…Creating your own solutions to the problems that exist. I learned that you can create a market for yourself, even if it never existed, find an area that is lacking and make your own path. This is how people who are disruptors in their fields bring their ideas to life (for example, Uber, Airbnb, etc). I found that during 9/11 we had lost a few wedding venues. I then went into action and set up relief efforts for all the displaced couples who lost Windows on the World. I did not sit around and wait for things to happen, I made them happen.
As part of our series about how to become known as a thought leader in your industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing JoAnn Gregoli, owner of Elegant Occasions by JoAnn Gregoli is an event planner/producer with offices in New York, New Jersey, Rome and Marrakesh. She co-authored the Knots Guide to Destination Weddings and was one of the first planners to host destination weddings. She is a speaker, author, mother and wedding producer. She is also a mother of 6 children. She describes her life as controlled chaos and knows a thing or two about balancing life and work. She gained her knowledge about travel, as the daughter of a travel agent.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?
I actually became involved with planning events as early as the 6th grade where I produced fashion shows and parties for my school. I became obsessed with weddings while on vacation, whereby I would literally attend every wedding on the property, every hour on the hour. I knew then that I was hooked on weddings. I went to college and graduated with a degree in public relations and marketing. My first job was working for a public relations agency that was responsible for the building of the Liberty Science Center in New Jersey. We worked for years, raising funds and developing the design of this center. For me, it was the feeling of accomplishment to see the birth of a project from start to finish that gave me purpose.
I come from a lineage of female entrepreneurs. My grandmother was a business owner in a time when it wasn’t common for women to own businesses and she fought to survive in a man’s world. My mom was a travel agent who was one of the true early jet-setters and conceptualized Italian wine tours for Ruffino Winery. Travel was always my passion, due to my extensive travels as a young child. I knew that introducing destination weddings to the wedding industry would change the way people viewed weddings and how they could create a memorable 3-day event. My vast experiences led me to author a book on destination weddings, Knots Guide to Destination Weddings.
Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority about the topic of thought leadership?
Planning destination events over the last 30 years, I am able to provide insights into the world of destination events due to my extensive knowledge of travel. I also believe that a person should learn as much as possible and gain knowledge in their area of expertise. I do not rely on websites or online reviews for any of the destinations that I recommend. It’s all about life’s experiences that give me the ability to guide my clients and peers. I visit as many locations as possible and meet as many vendors as I can on each visit. I like to immerse myself into the culture and learn from the locals.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
My first wedding was probably my most interesting story. I was commissioned to plan and produce a wedding for a local business owner, who had a history of substance abuse. The wedding itself was extremely stressful and challenging due to the demands of the client. In the end, we pulled it off, but only to learn one week later that she had suddenly passed away from a heart attack on her honeymoon.
In my home hung her wedding dress, her cake top in my freezer and all the wedding photographs. I took it as an omen that this wasn’t the business for me, my husband looked at it much differently, stating that our next bride would live and the death of my first bride was pretty much rock bottom. But now I had no references since this was my first client! It was such a stressful moment but knew that it could only get better.
My other most interesting wedding was when I was retained to plan and produce Rupert Murdoch’s daughter’s wedding in Beverly Hills. It truly was a memorable occasion since it was my first celebrity wedding. In attendance, we had many heads of state, plus two Presidents of the United States. This event was truly a logistical challenge due to the sheerness of the complexities of security required for heads of state and the need for two secret service teams. This event took me from the local market to producing events on a national level. The fact that most of the guests flew into the area to attend this wedding made it a multi-day destination wedding with multiple activities for the guests to experience. No matter what challenges you are faced with, my motto is to never let them see you sweat!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
The funniest mistake I ever made was to assume that other countries understand the same terminologies as Americans. I had hired a jazz band for a wedding in Rome, thinking it was a blues-jazz band, however, their interpretation of jazz was a Dixieland jazz band complete with costume. Lost in translation is real and one must never assume that people know what you mean. When you are dealing with different cultures and different languages, everything must be reviewed very carefully and put in writing. There is no detail too small when dealing with destination weddings; one must do their homework to be successful.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. In a nutshell, how would you define what a ‘Thought Leader’ is. How is a thought leader different than a typical leader? How is a thought leader different from an influencer?
A thought leader is someone who takes risks and creates paths for others to gain insight. I think it’s also about creating more conversations around certain topics. Thought leaders create ideas that push the envelope. It’s about crafting philosophy and practice. A thought leader often creates a trend.
I think an influencer is a complementary skill or the ability to do just that, influence. The ability to persuade the audience. It’s a more specialized craft truly understanding the current trend. An influencer helps to grow or spread the word about a trend.
Can you talk to our readers a bit about the benefits of becoming a thought leader. Why do you think it is worthwhile to invest resources and energy into this?
The benefit of being a thought-leader is the experience you gain. The trial and error. I went down a lot of paths, expanding the definition of destination, for example. But then also thinking about them from a different point of view. Often, weddings ARE destinations for many people. For example, if the couple lives in California, but everyone is traveling from New York, this is a destination for those people.
Most thought leaders do not think about themselves being a thought leader. It’s a process of trial and error that takes years to cultivate. But, how do you keep pushing yourself? Curiosity. Passion. These things help you continue to learn and grow. I think it’s worthwhile to invest in this because I’m someone who needs that momentum. I also truly enjoy connecting with others along this journey, too.
Let’s talk about business opportunities specifically. Can you share a few examples of how thought leadership can help a business grow or create lucrative opportunities?
You should figure out your area of expertise or areas of interest, whether it is a destination planner, celebrity planner or local planner — find your market and go after it. Focus on one element, as you cannot be an expert in everything. Make sure you truly find what makes you happy and you will be successful. Next, fine-tune your craft and make yourself an expert in that field. The more exposure you get the more it will drive traffic to your business. Knowledge is power, learn everything you can about the market that you are targeting. If you are going to find your niche, attend classes, conferences, seminars and educate yourself.
Ok. Now that we have that behind us, we’d love to hear your thoughts about how to eventually become a thought leader. Can you share 5 strategies that a person should implement to become known as a thought leader in their industry. Please tell us a story or example (ideally from your own experience) for each.
Learn to trust your gut and listen to that inner voice, it’s ok to make mistakes as long as you find ways to keep moving forward. How many times does your inner voice tell you something is not right? Use that voice to guide your decisions.
Experience different cultures by reading and researching those cultures to give you a different perspective. If you are fortunate enough to travel then you can immerse yourself in the culture. I feel that travel is a quick education to immerse yourself in different cultures. Travel may be difficult right now with COVID, but you can expand your knowledge of areas by attending virtual trips and tours that are being offered by a few hotels and tour operators online.
Avoid placing limits on yourself and go after what you want. I always believe you should ask for what you want — if the answer is no, at least you still made an effort to ask. I wanted to work with celebrities and literally had to locate their managers and ask. If I had not done my research or if I was fearful, the opportunity would never have happened.
Creating your own solutions to the problems that exist. I learned that you can create a market for yourself, even if it never existed, find an area that is lacking and make your own path. This is how people who are disruptors in their fields bring their ideas to life (for example, Uber, Airbnb, etc). I found that during 9/11 we had lost a few wedding venues. I then went into action and set up relief efforts for all the displaced couples who lost Windows on the World. I did not sit around and wait for things to happen, I made them happen.
Look for mentorships in and outside your field. I was fortunate enough to have been mentored by Cele Lalli, the Editor in Chief of Modern Bride who took me under her wings and helped direct my paths. Join an organization or community in your industry. Learn from your peers and look to others to help guide you. Surround yourself with people who are smarter than you; you can learn a lot from other experts.
In your opinion, who is an example of someone who has done a fantastic job as a thought leader? Which specific things have impressed you about that person? What lessons can we learn from this person’s approach?
The person who influenced me the most as a thought leader is Carley Roney, co-founder of The Knot. She truly not only disrupted the market of weddings, but she democratized the way that couples were able to access wedding information. She is a passionate and hard-working mom who never lost sight of her mission. She was my mentor who helped me navigate and find my voice online. She was honest and always led by example. Carley is a true visionary, she took an idea that turned into a reality that changed the way weddings are planned.
I have seen some discussion that the term “thought leader” is trite, overused, and should be avoided. What is your feeling about this?
I do not think it is overused, I feel ‘influencer’ is way more overused than the thought leader. A thought leader is a great term that identifies someone who takes a lead in their field. Every entrepreneur should strive to be a thought leader, it will help to elevate their brand and industry. A true thought leader is someone who is a visionary, but they must remain relatable and not become egotistical.
What advice would you give to other leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?
In order to avoid burnout, take time for yourself; connect with yourself and that takes discipline/practice. I enjoy meditation, yoga and exercise Self-care is very important to keep inspired and motivated. I find that exercising on a regular basis and eating a well-balanced diet makes all the difference in the world. Also, find your zen place — I love to be near or on the water, I find peace in the sound of crashing waves, so do what works best for you.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
During this pandemic, I shifted my focus on a grassroots effort to help out. I was able to energize and motivate 250 women, whom I have never met to sew and produce PPE for front line workers and clinics. I would encourage and inspire others to get involved in community service or philanthropic work. It is by far the most rewarding and fulfilling thing one can do for themselves. Once you shift the focus off yourself and focus on others who are less fortunate you will appreciate what you have much more.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Knowledge is power” and “Find your passion and you will never fail at anything in life.”
First, you can never know too much. You must constantly grow and learn as much as you can in life. Knowledge in your field, gives you the power to teach and inspire others.
Second, once you find passion in your career, it will never feel like work and you should enjoy every second of your job.
We are blessed that very prominent leaders in business and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have lunch or breakfast with? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I would love to have lunch with Bruce Springsteen (after all I am a Jersey Girl!), his music has inspired me over the years and his causes are all near and dear to my heart. Bruce uses his platform to create awareness for social change. He stands for what he believes in and makes sure that his causes are front and center at every concert. He has a mission and passion for life.
How can our readers follow you online?
Thank you so much for your insights. This was very insightful and meaningful.