Any business that wants to build lasting relationships, which is crucial for your company’s growth, needs to know how to produce professional events. Hosting a corporate affair allows you to strengthen bonds with current clients and partners, while developing genuine connections and attracting future ones.
“Events provide businesses a personal way to build relationships with their target audiences [as well as] build brand recognition and loyalty,” said Myke Nahorniak, co-founder and CEO of Localist. “LinkedIn messages, Facebook status updates and tweets cannot replace the meaningful connections made through in-person communication.”
Whether you’re hosting a product launch for 300 people or an employee training for 15, it’s key to approach each gathering with an understanding of the basic elements of event management: research, design, planning, coordination and evaluation. Once an event is broken up into these manageable stages, it is much easier to conceptualize it and pull together the many moving pieces needed to bring it to life. Here are 10 tips on how to plan an event that your attendees won’t soon forget.
Once you decide you want to host an event, your first step is to define what you hope to accomplish.
“It is important to know the goals and objectives of the event you are trying to produce before you can do anything else,” said Brian Worley, creative director and owner of B. Worley Productions.
Start by asking yourself why you are hosting the event and what you expect from it. Once you’ve identified your goals and expectations, you can then determine what kind of event will resonate with your intended audience.
“Rather than thinking of it as just a corporate event, think about it like you’re delivering an interactive brand experience,” said Serena Holmes, CEO of Tigris Events. “You want it to be meaningful and engaging.”
An important part of the planning process is defining your target audience. Is it your company’s executives and upper management, business partners, or community members? Is it for longtime clients or potential clients? Maybe it’s a combination of some or all the above. Figuring out your target audience and understanding how to reach them is essential to a successful event. Once you can name your audience, you can cater the program to their needs and interests.
It’s always stressful to determine how many guests to invite to these events. However, according to Julian Jost, CEO and co-founder of Spacebase, it’s better to invite too many people than too few.
“For small businesses, empty seats and uneaten snacks look bad and are a waste of money,” he said. “In most situations, having too many people show up isn’t really going to spoil an event – with some exceptions, like venues with very limited space or where a three-course meal is planned. If too many people turn up, it’s also great marketing. You’re sure to create a buzz the next day, and it will add to anticipation about your next event.”
Regardless of how small or large the guest list is, what people will remember is how they were treated. “Every person attending the event is a potential brand ambassador or word-of-mouth spokesperson for … your business,” said Valerie Gernhauser, owner and principal planner of Sapphire Events. “It is important to make a significant impact on the guest experience by not overlooking the finer details that each attendee will appreciate firsthand.”
You need to know how much money you have to work with to determine what sort of event you can produce. According to Worley, decide early on how much you want to spend, and then plan on spending at least 10% more.
“Things are always changing, and you should have a cushion for added and unexpected expenses that pop up,” he said.
Once you have a budget, knowing where to allocate most of your resources is essential. For example, if you spend more on fancy decorations than you do on a skilled tech crew or personable speakers, your event might be lacking in substance.
Additionally, don’t skimp on food or beverages, and take into account attendees with dietary restrictions. Though this may not seem as important as other aspects of your event planning, audiences are more forgiving of missteps when they aren’t hungry or thirsty.
Once you have set your objectives and defined the audience, it’s time to choose a theme or topic for the event and determine the best format for presenting it to your guests.
For example, coordinating a client event with an industry expert, such as a guest speaker, can position your company as a trusted advisor, instead of just a vendor. Peer-to-peer learning with client panels, keynotes, roundtables and breakout session speakers are other popular options.
“Always offer opportunities for attendees to do something fun, memorable and entertaining that they wouldn’t typically do anywhere or anytime else,” said J.J. Barnes, chief marketing officer at enVista. “This might include hearing from a famous speaker, comedian or band; playing on an incredible golf course; or trying something new, thrilling or exclusive for the first time.”
A successful corporate event is both immersive and educational, according to Worley.
“The ones that are interactive – rather than sitting in a ballroom watching a speaker all day – are more successful, informative and fun,” he said. “We really try to create experiences these days that go beyond theater-style seating, and put the attendees in situations and in front of the right people for networking and learning.
“Determine what you are going to do to make this an ‘out of the box’ event,” Worley added. “Spend the time now to figure out what will differentiate your event from similar ones in your industry or even ones you’ve previously produced.”
Designing the event requires you to keep track of a broad range of tasks. This can be facilitated by creating a master detailed checklist. Online project management software can streamline all of the tiny details and help you stay organized.
“The overall planning checklist serves as a tool for the duration of the planning process,” Gernhauser said. She said her team starts with a list for 12 months out and works in checklist increments at nine months out, six months out, four months out, two months out, the month of, two weeks out, the week of and the day of the event. “Breaking down the task list like this helps our team foresee the schedule of milestones we need to target.”
Even without dedicated software, you can keep track of your checklist by creating a spreadsheet and using individual tabs for each event category, such as venue, speakers, schedule, agenda and travel. This way, you can list each activity or task, the people responsible for each part of the process, and all the relevant deadlines. Though Microsoft Excel is usually the go-to spreadsheet program, there are other options. We compiled a list of free alternatives to Microsoft Office for you.
Your project timeline is linked to your budget. If you are working with a tight budget, giving yourself more time to put together the event will help with costs and services. If you have a bigger budget, you can have a truncated project timeline.
Once you’ve determined the type of event you’d like to create and outlined a budget, it’s time to find a venue that allows you to bring your vision to life. It’s tempting, at times, to jump ahead and book a venue you’ve heard good things about or that you know is an up-and-coming hot spot, even if you haven’t quite honed in on the mission of your event. This is a mistake, according to Worley.
“It is always hard to fit a round peg in a square hole, so the same goes for an event,” he said. “Build the event architecture first, and then find the venue that fits all the specs you need to have for success.”
According to Barnes, “location is key to attendance.” She recommends booking a venue in a convenient area with a vibrant atmosphere so that attendees feel comfortable and willing to make the commute.
If you have a tight budget, Jost suggests reducing your costs by holding the event at a less popular time when the venue is more likely to be available, such as hosting a media breakfast on a Monday morning.
“Be sure to involve the local community as much as possible,” said Gina Argento, president and CEO of Broadway Stages. “We always use local vendors for catering needs, various rentals and many other crucial aspects. By doing this, we are supporting the local community and giving them the opportunity to network and expand their businesses.”
To have a successful event, you will have to identify, vet and contract all the necessary event specialists. This may include caterers, audiovisual technicians, printers, decorators, photographers, florists and security personnel, to name just a few. Of course, you must also book speakers and presenters, including prominent figures, experts or influencers, who can best communicate the ideas you’d like to circulate throughout the gathering.
To assure everything goes according to your plan, determine an agenda for the event, and make sure everyone on your team knows what aspects of the day they are responsible for managing.
You have to work intentionally to create a balance between keeping attendees engaged and giving them some freedom in their schedule. “People get bored easily,” said Jonathan Chan, former head of marketing at Insane Growth. “If there isn’t enough variety to keep them interested, then you’ve basically spent a lot of money on a vanity event.”
However, you don’t want to jam-pack the schedule either. There needs to be leeway in the itinerary to deal with unexpected occurrences that may arise. Additionally, your attendees need time to themselves to process what they are learning, recharge and connect with other attendees.
When deciding how to wrap up your day, skip the typical promotional giveaways with the company logo, and think of gifts that have a big impact with a small footprint. A much better idea is a digital take-home, according to Jost.
“That could be a promotional code, which gives guests a discount, or it could give access to online content from the event, like photos and videos,” he said. “It could also include the chance to register in advance for the next event. Give guests an incentive to stay in contact.”
Gone are the days of cumbersome mile-long lists to track all the moving parts of an event. Today, there are tons of event management software platforms and apps (some of which offer a free base product) that do everything from providing seamless on-site check-in of attendees to enhancing the appeal of workshops and presentations with simulations and virtual reality games.
The use of event apps can help you significantly streamline planning and increase engagement among attendees, according to Nick Jackson, Digital Marketing Manager at BrandX Agency.
“Event details can be populated quickly via spreadsheet templates and published instantly into an existing event container app, or event teams can create their own custom-branded event app to use for multiple events and conferences throughout the year,” said Jackson. “Most event apps have features that keep attendees up to date with all the info they need leading up to the event and during it, and it allows them to provide feedback to the speakers and organizers.”
Interactive features, such as live polling and session Q&A, can be easily displayed on large screens in the venue, and some apps have gamification features, such as scavenger hunts. You can make speaker slides available to attendees, as long as they are in the correct format, by simply uploading them to the event app.
Event management software keeps your affair on track, but it also makes it easier to work collaboratively with vendors and other creative partners.
“Streamlining communication among all the parties by using a project management system we can all collaborate on has been tremendously helpful in cutting down the frustrations of relying on email communication alone,” said Gernhauser, who uses Basecamp, a popular cloud-based project management system, and Social Tables, another web-based event planning platform known for its event-diagramming and seating capabilities.
In the planning and execution of your corporate event, you can use a plethora of software, apps and services to streamline the whole process.
If people don’t know about your event, no one will show up, so it’s imperative to find creative ways to get the word out. For a small event with a limited guest list, you can simply send out invitations, but you need to be bolder for larger events.
“In today’s digital age, a variety of promotional methods are required to generate attendance,” Barnes said. “We typically start by emailing our database, placing ads in industry newsletters, adding our event to industry listings and directories, and encouraging our sales teams to promote [our conference] when visiting clients or partners on-site.”
For your event and its timeline, you want to treat the promotion of your corporate event as if you are making a marketing plan. Granted, marketing plans are typically done on a more general/macro scale to help drive your resources to bring awareness. Applying this to your specific event can be beneficial to its success. We laid out tips on how to create a great business marketing plan to give you a reference on how to translate these skills on a more micro level.
From there, you can promote on social media and have your team spread the word. Create an event website or, at a minimum, a new landing page on your current site. Your social media marketing can also include promo videos, guest blog posts, and Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn or Twitter updates. Maintain uniformity by using the same handle and hashtag across platforms and consistent messaging so it’s always clear that the buzz is about one particular event.
You can also explore possible sponsorship opportunities for your event. Sponsors can fund a portion of the event, which helps you defray the costs. More importantly, sponsors have a vested interest in promoting your affair. Brainstorm a list of ideal sponsors whose brand, mission or services complement your event in some way. You can develop a range of sponsorship packages and reach out to them about potential partnership opportunities. This works best if you focus your pitch to highlight the value of attendees to potential sponsors.
“We partner with media sponsors to speak at our events,” Barnes said. “It’s a win-win situation, as they receive ‘free’ publicity and mindshare in return for publicizing our event.”
If your event went off without a hitch, congratulations! You aren’t done yet, though. Now is the time to wrap up any loose ends, such as sending final payments to vendors, reconciling your finances and conducting a post-event debrief with your team.
Most importantly, you want to gather feedback from guests. If you used an event-planning app with a feedback option, you can use it to ask attendees questions. This information will help you determine if the event met your original goals and what impact, if any, it had on the attendees. You can then share this information with all the relevant stakeholders so an appropriate follow-up can be planned. The lessons you learn will help you refine your planning for the next event.
If you are managing or are a part of a team in the process of making these events, some of the feedback you get may not be positive. It’s important to understand how to give or take this type of feedback, and we broke down how important giving and accepting constructive criticism is.
Bassam Kaado, Sammi Caramela and Nicole Fallon contributed to the writing and reporting in this article. Source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.