Back to basics: Building event success from the ground up

A full four years after the financial meltdown of 2009, the Canadian economy still seems to be recovering in name alone. Plenty of my peers are seeing colleagues downsized, work outsourced, and budgets continually shrinking while programs grow larger and more complex. (Don’t get me started about ‘doing more with less!’) In the current financial environment, success looks more like a sturdy table than pin spot lighting and organza overlays.
Building a company
Imagine my surprise, then, when a conversation with a recent intern unearthed the fact that she was able to graduate with a recognized planning diploma without knowing how to reconcile a budget, post-event. Say what? That got me thinking about what it takes to be a high performer these days. And that, in turn, led me back to the fundamentals I learned as a “baby” planner.

Sure, we know the basics – they’re automatic. We don’t think about them; we do them by rote. But sometimes, when you aren’t paying attention, you miss things, and the foundation you assume is solid contains some weak spots. So, how to pay attention to the things you take for granted?

The Buddhists call it ‘beginner’s mind’ – the practice of setting aside everything you know about a particular topic, and approaching it as though it’s completely new to you. Though I’m not a golfer, I know that when Phil Michelson is struggling with his long game, he starts over from scratch. Everything from the way he grips the club to the position of his body as he addresses the ball, swings back, releases, connects and follows through is evaluated, adjusted as required and reassembled. It’s those fundamentals that make the difference between appearance money and a green jacket or a claret jug.

But I’m a planner, not a golfer, so how does this apply to me?

(Do I really have to say it?) Objectives

I know. Establishing objectives is boring, or tedious, or just plain difficult. Your client often can’t articulate anything measurable about the event they want to hold – which results in ‘objectives’ like “we did it last year” or “it’s a sales conference.” But if you can’t identify your destination, it doesn’t matter what route you take.

If you can describe how your participants should be different leaving the event than they were arriving, you can craft an objective. Answer the question: “Why are we doing this?” Do you want them to understand the strategy behind a change in the business? Are they celebrating an achievement? Must they learn a new skill? If you know only that much, you should still be able to write one specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time-specific objective for the event.

Once you have an objective, it becomes the keystone for all your planning.

Show me the money: Budgets

No matter what it looks like – Excel spreadsheet, custom event solution, or a pencil and a ruled pad – there’s nothing all that complicated about preparing a budget. The trick is to get it right (by which I mean use accurate estimates, and include taxes and service charges) and include everything you anticipate buying (by which I mean get your client to provide as much detail as possible up front). If you’ll earn revenue from sponsorships, registration or exhibit sales, those elements must also be included.

You’ll want a line item for each element. Get as specific as you want. For a small event, line items could simply be categories: AV, food and beverage, transportation. For something bigger or more complex, breaking categories down by day and function (e.g. F&B includes Monday breakfast, morning break, lunch, cocktail reception, etc.) will make it less likely that you’ll miss something. Group rows by category, or by chronology – whatever makes sense to you. Got the line items figured out? Ensure there are columns for units, number of people, or days, as required, a column for taxes, another for service, and one more for the row total. Beside your total column, you’ll want two more for actuals and variance, once the bills come in.

Once you’ve got the draft spreadsheet together, be prepared to play ‘what if?’ Is the organization financially challenged? Will your event budget be cut in half? Could the number of participants increase? Decrease? If any of those are real possibilities, you might want to use a new tab for each scenario, in order to be prepared to talk through the options with your client. Or simply to satisfy yourself that you’re ready for the eventualities, should they arise.

Sourcing checklist

It’s a good idea to work through the checklist with your client, before you ever apply it to a venue. My clients think about meeting space based on the content they want to deliver. So, they tell me to look for a plenary room, three breakouts, and a private room for dinner. They never tell me that the CEO requires an ‘office’ close to the plenary room, or that four of the business units will host booths that participants can visit in the ballroom pre-function. It’s my job to ask those questions, and many more. Coat check? Client breakfast? Impromptu meeting rooms? Internet café? VIP reception space? If I don’t identify those elements up front, it could well be hard to add them later. And easy to select the wrong hotel!

Once you’ve narrowed down what to look for, take that beginner’s mind on your site inspection. Sure, you’ve seen the property a dozen times, but your participants may not have. Put yourself in their shoes when you’re walking through the space. If there are multiple rooms, are they close together or on different floors? How far from the plenary space to the washrooms? Will your group be alone in a wing, or will the provincial step-dancers be clogging away on the other side of your airwall? We planners have an eye on the big picture, yet our participants’ experience is often determined by what seem like small things.

It’s called a critical path for a reason

You know why and where you’re doing this, and how much you can spend; now it’s all about crossing items off the to do list. Most planners I know adore lists. Nothing demonstrates tangible progress like a list with a bunch of check marks in the margin. Again, group the individual items however it makes sense to you. Chronologically works great, but dividing your list into categories (e.g. speakers, trade show) suits some planners better.

When I delivered my first meeting, the world didn’t move as fast, and communication wasn’t the barrage of email, voice messages, texts, posts and feeds it is now. No wonder I could remember better then! Even for simple events, I now find I can’t be sure I’ve handled something unless I see it crossed off a list. And with a dozen open files at once, it’s impossible to recall the details of each event, and my progress on any one of them.

That said, use the level of detail that suits you best. Don’t need a reminder to set up steering committee meetings once a month? No problem. But if it helps you feel in control, or calms you to know that a colleague could pick up your event at a moment’s notice, add it to your list.

(Not a CV,) A resume

Build it from day one. Got a draft agenda? Ladies and gentlemen, start your resume! For me, a resume is a work in progress – sometimes right up until the last day of the event. No question, it lays out the order in which things occur – and where, and how many, and so on – but in some respects, it stands as a record of decisions made about the program. It names the suppliers you’ll work with (and their contact information), indicates who’s responsible for what (Angela changes the breakout signage at 2:30 p.m.), reminds you of important deadlines (centrepieces delivered by 4 p.m.), and ensures that everyone has the same information about the event that you do.

If it happens at your event, the resume should include it. Nothing is too small, or too obvious.  What time is move-in? Is there a speaker ready room? Who staffs the registration desk – for how long? Will the bar serve premium liquors or just wine and beer? From where will the airport transfers depart? If you win the lottery the night before the event, another planner should be able to pick up your document and run the show. Hey, it could happen!

An industry friend once told me, “you can’t skip a step.” That’s true for anything in life, but especially so in our business. Just because the basics are simple doesn’t mean they’re optional. Admittedly, I’ve run a conference with only the BEOs. And I’ve delivered events without a budget. Plenty of my clients haven’t established objectives, and I’ve amended more venue contracts than I care to tell you. (Even when you ask the right questions, you can only work with the information and lead time you’re given.) In each case, I’ve had to back-fill, do-over, beg a favour, or bust a gut to get things done. Every time, I learn anew how much easier it is when I do the basics first.

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