Posts Categorized In Industry Insights:

The Fallacy of Win-Win Negotiations

Posted February 13, 2012

In the past ten years or so, any article, seminar or blog post on negotiations seems to focus on “kinder, gentler, negotiations”. It’s all “win-win” negotiations now, and nobody gets the better of anybody.  Planner and supplier discuss their needs, and work out a kumbaya-style agreement, after which they stroll arm and arm into the sunset.  It’s the equivalent of every kid on every team getting the same trophy in little league, regardless of whether they came in first place or last.  It sounds nice in theory, but it doesn’t reflect the realities of our world.

Or we hear “it’s about building relationships”, but in reality suppliers care a lot more about relationships when it’s a buyers’ market.  When demand is through the roof and the tables are turned, however, a venue sales manager will rarely give up a more lucrative piece of business in order to preserve a “relationship”.  Most of the time they couldn’t do so even if they wanted to; they’re under a mandate to maximize revenue.

As I sit here preparing for tomorrow’s webinar (Tuesday, Feb 14th, 1 pm EST) on “Negotiating With Venues“, I can’t help being struck by how nobody wants to talk about it, but here’s the ugly truth: there are winners and losers in the negotiation process.  The winners are those that enter the negotiations with the most information about market pricing, and the losers are the ones who go in with little more than the naive notion that because the other side does not want to take advantage of them, they’ll get a fair deal.

Planners, by and large, are neither skilled at, nor trained in, sales or negotiations.  Sourcing venues and vendors is only part of their jobs.  Their strengths are logistics management, creativity, and strategy, and they’re evaluated based on how well their events achieve the organization’s goals.

Most venue sales managers, by contrast, are trained in lead generation, client mapping, pricing mechanics and salesmanship.  They are intimately involved in their numbers, and diligently track and slice and dice the trends of every booking, even if informally.  They are evaluated based on their sales performance, not by how well the events go in their facilities. For the most part, they want to book the planner’s event at the highest possible revenue level.

The two sides, therefore, have vastly different agendas and bring totally different skills to the table.  To be sure, there are plenty of seasoned planners who know the value of their program and exactly what they should be paying.  Further, many large corporations have aggregated their event spend and negotiated very favorable terms with venue chains.  And there are plenty of venue managers who are asleep at the wheel and ignorant of the supply and demand dynamics affecting their calendars.  For the most part, however, it’s not a fair fight.  If the two sides were to have a contest on planning acumen, the planner would have the upper hand.  But when it comes to negotiation, the planner is competing with the supplier on the supplier’s territory.

The only way the planner can level the playing field is with hard data on what others are paying in that area for similar events.  She can start by getting a handle on how much competing venues will charge for the same program.  Knowledge is power, and this helps the planner negotiate from a position of strength.  Too many planners, unfortunately, don’t bother to do their homework, and under the false pretense of a “win-win” environment, are actually paying more than they should.

Looking At Your Operation with Fresh Eyes

Posted December 23, 2011

Yahoo is in trouble.  This one-time colossus of the internet world, that was for many years the darling of investors, has lost its way.  After firing CEO Carol Bartz in September, the Board of Directors Business launched a strategic review of the company.  Business pundits say it has time for one more CEO change, and if it hasn’t turned around by then it’ll be sold off for scraps.  Ask ten columnists how the company can be saved, and you’ll get ten different answers.  From my perspective, if Yahoo tries to cling too much to what it was, it’s dead.

Whether you own a small, itty bitty business, or a one-time behemoth like Yahoo, it’s very easy to fall prey to your own success, and fight to preserve the methodology that got you there.  That mentality works great, if the rest of the world will oblige you and stand still indefinitely.  Unfortunately, time marches on and the business world continues to evolve, your customers evolve, and your competitors evolve.  As the landscape changes, unless you continually re-evaluate your formula for success, you’ll be supplying solutions to yesterday’s problems.

Businesses that succeed over the long term are led by executives who are willing to challenge the sacred cows of their own companies, and often that involves risk.  But it’s equally risky to stand pat in a changing world.  Take two compelling examples.

At one point, IBM was the leading computer software and hardware company in the country.  It’s nickname, “Big Blue” spoke to its dominance.   Then in the 1980’s and early 90’s, faced with stiff price competition from domestic and foreign manufacturers, it fell into a downward spiral.  In 1993 Lou Gerstner was hired by the board to turn the company around.  After analyzing the situation, he said IBM was getting out of the computer game, and focusing on service and consulting contracts for corporations. He pulled the plug on their development of the OS/2 operating system and sold off the PC division to Lenovo.

The ensuing turn around of the company is now the stuff of business school case studies and many books.  Gerstner says that only an outsider like him could have come in and taken a fresh look at the company, and make the hard decisions necessary for it to thrive in the future by gutting its past.

In 1997, Apple Computer was 90 days from bankruptcy, when it hired back founder Steve Jobs, who had been ousted years earlier by his own board.  At the time Apple had over 30 products and was stuck in a seemingly endless effort to cut costs.  Jobs eliminated all but 4 products, and re-oriented the company to focus on  the next new products that would change the landscape.  This new mindset would lead to the development of the iPod, and would place Apple squarely in the new world of digital music content delivery.

What both examples have in common is the leaders’ ability to make their companies be their own worst competitors.  They were able to bring a fresh perspective and ask themselves, “if we were to invent THIS company today, would we be in the businesses that we’re currently in, doing things the way we’re currently doing them?”  If not, then change can’t start soon enough. Entrenched management usually can’t engage in that conversation, because they think it’s an admission that they’ve failed at their current jobs.

Think about how your business or department runs.  If you could re-create it from scratch with a clean slate tomorrow, would it look and function like it does now?  If the answer is no, if you think it could produce better results if configured differently, then why are you still clinging to the old way?  At some point, if you don’t make the changes, someone else will do it for you, and the results may not be to your liking.

The Association is Dead. Long Live the Association.

Posted November 30, 2011

“Remind me why I should renew my membership again?” This is a phrase every association is grappling with, and how they respond now will determine whether they survive or slowly die out.

Twenty years ago if you wanted education and networking opportunities within your profession, associations were the place to go. In fact, they were the only game in town. Paying membership dues was a no-brainer.

Now, however, due to a confluence of factors, people can get quality industry-specific education and networking cheaper, faster, and in greater varieties without having to join an association at all.

  • Through blogs, for example, a broad range of ideas, opinions and best practices can be shared. For free.
  • From a networking standpoint, Linked-In allows users to self-select into trade groups that are far more specific than an association can provide. Whereas a publicist might join the Public Relations Society of America, for instance, now they can also join a Linked-In group tailored to PR for Pharma Companies, and zero in on their exact niche. For free.
  • From a news standpoint, Twitter hashtags enable people to aggregate & share updates under virtually any micro-topic you can think of. Again, for free.

Technology, and specifically social media, has flattened and democratized the flow of information, and fostered a wide range of education and networking in a friction-free environment. Ideas and connections now flow fast and furious across the web, and are not bothering to make a pit stop at the association office. People are “on” seven days a week now, checking emails and doing work at all hours of the day, and have come to expect lightning-fast delivery of information. By contrast, the traditional association lumbers along slowly, encumbered by various processes, bylaws, committees, and other legacy structures built in an era when business moved more slowly.

Not only do these structures hinder associations’ ability to move nimbly in a fast-paced world, they impact the economics as well. Most associations built vast bureaucracies over the years, and now have small armies of staff on the payroll who do nothing of value to the average member (e.g. ensuring chapter reports are filed in a timely manner). These organizations are groaning under their own weight and cost structures.

So is there a future for associations, or will they go the way of the milk delivery man? (Yes, just dated myself). That depends on whether they are willing to have a come-to-Jesus moment, and take a hard look at their value proposition to their members.

The Board of Directors needs to give themselves an intervention, and ask some very existential questions, such as: “If we were to start an association TODAY, what would it look like? What are the key benefits we could offer our members, that they can’t get elsewhere? Is our goal to seek ever-growing membership ranks, or do we want to narrow our focus? Do we want to have members at all, or just shift to being an advocacy group that is advertiser-supported?”

The key is not to be tied down in their thinking by existing infrastructure. Because too often, there are stake-holders (whether paid staffers or perennial volunteers) fighting to preserve their turf, whether it’s an event, newsletter, committee, etc. The worst thing an association can do, is to orient their focus to support structures from another era that may no longer be vibrant or in demand. In most cases, unfortunately, so much of that becomes encrusted in an association’s DNA, they simply can’t re-orient themselves in time. The ones that survive and thrive, will be the ones brave enough to ask the hard questions, make the necessary changes, and deal with the realities of today’s world, not yesterday’s.

NOTE: A version of this column appeared this week in BizBash’s Best of 2011 Series.  Click here for more.

Steve Jobs, Calligraphy & Crowd-Sourcing

Posted October 6, 2011

You know that game where you fantasize about whom you’d invite to a dinner party?  Well, Steve Jobs was always high on my list.  (Along with Winston Churchill).  When I heard that he died, I felt a tremendous sense of sadness and loss.  Jobs was someone who saw a better way to do things, a future none of us could envision, and fought like hell to take us there.

But though I’ve never met him, I sense he wouldn’t want us to wax rhapsodic on his passing, but rather to learn and be inspired from his life.  In that spirit, here are 3 lessons we can take away from his life and the impact he’s had on us all.

1) Inspiration Comes in Unusual Places In an industry whose products are brutally cost-competitive almost to the point of being commoditized, Apple’s products have always cost more than their competitors.  They got away with that by marrying superior technology to stylish industrial design.   And where did Jobs get his inspiration for Apple’s graceful minimalist aesthetic?  Calligraphy.

Jobs dropped out of Reed College after one semester, but returned later to audit a class in calligraphy, which he says influenced Apple’s sleek, polished, understated design.  Are you grasping the irony here?  Calligraphy is a slow, deliberate, old-school art form that on the surface seems the antithesis of modern technology.

Takeaway:              To truly tap your creative potential, expose yourself to areas completely outside your normal frame of reference.

2) Second Chances. If you’re under 25 years old, you probably don’t realize that in 1986 Jobs was actually fired from the company he founded.  Apple meandered through mediocrity for the next ten years.  It wasn’t until Jobs was given a second chance to run the company that he truly took Apple to the next level and transformed so many aspects of our every day lives.  Jobs later said that being fired was one of the best things that ever happened to him.

Bill Belichick, widely considered the smartest coach in football, has a similar story.  After being a brilliant defensive coordinator for the New York Giants, he was given his chance as a head coach of the Cleveland Browns where he failed miserably, compiling only one winning season in five years.  It was on his second chance, as head coach of the Patriots, that he truly made his mark, winning 3 Super Bowls.

Takeaway:              Sometimes failure is the missing ingredient to genius.

3) Crowd Sourcing is for Sissies.  Apple never held focus groups.  According to Jobs, “It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

That’s worth noting in today’s era of user-generated, crowd-sourced agendas, event locations, menus, themes, etc.  Crowd-sourcing has its uses, but it’s not the be-all-and-end-all.  The next time someone pushes you to incorporate it into your event and you want a reason to say no, just say, “Apple never holds focus groups.”  There’s really no response to that, except perhaps, “well, we’re not even going to pretend to be innovative.”

Takeaway:            Shackle innovation to group consensus at your own risk.

The list of incredible product innovations brought to us by Steve Jobs is long indeed.  But perhaps it is the life lessons we can glean from him that are even more impactful.

If the Events Industry Disappeared Tomorrow, Would It Matter?

Posted September 11, 2011

What we do in the events industry doesn’t matter in the world.  Well, not much anyway.  If you’re waiting for my typical sarcastic follow up line, it’s not coming.  Sorry.

That’s what the ten year anniversary of 9/11, or any truly sobering moment, does to me.  It makes me realize how little what we do truly matters in the world.  I get the same feeling when I hear someone I know has died, been diagnosed with a terrible illness, lost their job, etc.  In those moments of reflection, if someone came up to me and asked what I did for a living, I terribly wished I could have said something more useful to society than event planning.  Doctor, teacher, CIA counter-terrorist analyst, etc.

Make no mistake, we are not alone.  Probably 80% of the jobs people have in the world provide little benefit to society.  A hedge fund analyst trying to guess which way some random stock is going.  A marketing expert coming up with a zippy campaign to sell more hand lotion.  The person who designed the pleated drapes that hang in my living room which I hate.  If these jobs disappeared tomorrow, would society be much worse off?

I vividly remember one TV broadcaster reporting from ground zero shortly after the towers fell.  She was holding up a ream of paper she’d picked up from the debris, spread sheets with analysis on them.  “How important did this seem just hours ago?,” she said.  The camera zoomed in to see an endless parade of tiny numbers stacked in neat little columns.  It then pulled back for a wide angle shot of thousands of such dust-strewn papers blowing around all over the place.  A sea of detritus that seemed to mock us for having focused so intently on such minutiae.

Depressed?  Climb in back off the ledge of your building.  It gets better.

Andrea Michaels, owner of Extraordinary Events in LA, one of the most award-winning companies in the world, is one of the icons of our industry.  She was also born in a concentration camp during World War II.  This is one of the more touching revelations she shared with me in a video interview we conducted for the Event Leadership Institute’s Maverick Series.  She uses this experience to ground her, to put everything we do as planners in proper perspective.

Interview with Andrea Michaels, Extraordinary Events
Chapter 9 of 14: “On Being Born in a Concentration Camp
Running time: 02:56

To watch the full interview click here

And that, ultimately, is what I take away from these somber moments in life.  Perspective.  Because, my fellow planners, we can ALL, use a bit more perspective in our world.  To quote from Andrea, “A hurricane forces you to evacuate 300 multi millionaires, do I stress out? Do I care about a wilted flower?  If the drummer is 15 minutes late do I think the world changes?  Absolutely not.” These are all important to our events, to be sure, but they don’t quite measure up to removing the wrong kidney from a transplant patient, or misreading the water level during a shift at a nuclear plant.

    You get we’re I’m going with this?  I’m not saying what we do doesn’t matter.  It does.  Events inspire, educate, inform, recognize and celebrate so many facets of our personal and professional lives.  Whenever we come across a milestone occasion, we create an event to mark it in a special way.  Yes, we matter.  Just not in a life-or-death way.  And that recognition can empower us, liberate us, to give our work the perspective it needs, to help us focus on our craft without getting sidetracked by unnecessary anxiety over the little things.

    Socrates said “Beware the barrenness of a busy life.” I take that to mean that when we get too busy, it’s easy for the truly important things in our life to get lost in the shuffle, and for us to lose our proper perspective.  On this tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, let us pull back and inject some perspective back into our lives.

    The Debrief From Hell

    Posted August 10, 2011

    Tips For Having A Successful Post-Event Debriefing.

    You’re sitting across the table from your client, pleasantly chatting about the event you produced for them two weeks ago.  You’ve got lots of ideas on how to make it even better next year, and are even thinking about whether you should raise your fee next time, when your lead client contact drops the bomb on you.

    “We need to talk about the sound.  It was unacceptable.”

    By the look on her face you know it’s bad, and in your head you can hear the sound effect of a prison cell door clanging shut with authority.   They’re really not happy.  All four of them.  That’s right, the debrief is that rare planning meeting that seems to draw the attendance of every person at the client’s organization remotely involved in the event.  There are only two other times you see this many people in the planning process: the initial meeting when they’re interviewing you, and the tasting.  So lucky you, you have a full house to watch you squirm.  It’s hide-under-the-table time.

    This scene should never happen to you.  Don’t get me wrong, you’ll have pissed off clients for as long as you run events; that’s the nature of the beast.  But you should never be blind-sided like this.

    The post-event debrief is a very useful planning tool.  It allows you to discuss, and record, what worked well and what can be improved.  In addition to generating ideas for a better event next time around, it becomes a detailed road-map you can bequeath to the next round of planners and clients, as invariably the players frequently change.

    Unfortunately, too often we phone it in.  We show up with our own lists and the client shows up with theirs, each of us seeing the other’s comments for the first time at the meeting.  Nobody is prepared to respond to anything.  Worse still, rarely are things properly stratified, and we can spend as much time dissecting a gift bag as we do whether the event’s goals were achieved.  But there is a better way.

    1. Exchange Notes Beforehand. Long ago, personnel reviews involved a boss giving feedback to his subordinate, without him/her having any idea what was coming.  HR departments have long since adopted the practice of employees being given their written reviews in advance of the review meeting, allowing them time to absorb the feedback, and prepare constructive responses.

    And so it should be with your debriefs.  You absolutely should ask your client for their list of topics they’d like to cover, in advance.  If they’ve got a problem with the sound, this gives you the time to do some research and find out what happened, so you can have a effective. meeting.  Likewise you should send the client your review ahead of time as well, so they can be prepared.  Look, whatever each side is going to say, they’re going to say.  Asking in advance is just going to make the process more civil and productive.

    1. 2. Prioritize Your Debrief Agenda. Not all issues are created equal.  It’s your job to properly frame how the event should be evaluated to your client.  When I ran Paint The Town Red, we broke our debriefing documents into two sections: “Big Picture” and “Production Details”.  Yes, that’s what we called them.  We wanted to remind the client to keep their eye on the ball.   The Big Picture section should address the event’s goals and to what extent they were achieved.  Everything else goes below. 

    1. 3. Itemize Everything, Especially Things That Went Right. As planners we’re in charge of lots of details and vendors for each event, yet typically only the glitches wind up on the debrief.  Why sell yourself short.  If the catering went well, put it down.  Same thing with a/v, lighting, décor, entertainment, registration, transportation, etc.  The more things you oversaw that went right, the less dramatic of an impact the errors will have.  Again, this helps put your work for the client into proper perspective. 

    1. 4. Don’t Sugar-Coat. If the debrief is total fluff, the client will see right through it and it’ll be useless.  For it to really have teeth, you’ve got to be honest, and that includes acknowledging mistakes.

    Simple enough, right?  It only takes a little advance preparation to insure a productive post-event debrief, and avoid getting blind-sided.

    Super Planner app now available in Android! Insights on Droid vs. iPhone Development Processes

    Posted June 26, 2011

    Well, it’s finally done.  The Droid version of my Super Planner app is now available.  Click here to check it out in the Android Marketplace.

    Developing in Android vs. iPhone

    First let me apologize for the delay in its release, as I’d initially promised it months earlier.  Here’s the story.  My assumption had been that after doing the heavy lifting last year in creating all the formulas, layouts, utilities, tips, etc. for the iPhone version, it would be fairly easy to show the app to an Android programmer, and say, “Make me one of these in Droid, please.” You know, like going into a store and saying, “See this shirt?  Get me one in medium.”  Alas, it was not so easy.  Not even close.  Developing an app for Google is a totally different process.

    1) Devices vs. the OS. Google controls the operating system (Android), but not the devices.  Whereas Apple controls both the operating system, AND the devices, Google’s Android OS runs on hundreds of different types of devices.  Apple’s got only three: iPod Touch; iPhone; and iPad, so its easy for them to make your app look pretty on those three devices.

    Google, on the other hand, has to enable your app to look the same, or pretty close, on hundreds of devices, so they’ve taken a different approach in the development process for apps.  Rather than place graphics and text in very specific places (like with Apple), the development code for Android includes ‘relational’ placement.  In other words, you tell it that a certain input box, for example, belongs just to the left of a certain line of text.  These instructions enable your app to scale across ump-teen different screen sizes, dimensions, resolutions, etc.

    That said, the Droid version does exactly every single thing the iPhone version does, and we even made some sections faster by removing unnecessary verbiage.

    2) No Home Screen. From a navigational standpoint, Android eliminates the need for a Home screen.  You click the app’s icon on your phone and it jumps you right into the app.  Super Planner is divided into 3 master sections: Food & Beverage, Audio Visual, and Room Capacity, each of which has multiple sub-sections.  If you want to go from one section to another in the iPhone version, you have to first go to Home, then into your new section.  In Android, the 3 section tabs are omnipresent at the top of your screen, so you can go from one to another more efficiently.

    3) The Menu Button.  Android also makes use of a Menu button, which allows additional sub-menu items to appear (and then disappear) on the screen, whereas Apple requires these sub-menu icons to be permanently anchored at the bottom of each screen.

    4) Turnaround Time. Apple turned around my app submission in around 2 weeks, which I thought was pretty fast.  Google approved my app and put it in their store in 5 minutes.

    Interesting experience.  Hope you Droid lovers enjoy the app, and I welcome your feedback!

    Event Leadership Institute Launches: Come Learn Something

    Posted June 20, 2011

    When do you use a glass vs. a metal gobo?  |  What’s the best way to charge for event planning?  |  What are the three biggest challenges to watch for when doing events in lofts?  |  What are the insider websites the top designers use to by their items wholesale?  |  What’s the exact verbiage you need on a certificate of insurance?  How do you get your business to the next level?  |  Whose responsibility is it to coordinate aspect ratios between presenters and a/v vendors?

    The list goes on.  And on.  Being an event planner encompasses a dozen different disciplines, such as food and beverage, venues, entertainment, audio visual, transportation, etc.  Nobody’s an expert at all of them, but we’re all responsible for them at some point, and a screw up on any of them can sink your event.  And your career.  Where do you turn to for quick answers, best practices, and guidance?

    Enter the Event Leadership Institute, a new venture I’ve been working on for the past year, which officially launched on June 1st.  The main thrust of it is online, on-demand top-flight education, training and insights for planners, all professionally produced and taught by subject matter experts.  Here are the key take-aways.

    1. Easy Access. Tapping a growing trend toward micro-learning, our classes average 40 minutes each, but are then broken into approximately 10 chapters of 4 minutes each by topic, so planners can jump right away to the section they need, when they need it.  You can return at a later date to finish the class, as the system remembers which chapters you’ve seen.

      Lighting 101

    2. Top Quality Content. We spend 7+ hours with every instructor (even experienced presenters), helping to develop and curate their presentations.  Our focus is to make the material well organized and easy to digest.  Over 90% of our classes have qualified for continuing education credits toward the CMP.

    Lighting 101: Ellipsoidals screen shot

      • Wide Range of Topics. Our Class Library covers categories from Business Ownership to Technical Production to R.O.I., we try to cover all the bases, with new classes added every month.
      • Interviews with Top Planners. The people who plan the biggest events in the country share their insights on everything, including how they run their events, what kind of employees they look for, how they got started, etc.

      • Flexible Payment Options. You can purchase classes in three ways:
          1. A la carte (they range from $35 to $55),
          2. Monthly Subscription:  $25 / month (Beta price) for unlimited access.
          3. Annual Subscription: $250 / year (Beta price) for unlimited access (2 months included free).

            For years, we’ve all fought to be treated like professionals.  This venture is an effort to help raise the overall level of education out there, and make it easy for planners to learn what they need, when they need it.  I thank all the instructors who have graciously given of their time and offered to share their hard-earned insights, in service of this cause.

            I invite you to take a look at our site, and explore our various classes.  Each one has a free preview chapter so you can sample it before committing, and new classes are added every month.  Help spread the word that there’s a new resource available to us all.

            Everyone Hates the MiddleMan

            Posted June 16, 2011

            Do You Just Markup Your Vendors or Do You Add Real Value?

            I’m sitting on the plane ride home from the BizBash West Expo, where I gave a 3 hour workshop called “The Business Accelerator for the Independent Planner: Best Practices for Building Your Event Company”.  (The next one is in Chicago on August 18th, then in NYC on October 19th).  I’m in the aisle seat and am having a bizarre episode with the man sitting in the middle seat next to me that is reminding me of an interesting discussion we had in our class on marking up vendors.

            Maybe “episode” is the wrong word.  Here’s the thing:  we’re in a row of three seats, and the window seat is empty, and for some bizarro reason, this guy refuses to move to the window and give us both an empty middle seat.  I gently give him more and more of my elbow on the shared armrest, but he’s dug in.  Now I’ve highlighted this paragraph and doubled the font size of it, hoping he’ll read it and take the hint.  But now he opens his smart phone and it’s all in Chinese, so I’m fighting the tide.  If there were someone sitting in the window seat we’d have no problem, but because it’s empty, it’s driving me crazy.

            What does this “middle man” have to do with my class?  Well, when we got to the section on pricing models, we had a whole discussion about how to prove value when you’re marking up your vendors.  One guy lamented that, “my resources are my biggest assets.  What happens when my client wants to book them directly?”

            That’s one of the biggest challenges of using the markup model.  But it goes much deeper.   I told him his first task is to really hone in on the value he brings to the table above and beyond just bringing in subcontractors, because if all the client thinks you’re doing is marking up a vendor, you’re just a middleman, and nobody likes a middleman.

            Why?  The middleman is perceived as an obstacle to efficient pricing and fluidity in the marketplace.  Why should goods and services have to make a pit stop at the middleman on their way to the end user?  Seems like a waste, which is why one of the best marketing slogans ever invented was “we eliminate the middleman.”

            So if you choose the general contractor business model, you need to counter this perception.  Here’s a few ideas we came up with that you can say to your client:

            • “I don’t just find my vendors, I manage them.  For every vendor proposal I forward you, there are 3 others I kick back to him because I know they’re not what you want.  I filter out everything that’s off base, saving you lots of time and aggravation.”
            • “I carefully evaluate and select each vendor for a specific job at a specific time.  The caterer I chose for your product launch might not be right for your gala dinner.  And they might not even be right for your next product launch in six months if I hear their chef left the company.  Some vendors work well in certain venues and not others.  Etc.”
            • “I know my vendors’ idiosyncrasies.  Some of them are always days late with their proposals, others leave key things out of their budgets, etc.  We compensate for that and isolate you from these headaches.”

            Of course they can’t be empty promises.  You’ve got to actually DO all that stuff, but if you do, you will in fact be making a solid case for why vendor services are being run through you on their way to the client.

            Do You Speak Client?

            Posted May 23, 2011

            YOU:             “Tell me what kind of event you’d like.  Do you want something classical and formal or modern and understated?”

            CLIENT:            “Um . . . I brought some pictures?”

            We are a super creative industry, but when it comes to understanding our clients, we can really be a bunch of dumb-asses sometimes.  We live in our own bubble, a bubble where the locals speak Eventese.  We know that “classical” means crystal chandeliers, tapestry table runners, oriental rugs, carved oak paneling, blah, blah, blah.  And “modern” means an open loft with white walls, hardwood floors, maybe some sleek couches, etc.Inspiration Board

            Or does it?  With so many designers of events, hotels and restaurants mixing modern and classical touches, even we’re not so sure anymore.  How then can we expect a client to know what these words mean?  Especially a client planning their first event, like a wedding, a company anniversary, or some other one-off event.  The truth is we can’t, and you can often drive a truck through the gap between what a client says they want, and what we think that means.

            So what do we do?

            1. We keep trying to make the client understand our Eventese language.  We think if we use even more Eventese terms, and gesture more with our hands when doing so, they’ll eventually get it. Like the stereotypical loud American tourist abroad who, when the local doesn’t understand their English, thinks that if they just speak the same words LOUDER, that’ll do the trick.
            2. We guess.  We’re so creatively gifted and stylish, we can just . . . tell.  WE know what the client wants.  We look at what they’re wearing, how they speak, what names they drop, and then categorize them in our heads and spit out a design we think they’ll like.  Or more likely, one we think they SHOULD like, (if they knew what was best for them).
            3. We learn to speak Client. We could actually, wait for it . . . learn to talk to the clients in a language they understand. Pretty radical, huh.

            Radical indeed.  Welcome to the world of Sasha Souza, wedding and event designer extraordinaire, who has cracked the code on speaking Client when it comes to event design.  Sasha’s come up with 10 simple non-event-related questions she asks all new clients.  The answers to each question give her specific insights into her client’s design preferences, which helps her produce Inspiration Boards that are spot-on.  She

            Sasha Souza

            Sasha Souza

            uses these boards to then implement specific event elements that reflect the client’s vision.

            Here’s a sample question:  “Where do you go on vacations?”  If the client says they go to spas and resorts, they’re far more likely to want to be in a ballroom; if they’re more the hiking and adventure type, they’re more likely to want a loft, barn, etc.

            I was so impressed with Sasha’s methodology that I invited her to fly out to NYC from her base in Napa to speak at the very first live event hosted by the Event Leadership Institute.  (If you’re interested in attending, it’s on June 7th at the incredible Gansevoort Park Avenue hotel rooftop.  Click here for more info.)

            Mind you, it’s not the questions themselves that are so special, though she will share those with the audience at our event.  It’s the concept of even coming up with them in the first place that I loved.  The idea of getting out of our own bubble and climbing into the client’s head to really understand what they want.

            What’s the Benefit?

            The impact is dramatic, and has several tangible benefits.

            1. The client feels like they’re getting a highly personalized design that is truly a reflection of what they want.
            2. The client feels more invested in the process because they’ve taken the time to fill out a detailed questionnaire.
            3. Sasha becomes known not just for great event design, but for really listening to her clients and knowing how to customize her work to meet their needs.
            4. Both parties save a great deal of time in going back and forth on concept development.  The questionnaire, when done right, is like taking the express elevator to getting a design that meets the client’s desires.

            The questions and the answers will only get you so far, however.  The heavy lifting comes in reading the tea leaves, in learning how to interpret the answers. Read them wrong, and you’ll get a client that’s frustrated that after all the insight they’ve given you, you still don’t “get it”.  Experience and intuition need to take you the rest of the way.

            So take some time and start learning to speak Client.  Get out of our Eventese bubble and get inside your client’s head, and you’ll be amazed at the results.

            The Meeting Attendee’s Bill of Rights

            Posted March 5, 2011

            At the end of my last post I said I’d start putting together a Meeting Attendee’s Bill of Rights.  Having just finished speaking at several conferences, a handful of thoughts are fresh in my head.  Here are my first 5 Rights.  I invite you to submit your ideas to me as we compile this long overdue list.

            You, the meeting attendee, have the right to:

            1.    Blurt out “let’s move on” if one person in the audience engages the speaker in a back and forth discussion following their question.  The question asker is allowed only one rebuttal comment after the speaker answers their question, after which the speaker may add their final reply.  Yes, the speaker gets the last word, because that’s who the audience came to hear.  That’s just the way it goes.


            QUESTION ASKER:    “I disagree with your point because I don’t get it.  And besides, I don’t care if I learn anything here, I just like to hear myself talk in front of everyone.”

            SPEAKER:   “I’m sorry you don’t get what I’m saying.  Let me try again to explain it, but this time I’ll use smaller words.”

            QUESTION ASKER:   “Thanks for using smaller words, but I still don’t get it.  Plus, I’m enjoying this little time we’re having together at the expense of the rest of the audience.”

            SPEAKER:   “Hey, if you had it all figured out you’d be giving this class.  But you’re not, are you?  See this thing I’m standing on?  That’s called the stage.”

            GOOD SAMARITAN:   “Let’s move on.”

            2.    Hear an Overview of the session at the beginning, so you’ll know what will be covered when, and won’t ask a question that the speaker will get to eventually.

            3.    If the speaker is being ridiculously self-promotional about their company, stand up and say, “I’m concerned you won’t have enough sales brochures for the whole audience.  I hope we won’t have to share.”  Hey, if we don’t stand up to this, pretty soon all exit doors of meeting rooms will lead through the gift shop.

            4.    Walk out if you are not enjoying the session.  However, if you think the session is good, but have to leave for other reasons (to catch a flight, run to an appointment, donate a kidney, etc.) put your phone to your ear as you’re getting up, and put a finger in your other ear, as if to muffle the noise, the better to hear your fictitious call.  Speakers assume everyone who walks out of their class is doing so because they don’t like the session, so your fake phone call tells the speaker he/she is doing great, but you’ve got an urgent call.

            5.   Some kind of free gift if you registered for the conference before the Early Bird cutoff date, only to find that date suddenly extended two weeks.

            There you go, the first 5 of the Meeting Attendee’s Bill of Rights.  Pass around, share, and send me your best additions.

            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.

            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.

            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.]

            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!