What does it take to be a successful event manager in action sports?
In our second post on inspiring women with enviable careers in action sports, we spoke to Iona Bentley about her role as a freelance event manager for some of New Zealand’s coolest events.
You need to be the kind of person who thrives on adrenalin, enjoys troubleshooting and problem solving – sometimes in a blizzard or a whiteout!
Hey Iona, can you tell us a bit about you and what you do within the action sports industry?
I’m 32 and live in Wanaka, New Zealand though originally from the Scottish Borders. I am a freelance event manager, working for myself and contracting to various events throughout the year with contracts of anywhere from 8 months to 3 days. I have worked on music and community festivals, but I much prefer (and have the most experience in) managing sports events. I’ve skied since I could walk and love being outside, ideally in the mountains.
I am currently the Sports Manager for the Audi quattro Winter Games NZ and the Event Manager for Challenge Wanaka. Winter Games is a 10 day, biennial event in August, featuring elite level winter sports competitions in Freeskiing, Snowboard, Alpine Skiing, Cross Country Skiing and Snowboarding. Challenge Wanaka is an iron distance triathlon festival that takes place in February. I am also a Director of The Airbag NZ, a giant inflatable stunt cushion which we use for bikes, snow and festival activities, and a committee member of the Freeski Association of New Zealand.
Tell us about your career path- was there one particular thing that when you look back, you identify as a lucky break?
“I decided to take a year off, be a ski bum and do some teaching before deciding whether to brave a city job … volunteering was my lucky break”
When I was at Edinburgh Uni, a large part of my life, both social and extra-curricular, revolved around the Edinburgh Uni Snow Sports Club (EUSSC). By my 4th year I was President of the club and wondering what on earth I was going to do when I graduated (with my very practical English Lit degree). So with a team of 7 mates, we put in a bid to run the British Universities Snow Sports Council (BUSC). The winning bid takes over the council for one year, and runs all the inter-uni skiing and snowboarding events in that time. We won the bid and took over after we’d all graduated in 2006. It was a full on year with 10 events to run. It was the most amazing experience and effectively a crash course in event management.
Although BUSC was critical to my career in terms of learning, I can attribute my lucky break to a pretty major knee injury. Having finished BUSC, I decided to take a year off, be a ski bum and do some teaching before deciding whether to brave a city job. 3 weeks into the NZ season I had a pretty catastrophic knee injury skiing in the snowpark. I caught my ski on the end of rail whilst falling and twisted my knee round about 180 degrees, snapping my ACL, MCL, partial LCL. I also fracturing the end of my femur, tearing the cartilage and the ITB band. As my physio put it, my knee was “munted”. I didn’t feel like flying home to rehabilitate (Wanaka has the best physios in the world, and it was all covered by NZs amazing ACC), so I hung out.
Still on crutches but semi–mobile, I ended up volunteering on the NZ Freeski Open to pass the time. This was the lucky break. I met the event manager for that year, Arthur Klap, and he told me all about this new event he was busy planning, The Winter Games NZ. I kept in touch with Arthur, and 2 years later was incredibly lucky to be one of the small team that ran the inaugural 2009 event.
I have worked for Winter Games in some capacity every year, and in 2012 I was promoted to the senior management team as the overall Sports Manager.
If I hadn’t bust that knee… who knows, but I doubt I’d be where I am now!
Do you recommend any formal training or an education in a field related to your job?
Working in the snow can be a major challenge, but I think that is why managing an event successfully is so satisfying.
Personally I don’t think you can really learn the key skills you need for event management, especially when working an event career in action sports. Of course you can improve your skills, but you need to be the kind of person who thrives on adrenalin, enjoys troubleshooting and problem solving – sometimes in a blizzard or a whiteout. 4am starts, 20hr days and 100hr weeks are par for the course – there’s no glamour in it. I don’t think you can learn that sort of thing by studying it.
Many of the event managers I know have no formal training, though of course I know some great ones who have studied too.
Competitive snowboarding and skiing have been on quite a journey with events like the Winter Games promoting this progression. How do you feel you personally have paid a part in this?
Back when we ran BUSC, we found that some unis would pay for their students to enter races, but not freestyle comps. The reason was because freeski and snowboard competitions (with the exception of snowboard halfpipe) were not yet Olympic sports, and therefore the British Uni Sports Association did not recognise them. I always found this immensely frustrating and it made me angry that these athletes and their sports were not getting support.
When I first met my boss Arthur in 2007, I had a good rant about this and the fact that freeskiing in particular should be included in Winter Games regardless of the FIS (International Ski Federation) status. Wind forward 2 years to the first Winter Games and freeskiiing was a feature sport, sanctioned by the newly formed AFP (Association of Freeskiing Professionals). We have maintained this link each year, with the 2013 events securing Platinum sanctioning – the same level as the X-Games.
In 2010, the Winter Games team ran the first ever FIS sanctioned Slopestyle competitions in New Zealand with the FIS Junior World Freeski & Snowboard Championships. I was the Chief of Competition for both the freeski and snowboard events. FIS were looking at these as test events for the Sochi Olympics 2014, trying to decide whether they should be included. They decided yes. Watching the crew of Wanaka locals killing it in Sochi Feb 2014, and nearly bring home the medals felt like my own little victory. I’m not claiming it entirely… but I am stoked to have been a part of the drive to make it a reality. It wasn’t always a smooth pathway, but Olympic gold is the only medal in the world that EVERYONE understands.
You brought The Airbag to New Zealand, what was that like?
Working with The Airbag on the ski fields is huge challenge, and we have found far more success focusing on the summer operations of bike and freedrop. The NZ ski fields are not flush with cash like the big Northern Hemisphere resorts, which tend to own half of the accommodation in the villages they are based in.
We have done some cool things with the bag over the years though – the most exciting being supporting Jed Mildon, a kiwi BMX rider, to successfully get the Guinness World Record for the world’s first triple backflip on a BMX. He learned it on The Airbag before building a landing and completing it to dirt. The video has had 9.5million views on YouTube to date.
What is it about your job that you love?
Winter Games is the event I have always had the most passion for, for many reasons, not least because I have grown so much professionally being part of it from the start. My favourite place to be is at the top of the Halfpipe, with a radio in each ear coordinating the event; making sure everything runs to time; keeping everyone on hill informed of what’s happening; being prepared for changes in weather; having a contingency in your head if there’s a delay; communicating with athletes and coaches and listening to them; remembering to smile and thank the volunteers. Working in the snow can be a major challenge, but I think that is why managing an event successfully is so satisfying.
What are the greatest challenges and rewards that you face as an event manager in action sports?
The greatest reward is the event itself, no question. You work, sometimes for a year at a time, to plan for something that lasts for a day or a week. The buzz and adrenaline you get is a drug, and it allows for increased productivity and stamina. You do definitely get a come down afterwards though.
Being self employed has major benefits, though some of the best bits can also be the worst. I have a lot of freedom about when and where I work, and I am lucky to be in the position where I earn enough year round in events to comfortably make a living. I also have the freedom to go on holiday more or less whenever I want, as I can do most of my prep work from anywhere as long as I have my laptop.
The downside of contract work is that jobs don’t necessarily fit end to end – so you either end up making hay while the sun shines and working back to back or overlapping contracts (not easy straight out of a 100hr week), or going through lean periods where you either don’t work (holiday) or look for work in other industries. Managing your own time working at home can also be a big challenge, as you have to resist the fridge, the washing, the TV…
What was the best career advice you were ever given?
My aunt, who is a pretty high-powered head hunter in London, told me when I was 15 that if I learned how to type I would end up being someone’s secretary, and that if I didn’t I would end up getting one. I still can’t type without looking at the keyboard, and I don’t have a secretary, however I do have a pretty sweet job that I really enjoy.
What advice would you give to other women wanting to work as an event manager?
If you have volunteered for an event before and done a good job, chances are you’ll be first in line for paid roles next time around.
Our industry can be male dominated in places (though this is definitely changing) so you have to be prepared to prove yourself, even when you don’t think you should have to. The first couple of years I was involved with the Snowboard World Cup Halfpipe at Cardrona, some of the international officials were obviously not used to dealing with women in management roles. You could feel the scepticism as to whether we would be capable of doing the job. These days they are so chilled out when they come to NZ for Winter Games, and for the last 2 years have said we have the best team on the World Cup circuit.
Knowing you are good at your job and still having to prove yourself to earn respect can be really frustrating, but it actually makes the success of your event, or whatever job you do, even sweeter in knowing that you’ve proved them wrong.
The events industry can be a cliquey one to get into, and you’ll be lucky to find paid work straight out. My advice for anyone looking to get into it is to volunteer or ask about internships. Most events, especially in the sports world, rely heavily on volunteer support and if you can give a chunk of time you’ll often end up getting to know the event team. The risk in taking new and unknown staff onto an event team is that if they are a weak link, the results can ruin the whole show. If you have volunteered for an event before and done a good job, chances are you’ll be first in line for paid roles next time around.
Thank you so much Iona for giving us a unique insight into your career in action sports and how you forged your way to such an incredible job and lifestyle. On behalf of all snow athletes out there and in memory of Sarah Burke who also fought so hard for Freestyle skiing to be recognised by the FIS and introduced to the Olympics, a MASSIVE THANK YOU! I hope this interview inspires other women to go after their dream jobs and make the snow dream their life!
If you want to find out more about Iona or the companies and events she works for, check out the links below:
Contact Iona Bentley via her LinkedIn profile