CSEP and the Future of the Event Industry


I’m a geek – I love learning new things. I love learning by reading and I love learning by hands-on experience. When I went to college, most universities did not even offer a degree in hospitality, so everything I have learned as an event and wedding planner has been on the job training. And you know what? I can’t learn enough! If I could afford it, I would go to conferences once a month. If it would allow me a work-life balance, I would assist at every type of event once a week. The event industry is just in my blood. I’m passionate about this industry. I see the potential we have to be an even stronger force to the U.S. economy. I see how we can be more of an asset to our clients if we had standardization of practices and evaluation in place. For me, I do believe that the CSEP designation will be the future of the event industry.

An event professional with the CSEP designation is a Certified Special Event Professional. Passing the exam demonstrates the knowledge, skills, and abilities essential to perform all components of a special event. The exam is offered four times a year and is a 4.5-hour exam consisting of 100 multiple choice questions and a written exam. Sounds easy enough, right? But I can’t tell you how many ILEA Leadership meetings I sat in and heard about this elusive exam. I was intimidated by this exam. Yes, I had the experience necessary to sit for the exam, but there is no specific study guide and that made me nervous. But that is exactly what elevates this designation from other industry exams. This is not an exam testing you on memorization, it is an exam that tests your experience in every type of event.

Finally, after a very honest and truly informative CSEP session at ILEA Live in New Orleans, I garnered the courage to apply for the exam. I was bolstered by the fact that my friend and colleague, Barb Harris (DMCP and now CSEP), also wanted to sit for the exam. Our next hurdle, after being accepted to take the exam, was to form a Discussion Group. We honestly had no real direction, which again was intimidating, but we forged ahead with the plan to have a 1-hour call with subject matter experts (SME’s) based on the content included in the CSEP content outline. We scheduled these calls the two months prior to sitting for the exam in January of 2016.

I have to admit that I was not confident that I had passed the exam when I walked out of the testing center that cold day in January. Because of my experience, I did not feel that the questions were difficult. Rather, the difficulty I experienced was in trying to coherently and quickly write my answers in the three hours allotted for the written exam. Fast forward to April 2016, and I receive an email from ILEA HQ informing me that I had passed the CSEP exam. I can’t even begin to tell you the emotions I felt in earning this designation. In all honesty, I think I was more excited and proud about this accomplishment than earning my bachelor’s degree from college.

I felt validated in my career. I proved that you can work another "benefits" job to make ends meet and still be a distinguished event professional. I felt empowered to elevate the event industry. I am the only wedding planner in Chicago that holds the CSEP designation and I can honestly count on one hand how many other wedding planners here have a certified designation from some other event industry association. Why is this? Why are we not demanding that all event professionals have a certification or specific licensing for their profession? Similar to how an accountant earns their CPA, or how a realtor is licensed, a standard designation like the CSEP showcases the expertise of the event professional and sets an industry standard of practice and evaluation.

I’ll say it again, I have passion for this industry. When I think about my retirement in 25 years, I want to make sure I’ve left this industry in a better place for the event professionals that follow me. This is why I’m leading Midwest CSEP Discussion Groups for those wanting to sit for the CSEP exam. Yes, this is for anyone in our Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Detroit, Indiana, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and St. Louis chapters. We call in once a week and share experiences from the different events we have been a part of and how that pertains to the CSEP content outline. Our next Midwest CSEP Discussion Group will start in May 2018 – feel free to email me to get involved.

I’m also thrilled to make this announcement for the very first time: I am instituting a scholarship fund, from my company, to pay for one person per year to sit for the CSEP Exam. I was inspired by a session at ILEA Live in Calgary last summer to figure out how my company can give back to the events industry. Education and industry standards are core values of mine and what better way to help move our industry forward, then to help those event professionals that may need some financial assistance to take the CSEP Exam. If you are interested in completing the Zen Events CSEP Scholarship application, please email me.

My final thought today is a challenge for you. Whether you are a CSEP or are not…whether you are an ILEA Member or you are not…What are you doing to move the event industry forward and continue to keep it a viable and vibrant part of our world?


Nicole Zenner, CSEP
Earned CSEP in April 2016
ILEA Member since July 2010, Immediate Past President of Chicago Chapter
Owner of Zen Events

Check out ILEA Chicago's New CSEP Page and see testimonials of our own members and their stories.

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Member Spotlight: Meet Thom Skibbie

Thom started his career in the sales and catering office at Indian Lakes Resort and shifted a bit into the restaurant, night club, bar, and banquet side of things there and a few other places for a decade or so.  After some time away from the industry he lucked into a great job at an event rental company that supplied tents, tables, chairs, and fun.  And by fun we are talking about the United States longest mobile zip line, over 400 inflatables for all ages, photo booths, graffiti walls, etc.  Thom created new revenue streams for them in the college market and expanded their presence in several other areas, churches, country clubs, villages and park districts, even casual weddings and other celebrations - he loved working and building relationships with all of the great contacts and friends.  When he reached a point where there were no more opportunities to grow with the family owned company, Thom joined Sodexo and the Museum of Science & Industry and so far the experience couldn’t be better.  The team is great to work with and he looks forward to going into work to learn from them and to help people plan their events.  Thom oversees all of the social business (weddings, Mitzvahs, graduations, retirements, any reason to celebrate) and daytime corporate meetings.

The team at the Museum of Science & Industry is top notch and in fact were just awarded the ACE Award for the 2nd year in a row for the best venue (over $2 million in annual revenue) for the Eastern United States (27 states and Washington D.C.).  The lead sales person on the team, Tara Kattan, has been there 17 years and was just awarded the Sodexo Award for Star Sales Professional at a company conference last week.  Thom's excited to have an award winning team to continue to learn from. 

Getting to Know You Q&A...

Who/What inspired you to go into event planning?

Part of my success at my last job was going above and beyond renting equipment to help clients build complete events.  When I felt that I was ready for new challenges I felt that this type of position would be that next step up.  It was rough going to find someone willing to look past my lack of a degree in event planning who would see the experience in operations and sales I had.  I am grateful to Sodexo for providing me that opportunity and am loving everything I am learning and all of the new people I am meeting. 

Tell us one thing we might not learn about you right away?

I have a friend with a dairy goat farm near me and I help out there when I can.  Last year I was “gifted” some chicks through a client and I started raising chickens at the farm.  I teamed up with a friend from grade school that home schools her kids to start our own chicken empire.  We have 8 hens and are happy to average 5 eggs a day during the winter when they normally slow down their egg laying.  We have 15 new birds coming in March and that same client will hopefully “gift” me more chickens again this year.  By the end of summer I hope to have about 3 dozen laying hens in a new “chicken castle” we are planning to build this Spring.

What do you love the most about what you do?

I am not fond of the 9-5 schedule where you sit at a desk all day doing repetitive tasks.  Event planning is different every day.  The tasks are very similar as far as creating proposals, answering emails and phones, etc. but I am able to talk to new people every day, build a relationship with them while we work to plan and execute a celebration of something special in their life.  I work with happy people, planning a fun event, and then I get the challenge of working with my team to execute the event.  There have not really been any limitations I have found yet and the whole team is willing to pitch in to make sure we are innovating and pushing the limits beyond the status quo.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in the Western Suburbs, Glendale Heights to be exact.  It was a great diverse community that left me with no stereotypes and an open mind.  I met many great people in the neighborhood I grew up in and through school.  I still talk to many of the people I went to school with, even more so in recent years thanks to social media.

What is your event gone wrong horror story?

I had a client I worked with all the time and they have a particular event in November that they flip theater style seating for over a thousand into an indoor amusement park in less than an hour.  It is usually planned to the minute for them to release the middle school aged kids in attendance, then they cleared the chairs as we set up a ton of inflatables for them.  It was always on a tight budget so we couldn’t have as many people as we would have liked to get the flip done as easily as we would have liked.  But this was a great client and a great group of people to work with so I would even waive my fees and just go to make sure things were going smoothly.  I was at a family event 2 years ago and trying to stay there as long as I could.  I was in contact with my delivery team.  They were there and waiting over an hour ahead of time waiting for word that they could start to set up.  Since they were there so early I was able to relax for a few extra minutes with family.  I showed up about 10 minutes before it was time to set up and we open the trailer to start organizing things.  The trailer was empty.  We were in St. Charles and the office was in Melrose Park.  They had hooked up the wrong trailer.  I call the operations manager who leaves his family dinner to hook up and bring the right trailer.  Meanwhile this is my first time working with the new director who turned another company that was also there to deliver and told them to have their team bring more equipment.  Operations gets on site 30 seconds ahead of the other company’s truck and we had everything set up in less than 20 minutes so it was ready to go on time.  We ended up comping the whole event from our end because they didn’t think we would get our stuff there in time and had to pay the other company.  It was the head of the delivery teams last day.  He was at the company longer than I was and had saved my butt too many times to count by going above and beyond.  The poor guy was devastated and in tears.  Nothing like this had ever happened with him before.  I tried to comfort him and point out all the good he had done over the years and how thankful I was to work with someone like him.  I knew it was an accident.  He even came in the next day on his way to move out of state to apologize.  I reiterated how I wasn’t upset with him and thanked him for everything he did for me and the company over the years. 

It was a horrible experience but the team pulled through, everyone went above and beyond to make things work out.  It is often the attitude and work ethic of the team that makes a difference.  You can plan everything down to the last minute detail, something unexpected can happen to potentially negate all the hard work preparing for an event.  Ultimately it is your attitude and the attitude of your entire team that determines if you can overcome those challenges or crash and burn.  In this case a good recommendation from the former director combined with the new director recognizing our hard work to rectify things earned us a second chance.  They remained one of my favorite clients and one of my largest clients until I left the company.

What made you interested in participating in ILEA?

It was a fortunate accident.  The Sodexo team at the museum had been looking for someone to represent them in ILEA so the opportunity was waiting for me when I started here.  I had been very active in several other networking groups with past positions and was happy to meet a new group of people.  As it turned out I saw a lot of familiar faces when I attended my first event in January and am looking forward to many more meetings in the future. 

Connect with Thom on Social Media!


Instagram         thomskibbie

Thanks Thom and welcome to ILEA!

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