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From Planner to C-Suite: One Association-Management Exec’s Journey

Paragon Events’ new COO, Francesca Radabaugh, CAE, learned leadership lessons through her work in event planning, budgeting, and marketing. Here’s her advice for planners aspiring to reach the top—or simply trying to get their events through the Covid pandemic.

In 2006, if you had asked the intern at Paragon Events, Francesca Radabaugh, where she would be in 15 years, the answer probably would have been very different from where she is today.

“My college degree is in geography, geology, natural hazards, and environmental justice. When I graduated, I wanted to go into city planning and sustainable building practices,” she says. “But I found out through internships in that area that it didn’t have the kind of pace that I was looking for.” It was very deliberative work “but I like to always be juggling things and have a new challenge in front of me. So, I ended up getting an internship with Paragon Events, and that turned out to be the right choice.”

From her internship, Radabaugh moved into a full-time role as an event assistant. Since then, “I've taken on roles in just about every department we have. I've been an event manager; I’ve done marketing; I've worked in accounting, and I've done association management.” As operations director of Paragon’s association management division in 2018, Radabaugh blended her university studies with her real-world experience to create EcoVents, a division of Paragon dedicated to planning environmentally responsible meetings.

In September, Radabaugh was elevated to chief operating officer of Paragon and president of the association management division. She serves as an executive director for one association client while overseeing Paragon’s internal operations. “I've worn many hats, and that variety of experience has given me the tools I’ll need in this new role,” she says.

MeetingsNet recently asked Radabaugh a few questions about her near-term business priorities, her take on the association-meetings landscape, and her advice to planners who want to lead departments, divisions, or entire organizations.

MeetingsNet: What is the first big initiative you're taking on in your new role as COO?
Francesca Radabaugh: Right now, I’m focused on creating a more consistent training procedure across the entire staff. We have a very specific approach to our customer interaction and the level of service we provide our clients. We've got really good policies in place around that, but one of the things we haven't necessarily been 100-percent consistent with is training from role to role and position to position, so I'm trying to tweak that across the company.

MeetingsNet: With the present business environment for associations being so turbulent, it must be difficult not only to keep employees fully trained but to keep all of them on the payroll. Did you have to conduct layoffs or furloughs during the pandemic?
Radabaugh: Actually, since the pandemic started, we've grown a bit in our staff numbers. We were fortunate to get ahead of the meetings fallout when the pandemic hit because we had some programs that were set to be in the Asia-Pacific region in early 2020, so we were really watching closely before a lot of people even knew about Covid. We had to make judgment calls on whether to do those events, and it just didn’t seem wise to take a chance with our clients and their attendees as well as our staff.

Am1021Radabaugh.jpgSo, we started planning on possible alternatives and researching virtual platforms, and I think that helped our clients make wise decisions and stay as financially healthy as possible in that situation. But it also got our staff to become proficient with virtual sooner than many others did. So we didn't come to a grinding halt; we were able to really be proactive to weather the storm.

MeetingsNet: Were the employees you added more technologically focused in their abilities?
Radabaugh: Yes, we definitely had to look at things from a more strategic perspective. While we knew the strengths of our event planning team, we needed to shore up the technical side a little bit. And we actually grew a lot on the marketing side as well because when it comes to doing virtual, you really have to put a lot more energy and effort into that.

MeetingsNet: Virtual events are certainly helping associations, but many organizations can’t go another year without in-person event revenues. What are your thoughts on implementing vaccine mandates for association meetings?
Radabaugh: I think it really varies from industry to industry and maybe regionally as well. Some industries and regions would not respond well to a mandate. I think you must take a step back and look at your attendees and other constituents. And if you're not clear on the right direction, then go out and ask them directly for their opinions.

It is all about packaging and how you present things. I think there's a big difference between mandating vaccines and highly encouraging them, and that's where it is so critical to work with your clients to understand their level of comfort and the threshold they want to use in order to keep everyone safe but also to make all attendees comfortable. Ultimately, each association is its own organism; we approach them that way to understand what their middle ground is, something that works best for their overall situation.

MeetingsNet: Across your client roster, will the majority hold their next in-person events with vaccine mandates?
Radabaugh: The vast majority that are going back to live are not mandating vaccination. But we are collecting information, asking people to voluntarily share with us whether they are vaccinated and then acting accordingly as we plan the event.

MeetingsNet: What advice would you have for association planners who want to move up in their organizations?
Radabaugh: I would say to be proactive about having an open and honest dialogue with your leadership about what your long-term goals are, and what they need from you. Every organization is set up a bit differently and what they need from their staff is a bit different. I'm also a big proponent of training, which means taking classes and doing coursework to help grow the skills you need to get to the next position you want. Talk to your leadership team so that they can be part of your planning process and you can be part of their planning process.

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