Planning an event: tips from the trenches
Not too long ago, someone asked me if I had a master’s degree in “corporate event planning” from a notable New England university. I guess the puzzled look on my face must have answered the question, “Do they have such a thing?” After all, I always thought of myself as a glorified “party planner” - birthdays on a much larger scale. Much, much larger, actually. As McLean Communications’ events marketing manager, my main objective is to provide professionally crafted events that represent the interests of our three major companies -- New Hampshire Magazine, New Hampshire Business Review and NH.com. Since starting with my first event - NH.com’s 2001 New Hampshire Internet Awards -- I have managed more than 15 major events, ranging in size from 100 to over 2,000 attendees. We currently have seven major corporate events scheduled for 2004, the first running on Feb. 6 and the last on Nov. 4. So, as the busy season approaches, I’d like to share a few secrets that have helped me remain level-headed and organized during the planning process: • Define the event: Get everyone involved in the planning process and figure out who will benefit from the event. Why are you planning this? Who’s the target audience? Who would you solicit for sponsorships, if needed? • Define the budget: Never go in blind, anticipate every possible cost involved in the planning process and plan ahead. Interview potential vendors during the “off season” for services such as printing, promotional items and signage. Provide flexibility in your budget - in case you get hit with extra charges, you can still reach your revenue goals. (The “Misc” column has saved me many times, especially in planning a new event.) Discuss the details of your contract with the event venue, and never assume anything is “all-inclusive.” Once you’ve defined the costs, how are you planning to pay for your event? Will you have sponsorships to help cover your costs or an entry fee -- or both? Remember who your target audience is and gauge what they might be willing to pay be a part of your event. • Shop for your venue: It’s very important for you to book the space for your event immediately after, or during, the budget-planning process, since it is often the largest chunk of your expenses. Make sure to get estimates on the entire package, from food to A/V needs to security and decorations. • Develop a “look” for your collateral, marketing and advertising, which will be a signature to your event if you want to hold it annually: Keep it simple and to the point. Incorporate your company logo, but also leave room for sponsors, partners and supporters of your event. At the risk of looking like a Winston Cup jacket, make sure to include only your largest financial supporters. Develop other packages to include ancillary sponsors. And make sure the look is consistent on your invitations, print advertising, posters, Web site, ballots, announcements, registration, signage at the event, color theme, etc. To save a few dollars, try not to date event backdrops and registration signage, so you can re-use them for the following year -- unless you have already planned for your sponsors’ logos to be included in these materials. • Develop a marketing and promotions campaign: If possible, talk to local media companies and get them involved with your event. Do this early, since many media organizations have to book space up to three months in advance. Know your audience and get an overview of the media companies you would like to approach to help define where you want to place advertising and submit press releases. Learn about their specialty sections and inserts, as your advertising may reach your audience more effectively if your ad is placed in one of their favorite places to get information. Plan a realistic budget for advertising, since you will need to spend more money the first year, than in years 3 or 4 (once the word is out!). If you throw out a blanket number, say $5,000 to cover this expense, and you plan on running half-page ads in a local publication that costs $1,200 a week, you may run out of money sooner than you think. Depending on what you are trying to accomplish, running consistently and modestly may work better in the long run. Also figure out what you want your audience to do and when to do it. For example, if you want them to register for your event in March, plan to advertise heavily in February. If you get enough attention, and your event is booked, congratulations. If not, have a back-up plan, such as spending more money on advertising, trying to get an interview with local media, talking to local organizations (such as your chamber of commerce) or buying a list for an e-mail blast -- and don’t forget to ask your colleagues, vendors and clients for referrals. A temporary Web site is a great marketing tool. Be sure to take the time to develop at least a separate page on your company Web site where people can find information about the event. Also, try searching on line for places to post information about your event, like NHEvents.com, to get the word out to your tech-savvy audience segment. Don’t forget to include press releases in the mix, since a well-written release can get your event into the media without you spending a lot of advertising dollars. Promotional items, or “leave-behinds,” serve as a great reminder for your attendees to think about your event next year. • Sell sponsorships now: Sponsors are the most important part of your revenue, and sometimes they need time to get approvals for larger sums of money. Once you know your audience, there may be some natural “fits” for the type of sponsor you want to approach for partnering or supporting your event. Make sure to develop sound packages, in incremental levels, to allow for sponsors to invest based on their financial comfort level. Be sure to include logos, tag lines, and/or names in everything you do from the minute the sponsor commits. Depending on how packages are defined, sponsors should be included in everything -- pre-show, during the show and any post-show marketing efforts. • Talk to your vendors about deadlines: If you know your vendor is in the heart of trade show season and you call in an order for 1,000 programs to be printed in two days, be ready to incur an extra turnaround or shipping charge -- or worse. About five to six weeks from your event, get in touch with your vendors for printing, signage, promotional items, and awards/trophies and find out what a realistic turnaround time would be to have orders processed. Allow vendors to order supplies ahead of time, if possible -- this can save a few dollars. • Get a speaker who will engage your audience: There’s nothing worse than looking into the eyes of your audience and finding them glazed over. Invest in finding a prominent celebrity within your field or a really engaging speaker. Make sure to give them enough time to get across their message, but keep them on a schedule. • Find reliable volunteers and make sure to provide an orientation: In order to ensure your volunteers will be there, communicate with them often. Send reminders, e-mails, make calls, keep them involved with what’s expected of them. Plan an orientation to assure everyone is comfortable with their assignments. Make sure jobs are suitable to personalities. For example, don’t assign a shy, introverted person to help with registration. Why? Because people are tense when they register, as they want to “settle in” as soon as possible. You need tough-skinned, polite personalities to work up front, as they receive the brunt of complaints -- “I don’t see my name,” “we paid in advance,” “where’s my name tag?” “why’s this taking so long?” etc. Ask your sales team to act as greeters and minglers, since they are usually people with outgoing personalities who are comfortable with networking. Ask quieter colleagues to help set up or break down the event. • Registration - master it and you are a master: Registration is the “receptionist” of your event -- the first impression. Spend time organizing registration. Look at the facility you’ve selected and envision how filled the entrance can become in a period of five to 15 minutes. Make sure you have plenty of tables, chairs and volunteers to accommodate the crowd. Have registration signage designed and clearly marked for attendees. Break registration down alphabetically, by company, into alphabetical groupings. Assign two people per table to make gleaning over information easier -- sometimes it takes two sets of eyes to find a name on a condensed list. And make sure you have plenty of supplies on hand -- pens, highlighters, petty cash (enough change in denominations you anticipate), and don’t forget extra blank name badges for the unexpected. • Thank Everyone -- twice!: By now, you have involved a number of people in your event. Don’t forget them in your programs, during the presentation, while you mingle on the floor, after the show in your thank-you letters, and in your post-show advertising. This includes your sponsors, speakers, vendors, the venue, volunteers -- everyone who was involved. It doesn’t stop here. Make sure to remember them all year long. Send cards during the holidays, volunteer for the events they’re holding, develop relationships with them. Don’t forget any of the people who have helped make you shine during that few hours (or days) that took months to plan. Perhaps I had a slight advantage in finding my occupation-as fate had it’s hand in my career-I was conceived in NYC and born on the ultimate party day, New Year’s Eve…Destined to party or destined to plan a party-take your pick, they’re both fun to do! Tricia Baker Schmitt is the events marketing manager for McLean Communications, parent company of New Hampshire Business Review, New Hampshire Magazine and NH.com.