How to Plan an Event That Doesn’t Crash and Burn

An interview with Jason Bell, Founder & Executive Producer, Integrated!

Corporate events are a staple of business for new product launches, annual meetings, employee retreats and client meetings. Yet many things can wrong, so we invited Jason Bell to share his advice about how to plan a successful corporate event.

When should a company consider hiring a production company to help stage an event?

Great question. EliPariser_Snapshot (2)Clients can definitely do this too late and too early.

Too late means more money and fewer choices. Of course, we’ve been brought onboard less than a week before a major event…and we pulled it off…but it was definitely more costly and more stressful than it needed to be.

One event that we produced was a last minute idea to exploit and leverage large audiences that would be in a major metropolitan area for a client’s competitor’s event. “How can we make a splash and steal some of their thunder?”

When we got the call (a long standing relationship) the target dates were within the same week. There was simply no time to negotiate and compare alternatives. We had to make decisions and get approvals fast. Things changed. For example, originally there was a desire to have the CEO make an entrance on an elephant (long story).

In the end, she arrived in a Land Rover with a live Lion. It was still cool, just different. A month ahead might be safely in the “late” end of things, but not always.

Too early can also be a problem. Business realities change. Messages and priorities change. Executives depart and new ones replace them. Mergers happen. We’ve been in situations where a client “locked down” a show six weeks in advance, and then the business rationale for the event fundamentally changed. In that case we ended up creating an entirely new event.

However, human nature is such that details will be fussed over and changed for as long a period as is available to change them.

Yet some things require lead-time for best pricing…and just to do them. For example, we had a client who wanted to shoot a short film (with collateral still images) to support a particular brand launch. The creative they wanted was set in summertime. Hot yellow sun. Green grass. Birds in the sky…and it was January. The client was snowed under in Chicago, the rains had come to the Pacific Northwest, and lawns were dormant in much of the south.

We did solve it, but a little lead-time would have changed the fundamental nature of that production schedule and budget.

The word Events on a cork notice board It’s always a good idea to engage a production company early. Get everyone ramped up on culture, situation and message. It is good to create initial production schedules early, but if everyone is wise those schedules should allow for logical stepping into the project.

Target a year to three months out, depending upon complexity and size of the project. But, of course, we all know this is not always possible.

How do you screen production companies? What qualities and experience should you look for?

These days everyone says they can do everything. And maybe they can. This is how production works. For example, if a client needs deep-sea underwater cinematography, we reach out to a photographer who dives…we don’t necessarily have an on-staff diving department. Everyone does this.

Therefore, looking at a collection of cool images of past projects doesn’t always tell you what you need to know. The real issue is how a team handles things:

  • What happens if something goes wrong?
  • What does a proposal document look like (The small print)?
  • Do last minute changes contractually trigger alarming cost scenarios?
  • Are they flexible?
  • Are they reasonable?

Talk to someone who has worked with them through a problem. Insist on this.

If a production company tells you they solve problems by preventing them in the first place, run. Run fast. While good producers can foresee more than inexperienced producers, production is dealing with the unforeseen…and doing it without blowing the budget or the deadline.

What are some of the most common mistakes companies make in planning a large group meeting?

A/V Considerations. The audience has to hear it and see it. Project Management Flow Chart These kinds of things are not always “exciting” (and they can be very expensive) but problems with A/V technology can destroy an event. Don’t skimp below a certain level here.

Wrong Speakers/Poor Speakers. This is critical. Imagine this: Amazing pre-event communications. An exciting event location. Perfect logistics. The event opens with a bang! Music. People. Excitement. Everyone might even be chanting a slogan. A group energy builds. The sound is great. The visuals are vibrant. And then…and then…someone walks on stage and kills it all by going on and on but saying nothing. When is lunch?

Some professional speakers are better than others. Investigate them. Some executives are better speakers than others. Help them! Give them the right training and support…coach them…and create an appropriate run of show for them in the first place.

Venue Considerations. There can be times that event planners don’t always book the right venue. But that’s just complaining. The truth is that we’ve created amazing experiences in all sorts of situations. The issue here is to ensure that the event is appropriate to the venue and to your audience.

Often we find that we are pre-booked into a venue to do an event “similar to last year,” but the venue is radically different. The shape of the location is different. The temperature and climate is different. Let’s start with an evaluation of the site and then create a memorable and meaningful experience based upon what we find!!  This includes knowing what is happening at the venue outside our event.

How far in advance should a company begin planning an event? Do you give clients a checklist to help in their planning?

Depends on the event. Some venues must be reserved a year or more out, but we’ve found great (and unexpected) places in weeks.

As for a checklist, we give our clients and prospective clients a detailed production schedule which take days to create. And these schedules work as a map. Everyone knows if we are on or off track. Everyone knows what has to happen, and when. As the scope of a project matures, the master production schedule changes. New versions are published and old versions discarded. This is more than a checklist.

What basic skills does the corporate event planner need to effectively manage the production company’s work?

Flexibility. Nimbleness of mind. Great organization skills. The ability to function under stress without burning out or melting down. Decisiveness. The ability to continually build consensus and support. In other words, leadership and communication skills.

Based on your experience, what makes for a successful event?

Of course, there are a lot of things that factor in to creating a successful event:

  • Define at the beginning of the project what a “successful event” means. What are you aiming for? What are you measuring and how will you measure these things?
  • Speakers and topics need to be in-line with the communication goals.
  • Entertainment will need to be appropriate for a company’s brand and the audience.
  • Clients and agencies need to have efficient and up-to-the-minute communication.
  • A C-Level client sponsor will need to help guide and champion major decisions and push things through.

But in short, for us, great projects require great clients.

Yes, agencies and production companies can do a lot for you, but there is still a ton of work to do on the client side of the fence. Great clients will help maintain control of tasks, budgets, timelines, internal clients and other unforeseen challenges.

When there is a true partnership between agency and client, successful events will happen.

How to plan an event Jason Bell is Founder & Executive Producer, Integrated. Previously, he was the Managing Partner of Juice Studios in Atlanta and an Executive Producer at PGI International working with clients such as BellSouth, The Coca-Cola Company, IBM, and Xerox. Jason was also a Creative Director at Caribiner International and created projects for MCI Telecom, First USA Bank, and Mercedes-Benz. Jason began his professional career in Austin, Texas, producing and directing commercials, album covers and music videos for major recording labels and musical artists.

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