Event planning often falls under marketing, whether that means trade shows, client visits or corporate meetings. And if you are a small- to medium-sized business, the chances are you don't have a budget to hire an outside firm or a consultant. We're just back from the Affinity Express annual strategy workshop and I'm glad to say that it went quite well, from the hotel to the meals to the events. Based on this recent experience, here are some suggestions to increase the likelihood of success for your event, regardless of the type of meeting or the industry you are in.
1. Visualize the Details
This is probably the tactic that has helped me the most, especially when it comes to large events. You have to know the venues, details and agenda better than anyone. Plus, you should see them from the perspective of your participants. When you envision through how guests will enter, what they will see, what they will need and what they will expect, you can effectively cover all of the details. Your goal is to have the attendees relax and feel completely taken care of, even when you're having a straightforward business meeting. This is one reason why you see signs with group names and directions in hotels when there are events. Having people wander around aimlessly, wondering where they are supposed to go, is not the best start to a gathering. The annual event for the Chicago chapter of Go Red For Women was a great example of effective signage. It was a large hotel and there was no doubt where to report, check your coat, find the ballroom, etc. They answered all the questions before they could be asked (and we were proud to have helped design the signage).
Dinner was a time to relax and have more informal conversations
For our dinners around the strategy meeting, I had perused the menus and arranged for special requirements in advance. Each day, I arrived early to meet the servers, select wine and appetizers, discuss the approach with the staff and ensure everything was set up the way I wanted. Over the course of four days, my boss never started a question with, "Did you . . .?" When our guests arrived, they didn't have to think, just enjoy themselves, which they certainly did. I'm not naming names but there was spontaneous karaoke at one point!
2. Anticipate Problems
Something always goes wrong. Always. They key is to consider every aspect of the meeting and ask "what if?" Then you develop back-up plans. If you are using an LCD projector, do you have an extra light bulb? Is there a back-up for the machine itself? If you are planning an outing, what will you do if it rains?
We planned a tour around Chicago to see all of the great architecture from a boat. Despite monitoring the weather for weeks before the gathering, it rained unexpectedly and the temperature dropped about 20 degrees that day. But I knew that the boat had a lower level and an awning, that there were umbrellas in all the sleeping rooms and we had pullovers with our logo to distribute and keep everyone dry. On top of that, I had the ability to failover to a nearby indoor event at an extra cost of less than $400 but that didn't become necessary.
3. Build Relationships
When it comes to hotels, restaurants and vendors, it is true that you are the client but you cannot be a prima donna. Treat every contact with respect, communicate your requests clearly and thoroughly, and try to have a sense of humor. These are your partners not your servants and these folks will make or break your event. When something goes wrong (and it will), these are the people you will turn to for suggestions and support. Stamping your feet does not make anyone care about your needs. Think honey rather than vinegar.
At our meeting, there were dozens of last-minute changes to accommodations. Attendees decided to stay longer or leave earlier, forgetting to let me know in several cases so I could coordinate with the hotel. Fortunately, I maintained a good relationship with my contacts and, instead of paying for unused room nights or having others forced out, everything was taken care quickly and perfectly. Plus, these wonderful folks sent chocolates to my room every night!
In the planning stages, ask a ton of questions. The hotel can be a tremendous resource on local restaurants, transportation companies, events and more. I usually start with the concierge but don't stop there. The front desk, sales representative, catering manager and others all have good information. You can also ask them what other clients have done in various situations. It helps to read reviews online and ask for references.
The concierge recommended the transportation company I used so that executives would be picked up at the airport and taken back at all hours, without having to hail taxis. I spoke with three different concierges to make sure I got consistent advice. Sounds a little excessive but do you want a call at 5:00 a.m. because a board member is still waiting for a pick-up?
Another aspect of over-communicating is confirming arrangements. You will have contracts and confirmations but it never hurts to call and check in to make sure everything is ready (plus it is another opportunity to build rapport). It takes just a couple of minutes but saves headaches. Our transportation to the boat tour was not outside 15 minutes before the event but I was confident they would be there momentarily because I called to make sure a few hours earlier. They rolled up seconds later.
5. Expect Changes
When we were hungry, coffee and snacks were brought in and we plowed on
You can't overcome human nature and the reality is that people don't read memos and documents. They ask questions you've answered three times previously. Their needs change or they won't plan ahead. And you will often be expected to read minds. Anticipating problems helps to a degree but you will still have to do things on the fly. It's not personal or designed to make your hair hurt so just roll with it. Have every contact phone number at your fingertips. Carry copies of menus. Write up checklists for each day. Keep contracts, receipts of deposits and copies of banquet orders, etc., on hand. Make extra copies of agendas and other meeting materials.
We had a couple of folks flip-flop about attending the events one evening. Rather than get frustrated, I just added to the headcount and bought more tickets. Then I cheerfully communicated with their assistants. No big deal!
6. Everything is Your Job
Roll up your sleeves because you'll have to collate documents, pack up office supplies, print documents for attendees and quite a bit more. There's no use fighting it because little details like these can be the difference between guests feeling positive about their experience and wishing they never showed up. Even if you have the luxury of some assistance to handle the details, the responsibility is still yours.
I planned to have welcome gift bags for attendees when they checked in. That meant picking up some gourmet popcorn from a famous place nearby but there was no one else on-site to lug the 32 individual bags ten blocks back to the hotel. So I got some good exercise that day. When one attendee had trouble with his room safe, he came to me. Rather than fob him off on the hotel, I called my contact and arranged to have someone from the hotel come to our meeting to escort him back to his room to deal with the problem. Then I followed up to make sure the situation was resolved to his satisfaction.
7. Stay Cool
Whether you give every speech or none at all, you set the tone for the gathering. Like I said, something will go wrong (and if it is only one thing, you are doing quite well). How you respond can make or break the meeting. If you freak out, so will others. Instead, keep a cool head, empathize and calmly think through your options. Then communicate, rely on your contacts and contingency plans, and solve the problem.
Fortunately, nothing disastrous happened at this meeting last week but there was a crazy situation at my old job. The shipping company switched and sent the wrong exhibits when we had two trade shows one after the other, so our materials arrived at the LAST moment. The venue had a rule that you had to be set up by 11:00 a.m. or you sat in an empty space the rest of the day. To make matters worse, my boss was driving up. We had 20 minutes to set up a 20-foot booth (normally a two-hour process). I enlisted the help of the other folks from my company, whipped out some duct tape and started cracking jokes (works a lot better than crying and giving up). When my boss arrived, he probably noticed a few missing pieces or odd bubbles in the graphics but never said a word about it. And I wasn't the least bit flustered (at least on the surface!).
8. Follow Up
Once your event is over, there is sure to be a need for specific follow-up activities such as distributing the agreed-upon action items and timelines, and scheduling subsequent meetings. In terms of the event planning function, be sure to collect all your final invoices and update your budget while everything is fresh in your mind. Keep your checklists and make notes on what you would improve upon—this is your starting point for the next event. You could also send out a brief survey to gauge what attendees thought and get their suggestions (as well as to benchmark your performance). It's a nice touch to send out photos to remind folks of their experience and how much they enjoyed the event. We usually feature the Affinity Express strategy meeting in our quarterly newsletter. Most importantly, you should send out thank you notes to all your contacts and, if they went above and beyond, offer to provide references to other meeting planners.
It's important to keep in mind that you don't go into event planning or take on these types of projects to get applause and be seen as a hero, especially when you are juggling all sorts of other responsibilities. Few people understand what goes into a seamless meeting and most only see what goes wrong. As a result, all you can hope for is a minimum of complaints. If you do actually get some handshakes or thank-you notes, it means you got great help, made smart decisions and probably followed this advice.