Industry Leader Interview: Cassandra Grabowski With High Beam Events

She doesn’t go to the pool without packing three different types of sunscreen.

“I’m a Type A planner,” admits Cassandra (Cass) Grabowski.

Although it drives her crazy at times, Grabowski’s formulaic nature has contributed to her success as the Vice President of High Beam Events.

Tell me about the path that led you to event management.

I started in Destination Management Services (DMS) in Arizona. DMS provides assistance for corporations that are coming into town. We would arrange transportation to and from the airport, plan activities for the guests to do in between meetings, coordinate their dinner functions, and anything else they needed. And before that I worked for a team building company, also in Arizona, We would put on things like barbecue cook-offs, build a covered wagon events, and all these really fun but silly team building exercises for people to get to know their coworkers. And then following that I went to South Korea for a year to teach English and actually met my fiancé there. He lived in Austin at the time so I ended up moving here with him after our contracts were up. When I moved here I landed a job at High Beam as a seasonal employee. Every year we hire event contractors to help with our South by Southwest planning because that’s our biggest account — it’s really the bread and butter for our business. I was chosen as one of those people to come on for the season, and our company policy is that we don’t hire anyone until they’ve survived South by Southwest planning. From there I got a permanent job and have been working at High Beam for the past five years.

Tell me about the different services you offer and events you plan.

We can help coordinate all different types of events. We’ve done birthday parties to the Tribeza fashion show. We’ve planned non-profit events for Texas Advocacy Project and different schools in the area. And then we do destination management work — we’re looking to really expand that here in Austin with all the hotels that are being built. And then we do our South by Southwest experimental marketing.

What do you think makes High Beam different from other event planning companies?

I think our staff makes us different. We have a lot of people from different backgrounds and everyone contributes in an organic kind of way. The owner, Sam Staples, really allows us to have the creative freedom to continue to grow and work on the projects that we are passionate about. The company is unique and fun because we all love the environment that we are in and we get along so well. On top of that, we really just like creative challenges. We want people to approach us with a wide range of creative projects, even things we haven’t done before. And if it’s something that sounds interesting to us then we’ll take it on even if the budget is lower or higher than normal.

We are always learning and growing. We even do boot camps over the summer to better educate ourselves. Some of our planners right now are taking courses at ACC on design software. We’ve built a tent at a rental company together so that we understand and appreciate what goes into it and how it works. We go to lighting warehouses and do the same thing. We are always trying to educate ourselves and be exposed to the different elements. I think it’s a combination of all those aspects that makes us stand out.

Tell me about one of your highlight events.

A couple years ago we did a really unique activation for Nokia during South by Southwest. We flew in a huge projection dome where you could project from the inside and see in from the outside. It was talked about a lot because it was something that had never been done at the festival before. I think we have a competitive advantage because we helped build the South by Southwest party program so we know everything that’s been done and what works. It’s coming up with those really out of the box ideas that makes us stand out.

We also did the activation with Grumpy Cat and Mashable a couple years ago and that was the most Tweeted event that year.

Personally, I do the interactive opening party every year for the festival. It’s their official kickoff party.

So High Beam is the official South by Southwest event planner?

Yes, we hold the contract to produce all of their official events. We don’t produce all of them because there are just so many, but we do produce a lot of them. That kick off party has been very fun. It was my first party on my first day of South by Southwest. We had around 5,000 people that year but we’ve scaled down a bit since then because it was getting so big. This past year we had the event on the JW Marriot pool deck and that was a great turnout.

What’s your schedule like? What’s a normal week for you?

It definitely changes a lot. My role involves taking a lot of the inquiries and fielding those calls so I have a lot of meetings throughout the day, and I’m also managing our team. We kind of take multitasking to the extreme because we are usually working on 80 things at once — our schedule is really all over the place.

How many events do plan per year?

That’s a tough question because we do so much during South by Southwest. So we did somewhere between 200 to 250 events for this past South by Southwest. We are preparing all year for the festival and that amount of parties. And then the rest of the year is a bit more infrequent. So our planning season is basically August to April for South by Southwest.

What kind of technology do you use to plan and manage these events?

We use FileMaker to do our planning. During events we are always looking for new technology. That’s what we are doing now, during our offseason. We are researching companies all over the U.S. that are doing something interesting that we want to bring to Austin. We are always interested in projections and lighting. A lot of that comes from the High Beam owner who used to be a lighting designer. She’s instilled that into all of us so we are always searching for new and cool technology.

What makes an event successful for you?

Happy clients. I think the best part of an event is seeing the dream come to life and your client happy. It’s like showing them a picture and then creating that exact picture — that’s what I think makes an event successful. It’s the culmination of the entire process.

What’s the most frustrating part about event planning?

The part I hate the most is relying on other people when you build such high expectations on the service that you’re delivering. You have all of these vendors and people who are on board to help create and bring that vision to life, and then somebody drops the ball and doesn’t fulfill what they were supposed to. That’s the most stressful part for me because there’s only so much you can do when that happens. It’s like when a vendor only brings half the lighting you ordered and there’s no time to go back to the warehouse before the event so you just have to make it work. I hate that because so many people spent time creating this beautiful space and now there’s nothing you can do to fix it. I think that’s the most stressful and frustrating part of the job.

What’s the best part of your job?

As far as being at High Beam, it’s the clientele that we’re exposed to here in Austin. You can’t get that everywhere else, unless you’re in a major city. I am surprised all the time by all of the interesting and cool projects that I get to be a part of. I thought that I would have to live in New York or LA to get that same level of experience — it’s amazing that we can have that here. I never dreamed of working with MTV and here we are producing the Woodie Awards every year. The best part of my job is being able to work on those interesting projects with interesting people, and helping bring a vision to life and stand out.