the connection with Riley.
“That is how ‘Meet Up Mondays’ was born. We already had the concept; we just needed the vehicle. It was around that time when we learned that Ms. Riley was developing a podcast studio and I knew this was our opportunity to have ‘Meet Up Mondays’ reach the student population,” Godette said, emphasizing that working with peers and faculty members in the studio has fostered a true sense of community.
Godette said she appreciates that student input matters.
“Because students have been included in every step of the process, our opinions and perspectives were taken into account … Ms. Riley truly listens to us and cares about what we think,” she said.
For Godette, working in the podcast studio and being part of other events with Riley, such as the virtual grand opening, promotional videos for the studio, and the Gator Check-In Party, have enhanced her student experience. Of Riley’s impact, Godette said dedication is the main takeaway – sticking with an idea and doing what’s necessary to make it happen.
“If you had told me six months ago that I would be working in a podcast studio, I never would have believed it because technology has never really been my strong suit,” she said. “Ms. Riley has truly created an exceptional work environment that is engaging, collaborative, supportive, and fun. I look forward to seeing what will come next for the studio.”
Riley, a self-described creative soul, is grateful to the College’s leaders for trusting her event planning expertise and allowing her space to be imaginative amid the new normal the coronavirus pandemic has created.
The newly-minted certified digital events strategist has a bachelor’s degree in fine arts and performing arts from Christopher Newport University and an MBA from Phoenix University, where she minored in marketing. Also author of "The Power of Events," Riley is confident events, whether virtual or in person (when safety permits), will continue flourishing at the College to keep students, faculty, staff and others connected.
“I believe events are healing … impactful. We can’t be complacent and think that there’s only one way to get the job done. There’s always another way. Sometimes you just need to go to the drawing board,” Riley said.