Event Planning Made Easy is a topic I have been passionate about for decades. After years of planning events as the owner of a busy retreat and conference center, I have unique observations to share in contrast to traditional event managers and event planning. By putting this guide together, I plan to provide a sneak peek behind the curtains of large venues associated with event planning. My aim in this article is to touch on every important point for events of every size. In addition to owning a conference center, I was involved in several technology businesses, so I have added a few new technology ideas to the old school need for event planning.
Setting budgets when event planning
The first essential step in turning your dream idea into a planned event is starting on your budget. To save you a few hours of annoying work, here is my (not so) secret Event Budget Spreadsheet. As you start going through the process of this list, start filling the spreadsheet with the information you gather. There are about 100 places to plug numbers in. Spreadsheets help organize your event planning, and are a great place to enter your deadline along with expected costs and actual expenses. Once you talk with a few venues and catering companies you will start to have a lot of numbers that can be added. If you have ran events before, especially with the same venue, you can use that information in the forecasting area of the spreadsheet.
Accurately describe your needs to vendors
It’s important to be as accurate as possible when talking with vendors because small details can sometimes mean a big price difference. Misunderstandings can easily happen if you are not an event guru, so be sure to ask lots of questions and get every detail down in writing and confirmed in an email from the vendor.
Gratuities, taxes, and fees.
Sometimes companies in the event hosting and food services business do funny things with gratuities. When dealing with a vendor, make sure to ask them about gratuities or any fees that may be added to your costs, but not included in your written quote. Some of the larger cities in North America charge hotel or event fees. Hosting an event outside the city will often remove those extra taxes. Watch your small costs as many of them can really add up.
When going through the quotes from different vendors, don’t plan to use the lowest price as your determining factor. Prices generally vary for good reason from region to region and city to city, due to imbalances in some local markets and due to real estate increase over the last decade.
Big city prices and how to cut costs
- Often, less recognized brands can offer more personalized services and flexible agendas compared with large box type city operations. Why? Because large box brands are generally paying 5% to 8% to be part of that chain and those costs are passed along to your event. Use Trip Advisor and Google to get a list of venues located within 90 minutes of your location. Don’t be afraid to consider names you’re not familiar with.
- An example I get frequently are group events that book from Toronto, (even though our center is located one hour outside of Winnipeg). What has happened in many of the larger cities within North America is that the prices for buildable land have increased substantially. Exacerbating the situation, many conference centers have sold out to land developers. That causes a shortage of locations and a huge spike in pricing. For groups wanting a 5-night event, it is often cheaper to fly to another city than to host it on your own. That may sound crazy but if you are a group that has attendees flying in already, do your research.
Is everyone driving to the event? Are they flying? How much is air travel? Even if these costs are not something you need to cover, you should have a good understanding of travel costs. Attendees needing to travel for two hours or longer are going to count the cost of time and travel before becoming a confirmed guest.
Creating a cushion is good event planning
A general rule of thumb is to build in a 15% cushion for unexpected costs. Things like cancelation fees or other unexpected occurrences require having a ‘slush fund’. You need to keep the event properly funded from start to finish. Good event planning includes a contingency fund. Don’t start using these funds for budgeted items. If you do, it could leave you in a wild scramble if a big problem arises.
Knowing your audience
When you understand your attendees it will give you a chance to really speak their language. For example, if your group understands the talks given by professors and lecture style speakers, and you bring in some tribal mountain men from Arkansas to lead the group, you have a strong possibility of not reaching your audience. Understand your guest expectations and exceeding those expectations is what this article is all about. Raving fans should be a goal of every event planner but it’s also important to know your audience.
Set a target
Good Event planning takes people on a journey. You want to have a clear understanding of where you are taking them. Use things like your event date, theme, colors, event topics, etc., to get them there. One of the clearest examples of targets are Valentine’s Day events. Event date: Feb 14. Color: pink. Item: hearts. Theme: Romance. With some thought and maybe some feedback from polling potential guests, you want to theme your event planning just as clearly as a Valentine’s event.
How many people are coming?
Understanding your numbers is important for booking things like your venue and catering. Reach out to those in your inner circle and pitch your event planning idea. If you really want to pitch your event well you may want to watch this short video from Randy Olson on storytelling. Modify your pitch and event planning ideas until people start to resonate with what you are expressing. Once you have a good understanding of your basics, you start sending out feelers to your bigger audience. Then based on the feedback, you can start looking into venues.
How do people sign up for your event?
Social media, mail, phone calls, you have a lot of options. In today’s age of the internet, you probably want to make your event registration online. The exception being if you’d like to work with a very small group or very old group, a phone call might be better. Using mail-outs can be a great way of reaching out and announcing events as emails. If you are somewhat internet savvy you can sign-up for free event registration services with EventBrite, EventSmart or other similar vendors. You can use these online services to collect registration and their free version is often all you will need.
Creating your event planning team
Events of any size need a team behind them, but the very next question is “How?”. Well as the person that reading this article, you are most likely the visionary portion of the team. Visionaries have a strong sense of how the individual sections of the event planning need to fit together to form the goal. Your title might be called Team Leader, and your big vision needs to be paired with an assist(s) that is good with detail. Detailed people are often found in administrative positions, clerks, accountants, programmers – any job that rigorous analysis. We can give this detailed section of your committee the of event Admin.
Event Planning Administrators
Event Administrators are good with research and comparisons shopping, so duties given would be:
- Researching the venues
- Calculating the attendance numbers
- Foodservice details, menus
- Scheduling mealtimes, entertainment, activities
Event planning Treasurer
Alongside the Team of Administrators, you want a special Administrator picked out to become the Event Treasurer. Event Treasurer’s job includes:
- Keeping accurate records of all the monies that come in and go out
- Setting and signing off on all budgets for each category of your event
- Signing off on all purchases (including venue, catering and everything else)
Next, we want to add a Creative Team to join the Team Leader and Event Admin(s). Your creative team duties would include:
- Creating and printing logos, brands, printed materials (menus, agendas, maps, handouts…)
- Taking pictures and video, pre-event, event, post event
- Marketing through Social Media
- Clothing, caps, shirts
- Creating Facebook Page, Website, and event Online Updated
Depending on how much bling and glitz you want for your event, this part of the committee will have no problem finding a place for your budget dollars to go. If you can’t find all the skill sets in your own groups for your creative team there are media team in your local city that will partner with you. Remember, if you are on a tight budget there are also services like Fiverr.com and Upwork.com where you can farm some work out online for often small dollars. A note of caution about farming work out online. Online hiring generally only works well if you have at least one expert on your local team to keep a close eye on your remote help. Hiring locally is usually your best bet.
Movers and Shakers
Next on your team are the Movers and Shakers in your event planning. These are the people who “get things done” and a list of duties would include:
- Setting up chairs, stage, lighting
- Setup audio and video cabling and equipment under the direction of the creative team
- Clean up and Takedown
- Crowd control, greeters, controlling lines, security (give them Walkie-Talkies)
- Distributing items from the Creative team (agendas, caps, water bottles…)
Finding your lead event presenters
Whether your pulling speakers that are your friends, relatives or co-workers or some high profile individual from Youtube you want to keep in mind some important concepts. Events are considered a long-lasting success if one or both of these criteria are met.
- Relationships are formed or enhanced
- New ideas or concepts are shared
If you look at human history, new relationships and ideas are cornerstones of change. Examples of ideas are the printing press, electricity, photography and the internet. When it comes to our desire to increase relationships just think of cell phones, Facebook and Social Media. Why is the emphasis on relationships? Think Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Regan, Martin Luther King Jr., and Coretta Scott King, or Marie and Pierre Curie, the physicists who married and discovered plutonium.
Get to know your Why
Ideas are something you can plan for, and relationships are something that you can make room for. When it comes to bringing great ideas to your event start with the focus of your event. We already talked about setting a target for your event earlier in this article. So with your target in mind, become firmly established in why you are planning this event which will lead to the practical side of how to do organize, and what needs to get done. This short 3-minute video from Michael Jr explains this well. Most speakers prefer 6-month advance notice if they are being selected as a keynote. You want to eliminate any kind of scramble for your presenter, and giving enough forward notice will also make it easier to get their cooperation.
Keeping it relational
On the relational side of things, getting your presenter(s) engaged with the audience can really bring your event to life. In particular, events are often boosted when individuals are singled out for an experience. I remember years ago when I was singled out of a large crowd at a “The worlds strongest man” and given the challenge to bend a 9-inch nail with my bare hands. Needless to say, I didn’t make a dent, but there was a lot of audience participation, cheering and photos being snapped as I flexed and wiggled alongside the strong man that seems to bend it without effort.
Selecting and confirming a venue
The main points for selecting any venue are:
- Prime location. Anything by water or in a park is a great feature for an event. Try to select something within 90 minutes of transport from their city or airport.
- Match the size of the venue to the size of your event. Nothing worse than a 20 person event booking inside a thousand person venue and spending 20 minutes just to get your food to the parking lot.
- When looking at events under 200 people select a venue that provides all your meals in-house. A lot of time is wasted if you are selecting a venue that does not cater all your meals.
- Equipment. Make sure the venue supplies free wi-fi and have video and audio solutions for each meeting area or breakout room you are renting. In this age of wi-fi, there is no reason fast internet is not complementary to your meeting and guest rooms.
- Budget: Be flexible and adapt your event if you find a venue that ticks a lot of your boxes and can fit within your budget.
- Availability: Check dates and provide some alternatives. Part of being flexible with a great venue is being able to adapt your dates.
- Customer service: This is where I find a wide margin between venues. Ask the venues some questions and see if they are vague, confident or unavailable. Check the last 6 months of Trip Advisor and see how staff have been treating recent group. Be wary of venues that offer personal gifts such as sports tickets or cash cards in an effort to buy off your Booking Administrator officer. It is a dishonest way of doing business and creates a compromised officer within your inner circle.
Selecting venues is a whole article in itself and something I have some helpful tips, see my article Choosing a Venue.
Video event production
Do you want to increase your reach to a potentially interested audience that did not attend your event? What about showcasing your event on Youtube so that people can understand what you are all about? A video is an excellent way to convey and relay your message. Whether you make events available to just those in attendance or use it for promotion or publicity, a video is a fantastic way to document your event.
Something special I want to point out if you are not familiar with recording events for video is about the audio. People will put up with poor video quality to a degree if the audio is good. But a perfect picture and bad audio will turn people off immediately. If you want your videos to be watched get someone in your creative team that extensive audio/video experience.
A quick side note for your Creative Team
The preferred method to capture audio is using a lapel mic and clipping a small audio recorder the size of a pack of gum onto the speaker. As the owner of a conference center, I own several Tascam DR-10L as well as a Zoom H1 and some 4K video equipment. Whatever your creative team chooses to beg, borrow or rent, make sure they consult with an experienced knowledgeable audio/video person. If you are planning to do a lot of in-house video on a tight budget I recommend checking out Stephen Ballast’s Youtube channel Ballast Media.
Did you know that it’s easier than ever to stream your event live? And it doesn’t cost an arm and leg anymore to do it. Consult your Creative Team and for as little as a Cell phone mounted on a tripod with a proper audio feed running into it, you can broadcast video live! Check this video out.
Key points to think about when considering video for your event
- Your event can be easily shared
- Use it for training purposes
- Adds value to your event
- Interviews and behind the scenes footage can give access that would otherwise not be possible
- Gives an opportunity to share your message with a wider audience
- Great tool for advertising is you plan to do a similar event in the future
Marketings purpose is to promote your event through the use of themed presentations and can be both an inbound and outbound process. Inbound just refers to a process of building trust and connection with people not familiar with your brand. Common ways of offering value with inbound marketing often involves giving away free information, free services, webinars prior to joining. In providing these service you capture their email or social media connection.
Outbound marketing is a bit more aggressive in its approach and actively targets a very specific people group. Things like direct advertising, pay-per-click ads, direct mail or attending trade shows are common outbound techniques.
Creating an event theme
Having now established your target and goals during the event planning process, use that information to empower your creative team. When creating a theme it is best to put it in the form of a question or statement that challenges existing ideas. If you are not specific with every detail when making that statement, it leaves it open for loose interpretation. Keeping it open gives some wiggle room for the speakers and can invoke from curiosity with your audience.
Purpose to let your creatives shine
Your Creative people have the potential to shine by having the team lead and administrative team give them the green light. They can start reaching out to your potential attendees with questions and statements to start feeling out the opportunities. Use social media polls, Instagram, and Snapchat to get your early adopters involved with voting, hashtagging and sharing. It is an easy way to start the marketing engine.
Are you hosting this event during winter? Why not add some paper snowflakes to your tables and some poinsettias near your keynote speaker? Whatever themes you come up with, now is the time to start creating all your printed materials, logos and slogans, web pages and social media connections.
Collect email along the way
Email is a valuable resource because you can continually connect with an audience that knows you. Look at a site like Amazon, they continually send emails along product lines your familiar with and they make money doing it. The same idea can be applied to your email list. Keep the content you send relevant and people will respond to your brand and event offerings. Automated reminders, even sent out twice yearly will help keep your brand engaged compared to no communication at all.
How do I collect email addresses?
There are a lot of ways events can collect email address from interested parties. Create newsletter sign-up forms that display at the end of each of your event blog posts, collect them when you create early bird event offers, social media pre-event draw opt-ins. Even paper sign-up sheet work if you are meeting with groups of interested people prior to your event.
A word about double opt-in
You will want to use something called a double opt-in system. It’s become the law in many parts of the world. It essentially means that people need to confirm that they have given you permission to email them. If you want to learn more about double opt-in check out this article.
Events are largely tied to hospitality. Showcasing the importance of your guests at the big evening meal is somewhat built into our culture. Knowing your target, theme, budget, and goals we can now confidently move onto creating a guest experience within our catering choices. Get familiar with those attending. There will undoubtedly be some personal preferences when it comes to meals. Always consider there will be some vegetarians and people needing gluten-free options.
Keep meals at your venue
Eating off-site adds a substantial amount of lost time and interruption to the flow of your event. You want to keep as much face time with your attendees as possible. Selecting a venue that can provide all the catering in-house, preferably buffets, will stretch your event planning dollars. If you want to kick it up a notch at the buffet ask your venue to create a specialty station with your theme. It is more efficient and much less confusing for guests if catering is within your chosen venue. By sticking with buffets as the style of serving you are offering the widest range of food with the least amount of wait time and cost. Venues that want to provide menus are adding a lot of extra cost to your event.
Most catering companies have a special meal or menu that they do exceptionally well at. Make sure to explain your theme and which evening you want to really play up. Chefs love to put their best foot forward. Giving you catering company an opportunity to provide you with their very best will pay off in spades with your guests. When hosting your fanciest meal consider giving some notice to your attendees prior to their arrival so they have the opportunity to wear something a little more fun or formal.
Event themes have a great opportunity in being expressed during your big meal of the day. Small details like these can really enhance your event experience. Most of these suggestions can be done for very little money with the biggest factor just lots of good event planning well in advance.
- Live entertainment
- Themed table decorations and tablecloths
- Give Aways
- Supper Prizes
Food & beverage services
Here is another area your creatives can really have fun. With your theme in mind, start creating beverages with your colors and event focus. Experiment using some kombucha as your base, or reduce your costs and just use carbonated pop. With a theme color of red for example, try Strawberry Sours, Cranberry Royales, Watermelon with Strawberry Fizzers and Raspberry infused water.
Create a schedule
Event planning backbone in a well-scripted timing of events. Without one, you will lack focus and potentially miss out on some key opportunities. I have included a spreadsheet template to download that you use to create your Daily Event Agenda.
We have already covered all the main components of creating an event. Here we will just put some timeline in the different sections. To make this practical here is the printable PDF Version and Editable Version of the timeline.
In the 6 to 12 months spot on your timeline:
- Select a date and create two backup dates
- Select a name and theme
- Assigning team roles
- Gather your speakers
- Determine your goals and target audience
- Set your budget
- Select your venue
- Select your catering
- Reserve large rental equipment such as buses, tents, lighting setups..
- Select your key vendors such as hiring help for your creative team
- Begin promoting your event and start implementing your marketing ideas
In the 3 months spot:
- Start discussing details with your Catering vendor
- Meet with Florists
- Order gifts for your speakers
- Finalize the majority of your guest list
- Consider having a small gift for each attendee at the registration table
- Gather you speaker biographies, supply suggestions for their remarks, request photo
- Inform the shakers and movers of their specific tasks
- Investigate and identify any safety or security concerns
- Audio and video details
- Decide on your music and book talent
- Order in all your promotional materials, printed invitations, prizes, novelties
- Start to rough in your event agenda
One month away:
- Firm up you catering decisions
- Firm up decor and florist
- Print the programs
- Firm audio and video details
- Firm up all training on your team of greeters
- Confirm all the details with your vendors, team members, audio/video, venue
- Finalize your safety and security plan
- Start firming up the fine details on your event agenda
- Plan out your registration table
- Create a rotation of greeters at scheduled times
- Make sure all signage is ordered.
One week away
- Have your keynote speakers supply you with notes that you will use to email each attendee
- Confirm with your venue all last minute changes
- Switch to your plan B ideas on any issues that have not yet been fully resolved
- Finalize all timing within the event
- Creating seating chart if needed for your presenters and honored guests
- Gather all presentation items, gifts, and plaques
- Prepare briefing packets for speakers and honored guests
- Prepare an event prep box with scissors, tape, zip ties, stapler, markers…
Day of event
- Arrive early
- Bring all your agenda, contact names and info, name tags, guest list and event prep box
- Do a venue walkthrough
- Setup registration table
- Put all your signs, awards, etc in a central place your team can access
- Do sound, video, wi-fi and computer checks
- Get registration table operating along with greeters
- Take a breath!
When writing out an event planning agenda you want to include as many details as possible. Don’t leave any section of time undocumented. Share your agenda with your team and keep the communication with all your team leaders flowing easily. Give each of your team divisions an opportunity to write out their portion of the agenda. Treat your agenda as a living document allowing it to grow and morph in very flexible ways. Create a checklist to make sure nothing get’s missed.
Include in your agenda every detail from the minute the event start to the minute that it is over. Some of the key components you want to address are:
- Setup time. Your team leaders of mover and shakers are busy getting everything just perfect. Test your audio and video at the start of setup.
- Event Start time. You’ve given yourself a buffer between setup and startup. Have greeters at your registration table and clear signable and agendas that paint a completely clear picture of what they need to do.
- Keynote speakers. Include the start and stop time and include long breaks to create margin if a speaker goes past what was alotted.
- Meals. Figure in the time to talk to the food services area and the time to get served. Generally, people eat and visit for 45 minutes once seated. Give them some time after the meal for washroom breaks and phone calls.
- Breaks – When setting up your break times consider a hot and cold beverage service as well some healthy snack options.
- Event end time – Ahhh, the end has come! Collect all feedback from attendees. Plan for you and your team to bid your farewells. Hand out thank you cards to your key leaders and vendors.
- Clean up. You will want to have planned for your time and in particular your movers and shakers to be all about the cleanup. Most venues require you to move out by a certain time, so planning and make sure to give yourself enough time for full clean-up and pack up.
After the event
- Send thank you cards to all your team members, volunteers, and vendors
- Finalize billing and cross-reference to the actual budget
- Survey the attendees for feedback
Meet with your committee and debrief. Feedback from the attendees and committee members help you to understand what needs to be improved and what went very well. Hold this event within a couple of weeks of the event so it is still fresh in everyone’s mind.
Review your budget and set up some guidelines for your next event planning event. Provide factual feedback to your venue and suppliers to help them understand their business. Make sure you keep those emails safe, you will want to keep in contact with each attendee at least every 6 months and preferably more often.
About the Author
As an event and Conference owner in Central Canada, the last 20 years its been a privilege to have help plan and host for thousands of groups. Being located in a Provincial Park within Central Canada has provided a unique opportunity to showcase the best that Canada has to offer in eco-tourism adventures.
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