By Jamie Vollmer
Finding an event planner is like buying the perfect pair of jeans – fit is the key. When you find that perfect piece of denim, you are ready to rock the night and get noticed for all the right reasons. However, the wrong fit of jeans will leave you uncomfortable, aggravated and limit your mobility. It’s the same with an event planner. With the right consultant, you will be hosting a stylish event that achieves your organization’s goals while keeping attendees engaged and coming back year after year. When you hire an ill-fitting event planner, the planning process will be difficult and frustrating and the actual event may turn out average, achieving minimal results for the organization.
Now that you are mentally surveying your closet, questioning your personal denim choices and feeling a little daunted, don’t worry, everyone knows finding the perfect fit in jeans is the holy grail of shopping! Finding a good fit with a planner is much easier. It is all about a bit of preparation, looking for experience and being aware of chemistry.
Do You Need a Planner?
Before you pull out the phone book and begin asking friends about event consultants, it is best to decide IF you need a planner. While most events benefit from having an experienced professional planning the intricate details and managing their implementation, some simple events can be carried off by an in-house team. Take a look at your own skill set and the skill set of your team. Also, be realistic about the amount of time you can devote to planning and managing an event.
If you decide to tackle the event in-house, there are a number of staffing agencies that can assist with day-of staffing. From tour guides to registration tables, these companies can provide the professional personnel to round out your team and fill any holes in the plan.
If you are still in a quandary over whether to hire an event consultant, Josie Littlepage, founder and president of St. Louis’ Cosmopolitan Events, offers this guidance: “If a client is looking to take an event to the next level, this is a great indication of when an event planner can be of assistance. However, if it is a simple event like a dinner at a venue with no décor needs, production details or specific structure to the evening, they probably do not need any assistance.”
Hiring a planner is about using your organization’s talents in the best way possible. “I believe an experienced and qualified planner will always know the ins and outs of the process that a volunteer may not have access to,” says Barbara St. Aubin, owner and managing partner of Kansas-City based St. Aubin and Associates. “Hiring a planner allows the volunteers to give more time to their regular job responsibilities; planning is our business!”
The Size Dilemma
When considering event planners, keep in mind the various service options they offer. Consultants will usually provide multiple service levels from full-service planning to day-of event management. Many will also agree to manage only certain portions of the event. So if you have some experience with event management, but are overwhelmed by entertainment, venues and rentals, then hire a planner to manage just the entertainment, venues and rentals.
Remember that different events have different service needs. While last year’s sales team conference may have required a full-service event planner, this year’s board meeting may only need day-of assistance. Be open to using a planner in a new way.
Depending on what level of service your event needs, there are different deadlines for hiring an event planner. If you need full planning assistance, plan on hiring a consultant at least six months before the event. For partial planning assistance, three to six months is best. However, if day-of assistance is all that is needed, be ready to have a planner on board about a month before the event.
If you are unsure about how much assistance your event needs, do not worry. Planners are experienced in determining the level of service that will meet a client’s needs and achieve their goals. “When we do an initial consultation, we ask the right questions to survey the client and find out what elements they need,” Littlepage says.
As you start shopping for the perfect event consultant, it is good to check with organizations such as Meeting Professionals International and the International Special Events Society. Both are gathering places for planning professionals. Also go online, consult event industry publications and ask colleagues for recommendations.
When considering whom to interview, be aware there are a number of respected certification systems in the industry – Certification in Meeting Management (CMM), the Certified Meeting Professional Program (CMP) and the Certified Special Events Professional (CSEP) designation. All demonstrate that a professional has experience, education and dedication to the event industry. Not all professionals choose to go through certification programs, and it is not required by any governing body. However, by choosing a certified planner, a client can expect a certain level of service.
Before approaching prospective planners, begin getting a feel for your event. Start considering topics such as the type of event, goals, tentative dates, number of guests and the types of possible locations. This information will help event consultants shape their services to meet your needs. It will also provide a good perspective on whether the consultant’s experience will match your expectations.
Be ready to interview a number of planners. The perfect fit for one person may not be the perfect fit for your organization. Barbara St. Aubin recommends, “Keep interviewing until you feel you have talked to at least one or two planners that can fulfill your needs.”
The Perfect Fit
While cost should play a role in the final decision, don’t let it make the decision. Many consultants are cost- conscious and willing to work within a budget. “As an association executive and meeting/event planner with over 35 years of experience, I do not have any set fees,” says Barbara St. Aubin. “The path I have chosen is that I don’t state fees until I have had an opportunity to discuss the prospective client’s needs for services and their budgetary requirements. Then I give them the option of paying by the hour, by the assignment or monthly, and can show how these would compare to each other.”
Event planners have various rates and billing options. “Each event planner has a different forte and different way of charging clients,” Littlepage says. “Some charge by the hour, others do a percentage of the event and some a flat fee depending on the elements to be planned. This makes it very hard to compare based on cost.”
Instead, as you interview planners, pay close attention to the consultants’ experience, strengths and weaknesses. Carefully examine their past events and the outcomes of those events.
“A client preparing to hire a planner for the first time may want to look for someone who has experience and a proven track record,” St. Aubin says. “I suggest asking for references from a planner’s past and/or current clients.”
Consider whether the planner’s suggestions regarding your event are in line with the organization’s goals and the target audience. Hiring a planner is an excellent opportunity to see an event with a fresh pair of eyes and try new ideas. However, the working relationship will be stronger if the planner has a good understanding of your organization and the event.
In the end, the decision needs to be based on three things:
1. Experience: Who has the strongest professional background and likelihood of making this event a success?
2. Cost: Which planner is within the budget?
3. Chemistry: Who can you imagine working with over the next few months?
Take the time to find the right fit. The perfect consultant will create an unforgettable event that will keep people talking for all the right reasons and help the organization meet its goals for years to come. MM&E
(Jamie Vollmer is a contributor from St. Louis, Mo.)