Nicole Matthews, CSEP, is principal and founder of The Henley Company, LLC, which is an event management and concierge firm in San Diego. Mathews, a 2000 USD alumna (MA, SOLES Educational Leadership) and instructor for USD’s Event Management Certificate Program, is in Sochi, Russia for this month’s Winter Olympics. She’s been hired to organize events for VIPs attending the Games. Inside USD asked her about this experience.
Yes. I had the pleasure of working in London for the 2012 Summer Games, and unconditionally, will always consider that to be one of the best personal and professional experiences of my lifetime. As owner of The Henley Company, having the opportunity to contract on these projects allows me to combine my deep love of international travel with event management. I’m very humbled to have the experiences at these worldwide sporting events. Since London 2012, I’ve also worked at the 2013 Super Bowl in New Orleans and spent a month in Brazil working at the FIFA Confederation Cup. Although the hours are long and the projects are exhausting, I still work with a sense of wonder that I am actually in (name the country) working. I’m blessed to have the opportunity and to bring the international event portfolio to the experience of The Henley Company and our clients.
Q: How will it be different being the Winter Olympics and that it will be held in Sochi?
I’m very excited to have the chance to experience the Winter Games. Being in a cold weather climate will bring an additional element of planning and logistics to the program. We were very lucky in London with the weather. We barely had rain, which is a rarity in the UK. I don’t think we will be as lucky in Sochi. To work with the caliber of VIP clients that we have the opportunity to serve is a privilege. I expect we’ll have the normal challenges of language barriers and cultural differences but that’s what working around the globe brings — it just adds to the experience! The project team I have the fortune of working with adds an extra layer to the experience. Nothing bonds a family like being in the trenches working long hours, navigating foreign cultures and feeling responsible for the safety and overall experience of high-profile clients. Laughter is what gets us through the program!
Q: How much pre-planning goes in for Sochi compared to London where you were more familiar because you had lived there and had relatives there?
I’ve never traveled anywhere in Russia before this trip so I have been feverishly trying to get a sense of the culture, food, sights to see, etc. The language barrier, with Russian being a totally foreign language to me, is my biggest trepidation. Usually in most countries I travel to, you can decipher enough of the basic language to get by for basic services. Given the Russian language uses a totally different alphabet and script, I know there will be challenges. Being in London for two months was a gift. I have many friends and family in the UK so it was like going home for the summer. Russia will be a unique experience, but one I’m very happy to have.
The overall experience for our VIP guests won’t be terribly different from a programming standpoint but the Winter Games are different because it’s a shorter schedule than the Summer Games and there are less sports. Sochi has set up both a coastal cluster and mountain cluster of sporting venues. The Olympic Park is in the coastal cluster for the indoor events. The mountain cluster hosts all outdoor events like skiing, snowboarding, ski jumping, bobsled, etc. Ironically, Sochi is a summer resort town so it’s unusual to host the Games in a city not known for snow. It’s my understanding that within 30 minutes by train, guests can visit the mountain cluster. It will be interesting to see both sides of the Olympics — from the coast and the mountains.
Q: Security is expected to be at an all-time high for these Olympics. How are you preparing clients and yourself?
I’ve been reassured by the project team that security is on everyone’s mind and they are doing everything possible to ensure the safety of guests and staff. I have to trust in their decisions and stay focused on my own work priorities. I will arrive in Sochi with caution and obviously stay vigilant, but I refuse to let media hype or “what-ifs” cause me to become so afraid that I miss a huge opportunity. With all of the attention on security, I can only hope that Sochi is the safest place on the planet for the next five weeks!
Q: The thrill of organizing events — from a surprise birthday party, a USD event or the Olympics — must be as much fun as it is a lot of work. What’s a constant for the work you do?
I’ve had the opportunity to be in the event industry since I was 17. My inspiration for events really started in high school when I was elected prom coordinator. I was lucky to have great mentors and teachers in the event industry that not only helped me learn the craft but also how to be a successful professional. I can’t imagine doing anything else with my life. As an event professional, I have the opportunity to be a puppeteer of emotion. I not only get to help design a beautiful space, menu or experience, but I also can take my clients on an emotional arch throughout the event. I still love the craziness of the event load-in and set-up day. I love watching all the vendors come together to create something very unique and memorable. The Henley Company has a great list of corporate and private clients that allow us to be lifestyle architects. Our motto is “Life is a playground — go experience it!” We love working with clients that want to design event, travel and lifestyle experiences. It’s an awesome privilege I hold in high regard.
Follow Matthews on Twitter, @henleyco , and The Henley Company Facebook page. Photos courtesy of Nicole Matthews.