The 6 Essentials of Business Event Planning
I’ve been a professional event planner since 2006, producing everything from brand launches and galas to picnics and weddings, and seen first-hand the power of events as place-makers and community builders. Small business owners have heard that special events are critical pieces of the marketing puzzle—but as entrepreneurs and not party planners, they often feel out of their depth trying to organize a business event. So, I’ve gathered the basics of successful business event planning, liberally seasoned with some of the best tips I’ve learned over the years.
To create a special event for your small business, you need to work backwards, starting with you want the event to achieve. What’s your goal for the event? Do you want to get new people into your business? Do you want to thank your regular customers? Do you want to emerge as the local expert in your industry? All of the above?
Next, let’s consider your budget—not just the cash, but the time. How many hours, yours and your team’s, can be spent on this project?
Once you’ve decided on these all-important factors, decide how you’ll measure success—50 new addresses for your email list? 10 unsolicited social media posts about how awesome your event was? Only after you’ve nailed those aspects down should you start the how-to-make-it-happen business event planning, from party theme to parting gifts. What are the top six elements of any special event? Drinks, the vibe, space, performances, the right date, and PEOPLE! Focusing on these essentials will put you in a position to reap the extraordinary rewards of throwing a special event—like creating community, becoming an expert in your field, creating re-usable content, and relationships that will live on long after the event.
And remember what not to do . . my biggest don’t for business event planning is incorporating anything you don’t like just because you think you should.
Where to party
Space is one of the top five elements of any special event. It’s much better to have a party that is too full rather than too empty! A concentration of people in the event space increases the magic of a party, giving guests the feeling that they can strike up a conversation with their neighbor rather than sticking with the folks they came with. Even better, it keeps folks who came solo from getting spooked and running out of your event altogether.
If you think your place of business is too large for your intended guest list, you might consider hosting your event at another space. If your space doesn’t seem appropriate for a festive gathering, it might be time to rent out one of a great variety of unusual, affordable, and exciting spaces. Here in Seattle, we have options like The Bullitt Center, The Good Shepherd Center and SIFF Cinema. Alternately, you might consider partnering with another business that does have the right type of venue for your event.
When to party
Events are a fun and thoughtful way to connect with your audience at almost any time of year. Are you launching a new product or initiative, announcing a new partnership or collaboration, or introducing new staff to your community? Then the time is right to party.
Many folks opt to use good weather to their advantage and throw an event in late summer or early fall. There are also many city-wide events that offer opportunities to hop aboard and stand in solidarity with your community, like PRIDE. No big business news or community event? Not to worry. There’s a whole separate post on small business event possibilities; it even covers whom to invite. And there’s always a slew of funny public “holidays” that can provide an excuse for a party. Ever heard of Single Working Women’s Day?
Your event will likely be competing with many other local events. So, my most important piece of advice is, do your homework! Pick a day and time that doesn’t compete with events that you know your intended audience will be attending. Want a crowd of designers and artists at your party? Don’t throw your event during the latest opening at the local art gallery. Likewise, it’s important to be aware of federal holidays and even local school schedules. One possibility is to aim for your event to be part of a greater calendar or event cycle. For example, having a design moment at your business? Hitch your party to the Seattle Design Festival calendar officially or unofficially. Don’t compete! Collaborate!
Business Event Planning
Here are some of my favorite tips and tricks for throwing any special event. Abundance is key. Given that budget is important in every decision a small business owner makes, how do you incorporate abundance into your business event planning to-do list? You can always create abundance, not by having everything, but by going all out on one thing. A great rule of thumb for small business party planning is to invest in one thing—drinks, for example. Be a party planning pro by offering an excellent sampling of one type of specialty mocktail that can turn cocktail, rather than trying to offer every type of cocktail. Guests won’t notice you didn’t have their favorite wine when they’re sipping on a tasty new Strawberry Black Peppercorn Shrub or Cucumber Cooler.
Food and drink, not necessarily in that order
One of my top business event planning secrets is being very mindful when it comes to presenting non-alcoholic drink options. Sure, you could set up some individual plastic bottles of water, but isn’t it a little more fun to drink water flavored with rosemary and lemon served from delicate moroccan tea glasses? Of course it is.
Best of all, mocktails don’t cost much more, photograph much better, and show that you care about our environment, your customers, and attention to detail. Here are 31 killer mocktail recipes. Choose one or two, go crazy with presentation, and your event will be sure to be remembered. You can always make boozy versions of the mocktails as well, if that’s appropriate.
And you can forget about paying for a multitude of appetizers. A small business event isn’t the kind where you need to be all-inclusive with food and beverage options, especially if the business next door offers tantalizing tamales, delectable Vietnamese sandwiches, or luscious cookies. Feel free to get every flavor of just one type of food and call it a day!
Take inspiration from your local business community or other parties you’ve attended and loved. Can’t imagine the best fit? Get your business event planning brainstorm on by spending some time with your favorite food magazine.
Business event planning isn’t complete if you haven’t thought about what kind of atmosphere you want your guests to experience. Creating ambiance on the cheap just takes a little know-how and planning ahead. How do you create a vibe without spending hundreds on floral arrangements or hundreds of thousands on Jennifer Lopez singing and dancing? Here are a few of my tried-and-true tips to make guests feel festive. You definitely don’t need to hit all of these—pick the ones that make the most sense for your event.
Spruce up your space with a garland. Create simple, sophisticated, and inexpensive arrangements using single in season (affordable!) flower or plant in large or small vessels. For example, Gerbera Daisies are in season in August, and they look fantastic as a single stem. You can even cut them short and put a single bloom in a glass. It’s this simple yet easy attention to detail that turns a drab meet-up into a fabulous fête.
Get your playlist on point. If you don’t have a DJ in your budget, use your imagination, or ask your most musically savvy team member to curate the jams. Here’s a handy list of party tracks to get the ball rolling. You can hook a smartphone up to a sound system and be good to go.
For added intensity, a single live musician makes a big impact. Check in with a local band you love to see if any of their players has a solo repertoire. I’ve thrown events with string quartets, brass quartets, DJs, guitarists, singers, and harpists in the background to great effect without busting a modest budget.
Wedding blog websites offer great inspiration for any type of event planning, even business event planning. And, DIY resources and tutorials are easy to find in that realm. So, if you’re looking to spice up your space, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel, just look to the pros. High impact design ideas can often be created using inexpensive materials. For greatest bang for your buck, put your design on repeat by making it a motif. Love the look of bunting? Hang ten strands instead of one and you have yourself a raging party
Business Event Marketing
How to invite people presents another challenge in a time of extreme information overload. People still appreciate getting a personal invitation via phone call, text message, email (like EventBrite or Paperless Post), or post. The key is to make your prospective guests feel like you really want each of them to be there. No one wants to be just another name in your mass emailing. So, even if you don’t have permission to invite someone through an opt-in mailing list, don’t be afraid to go the extra mile and invite them in person, if you can. People aren’t numbers and you should never feel like they are.
In my past life as a wedding planner, I told everyone, “Don’t skimp on the photography! You’ve gone this far, hired a planner, went all out on your dress, contracted a makeup pro—make the moment last with a photographer that really speaks to you. The day will go by in a heartbeat and the photos will last forever.” And it’s true, even for events that don’t end in marriage.
Today, in the age of social media to the max, images with staying power are even more important than they used to be. You don’t throw special events all the time, so if you’re going to the the trouble and expense, be sure to create some content that you can share during the year and maybe years to come on your Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, and in your newsletters, on your website and any other print collateral!
People have so many useless objects crowding their space nowadays, I love to have guests leave events with something that they can use, and by use, I mean use up! Food and drink are awesome take-aways. Those guests who don’t want cookies won’t feel obligated to take them. Seriously, when was the last time you saw a delectable cookie heading for the landfill? I have a feeling that your next event will be a hit if your parting words are, “Thank you so much for coming! Please have a macaron for the road.”
Besides being fun, real life events can boost your online engagement through the use of shared hashtags, image generation and geolocating. A study of West Hollywood’s major special events conducted by Conventions, Sports & Leisure International (CSL) notes, “Hashtags related to LA Pride, the Halloween Carnaval, SSMF, and the AIDS Walk generated over 6,600 unique people posting with direct correlation to the special events and festivals in West Hollywood, with a potential reach approximating 30.9 million people, generating an estimated 47.1 million potential impressions. Approximately 950,000 people actively engaged in ‘liking’ and/or commenting on these posts.” You may not be planning a city-wide event linked to a national holiday, but you can still exponentially increase your reach by incorporating a little social media into your business event planning and execution. Be sure to encourage, or even reward, guests posting about your event!
Measuring business event success
How do you measure the success of your small business event? Thanks from the party-goers are priceless, but we also know that you want the party to live on. Did you gather names and email and/or snail mail addresses for future events, mailings, invitations, and deals? Great! Did you meet new people? That works, too! Did you collaborate with a neighboring local business on any of your party needs? Excellent work. The return on your investment might not be immediate or obvious, but community building takes time. The key to any successful event is the care that you put into it and the people with whom you collaborate.
Now, you’re ready to get out there and host a maximally fun event on a minimal budget. Even if your guest list is only five people, take the time to make sure they each feel taken care of; it will matter in the long run to your brand. The fun, the food, and the photos will all result in a ripple effect of folks evangelizing your products, your business, and maybe even you, building a local web of support for you and your brand!
Every event planner has some version of this, but poet, Presidential Medal of Freedom winner, and national treasure, Maya Angelou said it best: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”