You may be thinking, "Don't most event planners do so?" Let me put it this way. The ones who don't use standard business practices to run their companies have already closed their doors.
Running an event planning firm should not be different from running any business other than the hours are very long, the knowledge of the business continues to expand with the onset of technology and the availability of the Internet for clients to "shop you." You still have to have a strong sales and marketing division, a robust and developed operations team, and an experienced administration and finance team. These are the three departments that comprise any business whether it is entrepreneurial or corporate in nature. Some may have product development and innovation as well.
The Importance of a Business PlanI think every organization needs to have a "plan," not necessarily a formal, Wharton graduate business plan, but a plan just the same. Every event planner should answer and commit to paper the following questions:
- Where do you see yourself now?
- What are the opportunities?
- Where can you see your team in a few years?
- How can you grow your brand?
- What are the real sales and marketing objectives, and how can they be achieved?
- What is a niche market for us?
For example, when I started ASE Group, we were a full-service event planning company and worked with many incentive houses producing their events. Then it occurred to me that the way I saw the business was different than what I was seeing as the overall trend. I wanted to seamlessly produce a meeting/event as one function rather than just produce the evening programs. In order to be able to do that effectively, with my vision in mind, I had to stop working for the incentive houses and build my own meetings division. That gave us the control to monitor how monies were spent on the whole program rather than just a small piece of it.
Research was key to making this change. I researched by hands-on working these programs and seeing that the clients were talking about leadership in the General Session and then doing a Mexican Fiesta at night. For me, the message wasn't connecting. I knew events and meetings were a true medium for effective and strategic communication if planned correctly and under one roof. So, we launched a creative and logistics team housed under the same roof.
Creating Your BrandIt is also important to create a very strong brand. Think about assuring that you have a distinct look from your logo and printed pieces to the uniforms you and your team wear on-site to the way you build your culture. ASE has branded the concept, "I Can I Will." It is placarded on our name badges and built into our training from the day a person starts to work for us. We don't know how to say no, unless it is a safety concern. We also have amazing talent in both the meeting planning and creative sides of our business, and the two work hand-in-hand to think through strategically how to execute a program for our client. I use ASE as an example not to promote but to show you that I am practicing what I am preaching.
Marketing TechniquesCreate a first good marketing piece that is simple and succinct, not a book, but something that allows a client to get a feel for your work. In the event business, and particularly ours, it is all about relationships and building networks of relationships for referrals. We don't bid on business coming into Kansas City but rather bid on business that is usually in a destination city. One client is a great reference for us to another client. Getting the chance to meet face-to-face and share our experience and overall value formula for a client is the key. Create your own motto. Ours is based on the fact that we don't sell a product or service, but that "We at ASE Group sell an outcome."
Collaborating with CompetitorsDon't be afraid to do it. Collaborating with the competition is a wonderful way to learn best practices. Let's face it, we all work sometimes in our own bubble, and the only way to really get a fresh perspective on what is really happening in the industry is to share with respected colleagues.
Hiring the Best and BrightestI have taken a very different approach to hiring the best and brightest, although I think in the end we get those results. My approach is to hire for Culture Fit. I don't care as much about from what school they graduated or where they worked in the past. We have somewhat perfected an in-house process that tests whether they will fit in with our culture. If they fit, they can be trained to give the "ASE Experience" to a client. I can't train or mentor or teach our culture. They are either "wired" to fit in or not.
Incentivizing Team MembersMy team is my second family. I know that Andrea Michaels feels the same way about her EE team. I respect every person with whom I work, and as my colleagues they have a unique position to grow their careers while growing the company.
My approach to business is simple. Never over-promise and under-deliver. We have to be realistic that as an entrepreneurial team we must flex and do things that are not in our job description per se, but we also have to recognize talent as larger organizations do and reward people for doing a great job ... day in and day out. Not just once a year. Motivating a team is my strongest asset. As the founder and owner of my company, it is my job to make my associates believe that being a part of my company is bigger than being anywhere else for a whole host of reasons.
We have a partnership to help each other grow. We have a number of programs to incentivize the workload, and here are a few examples:
- We have just instituted a colleague review on a monthly basis where we are evaluating each other based on our living the "I Can I Will" mantra. At the end of the year, one of our colleagues will have a fully-paid trip with a significant other or guest to a destination to be announced.
- We also have Bonus Fridays each summer where every member of the team picks three Fridays above and beyond their vacation time, personal or sick leave to take a long needed weekend.
- We also try to incorporate jean day on Fridays and special activities like painting or bowling parties.
- I also have been committed to our 401K program where we match a very significant part of employees' salaries to their 401K at the end of each year.
- In addition, if we have a profitable year, I also distribute bonuses to those deserving.
- The other unwritten incentive is to be a real team player and help one another. That pays off big time as again it all comes back to our Culture.
Advice for Start-Up Event PlannersStarting in this business is a wonderful thing. I am a firm believer that one can create his or her own destiny. That goes for everyone who is a colleague of mine as well. It takes some understanding of the mechanics of running a business, the need to be a self-starter, the skill to network and build relationships, and the need to watch the bottom line. If there was one bit of advice I would give, it would be to watch for those very rainy days. If you have a good month, or a good year, don't go crazy. Build your talent slowly, compensate your key people very well and save for a year where you never know what may happen.
I remember 9/11 very well, as we lost almost our entire booked business in one day. If we did not have the resources to sustain the cancellations, we would have been out of business. Also, watch your spending on things that are not necessary, and always give back to the communities in which you live. The more you give the more you get!
Finally, there is a tendency in our business to discount our work, or allow clients to set the standards as to how much they are willing to pay for our work. The key to a successful business is not only to watch trends, but find ways to bring value where you are not discounting your bottom line. I have often said I am privileged to write a check to charity and I do often ... but our business is not a not-for-profit. Take pride in the work that you do, and sell your clients on being the professional in an industry where someone can't just walk in nowadays and do what we do. Do we not need experience in negotiating contracts, or designing a room so that it flows perfectly with the guest count, or understanding the balance between food and beverage and how much to order per person? I could give countless examples of what we do on behalf of our clients that should award the right to charge fair fees for our work and our time. Giving it away not only hurts you, but hurts the whole industry. More importantly, you are giving away your wealth of knowledge as well. Why do that?
Bonnie Siegel founded the ASE Group based in Overland Park, Kansas, in 1987 and is its president and CEO. Bonnie lectures across the country on branding and brand strategy and has taught event marketing at Johnson and Wales University and how to run successful events that generate ROI at the Block Business School, University of Missouri – Kansas City. ASE has mastered the dynamic relationships between Corporate, Franchise, and Vendor Partners. Bonnie may be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org.