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Thoughts from Cuckoo HQ
Nov 14

Ruth McDonagh - Business Development & Operations Manager, Hell & Back

Ruth is an integral part of the management team that bring you Hell and Back in all its different incarnations. Currently stuck into planning H&B Trojan, Ruth is as comfortable researching obstacles & interviewing interns as she is on the ground making sure the H&B participants get the best event experience possible. The tale of how she got to where she is a fascinating one and should prove an inspiration to ANYONE looking to work in events.

She has an infectious energy, which endears her to people. She's very active over on Twitter and she's always engaging in the #EventProfs community and is generally just a nice person.

Ruth works with Alive Outside who run Hell & Back, among other things.

We'd barely met, and she was still happy to go out of her way to help us out at the last minute with an issue on an event she wasn't even involved in. That made an impression. She made a further impression sharing her story here to (hopefully) help and inspire people looking to get into events. 

We hope you enjoy this read as much as we did.

What is your current role?

I'm the Business Development & Operations Manager for Alive Outside (Hell & Back).

How long have you been working in events?

As far as I am concerned I have pretty much always been "working" in events.

Since my early teens I have always been keen to to organise parties, trips away or nights out! It just took me a little longer to get into the actual industry of event management!

What event / project are you currently working on?

I am currently working on Hell & Back Trojan. That is our event that runs in January / February of each year.

In addition to that I am actively researching ideas, costings etc for a variety of things that I would like to introduce for 2015. These include a Schools' Hell & Back, a merchandising plan, new events and venues and lots more!!

How many hours a week do you reckon you work?

Whilst I may be behind a desk for say 37 hours one week, I probably do another 5-15 hours in my head or outside of the office.

In the run up to an event I could do anything from 60 - 100 hours in a week, even more a lot of the time.

That's just part of the job.

How did you get started in events?

When I left school I applied to UL to do PE teaching. Due to my love of procrastination and lack of interest in academia back then I didn't have a flying chance, so I didn't get in!

I started a course in Media Foundation in Stillorgan Senior College but dropped out after about 6 weeks after being offered a full time job in my local Spar. By the time I was about 20 I was the Store Manager. After that I was unsure whether retail was for me so I did a stint in Vodafone on the phones, then went back to retail as an Assistant Manager in Poundworld (they paid REALLY well!) and then landed (what was meant to be a two week job) in the Radisson Stillorgan as the PA to the General Manager. From here I worked my way into a position in the Meeting & Events Team. I organised weddings, confirmations, communions, birthdays and dinners. I also organised the first ever (and probably only ever) Black & White New Years Eve Ball in the hotel.

I loved organising events this is what I wanted to do.

Without being cocky, I was really good at all the other jobs I had (except maybe for the PA role, I really did not enjoy that job!!) but I loved and thrived on events. However, there were a few things holding me back:

  • I didn't enjoy the lack of creativity in hotel events.
  • I wasn't very happy in the hotel.
  • I had an opportunity to go travelling for a while.
  • I was struggling with whether I was willing to give the time to really push myself to make it in events. The weekends, the long hours.... It was all a lot of commitment to give, and I was still only about 24 or 25 at this stage!! I wanted to have fun!

Anyway, that January I left the Radisson and did a 6 week travelling stint to Australia, New Zealand, Fiji & San Francisco with my little sister. When I returned I got a job in AIB in Home Mortgages. I enjoyed it, I was good at it and I knew I could do well if I kept doing what I was doing. I was given so many great opportunities by the bank, which really taught me a lot about myself, my ability and greatly improved skills such as presenting and also my confidence in myself and my abilities.

Whilst in the Bank I got involved with my best friend's mum's company (Agenda Communications). They organise huge European Medical Congresses for over 10,000 people. Each year I would take 2 weeks leave from work and work at the conference. I soon was given more and more responsibility and the desire to work in events started to burn again!

Anyway, one day in January 2010, one of my Senior Managers called me over to his desk. He wanted to chat. At this stage there was a promotion and pay freeze in the bank. He asked me about my background, what I did in college, what I enjoyed, etc. I told him I never went to college. He couldn't believe it. A nice, south-side girl like myself who went to private school.....NEVER!! I explained my reasons. I didn't get PE (which I am now eternally grateful for) and I never saw the point of doing something I had no interest in as I'd never stick at it. He spoke to me about promotions and the process within the bank and encouraged me to think about doing some kind of course; a certificate, a diploma, anything. He said, even though I was top of the department I would probably not get promoted when they re-opened because I had no "education" behind me.

I understood. I didn't particularly care about that, but it drove me to research college courses. This was something that had been at the back of my mind for a long time. I had always wanted to go to college, to get my degree, but it had to be the right course. Then, all of a sudden, there it was. The Sport & Exercise Management Degree in UCD. 3 years, a degree and UCD was a 5 minute walk from where I lived. It could not have been more perfect.

I had three days to write my personal statement and submit it. That was three days to talk my mum into supporting me (that wasn't hard, she was delighted). And so I did. Then I had to wait. I secretly knew I would get in. My personal statement was good and massively cheesy. I started with a quote from Ghandhi: "If I have the belief that I can do it, I shall surely acquire the capacity to do it even if I may not have it in the beginning". CRINGE!

Anyway, whilst I waited I secured myself a job for the summer with Agenda Communications doing event management. Oh yes! I handed in my notice and I still didn't know if I was accepted into the course in UCD or not. My line manager thought I was crazy. She thought I would miss out on redundancy, though I knew it would never be out by the time I was leaving. On my last day in AIB my mum rang to say a letter from UCD had arrived. She was all excited so I told her to open it. It was a bit ambiguous in what it was saying so my mum said she would ring the college. She rang back about three minutes later to tell me I had been accepted. I couldn't believe it. I was able to walk out of my permanent, full-time job knowing that I was off to college the following September, at the ripe old age of 30! I couldn't wait.

I spent that summer working in Agenda, working on the conferences for ESCRS, EUCORNEA, EURETINA and all the others and then as I had done every September for the previous 4 years I worked at the conference in whatever city it was, and then I started college.

The longer I was in college, the more I knew I was aiming for event management. I was always actively involved in my hockey club in a variety of roles and always organising events such as social nights, tournaments and bringing the Juniors to the Olympic Qualifiers (which I believe was the biggest Club outing since the men were in the Irish Senior Cup Final, sometime back in the 80's!).

Anyway, after first year I went back to Agenda and worked my summer there and then during the summer of second year I had to do a placement. Being an "aul wan" I was quite picky about where I wanted to do it. I had to be sure I could get the most out of it and not spend my time packing envelopes. (I had already done a voluntary stint in 1st year with the FAI Marketing Department, and sadly aside from match days, that was pretty much my job!).

I initially got a job spec from ITRA (Tag Rugby) which I was sort of interested in, but they wanted me to do venue managing, (checking teams in, putting out cones, etc..) and I wasn't interested. I wanted something juicier and I knew they organised Hell & Back! So I rang the MD and said I wasn't really interested in the spec he had sent me and explained what I was looking for. I think he thought I was some cheeky young pup!! Anyway, he said to come in for the interview and he would chat to me. He was confident he could make a role that would suit both them and me. And in fairness to him, he did.

Within three weeks of beginning my placement I was the Event Manager for Hell & Back Apollo. It was amazing. It was a great success. Obviously there were things I was not happy with and things we could do better (there always is) but they were happy and I was happy. That summer I was also involved in the Pig N Porter Tag Festival and after my placement they kept me on board for future events. In my last year in college I was the Event Manager for the next three Hell & Back events. I would come in about 2/3 weeks before the event, get everything done, work the event, do the clean-up and then head back to college! It was madness, but in the long run it was worth it.

I finished college in May (2014). I worked Hell & Back Apollo in June and then I did some travelling over the next 6 weeks. This suited Alive Outside and me. They were deciding what direction they wanted to take the company and I was looking for a break from all the mayhem of the past three years!

When I returned from my travels they offered me a full-time and pretty senior role as the Business Development & Operations Manager with the aim to take the role of General Manager in the medium term!

What do you do in an 'average day'?

Some days I am desk bound, doing all sorts of admin work. This could be searching the net for new obstacle ideas, getting costings for materials, coming up with plans for merchandise, designing things for the website, answering the phone, taking group registrations, general brainstorming, cleaning out the attic, stock taking t-shirts, laminating, interviewing interns...

Other days I am out of the office, doing site visits, buying equipment, meeting potential clients or even out on site, in my wellies in all sorts of weather trying to come up with a logistics plan. This would include deciding the run of the event, where things go, how many people are needed, where they are needed, what their role is, helping with the build of the course, cleaning and sorting out the equipment...

It's a job that presents different challenges.

Would you recommend internships / work placements to others?

Absolutely. I actually did my dissertation on Sport Management Graduates and the Expectations of the Industry in Ireland. A big outcome of my research was the importance of having some voluntary or work placement experience. A degree can get you so far, but if you are not able or suited to a working environment then you won't get very far.

I would advise all students to get involved voluntarily or take on an internship if they are given the chance. It is invaluable for your future.

How do you see your career developing?

It is hard to say right now as I am really only stepping into a new role.

Knowing the person I am , it really could go anyway, though I am ambitious so I expect UP is the only way for me!

What event would you love to work on?

The Olympics.

Why choose that particular event?

It's The Olympics!! Need I say more!?

If not the Olympics, then any event with Cuckoo.

I reckon that would be fun!

NOTE - we did NOT pay Ruth to say that. Promise!

Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

I am not really someone that has a "5 year plan". Things change, life changes and priorities change.

I do know I am very ambitious and driven so I would like to think that I will have climbed the ladder somewhat or started my own company or maybe even started something else.

The world is MY oyster and that is all I know!

Tell us about any courses or CPD (Continued Professional Development) you're planning.

Web Design and Digital Marketing are courses I would like to do.

If I am honest, fear is my barrier. I am worried that I would not be knowledgeable enough for the courses that are out there.

At the moment however, I have just finished three years of full-time college so these are things probably for 2015 or 2016. 

Do you think your college experience helps you in your event work?

Yes, very much so. The degree itself has two event management modules. One is theory based and the second is a practical module.

The class is put into groups for the first module and have to come up with an Event Proposal for a given event, the winning team become the Event Management Team with the rest of the class falling into different groups including Logistics, Media, Sponsorship & Operations...

Do you think not having studied Event Management puts you at a disadvantage?

No. To be fair, I did study it a little, but really at a very basic level.

I think Event Management is something that anyone with a bit of cop-on, ambition and stamina can do.

If you are personable, hard-working, organised, creative and driven then there is no reason you can't succeed in event management, or in anything for that matter!

What new event would you love to put on if money were no object?

The Olympics in Ireland, naturally. 

What has been your favourite event to work on?

That is a tough one. I have had so many different experiences and highs and lows at each of the events I worked on.

The Heineken Cup Final was amazing. Being involved in the on-pitch entertainment was incredible. Seeing how live sport broadcasting is done, to the second, even the milli-second, the attention to detail, the adrenaline... wow, just wow! Working alongside Jenni-Lee was also an amazing experience. She is truly brilliant, eccentric, fun and tough. I loved it. That was one I will never forget.

Hell & Back Hercules in October just gone is another one I will never forget. It was our first Hell & Back outside of Bray. We exceeded our expected numbers and the day was an incredible success with pretty much no big issues, aside from the usual breaks and things that happen along the course. I had also pushed strongly for us to host an after-party in Sligo Town that night. It was difficult to tell how much of an interest there was in it, and on the night my cousin text to tell me there was literally a handful of people in the pub. When I got there (30 minutes later) the pub was literally wedged with people. You couldn't get in the door.

For me, that was my personal favourite, as it was a personal success for me, and a massive relief!

What's your favourite event memory and why?

There really are so many, it is hard to choose one.

On a personal achievement level it would have to be the success of the after-party at Hell & Back Hercules in Sligo.

Otherwise I think at the Heineken Cup Final when we got the performers on stage and they actually did what we had taught them correctly. That was amazing! We had spent a full week trying to get them to stand still in a straight line...they did it on match day!

What do you enjoy about working in events?

I love it. I love dealing with people. I love organising things. I love coming up with new ideas and new ways to do things. I love resolving and fixing things but most of all I love the incredible feeling after an event when it has been a success and everyone is happy.

That is something you cannot put a monetary value on. Best. Feeling. Ever.

What do you NOT enjoy about working in events?

The weather. I've been fortunate that most of the events I have worked on we have had good weather, but not all the time.

Our events are outdoors, so when it is wet and cold, then I am wet and cold. Add that to tired and emotional and it is not a good mix!!

What advice would you give someone looking to get into events?

Get involved. Volunteer. Do a placement. It is hands-on experience that will get you noticed.

What mistake that you made would you wish them to avoid?

I didn't make any mistakes, well none that I am willing to disclose!

Really, I can't say I have made any major mistakes. I think making mistakes is human nature, so make them. It is more important how you react and respond to making a mistake. Learn from them and take something from the mistake you have made and make something of it.

Mistakes are not always negatives. Look at the positives you can take from them.

What was the single most effective thing you did to get into events?

Got involved.

At every event I volunteered at or anything I was involved in, including my placement, I got involved. I made myself a part of the team, someone that was respected and someone that was useful.

Don't be a shadow, get involved.

Tell us about your experience of volunteering.

Volunteering is key to getting your name out there and for networking and getting experience.

I have always been an active volunteer in my hockey clubs. I've done everything from being social secretary, to club captain, administration, to umpiring and coaching. In the past 12 months I have stepped back greatly but I still look after my hockey clubs social media accounts and often umpire for teams.

During college I volunteered with the FAI in the Marketing Department for the guts of a year. I went into the office one day a week when I had no college and helped them out. I also worked on match days in a variety of roles. I also volunteered with the ERC for the Heineken Cup & Amlin Challenge Cup Finals. This was an amazing experience and I met some great contacts in the Event Industry from the UK and Australia. I also volunteered at the Irish Sponsorship Summit and for the TodayFM Half Mill Half Marathon.

I also try to give time to the LauraLynn Foundation when I can, though unfortunately not as much as I would like.

I generally keep an eye on the Volunteer Ireland website for roles and if I am available I'll always throw my name into the hat to get involved in one way or another.

How do you feel about students volunteering to get experience in events?

I think volunteering is crucial to get experience in events. It gives you a foot in the door and lets you see what actually happens in different types of events.

I would advise not to pigeon-hole yourself into one type of event, like sports, as you can miss out on huge learning and networking opportunities that way.

The greater the variety of things you can get involved with, the better. It gives you a deeper insight into the industry, the people and allows you meet people who may be able to help you out in the future!

What do you think is important for a volunteering role to work well?

The people.

I have volunteered at events that have been badly organised, but if people come together and help out that can be diminished quite easily. For example the Half Mill Half Marathon was a bit of a mess in regards to registration. Due to my experience and that of some others volunteering, we were able to take control and get things moving smoothly. It was great fun and in the end was a great success, it just needed people to step up and do something.

I find that lots of people are kind enough to give their time to volunteer but often they just stand there and don't interact.

Enjoy your time volunteering, chat to the people and make sure YOU get something out of it. It is your time, your energy, so make it worth your while!

What's been your most stressful experience working in events?

Events are always stressful. It is all about how you manage the stress.

I can't say I have had one event which was more stressful than another. I find that usually the most stressful experiences involve other people (most likely volunteers) and their behaviour so it is important that you step out of a personal zone and try to become neutral so as to diminish your own emotions about the situation.

I think mostly I tend to manage the stress quite well. I tend to take a deep breath, walk away, take another breath, maybe have a few tears and then I regroup and figure out how to resolve things and then I just get on with it!

What's your worst event memory and why?

I can't recall one worst memory to be honest. . . maybe at Hell & Back Trojan last January. It was 5.30am, lashing rain, I was soaked and on site setting up on my own in the cold and rain and then my trousers ripped... 

What would you be doing if you weren't working in events?

At this stage I would probably be an Assistant Manager in the bank. Not miserable, not happy, just ticking along and doing relatively ok.

How do you think your parents and friends view what you do?

They are so proud of me and so supportive. I am very grateful for the amazing friends and family I have. My mum, she is just the best. I wouldn't be where I am today without her.

What's the most common misconception you encounter about what you do?

People think Event Management is glamorous. Trust me, it is not.

What is glamorous about getting up at 5am on a cold and wet January morning, working outside in wellies and wet gear, on your own with trousers that have just split right up the middle?! That's not glamorous in my books!!

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