Staff Q&A with Mark Bendas

Mark Bendas-story

Peter Tobia

Mark Bendas says it takes a certain type of person to do event planning and management.

You must be unflappable, flexible, and detail-oriented. It helps if you thrive on short timelines and under pressure. And you have to be OK with being behind-the-scenes.

Here at Penn, Bendas’ role as Director of Special Events in the President’s Office is to coordinate and manage more than 100 events annually. That’s everything from Commencement and Convocation, to the opening of Shoemaker Green and a gathering of students with Penn President Amy Gutmann at her residence.

“For me, with all of the hard work and the long hours, the fun of it outweighs all of that. It always has,” says Bendas. “You’re very much behind-the-scenes, and the appreciation for people who show up and really enjoy themselves—taking a backseat role and knowing how good of a time they’re having, especially at a University like this, where you’re managing student- or alumni-related events—it makes it all worth it.”

Bendas worked for a year in Development managing special events before moving to the President’s Office about two years ago. Prior to that, he worked on special event planning for the indoor arenas in South Philly, running events for the 76ers and Flyers, as well as concerts, family events, and even the occasional Disney on Ice show.

It was never a dull moment, but not especially conducive to starting a family. Bendas is thankful that his current job has allowed that.

“I have a 15-month-old and No. 2 on the way in January, so I’m keeping things as crazy as possible in my personal life. I’m not someone who needs a lot of sleep, luckily,” Bendas says. “Working for the President’s Office and Dr. Gutmann herself is very rewarding. We work so hard and long hours, as many Penn employees do, but they respect your time with family, which for me makes it a very unique place.”

The Current sat down with the Lehigh Valley native to talk about what it’s like to be Penn’s go-to behind-the-scenes guy.

Q. So, you mentioned you used to handle special events for the indoor arenas. Any memorable shows?
A. A lot of those. ... We did a lot of Bruce Springsteen shows down there. Billy Joel, Elton John—I helped at the Phillies ballpark for major concerts, as well. My particular favorite was running one of the NCAA men’s basketball tournaments. I’m a big basketball fan.
That seems glamorous. I had a great time working down there. [But] starting a family, [Penn was] much better with hours and family life and it’s a really great place to work. I love it so far. For my wife and me, this is a much better role.

Q. What exactly goes into event planning for the President’s Office?
A. In this office, we’re in charge of the logistical planning for the ceremonial events for the University, so Commencement, Convocation, Baccalaureate—all the big ceremonies that come out of the Office of the Secretary and President’s Office.
We partner with a lot of different offices. My events office has six total staff. But we work across the University with many partnerships, between the Office of the Secretary and Development and Alumni Relations, and have partnerships across FRES [Facilities and Real Estate Services], Public Safety, University Communications, OGCA [Office of Government and Community Affairs], the Provost’s OfficeVPUL [Vice Provost for University Life], Athletics, and all the schools that assist us when we have programs for Dr. Gutmann in various venues on campus. We have some really great partnerships in the schools that allow us to use the different spaces on campus.

Q. So it’s everything behind-the-scenes.
A. That’s kind of where I like to be. I like planning; I’m very detail-oriented with an event. On top of all the ceremonial and big groundbreaking events—and we just helped host the Shoemaker Green opening, and Penn Park last year—we host a lot of student events and student discussion luncheons for Dr. Gutmann, as well as different larger conference-type events, like the David and Lyn Silfen University Forum that we host annually in the spring. Over 100 events a year come out of our office, of all different sizes.

Q. When something like the opening of Shoemaker Green happens, do you have a template for events like that? Obviously Commencement and Baccalaureate are pretty similar every year. But when a special special event happens, how do you plan it?
A. We establish a working group across many different departments. For Shoemaker Green, it was a small working group of staff from Development, Facilities, Communications, Secretary’s Office. We have two or three staff people from each office and we make sure all the bases are covered, from the event logistics, the necessary safety and security staff, the caterers, and live music. We always love to feature a live band or singing group that’s either a student group or staff members. For this past event we had a steel drum band including staff members from the Med School.
With Shoemaker Green, there were a lot of green initiatives that we wanted to follow, everything from what the caterers brought was all compostable or recyclable, or making sure it matches what the space is and honoring who the trustee or donor is in the way that we should. It’s a big team effort. For an event that size and scope, we worked all summer.

Q. What’s the time frame for these events? In October, are you already thinking ahead to Commencement?
A. Yes, something like Commencement really never stops. We take a break and debrief in the summer months, but as soon as September rolls around, we’re working on all the creative aspects. Right now with the Secretary’s Office we are starting the save-the-dates, invitations, and programs. ... We have over 200 volunteers for Commencement that we work with, which includes staff from across the University. … That doesn’t count any of the Facilities and Athletics staff, security, and police. There are well over 200 people to manage that day. We host planning meetings all year long. ...
A lot of people that graduated from Penn and now work here have a passion for events. They’re great volunteers. I’ve never seen anything like it.

Q. I have to ask—do you have the campus’ biggest calendar?
A. There’s a detailed timeline throughout the year showing what we have to work on and when. My staff is excellent. They know the process inside and out. I work with a great team that keeps me on track, to be honest, because there are a lot of events in a short time frame. The other thing is, if we have a high-level speaker come to campus, we could have two, three weeks’ notice and we use all of our partnerships on campus to make it happen.

Q. What, in your mind, makes an event successful?
A. Especially for events that involve alumni or students, just coming back to Penn or being at Penn, when you see a successful turnout and people really enjoying themselves at an event, you know it is a success.
Like I said, I’m much more a behind-the-scenes kind of person, so I’m running around like crazy with my staff the day of. You can tell by the reaction of the guests at an event and that good feeling as they leave. It’s pretty obvious. There are always things that come up, like weather or scheduling conflicts, things that are out of our control, but those are the things I thrive on. I honestly and admittedly am not as good with the longer-term planning process. I love the short planning process. I love getting thrown into things and figuring it out like a puzzle with two weeks to go, or there are decisions to be made within the week of the event. That’s when it’s a lot of fun.

Q. Despite doing lots of running around during events, have you been able to meet any notable speakers on campus?
A. My first time managing Commencement was with Denzel Washington, which was fantastic. I thank the Secretary’s Office and Dr. Gutmann for that! Working with someone like that is always amazing. Also, some of the political figures, like when we host the Silfen Forum each year, we have a lot of good speakers such as Alan Simpson, Peggy Noonan, Ed Rendell, and Charles Blow.

Q. Any particularly challenging events to coordinate or plan?
A. When I started with Development ... I was assigned to assist with planning a trip to Asia and alumni events in Shanghai and Beijing. I had never planned events on the road before that. It was an amazing experience working not only with all of the Development staff, but with Dr. Gutmann on the road.
You take something as simple as an email or an invitation or registration materials, and you now have to think about translating and working overseas. The simplest thing like booking hotels or finding an audio-visual company in Beijing is challenging. I love that stuff. It’s a new puzzle.
I’ve never been one for a ‘behind-the-desk-only’ job. My staff are constantly on-the-go. ... I have to be out and about and on site wherever the event is.

Originally published on October 11, 2012