Events can be a very effective way to grow sales with customers and prospects, differentiate your company from the competition, establish leadership in your industry, build teamwork among employees and achieve a host of business objectives. According to the Convention Industry Council, 205 million people attended 1.8 million events that cost more than $263 billion in direct spending in the U.S. in 2011. The Aberdeen Group predicts that corporate meeting and event spending will rise from 9 percent to 20 percent of corporate spending from 2013 to 2014. M&C notes that the number of smaller meetings (one-day meetings and fewer attendees) is on the rise. Regardless of the size or duration of your event, success comes down to the details and that means planning—even over-planning—is crucial. Here are some tips to keep you on track.
- Decide the target audience. Once you pin this down, you have a framework for all of the other decisions you need to make, ranging from format and location to venue and content. Focusing on our audience should make setting and achieving goals easier as well. Ask yourself how relevant each session or aspect of the gathering is to the target participants.
- Determine the objectives. Are you conducting an internal meeting to plan the company's strategy for next year or hosting a new product launch to engage early adopters? Are you bringing employees together to build teamwork or are you exhibiting at a trade show to generate leads? Whatever you are trying to accomplish, you should create SMART goals, which are: S = Specific, M = Measurable, A = Achievable, R = Relevant and T = Time-bound.
- Check the calendar. First of all, allow enough time for planning. The bigger the event, the more lead time you will need. Be careful about scheduling on or too close to holidays. You should also be aware of major events in your industry and others to be held in the same city or you will find yourself competing for flights, hotel rooms, dinner reservations and even for attendees if your participants are already committed to other events. Whenever our annual strategy meeting is held in Chicago, I know it conflicts with Graph Expo and I have to book a block of hotel rooms before the thousands of attendees of the trade show start signing up.. These are a few sites that track trade shows: www.tsnn.com, www.eventseye.com, www.biztradeshows.com and www.exhibitrac.com.
- Scout locations. It is not a good idea to rely on online photos and virtual tours to view venues because they can be deceiving. Make the investment in a trip and you will likely save yourself major headaches. On your scouting trip, ask questions and take photos from a variety of angles. Look at spaces at the same times of day when you'll be using them to get a sense of lighting, traffic, etc. Walk through every part of the experience for an attendee and check bathrooms, parking, coat checks, how far the rooms are from the entrance, how helpful and friendly the staff is, etc. Take lots of notes because details are likely to be lost three weeks later at your desk when you need them. Find out what other events are scheduled at the same time. If there is a giant wedding when you're holding an important educational session on your business, you might want a different location.
Make lists. You can't have too many lists and you should cover attendees, speakers, technology, restaurants, vendors, emergency phone numbers and more. Everything your audience experiences in the scope of the event will be attributed to you and/or your brand so the more organized you are, the more professional your event will be. Nothing is beneath your notice and you have to be able to lay your hands on information quickly. At my previous company, we would have a huge annual sales kickoff meeting. Invariably, some of our packages would not be delivered to the staging area. I was always able to whip out one of several copies of my list of boxes, their contents and the tracking numbers to hand off to my assistant so she could quickly determine what was missing and find it.
- Create a planning document. You can find templates online for planning events or build your own. You should populate the document with all the actions or tasks, timeframes, team members and deadlines, advises an article in SMB Soundbites. In the past when planning complicated programs for hundreds of people, I have built what is essentially a script to track events by the minute and provide cues to speakers and technicians. We used to distribute new marketing materials to team members and this was a great way to let the support team know when to give everything out, even if I was on the other side of the amphitheater.
- Budget wisely. If you've never planned an event before, build in at least a 25% cushion because they tend to cost more than the average small business marketer thinks. This is especially true in regard to the venue and food/beverage costs. Use all of your lists to assess every cost possible, including taxes, tips, ground transportation, printing, promotional giveaways, etc. If in doubt, round up! Then check your goals to see what is expendable. In other words, think about what you'll sacrifice if you have to put a contingency plan into place because something went wrong. One example would be spending to rent furniture at a trade show when yours shows up damaged. You need to leave that wiggle room in your plan.
- Procure technology. Event technology includes everything from laptops to projectors, plasmas, sound, lighting, LANs, kiosks and more. You could use existing internal supplies such as the LCD projector sitting in your conference room. Or you could rely on the venue to supply technology. Either way, there is risk. Equipment could be old, out-of-date and overused, says SMB Now. Some facilities will not let you bring in equipment and there can be union requirements for onsite labor. Ask a lot of questions to ensure you are meeting all requirements, following policies and getting the quality and capabilities you need. For our largest trade shows, I bite the bullet and rent mega-screen monitors, etc. On the other hand, for our annual strategy meeting, we tap into local team members and IT pros, using our own equipment.
- Delegate responsibilities. Get as much help as you can. All those lists might make you feel like you can handle the entire event but making one person responsible for everything can easily result in disaster. Have someone else do walk-throughs and scout with you so they understand the progression of the event in case you need to deal with problems in the kitchen. Ask others to research vendors so they can provide direction while you check in attendees. Ask your internal technical person to help order the equipment for the event and then test the gear as it is set up. Just recently, I had our administrative assistant run around Chicago with me and tour hotels and restaurants. She'll be supporting our event in September and, because of this experience, will know much more about my approach, expectations and agreements. She'll also have a relationship with the hotel contacts to troubleshoot, so that I can attend and actively participate in the strategy meeting.
- Follow up constantly. You run the risk of being called a micromanager but that's a better nickname than "failure". You have specific goals for your event and one of them is not being the best friend to everyone (of course, should always be polite and professional).So now that you've gotten past that, communicate thoroughly and consistently in person, by phone and in writing. Set clear expectations and document them. Ask "what if" frequently. Even though everyone may seem to be on the same page, you should have a schedule of "check-ins" as the event approaches. Typically, I do this one month out, two weeks and one week, so my requests are fresh in everybody's minds.
- Practice often. If you are a presenter, master of ceremonies, host or some visible role for the event, make sure you practice several times. This will help you keep nerves under control on the actual day when you are trying to do a million other things at the same time. The same is true for your other presenters or performers. Insist on rehearsals, trial runs, etc. People may tell you, "I do this all the time and am totally prepared." Tactfully make them prove it.
- Visualize. Once you have the framework and major components nailed down, it is time to virtually walk through the event to determine every possible problem. Fixes can be easy (e.g., if it rains, we will move the cocktail hour into the lobby of the venue) or complex (e.g., if the speaker's flight is delayed, we'll start with the panel on customer service and move the day's agenda up by two hours). It might sound obsessive, but you really have to think of everything. What if there are essential pieces missing from the trade show exhibit in New Orleans? What if the shipment of welcome gifts doesn't arrive on time in India? What if the boat for the team-building event "breaks" while we're all in the process of flying to the Philippines? Yes, every single one of these things happened in relation to events I planned. The answers to the questions are: 1) I whip out some duct tape and cobble the booth together; 2) get an employee to drive us to the local FedEx office to pick up our package ourselves and 3) default to the backup plan to visit a coconut plantation.
- Be flexible. More often than not, changes have to be made to the location, size of the event, timing and more. People might cancel or join at the last minute. A restaurant might have a plumbing disaster (stranger things have happened). If you accept this reality and are prepared, you will be able to adapt gracefully.
- Smile through it. If you display anger, frustration or (perish the thought) fear, you will be sunk. Attitude is contagious. You set the example for your colleagues, vendors and attendees.
- Market your event. Marketing is another one of the lists you must have (even for internal meetings!).You need a multi-channel approach to events today and Small Biz Trends shares several suggestions:
- Reach out to journalists covering your industry and provide thorough information for their reporting. Create a series of tweets and consider setting up a unique hashtag.
- Try holding a Google+ hangout or Twitter chat a few weeks before the event and invite some of your speakers or executives to participate.
- Buy advertising on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter by leveraging their in-depth targeting options to reach your target audience (you don't need a large budget).
- Upload videos from previous events or interviews with attendees to YouTube.
- Think about creating a promotional video.
- Get local bloggers involved.
- Get listed on sites related to your industry.
Many small businesses are embracing social media to promote events. A survey from EventSpot from Constant Contact revealed:
- 23 percent promote events using a hashtag.
- 26 percent plan to promote events usinga hashtag.
- 27 percent use Pinterest, with 18 percent having created a specific board for attendees to post on.
- Go Mobile. The same EventSpot survey from Constant Contact found that 16 percent of small businesses distribute content to event registrants' mobile devices:
- 75 percent—event schedules
- 41 percent—session descriptions
- 19 percent—speaker biographies
- 16 event—presentation slide decks
- 6 percent—white papers
Some other activities SMBs conduct with mobile phones are registering and collecting payment, posting of event insights, lessons or comments to social networks, sending "save the date" notifications, capturing feedback and sharing event schedules.
Successful Meetings reports that forward-thinking event planners will provide attendees with all-in-one apps they can use to track activities, connect with business contacts and share their experiences via social networks.
- Encourage social activity. Suggest your participants tweet about your event while they are experiencing it, as well as take photos and upload them to Facebook or Twitter.
- Survey afterward. Be sure to thank your attendees for taking the time to participate in the event. At the same time, you can issue a survey to get detailed input that will help guide you on future events. You might get rave reviews but there will also be criticism, so be prepared!
Something else to keep in mind is that event planning is evolving like so many other aspects of marketing. MPI Business Barometer indicates that, along with more technological innovation, lead times have decreased and budgets have been flat for events in recent years.
Based on a survey from Destination Hotels & Resources, there are some trends to watch.
- Eco-friendly. 45 percent of respondents said eco-friendly practices are "somewhat important" when selecting a venue and 18 percent said it is extremely important.
- Site and location. Rather than budget, planners said location is the prime factor in selecting a location.
- Culinary offerings. Cooking itineraries and its quality matters quite a bit. 30 percent of planners said it is an "extremely important" parameter" while more than 78 percent voted it is an "important part" of their selection process.
- Team-building activity options. Planners often conduct team building projects and more than 55% of respondents answered adventure/active options were of the greatest interest.
- Social networking. Nearly 50 percent of planners responded that social media is an integral part of their event planning. Most go through reviews online before deciding on hotels or resorts for their events.
- Innovation and technology. More than 36 percent of planners realize that technology such as streaming media, web conferencing, A/V equipment, cloud computing, etc., has become an integral part of their daily business.
Corporate events involve a major investment of time and money. If planned carefully and thoroughly, you can ensure the spotlight is on your successes. You might even be able to enjoy yourself!
Do you have an event planning tool set? If so, what are your go-to tactics and tips?