Ashley Lawson is a big name in the travel meetings and incentives industry. Recently featured on the SITE Global and IMEX Instagram accounts, she’s also been featured closer to home. In a recent Event Brew episode on event inspiration, Deanna named Ashley as someone she goes to for inspiration and to bounce ideas off. Eager to learn more about Ashley, we’ve decided to bring her on for today’s #EventIcon episode!
Ashley currently serves as the Vice President of Business Partnerships at Achieve Incentives & Meetings and is the third generation to work for the 70-year-old family business. Since her shift from nonprofit work in Washington, DC, she has become her industry’s “safe travel ambassador” and is on a mission to celebrate culture and usher back safe travel. Tune in to learn more about her life in events as a digital nomad and what she thinks the industry needs more of.
How Ashley Came to Events
To start today’s conversation, Will asks Ashley to share about her start in the events industry.
“It wasn’t my choice, but I am so glad I’m here. I was actually born into the industry,” explains Ashley. “My family started our incentive house 70 years ago, so I was born into a family that loves travel and helping people see other cultures and explore the world. I learned my ABCs by alphabetizing flights under my mom’s desk.”
After college, she spent a decade working to end veteran homelessness in Washington, DC. While working for nonprofits in the nation’s capital, she led fundraising events. “I’ve always had a love for events,” says Ashley. “It wasn’t until about six years ago that I officially joined the industry in my role today as a co-owner and Vice President at Achieve Incentives and Meetings.”
The Start of Ashley’s Nomadic Lifestyle
Ashley has left her home state of Ohio to live as a digital nomad. For those unfamiliar with the term, a digital nomad works remotely and travels full-time, often staying in one location for only a short period. The lifestyle can be challenging, which leads Will to ask how she manages it. “You’ve been surrounded by travel for so long, and you’re nomadic now too. Have you ever gotten burnt out by traveling too much?” asks Will.
“I’ve been a nomad for two years, and I don’t think I could ever get tired of learning, adapting to new cultures, and experiencing new ways to celebrate those cultures,” says Ashley. “It’s planning my life on top of running a company that’s exhausting. But, we in this industry are the best people to be nomadic. We’re planning ninjas.”
Like the rest of the world, the pandemic changed how Ashley did business. Only instead, it led her to travel more. “The catalyst for my [nomadic living] was covid. One of our top clients wanted us to help move a program’s contract. So in June 2020, I went to Mexico. I was the only person in the airport and on the flight. It was scary and there was no information about what safe travel looked like.”
Once she successfully signed the contract, she ended up staying in Mexico. “I was fascinated and wanted to understand how hotels and destinations were preparing for the return of travel. So, I spent three weeks there and went on about 30 site visits,” after which she sold everything she owned and committed to the nomadic lifestyle. “It became my mission to bring back confidence in travel by sharing the facts of what was happening on the ground.”
What it Looks Like to Manage a Business as a Nomad
“I almost went digital-nomad and even considered moving outside of the U.S.,” says Will. “As someone planning events in the U.S., my biggest concern is how to travel to the events. But you aren’t physically attending the events, so what does it look like to manage your business as a nomad?”
“I co-lead the business with my family,” says Ashely. “We have a full-service team of about 20 employees and contractors who make the magic happen. I stay on the same schedule they do, so wherever I go, I work on Eastern time.”
Initially, this limitation meant she only traveled long-term to locations in the western hemisphere. “I started in Mexico, Belize, Argentina, and Columbia. But then I thought, let’s test the waters, and what I found in traveling to Europe is that it’s actually really neat! You get to spend your morning exploring. The day is yours first, and then you get to work.”
One Thing the Industry can do Better: Educate Attendees
One of the significant benefits of the nomadic lifestyle is constant exposure to other cultures. With that exposure comes new avenues for inspiration, creativity, and often a refreshed mindset on managing a business. Recognizing this, Will asks what Ashely thinks the travel incentive industry needs to change.
Her response: attendee education. “We’re not educating our attendees about the destination enough. We forget about the hype up; our registration experience is really boring. Let’s throw in some destination trivia and see what the answers are. Let’s ask exciting questions about what they’re looking forward to and what their favorite memory from a previous event is.”
“There are so many things we could make more interesting, like registration,” continues Ashley. “But we can also hype up the destination, give more info about it, what’s unique to it, what the unique customs for the destination are. That adds to the ROI for the event because they’re having more experiences before they even get there.”
She also thinks we need to be better to each other within the industry. “When I first got into events, everything was so closed. For example, don’t talk about our clients, or let’s keep our best practices to ourselves.” What Ashley experienced during the pandemic was different. In her words, it was a sense of “we are one big family, and when one of us gets raised up, we all get raised up. I hope that doesn’t go away. The better we partner with each other, the better we all work.”
How to Hype up Event Destinations
Self-described as the go-to person for infusing local culture and community into destination events, Will wants to know more about how Ashley thinks we can excite attendees for their destination arrival. “I want to come back to the idea of hyping up the location,” he says. “Assume your attendees are busy; how can we better educate and prepare our attendees when they might be ‘head-down’ until they get to the location?”
Ashley suggests easy-to-digest, fun, and engaging methods. “I think there are so many fun touchpoints you can do. We always get the attendee’s home address. Send a save-the-date magnet that talks about the location’s history.”
While preparing to live in Greece, she discovered the National Geographic kids podcast Greeking Out. “The history of a destination can be heavy, but a kids’ podcast makes it fun and easy to absorb! On NatGeo, they talk a lot about the greek gods and goddesses, so I shared it with my family. I said pick the god or goddess you want to embody, and you will be that person for one night. We celebrated a part of the culture that is meaningful to the Greek people. We made it approachable, fun, and engaging.”
“I suggest to other groups going to Greece, steal this idea! At Achieve, we have a big program coming up in Mexico. Our team is doing a cooking class with tamales, guacamole, and Mexican hot chocolate to prepare for it. We incorporate that into our team as a way to suggest, to our clients, fun ways to get people hyped up and knowledgable before they even get on a plane.”
Ashley’s Superpower and Final Advice
As he wraps up this episode of #Eventicons, Will asks about Ashley’s number one tip for the events community.
“Your biggest superpower is a thank you card,” she says. “Even though I carry very little with me, I have thank you cards in my passport wallet. I surprise everyone that goes that extra mile. For example, I was going to Morocco and the flight attendant gave me extra bottles of the olive oil I was obsessed with while on the plane. Just sprinkle some kindness in the world.”
And as a bonus, she shares one more piece of advice: lead with what you love. “Even though I was born into this industry, I didn’t know my place. I was a nonprofit professional, I cared about building communities and I had the legacy of my family’s purpose-driven business to lean on, but there was a disconnect. Once I started building out what I cared about, which is local culture and creating events that have more intercultural exchanges, that’s what I started writing, sharing, and speaking about. I’ve fallen in love with the industry in a whole new way because I’ve focused on what I care about.”
We hope you’ve enjoyed today’s chat with Ashely Lawson as much as we did. Tune in next time for another iconic guest!