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Esther Huijsmans is a sports & events professional with 20 years of experience in international large-scale sports and entertainment projects/events such as FIFA World Cups, the Olympic Games, the UEFA EURO's (Men & Women's) and Tomorrowland Winter.
She is also a mentor for women in the sports industry and initiator of KICK-ES, an inspiration platform for women in sports. Esther is on a mission to empower women and get more women into leadership positions in the sports industry.
This year Esther will also be acting as a guest lecturer for our Master in Football Business & Management in the area of operations and sports venue management.
We recently interviewed her to get her insight into various aspects of the business of sport/football. You can read the interview below:
1. From FIFA World Cups, UEFA Euros to Olympic tournaments. How did your journey in events management begin?
I actually started as a volunteer at UEFA EURO 2000. I always loved events, sports and football in particular. I already had the goal of working in the sports industry and when volunteering, I “discovered” that there were people who organised sports events for living and from that moment on I was determined to pursue a similar career in sports. In 2002, the KNVB (Royal Netherlands Football Association) was awarded the FIFA U-20 World Cup 2005. As soon as I saw that they got this awarded this tournament, I sent an open application to express my interest. And a couple of months later, I started as the first employee of the Local Organising Committee for this FIFA U-20 World Cup.
2. Stadiums are playing a greater role in delivering a remarkable experience for fans. Where should venues evolve towards to maximize entertainment?
The world is changing, people want to be entertained more than before. Also being a football fan myself, I know that there are quite some people who just want to see the match and they don’t need all the extra stuff. Not me by the way, I personally love the entertainment.
And you see that mainly younger generations want to interact more. Some things I personally liked in the last years (when we could still see a match) is for example a light show combined with music before the match starts. Nowadays with LED it is so much easier to do, because it doesn’t take ages before the stadium lights are switched on and off. Also the interaction with the public on the giant screen is a good development, especially when clubs or federations start to involve the fans in the days before the match by using specific social media channels and hashtags.
Recently since fans couldn’t attend the match of Ons Oranje (the Netherlands national team), they created the possibility to participate in the anthem online. And fan actions where fans can actually engage in are always great. Such as the big mosaics, something with phone lights and so on.
I personally think a lot can be learned from for example the American sports since they always have a lot of entertainment.
One thing to be aware of is that the entertainment shouldn’t ‘overtake’ the fan atmosphere. I once saw a match in La Bombonera, the home stadium of Boca Juniors. That was already 12 years ago, and there was hardly any organized entertainment but for me it was one of the most entertaining experiences I’ve ever had. The passion, the dedication, I loved seeing the fans!
3. With COVID-19, the digital ecosystem has been more important than ever for tournaments to maintain engagement. How do you see sports events in the future?
I find it very difficult to predict what is going to happen. At this moment I am not even sure if EURO 2020 and the Olympic Games will allow fans. Hopefully we can go back to full stadiums soon, but I am afraid it might take longer than we hope for.
4. Given your solid experience in the field, what lessons do you consider as fundamental for effective venue operations and management?
Prepare and plan as good as you can and from the implementation phase onwards: be available and be flexible. And secondly and as important: invest in the relations with everybody involved before the tournament. A lot of preparations are done on paper and when getting to the implementation phase, most of the time things turn out differently, and in that case it is good to have short communication lines with everyone involved.
As a Venue Manager I try to have all the preparation & planning work done by the time we get to the implementation phase e.g. when the stadium is made the tournament-ready. As soon as we get into this phase, I make sure that I am available as much as possible to solve and sort all issues and challenges which we discover on the shortest notice. Everybody in the team has his/her own responsibilities and I just need to make sure that people can keep doing their jobs and that the delays because of issues are as limited as possible. No matter how good you are prepared: you always need to prepare that things go differently than planned. What I always say: a good preparation and planning are crucial, flexibility is key!
5. How can anyone interested in football business get involved in these major sports events? Which skills are key?
I recently made my first podcast about this topic but it is (currently) only in Dutch.
My most important advice is: work on your network. And one of the ways to do that is for example by volunteering at such an event. Connect with people you get to know, share your enthusiasm and of course make sure you’re doing a great job.
Until last year I didn’t realise that networking was a skill or that it was something I was good at; I just knew a lot of people and have good relationships with for example former colleagues. Until quite some people told me in a short period of time that I was good at that; one person even suggested that I should make a training about this topic. That was why I recently created the online training “Connecting with Confidence” (also only in Dutch) in which I share my best recommendations about how to get a valuable and a powerful network while enjoying doing that.
It’s about introducing, investing, interaction, interest, informing, inviting, inspiring, impact and impression. So how do you stay “top of mind” after getting to know people? How do they know that you are interested in having a certain role? Make sure your network is informed and also think about “what’s in it for them” when you connect with someone. Because that is a mistake a lot of people make; they only come to get something and that is not proper networking.
Some other needed skills are definitely drive, dedication, enthusiasm and the willingness to work hard. And when you’re a starter, be open for opportunities, even if you are overqualified for the role. That was how I got my first job in football. I was hired as an office manager and it wasn’t the most logical step with a university degree. But I was even willing to take out the garbage if that was asked (luckily they didn’t know that). And what my experience is, is that you can always create your own job; for me the first job was the best learning experience just because I was the assistant of the board of directors and I was involved in almost everything.
When working as a Venue Manager for the UEFA Women’s EURO in 2017, there was a volunteer who came all the way from Spain to work during the event… Because he was fulltime available, he got the UEFA Marketing Assistant role. For him it was an unforgettable experience and he really expanded his network. After the event, he started to use this experience as a sports marketing specialist and professional speaker and expert about women’s football. And you might know him, Xavi Bové has been a sports marketing consultant in the SBI team for quite a while.
And one last advice: persevere, really go for it. If you want to have this role and you give up at the first setback, you actually don’t really deserve it. Success consists of getting up one more time than you fall.
6. With the mission of empowering women in the sports industry, you founded KICK-ES. How can we provide more opportunities for women in football?
Why I started my platform and what I wanted to do is to show more female role models. And see what we, women can do ourselves, instead of pointing at others that we don’t get opportunities. Yes, I think, being a woman, that it is more complicated to get to certain positions in football, but I think we ourselves can change a lot too.
There are so many women who underestimate what they are capable of, they suffer from the imposter syndrome, they don’t see their own full potential, they don’t think it’s interesting or special what they are doing or they are too modest and don’t want to “show off” because they don’t want to be considered arrogant. For example, a recent study in the Netherlands showed that women have less network awareness: they either find it difficult to network (at least that is what they think) or they don’t know how to fully use their network.
What I wanted to achieve is to create a community for women in sports in which we help each other. And I wanted to inspire other (younger) women by giving these role models a platform. That was why I started interviewing inspiring women in the sports industry. And for me a role model is not necessarily a director or president, but it can also be a young girl who created her own Instagram keepers community.
So my advice to football organisations would be: more mentoring programmes, more awareness, show more role female models. And if you really want diversity: go and look for women, they are around but normally have a different way of positioning themselves than men. And in the meantime we as women are working on raising our hands more often.
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