“When I work on challenging projects I see the possibilities, not the restrictions,” says Melynda Norman-Lee, event project manager for J J L Events, Toronto, Ont., Canada. “I start visualizing the final outcome when I first start talking with the client. If I haven’t captured that vision from the beginning, I won’t be able to do my job to the best of my ability—because I’d feel like I was playing catch-up with all the other details.”
Originally an IT manager, Norman-Lee’s entry into the event industry came in 2001 when John J. Lee launched J J L Events with his son Jason Lee (Norman-Lee’s husband). “My IT position was downsized so I started out helping John’s wife Julie on the organizational side of the business: doing things such as answering phones, organizing invoicing and keeping track of money,” she says. “In addition to having done project management in IT, I had done a lot of volunteer work, so I had experience with the event side of things, and I’m naturally organized—but I didn’t really know anything about the industry.”
Skill, effort, gratitude
Highly skilled in her own right, Norman-Lee’s gratitude for John’s influence is ever-present as she brings events to life for her clients. Now at the helm of the business she co-owns with Jason since John’s death in 2016, she talks about all he taught her. “John was an MFC (Master Fabric Craftsman)—one of the first. He brought the first HÖcker [clearspan structure] to Canada. He did a lot of ‘firsts,’” she says. “In those early years, when I was with John, I was helping. So though I don’t know the industry from the ground up, I understand the logistics of how to install a tent because I’ve done it.”
Norman-Lee also credits John for her ability to envision how a project will best be produced. “When I look at a site, whether it’s someone’s backyard, a college field or an oil refinery—I am able to visualize the possibilities of what can be done in the space they have,” she says. “That is something John excelled at, and I picked that up from him.”
Comprehensive communication and focus at the outset of any project is Norman-Lee’s primary concern—so that she can understand the client’s concept, budget and expected outcomes. Sometimes she is the event planner and sometimes she works with a planner to bring the event into fruition. “We partner with planners in that their direct contact is with the client and we provide the outdoor elements,” she says. “It could be that we provide everything from fencing to garbage disposal to the tent and everything that goes along with that. Other times I’ll do the planning directly. Whether I’m responsible for the whole project or am only providing specific portions, each client deserves my focus so they get the best I can possibly do for them.”
As soon as Norman-Lee has a vision and scope for the project she includes staff (and sometimes partner vendors) in the conversation. “I find that the more everyone knows about the project and what’s expected of them, the better,” she says. “Early communication encourages people to come to me with ideas and suggestions, or just take something and run with it. If they have the big picture and are not just focusing on their little part of it—then the outcome is better all the way around.”
Poised to respond
When surprises come—and they always do—Norman-Lee says she strives to keep an open mind and “be elastic.” And while that kind of flexibility is vital to event production, it can be an added challenge for an industry that relies on planning
and anticipation for success.
“Being elastic is more than keeping an open mind. It’s taking a step back when something unexpected happens and saying to myself: ‘This is not a problem. I just need to figure out how to make this work,’” she says. “That’s my biggest challenge, because I’m organized and like to know what’s coming next. I find that if I can stay calm when everybody else is stressing out, I can work things out and the clients can relax and enjoy their guests.”
Norman-Lee also makes sure staff is on hand at all events unless the event is extremely small. “If we put tents up, we’re there—even if we’re just sitting in a parking lot in a car,” she says. “It’s part of what sets us apart: these events are one-time occasions for our clients. If they wait until Monday morning to call and complain about something, it’s too late. But if we’re there and the temperature changes, the generator stops working or whatever, they don’t have to wait for us to show up to do something about it. It’s often fixed before they realize there was a problem.”
The scope of J J L Events’ work expands beyond events to include “dressing” an amusement park, and doing custom work and other tent installations, such as providing blast-resistant tenting for an oil refinery when it shuts down for updates and maintenance. “We’ve installed tents for them for a long time,” Norman-Lee says. “It started out that they only needed portable washrooms and a small 20-by-20-foot tent for covered storage. Now it has grown to include much more, including a 100-by-170-foot structure that is installed for five months.”
This year’s structure provided shelter for pre- and post-work, and for 800 people working 24 hours for the three weeks the plant was shut down. As the project’s scope grew over the years, so did Norman-Lee’s input. “As we worked with the client more, the more I understood what they need in order to offer better solutions, and the more they rely on me.”
Whether Norman-Lee is working at the oil refinery or on her next big tented event, her focus is on creating an outcome that meets or exceeds the client’s expectations—and it’s the ‘thank you’ that keeps her motivated. “At the end of the day or the next day when I’m doing cleanup and the clients come to me and say: ‘Thank you. So glad you were here. You made the night. We couldn’t have done it without you.’—That’s why I do this,” she says.
Sigrid Tornquist is a Minneapolis-based writer and editor, and a frequent contributor to the Review.
Creating space for wonder
For years, J J L Events has provided tent and event services for an annual Christmas party that extends and transforms a home’s space for themed celebrations, to transport guests to imaginative destinations that have included “A Bing Crosby Christmas,” “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” and “Mad Men meets Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” And while imagining and executing the themes takes immense skill and preparation, none of it could happen without Melynda Norman-Lee and her team’s inventive installation outside the client’s back door.
An 8-foot-wide patio extends from the doors at the back of the house, with a 42-inch height difference from the upper patio to the lower patio. Factor in two sets of stairs and a koi pond the crew builds a floor over, and you’ve got a challenging design and install. “We never considered doing anything but adding on to the house,” Norman-Lee says. “We thought it would be too awkward to have a tunnel canopy from the house down to a tent on the lower level, as others had suggested doing.”
The crew squeezed a 30-by-45-foot Fiesta Legacy tent on 10-foot sides on a floor built level with the patio doors, which required removing the wrought iron railing on the patio and stairs, as well as exterior light fixtures. Every year the reveal is a surprise to the guests, and Norman-Lee’s contributions to the decor and event details have increased with each event. The client so appreciates her work that in 2016 when they needed to rent a facility to accommodate the entertainment—Diana Ross—they invited Norman-Lee to enjoy the evening as a guest.
How do economic fluctuations affect your business?
The economy is really no indication of our industry and what it can accomplish. I would just say it’s always in flux, which is a great thing. Your success depends more on whether you’re innovating or reacting. There’s always something going on. And I find that if someone wants an event to happen, they’ll find the budget for it—whether it’s for a corporate client, golf tournament, sporting event or wedding.