Bill Lombardi: Championing Events at the MIT Media Lab

Photo: Bill Lombardi

MIT isn’t the only cultural institution in which William (Bill) Lombardi has worked. After beginning his career as a chef, Lombardi was hired to cook for and manage The Barking Crab, the celebrated seafood restaurant located on Boston’s Fort Point Channel. He transitioned from managing restaurants to working at MIT twice; he worked for the Biology Department from 2000-2004 and was recruited to manage event space for the MIT Media Lab in 2011 after its new complex opened. Bill also has a cultural icon in his family: his uncle is Vince Lombardi, the legendary NFL coach. He even has his uncle’s first championship ring from 1961.

If you need to speak with Bill, you’d be lucky to catch him in the months of April or May. In that two-month period this spring, he oversaw nearly 100 events.

Why did you return to MIT?

Someone I knew from my time in the biology department called me to interview. She said, “I’ve got something I think might be up your alley.”

My job is managing the space. It’s not necessarily “event planning.” But, with my background and with so many people across MIT who are tasked with putting on an event — with little idea of how to go about it — I find it exhilarating. It’s a lot of back and forth and helping and working with people. It’s managing a lot of small parts.

What are some of your skills that allow you to do your job?

There’s a way of organizing things so that events can work and run as they need to. I try to draw out what people want, when they don’t know what they want. I also listen when someone says they want one thing one day and something else the next day. People can have grand ideas for their events, but then they reconsider. It’s listening and intervening when necessary. Three weeks ago, we had six different events that were all based on similar ideas, but they were across different locations. I approached each person planning his/her event and suggested that if we did some rearranging and kept the same rentals, they could save money. I ended up saving them $1,000 each.

What’s the busiest time of year?

April and May, and then September and October, are usually the busiest times of year. But this year, we’ve got two-, three-, and five-day events every week this summer, so it will be a very busy summer. One event running multiple days is easier to manage than several single events taking place the same day.

One of the things I had been told coming to this job was that it was supposed to get me out of my long restaurant days. And, for the most part, I do work a 9-to-5 day. If everything is lined up correctly, I don’t have to be here at night or on weekends. But when things do get tight or things get turned upside down, it takes more of an effort to make it all work.

What’s the most challenging part of your job?

Communication — anywhere and everywhere — can be the biggest problem. For example, I may have a list of events and spaces that are booked, but no one has confirmed that they want to move forward with them. And Covid has proven that confirming plans can be very difficult. When we started back last fall, we all got very excited that we could have events again. Then, very quickly we were pulled back into Covid and everyone who had booked space wanted to sit and wait. Of course, we can book something and wait, but there is a point where you have to make a decision. Either you work on having the in-person event or you decide to pass on it. It was difficult because people were really having a hard time deciding if it would be safe.

Covid effectively shut down your business at the start of the pandemic. What did you do?

Yes, it did. I had so many events that were cancelled, and it took a lot of work to refund each of those deposits when we realized we wouldn’t be returning to campus for a while. The Media Lab came to me and said, “We need people to do admin work for different departments.” I ended up becoming an admin assistant for the Sculpting Evolution Lab until last fall when events started coming back. I was doing both jobs for a while.

What did you think about working in a lab?

It was great. Even though I’ve worked at the Media Lab for so long, I have no idea what our labs actually do. I don’t get to see any of it. I got to see what this lab was doing and it was like, wow! That was really exciting.

During Covid, we became a bit traumatized about being with other people. Now, that we’re able to attend events again — at least outside — have you found yourself in the position of helping people relax who may be a little anxious about having an event?

Yes, because a good portion of the people trying to plan something were all nervous and not sure whether to have an event or not. My take was, “Let’s just talk and work together and plan it. You can always change your mind.” And it’s not as if we’re a big business that has to make that mighty dollar. We can take a step back if you have to. You can cancel, if you have to. We really are an understanding group of people here. We get it.

Do you still cook?

Oh yes. I will have people over for dinner and I enjoy cooking for them. On vacations, I don’t go to gift shops. I go to the local grocery stores to see what they have on their shelves. Every region and every country has different foods!

Where are you planning to go next?

This year, I’m only doing some small local trips. I’m going to the Jersey shore where I grew up. I have family and a bunch of old friends down there. It’s just going to be relaxed. My next major trip though, I hope to go to France and Italy. I have gotten into watching French chateaux renovation shows on YouTube. There’s a lot of people who have bought these old chateaus and are restoring them. I love it. They also show the whole food and social scenes. It’s wonderful.

Coming back to MIT for this job was great. It’s been good working here. I’ve worked with a lot of good people. The people I know from across campus at SA+P are great. I’ve had some health issues in the past that, if I wasn’t at MIT, I don’t know if I would have been able to keep working. And, with MIT and the Media Lab, trying to create a more diverse workplace—it’s been good to see that change. It’s been a great place to open up your eyes and mind.

By Maria Iacobo