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Commissions vs. Kickbacks

Posted March 1, 2011

Pop Quiz:  What’s the fastest way to make a fight break out in a room full of event planners?

Answer:  Start a debate about whether commissions are good or bad.

Yesterday I delivered a rousing seminar at the Event Solutions Idea Factory / CaterSource conference in Las Vegas.  The topic was “Show Me the Money: How & How Much to Charge for Event Planning Services”.  Everything was going great.  Of the three tracks being offered during my time slot, I was given the big i-Room, and we had a packed crowd.

Even better, the i-Room had a confidence monitor!  A real confidence monitor!  How cool is that?!  [For those of you that don’t know, this is a flat screen tv placed at the foot of the stage, facing the speaker.  It displays whatever is on the screens behind you, so when you’re speaking you don’t have to keep turning around to see what slide is being shown.]  I’ve spoken quite a bit, and though I’d arranged for tons of clients to have these at their events, this was my first time using one, and I was like a kid in a candy store.

Anyway, I’m cruising through my presentation.  We’d covered flat fees, hourly fees, markups, % of budget fees, the whole transparency/value thing, and had arrived at the commission section.  As with all the other pricing models, I went through the pros, cons and pieces of advice on commissions, and was about to get into the section on how to calculate your rates.

Here’s the last thing I said before the audience put their gloves on and went at it: “The difference between a commission and a kickback is one word: disclosure.”  It’s almost as if you could have heard the presentation skid to a halt.  Then hands flew up with questions and comments.  Really most were comments, very passionate comments.

“I will not take commissions because I don’t want that to influence who I recommend!” one woman says.  You can bet that went over well with the commission-takers in the crowd.  A Jerry Springer episode was about to break out.

I reiterate a key tenet I’d mentioned earlier: “Integrity has nothing to do with it.  If someone discloses that they take commissions to their client and the client is ok with it, that’s all that matters.”

And I believe that.  It’s my ‘consenting adults’ theory.  If your client wants to be paid with a weekly supply of Shake Shack burgers (feel free to substitute whatever local food item people will wait on endless lines for), and you agree, what’s wrong with that?

Mind you, nobody seemed to have an issue with markups, which, like commissions, are part of what I call non-itemized fee structures.  There’s something about the commission topic that elicits strong feelings on both sides, like nothing I’ve ever seen.  I spoke the day before on Prospecting: Where to Find New Business & How to Land It, and there wasn’t anything even close to this kind of divisive issue that came up.

Again, my biggest takeaway was that people should disclose whatever pricing model they use, and if you don’t disclose a commission, then it’s a kickback.  And make no mistake, a kickback has negative connotations.  It’s money you’re getting for something you’re not supposed to.  Money you don’t want people to know about.  Images of folded manila envelopes slipped into newspapers, being passed from one passersby to another at a train station come to mind.

And if you’re not disclosing it, chances are it’s because you don’t think you can justify it to your client.  The same applies to markups.  The cure for this is to work on your value proposition, and get to a point where you can openly defend the full amount of money you need to make for a project.  That’s the holy grail, to be able to tell a client, “This event is worth X dollars for me to produce it.  I can be paid for it in a number of different ways.”  And then the client’s choice of paying you a fee, or a % of budget or whatever, is no different than a store asking if you’ll pay with cash or a credit card.

FYI, if you’d like a deeper dive into this area, take a look at the White Paper I produced.

Postscript:  After about five minutes of back and forth comments from the audience, someone blurted out “lets move on”, which snapped me out of my umpiring stupor.  So let me say here, if you’re in the audience of a class somewhere and the conversation threatens to go off-topic, you have the right to yell exactly that.  It’s your time and money.  This will be Rule # 1 of my Audience Bill of Rights (coming soon).

Freedom from the 60″ Round: Alternatives for the Seated Gala Banquet

Posted January 20, 2011

I sat on a panel this Tuesday for the Association of Fundraising Professionals entitled “Special Events and the New Normal: Finding the Right Opportunities in Lean Times”, and one of the interesting trends we discussed was the variety of options available beyond the traditional banquet dinner format.

Traditionally, the gala formula has worked like this:

1.    Serve cocktails while guests mingle.
2.    Seat guests at 60” round tables (10 per table).
3.    Commence program featuring honorees, speeches, maybe videos.
4.    Serve dinner.
5.    Resume program.
6.    Cash checks.  Hand out gift bags.
7.    Repeat next year.

The biggest complaint people often have is being stuck at those banquet rounds for most of the evening.  They want more networking, and when they have it at the dinner break, they’re stuck talking to the two or three people within earshot at their table.  Slim pickings at best.

Fifi Awards (Dalzell Productions)

But new trends are emerging.  Karen Dalzell, owner of Dalzell Productions, and producer of the FiFi Awards and the Tribeca Film Festival events, has been paving the way with replacing the 60” round with loungeseating.  Sponsors who previously would have bought top tier tables are now

given branded, more comfy lounges closer to the stage.

The Toy Industry Association’s Toy of the Year Awards has had great success by switching their program to theater style seating, like the Academy Awards.  Before the program guests are treated to a 90 minute grazing style buffet cocktail reception.  And after the program is a dessert reception.  Lots and lots of networking.  My old firm, Paint The Town Red (since acquired by Global

Toy of the Year Awards (Global Events Group)

Events Group) produced that event, and I was so impressed by the success of this format I convinced other clients to adopt it, including the Children’s Book Council’s Children’s Choice Book Awards.

And with the advent of LED lighting, you can take the same room you use for the buffet reception, and simply change the lighting for the dessert reception with the flick of a button.

Both of these format changes still preserve the formal program aspect of the event.  The biggest objection usually comes from committee members who are flummoxed that they can no longer sell the 60” round.  Those tables had become the only currency they knew.  There are easy work-arounds, of course, such as selling the lounge, or a package of reserved theater seats up font.

If, however, after being presented with these options, the bulk of your committee still seems mystified (like the scene in Spinal Tap where Nigel explains that his amplifier goes to 11), then it’s a sign for you to throw in the towel.

Lucretia Gilbert, Director of Development for the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, and a fellow panelist, oversees events around the country, and was clear to caution the audience that, well, you need to know your audience.  She pointed out certain markets where they are quite happy with the seated banquet round, thank you very much!

And that’s really the key to the whole thing, giving people what they want, so they have the best possible experience at your gala.  If they want to be liberated from the 60” round, then here are some ideas you can work with.  If, on the other hand, they like the standard gala format, keep riding that horse all the way to the bank.

The Case Against New Year’s Resolutions

Posted December 30, 2010

From Thanksgiving through Christmas we’re sucked into a whirlwind of gorging on humongous family feasts, blowing our budget on holiday gifts, and partaking in revelry at lots of holiday parties. Everything builds to the dramatic crescendo of New Year’s Eve, when we stay up later and party harder than any other night.

It’s no surprise that against this backdrop of massive overindulgence everyone is guilted into making a sweeping series of resolutions for better behavior in the new year.  We’ll eat better, exercise more, watch our finances more carefully, etc.

I used to make a bunch of resolutions every year, and even write them down.  When I invariably failed to achieve them all, I’d schedule quarterly reminders.  Like that helped.  And its no fun being confronted with your under-achieving self at such a festive time as New Year’s Eve.

The problem is that resolutions are extra credit, stuff above and beyond what we’re already doing.  Nobody makes a resolution to stay at their current weight, for example, which is probably a challenge as it is.  And because we’ve got a whole year to complete our resolutions, we tend to aim high.  You’re not going to lose a pound or two, you’re going to drop five or ten.  On the business front, you’re not going to survive or grow by 5%, you want to grow by 30%. So unfortunately, the whole resolution business is doomed to failure.  It’s like betting against the house in Vegas: you may get lucky once in a while, but in the long run you have no chance.  The only difference is that you have a lot of fun in Vegas.

And just in case you’re pretty happy with where you are personally, or with your business, there’s a non-stop torrent of self-help books, business blogs, and the like telling you what to do better. All excellent fodder for the Resolution Express.

Another problem with resolutions is that in today’s society, in order to lead a good, fulfilling life, the media gives us such an impossibly long and agonizingly detailed regimen to follow, that practically everyone walks around feeling some angst when they invariably come up short.  Next year, we kid ourselves, we’ll pick up the slack.

Take health for example.  When I go for my annual physical, my doctor asks me how many servings of fruits and vegetables I get a day.  I tell him two, if I’m lucky.  He counters that I should have five.  I remind him there are only three meals in a day, but the math doesn’t throw him.  “You really should have five”, he says with a straight face.  “Try to snack on an apple or a bag of carrots.”  Uh huh.

If you want to feel inadequate at event planning, subscribe to Jeff Hurt’s blog, MidCourse Corrections.  Every time I look at my laptop it seems there’s a new post by Jeff, listing 10 trends in conference planning I need to know about, or 5 things speakers do wrong at meetings, or 7 reasons attendees are falling asleep at our programs.  It’s all good stuff, and Jeff’s one of our industry’s great minds, but let me tell ya, you have no chance of implementing everything he recommends; it’s just too much. You’re lucky if you integrate 10% of his ideas, and the truth is he’d probably say that’s just fine.  But of course you look at the 90% you can’t get to and see the flashing neon “Under-Achiever” sign in your mind.

Overwhelming isn’t it?  With all these standards that we fall short of, it’s a miracle we actually make it through the year at all.  But instead of giving ourselves a pat on the back for those things we did get right, we make a list of all the things we neglected to do and come up with resolutions for next year.

So here’s my suggestion. Get out of the resolutions racket altogether.  Simply be happy you made it through another year.  If you absolutely have to make a New Year’s resolution, it better be a real life-altering one, though I would argue that if you need to wait until New Year’s to put it on your to do list, you’re not off to a good start.

So, on the personal side, if you’re a heroin addict, getting yourself into detox is a worthy resolution.  But if your goal is to cut back on those orders of Buffalo wings, don’t even bother.  Just try to appreciate your friends and family as much as possible.  And on the business front, just take super-good care of your best clients and employees; in the end you can’t go wrong by doing that.

Waldorf Astoria Bumps 100+ Guests for Saudi King’s Entourage: What Would You Do If This Were Your Event?

Posted December 16, 2010

On Dec 13, 2010, The New York Times ran a story with the following headline: “The Room Is Booked, Until the Hotel Says It Isn’t”

When I ran my event company we used to do this thing before our big events called “What If” sessions.  Basically, the lead producer would brief the whole office on the event, and we’d all then pepper him or her with “what if . . .” scenarios.

What if the power goes out.  What if someone throws up while at the podium.  What if the guy in the back of the police car for stealing an auction item is your client’s assistant.  What if your keynote speaker is denied entrance to the country by the State Department the day before he’s supposed to fly in.  (All things that have happened to me).

The idea was two-fold: to address scenarios the producer may have missed, and to teach everyone to understand that shit happens at every event and build their confidence to respond to any scenario.

In all the years of anyone in the industry doing this, I guarantee nobody’s ever said, “What if the King of Saudi Arabia shows up unannounced with his entourage and cleans out 100 of the best rooms and suites of our host hotel, bumping our attendees, speakers, executives, mother of the bride, etc.”

Well, that’s pretty much what happened last week at the Waldorf Astoria in NYC.  How crazy is that?  What do you do if that’s on your watch?  That’s pretty much hide-under-the-table time.  Event folks are used to rolling with the punches of unplanned glitches.  But how do you explain this to a client?

I could probably muscle through it if those rooms were needed by the President of the United States making a last minute visit to address the United Nations to avert a war.  Or if the Rolling Stones’ plane has to make an emergency landing and they need a place to stay; I’m pretty sure I could finagle a meet and greet for my client with Mick and company as compensation.  Anything short of that and I’d prefer the hotel simply lie and say they found asbestos on the whole floor.

King Abdullah

At least those are scenarios a client can tell their guests about with some semblance of dignity, and the guests would grumble, but understand.  But the King of Saudi Arabia?  At best, nobody cares about him.  At worst, people hate him for funding all those radical Madrassas that teach kids to hate America.  Either way you ain’t happy.

I don’t know what it is about this story that pisses me off, but it does.  We all have war stories from our events, which we share with each other at industry parties, an

d we wear our ability to weather those storms as a badge of pride.  We teach ourselves and o

ur staffs to fix the problem, deal with blame later, and find solutions.  We don’t get involved in the politics of the thing; we care only about the event and the client.  But this feels like the ugly under-belly of big business and international affairs intruding into our world.

The Waldorf is part of the Hilton family, which was purchased by the private equity firm The Blackstone Group a couple of years ago, and maybe this money-grubbing was

inevitable.  If it makes you feel better, the Waldorf is getting slammed with bad publicity, including high profile blog, which says the Waldorf did those guests a favor, saying their rooms are dank, dark and have bed bugs.  Yum.  Worse still for them, the Waldorf is no longer the singular NYC property we used to know, but has been spun into a whole line, with properties ranging from Berlin to Shanghai, so the bad press gets multiplied.

Would love to know your thoughts.  How would you have handled this if those 100 rooms were part of your event?

Challenge Your Planner/Vendor for More Creative Results

Posted December 13, 2010

Last Friday Jes Gordon was in the studio taping a class for the Event Leadership Institute

Jes Gordon

(launching next month) called BWWB, short for “Big Wow Within Budget”.  She covered a wide range of interesting tips for making your event more creative without breaking the bank, and covered areas such as food and beverage, lighting, flowers, venue, rentals, furnishings, entertainment, and more.  And, she shared her resources (websites, wholesale vendors, etc.) for where she gets all her good stuff.   But enough with the plugs.

In the prep call a few days earlier, the one area I asked her to add was to “challenge your planner and vendors” to stretch their creative minds for you, and she agreed wholeheartedly.   Looking back over decades of experience, we each agreed that the times our clients pushed us to really go that extra mile creatively were the events we were most proud of.

They were also the times we bitched and moaned and cursed our clients behind their backs because, hey, they were being a pain in the ass.  It was those tough clients who didn’t care if we complained, who didn’t settle for our first (or fourth) round of ideas, who often got the best work out of us.

This reminds me of a story about Henry Kissinger, the former Secretary of State.  (Is that not the segue of the year?  I’ll buy drinks for anyone who can point out another event industry article that cites Kissinger).  So rumor has it that he asked an aide to do a study on the troop strength of the Vietnamese army (or something).  The aide hands in a nice meaty paper.

The next day Kissinger sends the paper back with a note, “Good initial effort.  But I know you can do better.”  So the aide does deeper research, adds in some more charts and graphs and submits the revised version.

Henry Kissinger

Kissinger sends this one back too.  This time saying, “Great progress!  But still not your best work.  Stay with it, you’re almost there!”  The aide curses and grunts, but he goes back to his sources, finds some more insights and analysis, triple checks his work, and decides to personally hand in this version to his boss.

“Dr. Kissinger,” he says, “I have gone as far as I can with this assignment.  I’ve included more sources than I’ve ever used before and added stronger analysis than I ever thought possible.  This is as good as my paper will get.”

“OK,” Kissinger replies, “In that case, I guess I’ll read it now.”

If your first reaction is that Kissinger was a jerk (which I’m sure he was), you’re missing the bigger picture.  By not settling, he got his aide to produce far superior work than the aide was ready to do.  And he used repeated, positive encouragement that appealed to the aide’s pride in his own craft to dig deep and take his work to the next level.

Of all the people we work with in some capacity, we most appreciate that teacher, coach, boss, trainer, and yes, client, who doesn’t let us settle for mediocrity.  They may not always be liked along the way, but they are paying us the biggest possible compliment by reminding us of the heights we are capable of.

Challenge the people who work for you, whether they’re on your own team or work for outside suppliers.  Really push them to stretch their creative muscles.  They will complain, for sure.  But in the end they will likely thank you.   And they will certainly respect you for helping bring out their best work.

“Ladies and gentlemen, the recession has left the building.”

Posted November 25, 2010

At the risk of sounding insensitive to those people still out of work and/or struggling to keep their businesses afloat, the event industry is clearly no longer in recession.  (I just knocked my wooden desk for all you superstitious folks who think I just jinxed it).

Everyone is crazy-busy right now.  And I mean everyone.  Literally, I kid you not, every single person I’ve spoken to in the last week can’t seem to catch their breath.  People are jamming in every facet of our industry: corporate, social, non-profit . . . you name it.

Daniele Menache, Global Head of Event Marketing for Alliance Bernstein, is swamped. “You want a quote?  My quote is I’m too busy to give you a quote! 🙂 Seriously, between the actual work of booking conferences and all the year-end performance review for staff and 360, and holiday parties, I’m in the office for most of my 24 hrs!”

Mark Shearon

Mark Shearon, Executive VP of TBA Global, is reporting their best year ever.  On top of mega events for Walmart, Samsung, and T.Mobile, they were just named agency of record for one of the world’s largest energy companies.

Cheryl Kahn Bracco, Director of Catering for the Glazier Group, owners of a dozen different restaurants and banquet venues, says she is the busiest she’s been since 2007. First Protocol reports that their London office is jamming, while their NY office just landed a huge new client.  They too are working in overdrive.

Andrea Figman, former senior planner at American Express and now proprietor of her own firm Andrea Figman & Company, is  “extremely busy these days.  Some budgets seem to be opening up, and, where they are not, companies get creative by partnering with suppliers for funding or having some of their events sponsored.”

Morgan Connacher

Morgan Connacher of Fourth Wall Events says, “we had the busiest October on record.  Programs for several hundredpeople and several thousand people that all seem to have incredibly short lead times. RFPs for large and small programs flooded in our doors.  I’m cautiously optimistic.  Even with budgets coming back, the bottom line is still a huge concern.”

Welcome to capitalism.  Two and a half years ago came the train wreck, and event activity ground to a virtual halt.  Seemingly overnight, event-spend slipped out the back door while no one was looking, and into town rode the forces of the free market.

Suddenly, we had a lot less demand for event services, and way too much supply of planners and vendors.  Economics 101: either we find a way to goose demand back up, or a lot of excess supply has to be squeezed out of the marketplace.  And since our industry didn’t exactly get a chunk of the federal stimulus money (do we need a better Lobby in Washington or what?), it was the supply that had to go.

Fast forward to today, where the spigot for event spending has been slowly but steadily opening up again.  However, with many in-house planning departments now 1/3 or even ½ their previous size, and with agencies and vendors having trimmed down too, the demand is now outstripping supply.  And for the time being, people are not filling the gap with permanent hires, they’re just working harder, so everyone is busy and the freelance market is booming.

So we’re all very busy, but not necessarily very profitable.  (And if you confuse the two, you do so at your own peril.)  Why?

Right now, hiring, salaries, and fees have not increased much, but they will.  The longer this “boomlet” runs, the greater everyone’s confidence will be to raise their planning fees, and hire more staff.  Until then, enjoy the mad scramble to keep up with the work flow; we’ve come a long way from the thumb-twiddling idleness of two years ago.

The Un-Conference: Participant-Driven Agenda + Mashup Networking = Relationship Building on Steroids

Posted November 15, 2010

“What’s this conference about again?” my wife asks me, as I pack my suitcase getting ready to head to Event Camp East Coast (ECEC).

“I don’t know.”

“Well, what are the topics that’ll be covered?”

“I don’t know.”

“Who are the speakers?”

“I don’t know”.

“Okaaaaay.  Can you at least tell me what format it is?  Workshops?  Seminars? Panels?

“I don’t know.”

She then gives me that look.  “I’m not having an affair, honey,” I reply.  But of course it sure sounds like it.  “It’s this new thing, an UnConference.  This guy wrote a whole book on it.” I show her the ECEC website for good measure, but I’m sure some part of her still has doubts.  I make a mental note to be sure to bring home my name tag for proof (I have collected them for 20 years now) but am really nervous this UnConference thing won’t have them.

So there you have it.  I drove to Philadelphia for a two day conference without having any idea what the topics would be, who would be speaking, and what the format would be.  Oh, and I also paid for this privilege.

Before you try to sell me the Brooklyn Bridge, I should tell you that, it was one of the most innovative and eye-opening professional experiences I’ve had.  Aside from coming back with lots of new tips and ideas, I easily established triple the number of new contacts, and formed stronger relationships with them, than at any other conference I’ve been to.

Event Camp is an ongoing series of conferences held around the country, with very few ground rules.  Each one is organized by different people, with a different focus and style.  This one, Event Camp East Coast, was designed to showcase the UnConference format developed by Adrian Segar, author of Conferences That Work. It was well-organized (in their volunteer time – thanks ladies!) by non-profit event consultant Lindsey Rosenthal of Events For Good, and trade show expert Traci Browne of the Trade Show Institute.

1. What’s Your Name?  Who’s Your Daddy?

It starts out with an interactive registration.  The check-in table is inside a networking area, so after you get your credentials you immediately start meeting new people.

Everyone (all 40 of us) then migrate to the Roundtable session, which is a bit of a misnomer because there was no table.  We all sit around the room on chairs, and are briefed on the 4 Freedoms, and similar jargon to make sure everyone feels “safe” to say pretty much whatever they want, as long as it stays in the room.  At this point I’m starting to feel a bit like I’m in a cult, or some kind of EST training session from the 70’s.  I envision trust exercises where I fall backwards into a group of people I’ve never met, talking about my mother, and lots of hugging.

My fears quickly fade away, however, as we’re all instructed to jot down how we got here, what we want to get out of this conference, and what specific experience or expertise we have that others might benefit from.  We go around the room, and each person says their spiel, prefacing their remarks by telling the group what they do for a living.

The process takes a couple of hours, but it’s extraordinarily valuable.  The ‘group therapy’ environment initially seems a bit goofy, but it’s literally an express elevator for everyone to get to know each other.  Two volunteer scribes jot down people’s answers on white board pages, which are posted around the room.

2. The Tribe Has Spoken

We then break for an hour, and then head over to a dinner reception, where those same white board sheets now paper the walls.  After everyone’s had time to relax, eat, drink and mingle, a ton of worksheets are placed on a central table.  Adrian instructs us all to write down any topic for a peer session (which will be held the next day) that we’d like to see.  A little later on we all revisit these sheets and sign up for anything that looks interesting, ranking our interest levels from 1 to 3.  If we feel we can serve as a Facilitator or Expert on a topic we indicate such.

Adrian and his swat team then whisk the sheets away into a room, where they evaluate which sessions have the most, and strongest, interest, weeding out overlapping topics and those without bona fide leaders. And poof!  We have an agenda!  The schedule of topics and facilitators is posted in the morning, and, over the course of the day we have four one-hour time slots, each with 3-4 sessions to choose from.

3. Let the Learning Begin

Some sessions were more workshop-oriented, with everyone contributing ideas in a free-flowing manner, while others had stronger facilitators who clearly drove the subject matter in a more structured format.  Regardless, the key tenet of the day was that the attendees were all 100% engaged in every session.  The reason is clearly that everyone felt a huge sense of ownership because they themselves drove the topic content.  It’s a bit like letting the inmates run the asylum, but it works.

Much will be made by others of the fact that there was no Powerpoint, or other trappings of traditional conferences, but don’t drink that Kool Aid.  That is utterly irrelevant and is a classic case of throwing the baby out with the bath water. One of the better classes I attended was given by Carolyn Ray on Conflict Management, in part because she had a ton of content to dish out and she knew her stuff.  She could have had Powerpoint and nobody would have said boo.  Equally effective was a Social Media 101 class by Jay Daughtry of ChatterBachs and Jenise Fryatt of Icon Presentations, where the structure was different, and people literally asked a non-stop barrage of “How do you . . . ?” questions.  So the format has no bearing on the experience.

The day ends with everyone returning to roundtable format where we’re all guided on filling out worksheets detailing the action steps we’re going take after the conference to act on what we’ve learned, followed by a group debrief of what worked at the UnConference and what should be changed.

4.     The Trojan Horse: Why it Works (It’s Not the Reason You Think)

The biggest benefit of this UnConference is the relationship-forming on steroids.  Across the board, everyone agreed we formed more connections, and stronger ones, at this 40 person conference than we would have at a 2,000 person industry expo.  So clearly, size matters, but in reverse.

This format is clearly not for everyone, and there’s a bit too much kumbaya-love-your-brother stuff for most people.  But it definitely works in a way you would never imagine.  The biggest question nagging at me was why.

On the surface it seems to work because of the whole Participant-Driven agenda thing, and there is certainly much to be said of that.  However, you could just as easily have the participants create the agenda online in advance, but the networking would be considerably diminished.  Ultimately, I think the idea of the attendees choosing the content takes a back seat to the following two dynamics, in terms of why this event was so successful.

a)    Group Immersion. In analyzing this experience, I feel that it was the whole group being together for the Roundtable, and then the course selection process over dinner, that was the ultimate driver of the relationship-building process.  We could just as easily had the group Roundtable (where we get to know each other) lay the groundwork for the networking at dinner, and we would have formed equally strong bonds, even if the agenda had been pre-set the next day for us.

Contrast this to a typical conference, where people simply are not forced into a networking mash-up like this, and its no wonder they don’t form as strong connections.  It was literally impossible for anyone to fall through the cracks; everyone got immediately swept up into the flow of the event and was steadily woven into the fabric of group experience.

b)   The Twitter Effect.  For this group in particular, the majority had long formed bonds online through the EventProfs chats on Twitter, but had never met.  Though this is not a requirement for success, in this instance there’s no question that it significantly amplified the Group Immersion effect above.

Across the board everyone had an amazing experience.  However if we are to recommend this conference format to our clients or bosses, we need to understand the key ingredients needed for success, and make sure we don’t tinker with the formula that Adrian has been perfecting over the years.

“Beware the Daring of A Cautious Man”: The danger of a half-hearted RFP response.

Posted November 8, 2010

You’re sitting at your desk staring at an RFP you just received for a nice big job.  It’s big bucks if you get it, and a high profile client to boot.  The kind of event you sit around hoping lands on your desk.

You’re so excited that after scanning the RFP you call the client up to thank them for the opportunity, and to ask the usual qualifying questions.  The answers wipe the smile off your face pretty fast.

“How many other event companies have you sent this to?”
“I see you’ve done this event before.  Is the incumbent firm being asked to bid?”

“If you don’t mind me asking, were you happy with their work?”

“Yes, very happy.”
“Why are you seeking so many other bids then?”

“We want to see what other ideas are out there.”

Not exactly the greatest signs.  You furrow your brow in frustration and briefly try to use your special powers to make the client’s head explode through the phone line, then politely thank them for the opportunity again and tell them you can’t wait to show them what you’ve got.

Yes, of course it’s not professional to ask twelve companies to create detailed proposals, but that’s a whole other discussion, and at the end of the day, nobody is forcing you to bid.  Do you have a chance to win the business?  Yes, but with an incumbent agency in the picture, it’s not great.

Now, there’s two types of “not great” situations like this.  The first is where the client is forced by their Procurement Dept. to bid the work out.  Generally, they have every intention of re-hiring the incumbent vendor, but need to satisfy their internal process.  In this case, they normally don’t get more than 3 of 4 bids.   They want to get the minimum number needed to satisfy procurement.

The second situation is the one described at the beginning of this post, where a client really does want to see what else is out there.  That’s why they’ve bid it out to so many people, which is really annoying.  On the flip side, you can bet they will look at your proposal.

So what do you do?  You can either acknowledge the time commitment in creating a winning proposal, factor in the long odds of winning it, and pass.  Or you can roll the dice, show them your best, and keep your fingers crossed.

The one thing I encourage you NOT to do is phone it in with a quick proposal that’s not your best work.  In the twenty years I ran

NY Times Columnist William Safire

my event company, I often had account executives want to do this, saying, “I’ll just throw a quick proposal together.  Don’t worry, I won’t spend too much time on it.”  To which I usually responded, “if we bid, we bid to win.  Otherwise forget it.”

‘Go big or go home’ is another expression that conveys this principle.  But perhaps my favorite is ‘Beware the daring of a cautious man,’ by former New York Times columnist William Safire.  He wrote this after the failed attempt during the Carter presidency to rescue the hostages in Iran.  (Yes, I am that old and I did read the newspaper in high school.  Sometimes.)  Apparently Carter sent in a small team of helicopters, and when two of them had mechanical trouble the whole mission had to abort.

I don’t know why, but that quote has always stuck with me.  What I take away from it is that it’s ok to be daring, and it’s ok to be cautious, but you don’t want to be cautiously daring.

In this case, there are worse things than actually not getting the job.  If you do a half-assed proposal, you probably won’t get the job, AND the client will be so under-whelmed by your work they will not ask you to bid on future projects where the odds are better.  Worse still, they will spread their mediocre opinion of your company among their friends and colleagues when asked.

Far better to politely pass on the opportunity.  Say you don’t bid under these circumstance, or say you’re simply too busy.  Or pull out all the stops and go for it.  Yes, the odds are against you, but if you wow them they’re far more likely to use you in the future, and they will spread a very positive word about you.

Let the Big Dog Eat. (What golf can teach business owners about selling.)

Posted October 26, 2010

Costner in Tin Cup

I’m sitting in the conference room of a mid-sized event company talking to the owner.  He’s lamenting that he can’t seem to get his company ‘to the next level’ and wants my help.  When I press him, he seems to think he knows what’s holding him back.

“We need more sales,” he says.  “I need to hire a kick-ass salesperson.”

I tell him what kick-ass sales people go for these days, if you can get them, and then ask him how much time he personally spends developing new business.

“I really don’t have the time,” he answers, and proceeds to rattle off all the things that prevent him from doing so.

“These are all operational tasks,” I reply.  “If push comes to shove, they can be delegated.  But nobody can sell your company the way you can.  It’s time to let the big dog eat.”

I love using that line, which I picked up from Kevin Costner in Tin Cup.  Costner plays a wise but washed up golf pro giving advice to Rene Russo.  The ‘big dog’ is the driver, the biggest club in the bag, which she’s afraid to use.  Sometimes, he’s saying, the big dog needs to be let out.

“You’re the big dog in this analogy,” I say, driving the point home.  “The company needs you to be out there selling more.”

He starts with the “yeah, but . . .” face, but then nods his head sheepishly when he realizes I won’t take his bullshit.

Part of the problem with entrepreneurs is that there’s usually nobody around to challenge them, to push them to do what’s best for their company, even if that might force them out of their comfort zone.   So they gravitate to the areas they like, areas they feel safe in.  And they create a nice little cozy cocoon for themselves within their business.

Unfortunately, the comfortable place is not always where the business needs them the most.  Show me a business owner with the discipline to allocate his or her time in areas that is best for their business, and I’ll show you a company that’s getting to that ‘next level’.

Shaq may have grown up wanting to be a point guard, but at 7 feet tall, he had to play center for his teams to win.  Seems obvious when you look at it that way, right?

But part of the problem here is this business owner just doesn’t think of himself as the ‘big dog’.  “Don’t underestimate the impact to a client or prospect of dealing directly with a company owner,” I tell him.  “You can hire someone to help with your research, outreach, etc., but you yourself must be part of the sales solution.”

Before heading out I leave him a note, and tell him to tape it to his computer.  It reads: “If I want to get to the next level, I must let the big dog eat.  And I am the big dog.”

How to Land A Big Client . . . NOT.

Posted October 6, 2010

Dear Howard,

I’ve been trying to get my foot in the door with a big corporate client who does a ton of major events, including many big product launches, which are right up our alley.  I’ve been calling on them for almost two years, and have even been in to pitch them in person.  Finally they gave me an event to work on, only its so low end I don’t know if I should take it.  It’s a retirement cocktail party for 50 people for a low-level executive, with a budget that is paltry.  On the one hand the client says it’s a way to get into the organization.  On the other hand, I’m concerned that if accept this job I’ll be pigeon-holed into more small gigs.  What should I do?


Confused About My Client

Dear Confused, (OK, the person who emailed this to me signed it with their real name, not “confused”.  But it sounds better this way doesn’t it?)

Though you can find people who’ll argue the opposite, my advice is to turn it down.  In my 20+ years of running an event company rarely – scratch that, never – have I seen this strategy work.  Why?  Let’s say you’re the client’s boss and you’re given two companies to choose for a major product launch: a company that focuses mainly on product launches and other similar events, and a company that did a kick-ass job on the retirement party of some VP.  If you’re job is on the line, would you hire you?  No way.  The safe bet is the other firm.

Here’s another analogy.  Let’s say you do get the job and you need to hire a caterer.  Would you pick a vendor who’s done a ton of product launches, or someone who catered your office holiday party, but gosh-darn-it he wants to work his way in.  Or let’s say you’re being sued for $5 million by a client who claims his VIP guests got food poisoning at your event.  Do you bring in a ringer who defends these cases routinely, or hire an aggressive attorney who really wants your business and successfully argued a parking ticket for you?  You get the point.

But wait!  Confused says she too is a ringer in product launches!  Surely the client’s boss will see that, and appreciate how Confused did that VP’s retirement party as a good faith gesture, right?  Sorry, not right.  Unfortunately, simply taking on that much smaller event lowers your stature in the client’s eyes.  It’s not fair, but it’s reality.

Now, once you’re in and have done the big product launches, if they then ask you to do the retirement event, you can take it on and it won’t hurt you.  But as your calling card for moving up, it’s a tough sell.  You get branded as the small job vendor, and you’re far more likely to get requests for more of the same.  Then what?

I remember years ago I took on a high profile fundraiser for a new client’s non-profit for next to no money.  The client was a well-connected Park Avenue socialite, and she swore she would introduce me to her friends.  And she did.  You know what they said?  “I hear you gave Penny a great deal.  I want the same thing.”

It can be done, and I’m sure I’ll get my share of readers who will argue the point with me.  But by and large, the odds are not in your favor.  If it really kills you to walk away from this opportunity, here’s what I would suggest.

1.    Bump up your fees by at least 30%.

2.    Then, in the proposal or contract, type in a line showing a discount for that exact amount.  Write something like, “Special discount in exchange for allowing our firm to bid on your next product launch.”  Then you’re at least spelling out your quid pro quo: I’m doing this event SOLELY to get a chance to bid on this other bigger event.  Hey, it’s the truth isn’t it? They’re obliged now to allow you to bid on their next launch event.  Mind you, they’re under no obligation to hire you; just to give you a chance to bid on the kind of work you want.

3.    And if for some reason they push back, that’s your cue to run for the hills.

In America we’re all enamored with the narrative of the kid from the mailroom working his way up the ladder to be CEO.  That may have worked 50 years ago, but it’s a non-starter today.  Mailroom Johnny has no chance against a college grad with an MBA in today’s business world.

I know, it feels so un-American.  It’s like stomping on the Little Engine That Could.  But it’s not personal, it’s just business.  Tell your client/prospect that, “as much as we’d love to work with you, we’d rather wait for the right project.  Perhaps (insert name of your biggest competitor-let them be the sucker) might be interested in this smaller event?”

You’re Only As Happy As Your Least Happy Client. (Solution: A happy client is not the same as a successful event.)

Posted September 27, 2010

That’s my personal modification of a brilliant quote by Joe Paterno, the legendary Penn State football coach, who said, “You’re only as happy as your least happy child.”  And it’s equally brilliant when applied to working with clients.

The least happy client demands the most attention, pulling your time away from other clients, and generally making you tense.  Further, if you’ve got staff, it spreads. In 20 plus years of running an event company, every time, with no exceptions, a crotchety client became a cancer in the office.  Whoever was the lead account executive on that project would get incredibly stressed out, and the rest of the team (myself included) would lose productive time on their own clients having to calm her down and lend support.  Pretty soon, nobody’s happy.  The only benefit to the others was the perspective it gave them, the “thank god I don’t have to work with Lisa’s client!” comments.

And sometimes it wasn’t even that the client was nasty; sometimes they were sweet as pie, but just frustrated because their expectations did not synch with ours in terms of client service levels, deadlines, availability of our team, etc.

So what’s the solution?  Make your client’s happiness more important than the event’s success. Here’s how:

1.    Understand that those are two completely different things.  It’s possible to have a successful event and still lose a client, but it’s very rare to lose a satisfied client, even if the event goes south.

2.    Realize what will make your client happy, because it differs dramatically.  Some want you to take the lead and plow ahead, others want you to run every thing by them first.  Some are militant about sticking to budgets, others want to be told of great upgrade ideas regardless of cost.  The point is, make it your top priority to learn how your client wants to work with you.

3.    Religiously take your client’s temperature, not just on how the event planning is going, but on how they find the process of working with you.  Whatever feedback they may have, get it as early as possible so you have time to correct it.

Making your client’s happiness more important than the event’s success is a whole mindset shift.  When was the last time you were at an industry event and heard someone rave about how well they serviced a client?  But it’s what’s required to be successful in business.  And if need be, do it for selfish reasons.  The happier your clients are the happier you’ll be.

The Era of the Perma-Lancer. [Or, Temporary Freelancers Are Here to Stay.]

Posted September 19, 2010

The business cycle we’ve gone through these past two years in our industry has exhibited some fairly typical traits.

Phase 1:  The economy tanks, prompting companies cut back on event spending, which in turn prompts event companies to lay off workers.

Phase 2:  The economy stabilizes (albeit at a lower level), and event spending starts coming back.  But event company owners aren’t sure for how long, so they respond to the added volume with freelancers.  After all, with so many out of work planners, the freelance market has never been so good.

Phase 3:  A year later and that stabilized level of business has continued.  This inspires event company owners with greater confidence, and they start converting those temporary freelance positions to permanent jobs.

Or not.  Someone forgot to give event company owners the memo, because freelancers are everywhere.  Still.  I call this the age of the Perma-Lancer.

And why not?  I owned an event agency for 20 years, and trying to match the staffing with the workflow was always an adventure, particularly since our events never spread out evenly over the year.  We’d always be slammed in the fall and spring, and light in the summer.  But with good freelancers, you bring them on for a specific project, at a specific rate, and when the gig is over, well, see ya.  There’s absolutely no wasted capacity.

Plus, the freelancers I hired always had a rock-solid work ethic.  They never chatted much with the permanent folks, never took long lunches.  When they were in the office, they worked.  And freelancers sure won’t ask you about career growth.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, you can get a far more qualified staffer if they’re freelancer.  For one, you don’t have to pay benefits.  In addition, while you might not have room to add a $100k a year person to your team full time, you might be able to bring them in at a comparable hourly rate for a limited engagement.

The big drawback, however, is there’s no guarantee that person will be available when you need them on your next project.  Still, that hasn’t seemed to make a significant dent into this new practice.  So many event firms either have enough work year-round to slot good freelancers into, one project after another.  Or, they are figuring out how to maintain a steady rolodex of freelancers, train them quickly on their internal procedures, and get them up to speed in no time.

This has truly created a new paradigm for growing an event agency, where firms are modeling their behavior after movie productions: for each project a dedicated team is assembled, after which they go their own way. Only the key principals remain.  Of course you can still build your agency the old fashioned way, by growing a bigger and bigger team.  But after the body blow the economy delivered to most business owners two years ago, this new model has a lot of appeal by enabling firms to expand as much as they need to, while keeping their fixed costs low.

Perhaps the only true impediment to this model will be when the corporate side begins hiring planners in greater numbers, drying up the pool of good freelancers.  But I sense even then this model will still be a viable alternative, given the seemingly endless flow of new bodies entering this field.

[I was going to title this post, “Temporary Freelancers Are Here to Stay”, but that sounded terribly oxymoronic, so I added the term Perma-Lancers.]

Vote Early & Vote Often (for me): EventProfs Blog Contest

Posted September 1, 2010

So I’ve been nominated for an event industry blog and I need your vote.  My blog is one of 7 up for best “Thought Provoking Blog” in the eventprofs blog competition.  I know what you’re thinking, and there was no category for “Most Irreverent & Sarcastic Blog”.  Believe me, I checked.

CLICK HERE TO VOTE, (I’m on question #4)

eventprofs blog awards nominee

I’ll say up front that I am not a big fan of popularity contest style awards.  And not because I’m a cretin who has no friends.  I do have friends in the industry; trouble is most of them are top-of-the-food-chain folks who are running businesses or departments and have less time for online voting than others.  Read another way, you could say that many of my supporters are, well, older, and don’t find as much fun in online voting as they do in, say, finding novels that are published in large print.

But I am making an exception in this case, because the contest is run by none other than Lara McCulloch-Carter, proprietor of, who, among other things, created eventprofs, a bi-weekly twitter chat that pulls people together from all over the world to discuss random event topics, make connections, and hatch grand schemes.  Lara taught me about tweet chats and hash tags.  (I know, there’s got to be an off-color joke in there somewhere, but nothing witty comes to mind.)

Lara’s one of what I call ‘smarties’, people in our industry who are quite clever, push the envelope, and otherwise drag the event industry (often kicking and screaming) to bold new places.  She brings both a professional big-company marketing background, as well as experience running her family’s tent business, to bear in her social media consulting business for the event trade.

So we like Lara and what she’s doing and want to support her efforts, even though she’s Canadian.  How can you do so, you ask?  By voting for the blogs you think deserve the title of best in each of several categories.  And if you are a supporter of my irreverent thought-provoking insights, you can vote for me!


As a judging mechanism, I’ve already said that popularity voting is a flawed model.  If the Oscars used it, the Best Picture winner would be movies like Adam Sandler’s Water Boy, not Gandhi.  (Though lets face it, if you were stuck on a desert island you’d pick Water Boy over Gandhi any day of the week).  But as a marketing mechanism, it’s sheer brilliance.  You empower all your nominees to promote your site for you.  And in this case, the ends justify the means, because it also exposes everyone to a slew of new blogs, many of which people will find stimulating, inspiring, and yes, thought-provoking.

So, as Al Capone said, “vote early, and vote often.”


The E-Myth: Why Most Small Businesses Fail, & What You Can Do About It

Posted August 25, 2010

eventprofs blog awards nominee

Tell me if this story sounds familiar.

My friend Tom is a gifted carpenter.  After working for 15 years as the lead project manager for a contractor who built & renovated houses, he decided to go out on his own.  He’d learned everything there was to learn about a building site and managing a construction job, and grew tired of making lots of money for someone else.

Within six months he’d eaten through all the money he’d put aside to start the business, and was now dipping into his 401K.  Within a year he was putting major charges on his credit cards and paying the monthly minimum, incurring debt at 20% interest.

All this and he couldn’t understand why his business was failing.  He’d landed a bunch of jobs early on and they were all going well.  The workmanship was solid, his customers were happy; in short everything about the building of houses was going smoothly.  The business, however, was heading over a cliff.

Feel free to insert any other job into the above scenario, and it’s always the same.  Lawyer, architect, graphic designer, web developer, event producer, etc.  We all know people in our industry who are good at what they do, really good in some cases, and fail miserably when they go out on their own.  We look at their work, and wonder, “how on earth is this guy NOT successful?”

On the flip side, we see people who are mediocre at best at their craft, but who are very successful at running their businesses.  We look at their work and think, “how on earth IS this guy successful?”

The answer to both scenarios is neatly encapsulated in an eye-opening book called “The E-Myth Revisited”, by Michael Gerber.  It’s often one of the first books I recommend to business owners I consult for, as it’s easy to read and never fails to produce a ‘Eureka!’ moment.

Gerber’s tenet is basically this:  There is a big difference between being good at a craft, and being good at the business of selling and providing that craft. Too often people assume that if they’re good at being carpenters, or event planners, they should be able to run a business a carpentry or event planning business.  Sadly, those skills do not run hand-in-hand and are completely unrelated.

The easiest way to see this is in sports.  Pat Riley and Phil Jackson, two of the most successful coaches in NBA history, were mediocre players at best, in their day.  Isaiah Thomas, a hall of fame point guard for the Detroit Pistons, is only one of numerous all star players who failed miserably at running a team.  (I will never forgive him for wrecking my beloved NY Knicks).

What’s the difference in doing something and running a business?  There’s lots; financial planning, personnel management, pricing, marketing, etc.  Probably the most common areas I’ve seen people fall short are:

1)    in managing their pipeline of developing new business.  They get absorbed in producing events for their clients, and put off going after new ones until its too late.

2)    in properly pricing their services to allow for the time it takes to operate the business.  Too often they assume they can do X number of events a year, because that’s what they did when they worked for someone else, and forget to factor in the time it takes to run the business.

The first step is simply the realization that different skill sets are required between doing the craft and running the business, and it’s hard to do both, even if you’re good at both.

One successful example in our industry was Sarah Merians Photography, which for most of its 20 years or so in business was the dominant event photography company in the NYC area.  The firm was a partnership between Sarah Merians, who was the photography expert, and Elizabeth Beskin, who was the business expert.  Though they recently went their separate ways, with Elizabeth focusing on Fifth Avenue Digital (the corporate and online end of the business), and Sarah keeping the social end of the business, their partnership was something I always admired, and stands as a case book example of how a craft expert brought in someone else to focus on the business needs of the company.

At the end of the day, my belief is that a good business person will trump a good craft person, which is why you see people with mediocre event skills sometimes be quite successful in business.  The key is identifying which side of the spectrum you’re good at, and making sure you fill in the other side with someone who complements your skills.

My new iphone app: Super Planner

Posted August 13, 2010

I feel like a proud father who just gave birth to a new child.  Actually I feel more like the mother, because the father doesn’t do anything in childbirth other than pass out cigars.  The mother, on the other hand, carries and nurtures the developing baby and goes through excruciating pain to deliver it to the world, but it’s all worth it in the end when you’ve got a beautiful new baby (or app).  And that’s kind of what I feel like.  I love the app, and am very proud of it, but it was a long journey to get it done, and now it is out in the world for everyone to see, and play with.

Super Planner Home

Super Planner App

What the App Does

Super Planner has lots of fun and cool stuff including calculators for room capacity, dance floor size, catering and staffing numbers, projection distances, place setting and staging diagrams, and more.  It was designed for someone who makes their living in the event industry.  You can see a full set of screen shots and a video demo here.  It works on the iphone and the ipad, and I’ve already started thinking of what the next generation of this app will have.  I encourage you to take a look and play around with it, and please shoot me your feedback.

Creating An App = Passing A Kidney Stone

Back in December I started mapping out what I wanted the app to do, designing the formulas, screen layouts, navigation, etc.  I made very clear and detailed plans for the developer, who would translate my vision into iphone code.  I loved my developer, right up until the moment they filed for bankruptcy.  I’d already paid them a chunk of change, 50% of the contract fee to be exact, for which they created a site map and a series of screen shots, which, they assured me, represented much more than 50% of the work.  I scrambled to find a replacement developer to pick up the files and take me to the finish line, and found a very resourceful young Ukranian developer who manages a team of programmers overseas.  Upon reviewing the files, he pointed out that, unfortunately, the previous developer did not exactly do 50% of the work.  No matter, Alexey shepherded me through the remainder of the development stages, including the labyrinthian submission process to get it approved by Apple.

What Apple has built in terms of iphone developer kits and tools is nothing short of an entire universe.  A universe in which you don’t speak the language.  Picture the first time a tourist or immigrant lands at JFK airport, without the benefit of reading or speaking English, which is pretty much the only way the airport communicates anything.  Your first reaction is “wow!”, but only slightly behind is your second reaction, which is “huh?”.  Without Alexey I would have been lost.  It really makes you wonder how it is that someone neanderthal enough to want to build an app that simulates fart noises, or one of the other numerous mindless apps out there, can at the same time be smart enough to navigate Apple’s submission process on their own.

But alas, that is all in the past.  Now the highlight of my day is clicking on the Apple Developer sales report and looking up the country codes to see how far away people are buying the app from.  IN stands for India, by the way, and ID stands for Indonesia (both of whom have citizens who have purchased my app!), or is it the other way around.  I know that US is America (I’m so smart).

If I Had A Million Dollars (for your business) . . .

Posted August 4, 2010

So goes the song by Barenaked Ladies, but I’ve also found it’s a great tool to use in diagnosing an event company, or any small business for that matter.  Here’s how it works.

ABC event company says to me, “We’re doing ok, but we can’t seem to get over this hump.  How do we get to the next level?”

Upon which I say to them, “If I gave you one million dollars today to invest in your business, or start a completely new one in the event industry, where and how would you spend it?”

Boy would you be amazed at some of the responses.  But in particular, it’s rare that someone answers the question by saying, “I’d do things exactly as I’m doing them now, only faster / bigger, etc.”  Anyone who says that believes firmly in their current business model, and deserves a pat on the back for their confidence.  (Whether their bus. model is correct is another matter.)bare naked ladies

Usually, however, people respond with surprising insight on their own business.  They would re-brand themselves differently, go after a different type of customer, offer a new service, overhaul the way they compensate their staff, etc.  And a fair amount say they would simply not invest in their business at all, but go into the industry in a completely different capacity.

Business owners are smart enough to know that the landscape in which they started their companies 5, 10 or 20 years ago is now very different.  There’s more competition, margins are tighter, clients are smarter, etc.  At the same time they see opportunities opening up in new areas in the event world.

This helps me to bring them to their come-to-jesus moment.  “If you would not invest that million dollars into your business the way it is today,” I say to them, “then why are you clinging to doing business that way at all?”  It’s really a fantastic moment of truth for an owner or manager to be confronted with their own business logic.

To be sure, making any significant change in the way we do business is time consuming and involves a degree of risk.   Our employees and customers may resist, and we may take a hit for a year or two during the transition.  But without making the changes we know we should make, I can virtually guarantee we’ll still be wishing for that next level for years to come.

And if you’re interested in what the Barenaked Ladies would do with $1 million, click here to read/listen.

Exit Stage Right

Posted July 22, 2010

Marjory Tivlin is furious.  She is livid that she did not get to speak on stage during the event, and it’s all your fault.  I’m the Director of Public Affairs, the Mayor’s right hand, she says, and it was embarrassing that I came all the way here to read a congratulatory letter and you wouldn’t let me speak!

Never mind the fact that she’s nowhere near the Mayor’s right hand, more like his big toe, and the fact that the Mayor sent someone so low on the totem pole is a bit of an insult to the host organization.  Of course you can’t say that.  You just nod while she vents.

When she finally comes up for air, you point out that you had no less than five event staffers scouring the floor to find her, that she was supposed to arrive at 8:30, and scheduled to speak at 9:15, but as of 9:10 she was nowhere to be found.  Your staff at the check-in desk was on full alert for her, but somehow she slipped in like the wind and bypassed the table.  We wish you would have checked in like we asked, you say, or sought out any of the many people on headset radios to let us know you were here, like the other speakers.

How am I supposed to know who your people are, she bellows.  Well, they’re the only ones wearing radios on their heads, you say.  (Oops, that one slipped out.)  Don’t get snippy with me, she hollers back!  You fight hard to stifle the smile that always comes out when you hear the word ‘snippy’.  By 9:10 you had to assume she was a no-show and go to plan B, and notify the MC to instead read the Mayor’s congratulatory letter in her absence.

Never mind all that, she says, I was here!  It’s your job to find me.  We didn’t know what you looked like, so that would have been challenging, you say.  How could you not know what I look like, she demands.  Because you’re the big toe, not the right hand, you want to say.

It’s not as if things had gone smoothly otherwise.  The guest of honor, the chairman of a major corporation, had come in just before dinner to do a sound check, and you were all cued up for him.  Yet when he came to the podium at dinner, the goose-neck mic seemed to bother him, and he promptly pushed it away from him, messing up your audio sets.  For the first few words it’s impossible to hear him, so the audio tech jacks up the volume, which unfortunately means the mic picks up every possible sound up at the stage, including the jingling in his pocket he’s making with his spare change as a nervous tic.

The event raised a cool half a million, way beyond expectations, so you know your client will be all smiles.  You close your eyes, take a deep breath, and focus on that double vodka waiting for you at the end of the night.  You pull out the event planner’s escape hatch, press the headset closer into your ear, straining to hear the voice that is not there.  Copy that, you say to no one.  I’m so sorry, Ms. Tivlin, you turn to her, I’m wanted back stage.  Perhaps we can continue this conversation later?  You gracefully slip away, and flush Marjory Tivlin from your memory by the time you reach the ballroom.

False environmentalism, & other hotel pet peeves

Posted July 12, 2010

Most people who plan events for a living do a fair amount of traveling.  As I write this, I am sitting in my hotel room reflecting on a number of things that seem to annoy me in virtually every hotel I’ve stayed in.   Allow me to share them with you, and if they annoy you as well, let me hear a loud “amen” after each one.

1.  False Environmentalism. I don’t know if that’s a real phrase or not, but to me it encapsulates companies who endorse a practice under the banner of being eco-friendly, when clearly that is not their motive.  Case in point: towel washing.

How annoying are those little placards in the bathroom of hotel rooms that read, “Please help us save the earth by saving water.  We will only wash towels if you put them on the floor; otherwise we appreciate your efforts to reuse your towels.  And the environment appreciates it too!”

Nice try.  What it really should say, is:  “Boy, do we save money by washing fewer towels.  You know what our union labor rate is?  We’d never have the balls to ask you to reuse your towels so we could save money until the whole green movement came along.”

2.  Confusing Shower Mega-Knobs. OK, if this is just me, than I’m pretty embarrassed, but I have to tell you, I think you have to be in MENSA to figure out hotel shower knobs.  You know those single knob devices that control both the water pressure and the temperature?  Forget it.  I don’t even try to master them anymore.  I just turn or pull them until water comes out, then tweak what I’m doing in small increments, each time putting my hand under the water to gauge temperature, until I’m able to get into the shower without burning or freezing myself.   Maybe this is designed to encourage you to take fewer showers, and use less towels.  You know, to save the earth.

Oompa Loompas3.  Shower Curtain Rod Expanders. So after staring down at the tub while I try to figure out the knob situation, I am led to believe the shower is a normal size.  Then, when I get in and close the curtain, (you know, that curved curtain that extends outward?) I am suddenly in a gigantically large shower!  Goodness, how did that happen?  The hotel is magical!  I can’t wait for the oompah loompahs to bring me room service!

I’m sorry, I just don’t get the bow-shaped shower curtain rods.  I’d rather see the hotels put their money into, wait for it . . .

4.  Toothpaste! This is up there with the riddle of the sphinx.  Why on earth won’t hotels give you toothpaste?  Every other amenity is provided, even a sewing kit.  A sewing kit!  Toothpaste we use every day; a sewing kit we use, um, NEVER.  That’s up there with the bible in the nightstand.  (When do they think we read these bibles, before or after we’ve ordered the porn on pay-per-view while drinking the bourbon from the mini-bar?)

I am really at a loss for words as to why they won’t give us toothpaste.  It certainly can’t be a cost factor, especially not for those hotels that pay to install a phone next to the toilet.  Truly, truly, truly, I have no idea.  Someone please tell me.

Now, if you go to the front desk and ask for toothpaste, virtually every hotel will give you some; albeit in small sizes, but they do stock it.  So I encourage everyone to go to the front desk wherever they stay and ask for it.  Eventually they’ll find it more cost-effective to just stock the rooms with toothpaste in the first place.  hamster on wheel

5.  Snail-Net. You pay the $9.95 per 24 hour period for internet access in your room, only to find out it’s literally the slowest possible connection in the universe.  It’s as if it’s being powered by a hamster on a treadmill in the basement somewhere.  Those of you that have broadband cards bypass this annoyance, but for the occasional traveler, you’re stuck with this injustice.

There you have it.  My hotel pet peeves.  Love to hear yours.  And I’ll send you a $15 iTunes gift card if you can logically explain the toothpaste thing.

Speech at the Big Apple Awards: 4 Trends Driving Our Industry

Posted July 3, 2010

NOTE: It was my honor to be inducted as President of the ISES NY Metro Chapter at our Big Apple Awards on June 29th in NYC, on a night when we honored 4 Hall of Legends (Marcy Blum, Walter Rauscher, Debra Roth, and Francis Tedesco), and handed out 20 event awards.  I’ve been asked to publish my speech that night, as I outlined several trends coming together right now that are defining the event industry.

Good evening.  This is a unique time in the special events industry, driven by the confluence of several key trends.

The first trend is the increased competition for jobs in our field, as a result of a maturing industry.  20 years ago, when I told people what I did, they would look at me and say, “Yeah?  You can make a living planning events?”  Over the years we’ve fought for the need to have events professionally managed.  We now have dozens of colleges offering degrees in event management, and event planners are featured in movies and tv shows.

This broad acceptance has attracted tens of thousands of new people to our field, which is wonderful.  However, it also puts pressure on those within the field to increase their education and grow their skill set in order to advance their careers, and set them apart from this influx.

The 2nd trend is the ability of social media to change the cost dynamics of events.  Traditionally, events were a high-touch, high-cost marketing vehicle.  Very impactful, but very expensive on a per person basis.  Now, however, social media enables organizations to leverage that same event spend to a dramatically broader audience.  The same $100,000 spent on a 500 person event, now has the potential to reach 500,000 people via twitter, blogging, facebook and youtube.  This is made even more meaningful by the fact that traditional marketing platforms are being tuned out.  With DVR’s, satellite radio and ipods, typical advertising commercials do not have the sway they used to.

Which brings me to the third trend: the fact that event planners and agencies are now often the lead player in a marketing campaign.  Traditionally the ad agency would lead, followed by the pr firm, followed by the event firm.  Now, the event itself is often the lead element, and pr people are brought in to spin it.  Event professionals now have greater opportunities to drive overall strategy than ever before.

With events now taking the spotlight comes greater scrutiny from higher up the food chain.  The 4th and final trend is the need to demonstrate the value of our events, the ROI.  We need to start talking more about what our events accomplished than what they looked like.

In short, it is a very exciting time in the events industry.  At a time when many industries are dying, ours is moving center stage.  But we need to up our game.  We cannot remain static, or others will eat our lunch.  Whether it’s a more aggressive newcomer to the industry who competes for a job, or an advertising agency that launches an in-house event services capacity, we are in the big leagues now, and all this increased opportunity comes with increased competition.

ISES NY Metro stands ready to help you meet these challenges.  With more diverse educational programs than ever before, we will continue to develop unique and targeted program content to meet the changing needs of our industry.  We have, and will continue to, partner with numerous other associations and organizations to make our events broader and more vibrant.

In today’s environment, it’s also critical to have the broadest possible network of contacts, and ISES is an outstanding vehicle for this.  We will go out of our way to find out what our members are looking for, who they want to meet, and what kind of career or business guidance they seek, and we will work very hard to deliver on that.

Our theme is going to be “ISES: we take care of our own.”  If we can aggressively drive that culture, and build a community where we all help each other achieve our individual and collective goals, the value of an ISES membership will become self-evident, and our ranks will grow virally.

ISES can do many things for our members.  The one thing we cannot do is read minds.  You need to tell us what you do, what your goals are, and how you think our chapter can better serve those goals.  (It’s like the gym: just paying for your membership won’t get you into shape.  You need to go there and participate.) We want you to join us, and help chart our chapter’s course for the betterment of our industry.  If you do that, I promise we will be there to help you succeed in this unique and exciting time in the special events industry.

Thank you.

Industry Awards: The good, the Bad, and the Spin

Posted June 18, 2010

And the winner is . . .

Not you if you haven’t entered anything.  No thanking the Academy, no trophy to carry around at the post-awards show reception to feel like a big shot, no sparkling hardware to show off in your office or reception area.

And, most importantly, nothing to market yourself or your company to your  client or boss as tops in your field.    Because, lest we forget, industry awards are not established to recognize the best work in a given field.  They are established to market the industry to the end user.

Before you yell at me for tearing off Tinkerbell’s wings, just look at the Academy Awards, which were created to market the movie industry.  In addition to the broad promotion the awards generate, individual movies use nominations to heavily market their films.  If they win, even more so.

We could all take a page out of Hollywood’s playbook in this regard, and do a better job of shouting from the mountaintops when we get nominated or win.  A common complaint among in-house planners has been the concern (annoyance is probably a better word) over management giving event planning duties to admins instead of themselves.  What better way to show your company the huge difference in planning skills than by letting them know you’re among the best at what you do.  Award recognitions are perfect third party validations of your value to your bosses.

I know at my old event firm, we put nominations and wins in our email signatures, sent out email blasts and newsletters announcing them, put it on our website, etc.  But the absolute best was in pitching a client and discussing a case study or showing it in a powerpoint deck, and adding the wonderful “we won an award for that event, by the way.”  [If you’re feeling really ambitious, develop a comprehensive marketing plan around the awards, or hire a PR/communications consultant to help you with it, such as Liese Gardner of Mecca.]

“Nah, I won’t bother,” you say, because . . .

1. “I’ll never win.” First of all, you don’t have to win.  You can get plenty of mileage out of just being nominated as a finalist.  Second, you might be surprised.  I used to be in this camp, until 2004 when I joined the Advisory Board of Special Events Magazine and judged their Gala Awards.  During a break I was editing a video of a recent event we’d produced when my judging colleague, Colja Dams of Vok Dams, Germany’s largest event agency, saw it and said, “you should have entered that event.  It would have gotten a nomination in the last category I judged.”  That was all the push I needed; we went on an awards-submission binge as soon as I got back to my office, and never looked back.

2.  “It’s too much work.” Yes, and no.  It does take some time, but the good news is:

  • Awards organizations have heard the complaints and most have been steadily minimizing the submission requirements to make it easier and easier.
  • There are a handful of great freelance writers who can help you with the writing.  I recommend Ruth Moyte of Red Dandelion Creative, who has experience in writing award-winning entries.
  • The more you do, the easier they get.
  • The judges don’t read every word.  There, I said it.  They should, and some do, but most don’t.  They look at the visuals (photos, video, collateral, etc.), and read enough of the written material to get their arms around the event and what you accomplished, and they make their evaluations from that.  Do not confuse this to mean they don’t make accurate judgments, rather, that you shouldn’t agonize over the written portion.  It doesn’t have to be a term paper.

3.  “The same companies win all the time.” Yes, that’s often true.  Wanna know why?  Because they enter a lot.  Andrea Michaels’ agency, Extraordinary Events is a case in point.  She’s probably won more industry awards than any other firm, in part because she’s made a priority of it.  If she has a strong event, she’ll enter it into multiple categories.  She has photographers shoot every event in great detail.  And, her submissions are meticulously prepared.

That said, after a while it becomes harder for people like her to win.  Judges subconsciously know EE has plenty of hardware, and, while they are not supposed to, they tend to favor newcomers; they don’t want to be seen as playing to the usual favorites.  So actually, you have a better chance than the industry heavyweights.  [NOTE: some contests are judged blind, meaning all identifying information of a company is removed from the submission before judges see it, so they don’t know whose work they are judging.]

4.  “The biggest events aren’t always entered, so the award doesn’t carry as much weight.” To quote Danny DeVito in Other People’s Money, “I have two words for you:  who cares.”  If the guys behind the Superbowl halftime show chose not to enter, that’s their problem.  Your client or boss doesn’t care, I’ll tell you that much.  They think if you won an award or were nominated that your work is best in class.  And it very well may be anyway.  We once entered an awards contest for the launch of Mariah Carey’s fragrance, M, and you know what?  We were the only ones who entered that particular category.  Think I care?  That was a killer event and I’m convinced we would have beaten anyone out for that award.  Not my fault people didn’t enter.

So get your butt off the couch, and show off your work.  Start with local competitions if you are gun shy, and then move up to national ones.  But get in the game.  And when you start working on that acceptance speech, remember to include all those inspirational bloggers that encouraged you along the way!