By Tiffany J. Franklin, Associate Director, University of Pennsylvania Career Services
After 19 years of coordinating roughly two career fairs per year, I’ve experienced a variety of weather conditions from those crisp fall days that define the season, to sweltering heat, and unrelenting rain storms. As any event planner knows, you must expect the unexpected and adapt accordingly. Rain – no problem! Provide umbrella bags, extra mats, and ensure no one slips. Heat – bring in extra water and fans. Bitter cold – order more coffee and plenty of coat racks. But snow, that’s another story. For me it inspires awe and dread.
My History with Snow
To understand my complicated relationship with snow I must share that I grew up in Atlanta, a place where we were more likely to contend with ice and I can only remember about 5 snowfalls during my whole childhood. In each case, I had about a week off from school due to weather. I still associate that first snowy morning with waiting in line at Kroger at 6am, feeling lucky to have scored a loaf of bread, eggs and milk, as if some French toast making contest had suddenly overtaken suburban Atlanta. To this day, my mom in Florida still calls to ensure I have enough food when snow is forecast. Moving up to Philly during grad school changed my perception of snow. While I still think it’s beautiful, it’s not quite as magical when you must commute in it. And then, it really became interesting this past February.
The past couple of years I’ve worked in a team of three to manage the annual Penn Startup Fair held in February. Planning any event that time of year in the northeast is always a gamble, but my heart sank when I looked at my iPhone weather app 10 days before the event and saw a snowflake for February 9th in the extended forecast. I rationalized it away, thinking of how that forecast is constantly changing, but that was one persistent snowflake that kept taunting me and never budged. I’ve been to a few fairs with light snowfall that did not disrupt anything, but this time felt different. Two days before the event the weather forecasters assured us snow was on the way and it was scheduled for right at morning rush hour.
When things don’t go according to plan
That’s when the well-oiled machine that is our typical career fair planning took a few detours. Since the event was scheduled for 11am to 3pm, my colleagues and I worked on contingency plans to anticipate possible last-minute cancellations from employers traveling in for the day and what we would do with all the food if the university closed. The morning of the startup fair, the snow began falling rapidly at 6am and that’s when the world resembled a snow globe. News of canceled flights and trains poured in my inbox. Later that hour, we learned from the University Weather line that Penn would have a delayed opening of noon. That made things especially tricky because we were not able to access our event space until first thing that morning since there had been an event the night before and employers usually started arriving at 9am. We debated whether to cancel the event, but after numerous calls and emails with my team, our leadership, a few employers, and the caterers, the fair was still on, only slightly delayed. As long as we could safely hold the event, we didn’t want students and the employers who had already traveled here to miss out on connecting.
Thankfully, we had the number of the building manager and got in around 9:30am and quickly arranged everything. By noon, the sun came out and melted a great deal of the morning snow. Despite the chaos of cancelled flights, trains, and snowy conditions, the startup fair proceeded and we had about 75% attendance from both employers and students compared to prior years, which we were grateful for given the unique circumstances.
Tips for navigating your event when weather does not cooperate
As we approach another Philly winter, I’d like to share some tips I learned from this experience for other career services staff and employers attending.
- Using a Career Fair App makes a big difference. For the past two years, we have used Career Fair+ and it made it easy to send out a push notification to students and employers the morning of the fair with the latest updates and throughout the day.
- When it looks like bad weather is coming, send preemptive messages the day before. We sent students messages via Facebook, Twitter, the Career Fair+ app, and through our website and newsletters letting everyone know about the weather forecast and that the university would be open unless the university MELT line said otherwise. For employers, we sent individual emails to the person who registered for the fair and all potential attendees.
- This past summer we launched Handshake, so that’s another great tool for quick notifications to students and employers.
- The day of the fair we sent a newsletter emails and app push notifications letting students know the event would proceed.
- When bad weather is forecast, call caterers a few days before the event to explore options. We were able to reduce our food order by 20% since it was 2 days before the fair and we had a system of backup vouchers from the building food court in case the snow never materialized and we ran short.
- Ask the contact at your venue for all the numbers of their staff and about their weather contingency plan. Our main contact was not able to make it in, but having the building manager’s number really helped.
- See about mats and extra salt or sand for entrances to ensure the safety of everyone with ice and snow.
- Check with UPS and FedEx to confirm if shipments are still being picked up in the weather.
- Have the cell phone numbers of your who career fair planning team, your leadership team, and any student volunteers. Have a sense of where people are coming from geographically and which ones might not be able to make it in to the university in the case of bad weather. Have backups lined up who live closer.
- Email yourself important contact sheets so you can access them from home if the university is closed and you need to reach out to employers with instructions.
- For employers who can’t make it due to snow, we collected resumes on their tables.
- Always provide your name, email, and phone to the organizers of a fair, even if you are a last-minute substitution. Oftentimes the person filling out the fair registration will write TBD when it comes to extra reps. In the example above, we had worked hard the week before the fair to get contact info from all projected attendees. At the time, we did this to check about head counts for catering and food allergies, but it became a crucial detail the morning of the storm to let all employers know about the delayed opening.
- Check to see if a university has a weather line with the latest closing info.
- See if the city having the event has snow emergency routes. Philadelphia does and some of the major streets that usually allow parking do not during snow emergencies so the ploughs can clear everything. Parking in wrong place could get you towed. See if there’s a weather text notification system for that city with info and maps.
- Make sure you have the contact info of the fair organizers. It should be on the invitation, confirmation, and every email about the fair.
- See if the event has an app associated with it – that’s a great real-time way to learn more and usually where the latest updates are listed.
Fortunately, it took almost 20 years for me to experience this snow craziness. While I don’t relish the thought of another snowfall during an event, I now have a better idea about where to begin. Even if you live in warmer climates that don’t see much snow, it’s always a good idea to have contingency plans in place that focus on communication and safety for everyone. Hope your events go well and you will never have to use those contingency plans.
Tiffany Franklin joined the University of Pennsylvania Career Services team in 2014 as Associate Director and provides career and internship guidance to engineering students and alumni. Prior to coming to Penn, Tiffany served as a recruiter on the technology team of an international staffing company and submitted candidates to top companies in Silicon Valley. From 2006 to 2013, Tiffany worked at Vanderbilt University in the Center for Student and Professional Development. In that role, she coached Arts, Media and Communications students, coordinated the Vandy-in-Hollywood summer internship program and traveled throughout the country meeting with engineering alumni. Tiffany launched her career in 1998 at Drexel University, where she advised students on all aspects of their co-op and job searches. She is dedicated to helping students explore career options, craft resumes/cover letters that effectively highlight their experience and tell their professional story in a way that resonates with recruiters. Tiffany earned her M.S.Ed. in Psychological Services from Penn’s Graduate School of Education and a B.A. in Psychology from Vanderbilt University.