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

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