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Five Secrets to Planning a Big Event

by Emily Kayrish
March 01, 2010

Planning a big event, such as a multi-day conference, can be a daunting task. Below are five tips that will help you navigate smoothly through the planning process.

1. Paint the Big Picture. Before you start making any arrangements, take a time-out to develop a sound strategy for your event. Below are some items to take into consideration:

• What is your desired outcome?

• Who is your target audience?

• Is the topic attractive to a broad audience?

• Is the theme in line with your organization’s mission?

• What is your budget for the event?

• What is your attendance goal?

2. Advance Planning Is Key. Planning ahead is the key to keeping your sanity and avoiding last-minute stress. The first step is to secure a venue. For a multi-day conference, you may need to reserve a hotel one to two years in advance to ensure you can get the meeting space and hotel rooms you need. For a stand-alone event, such as a single dinner or luncheon, you should aim to have a venue booked at least six months in advance. Once you have signed a contract for the event space, create detailed timelines of tasks that need to be completed, working backwards from the event date. As an example, below is a back-timed list for creating and sending out an event invitation:

26 weeks from event: Secure event venue and keynote speaker.
20 weeks from event: Compile invitation mailing list.
12 weeks from event: Begin designing event invitation.
11 weeks from event: Create online registration page.
9 weeks from event: Finalize invitation layout and design.
7 weeks from event: Print invitations.
6 weeks from event: Mail invitations.

Be sure to budget plenty of time to accomplish each task, as there are often unforeseen hiccups that can delay your progress. 

3. Everything Is Negotiable. In these tough economic times, many organizations are feeling the squeeze, especially when it comes to event budgets. Keep in mind that nearly any event-related cost can be negotiated—all you have to do is ask! Rental fees, sleeping room rates, audio-visual costs, and menu prices can all be negotiated. For example, hotels love to charge rental fees to use their meeting space as a means of earning extra revenue. However, there is often a lot of flexibility to negotiate these fees. If you are serving a lot of food at your event (a nice dinner with wine service, for example) or using a lot of hotel sleeping rooms, a hotel will often waive the rental fee because they know they will make up the additional revenue.

You can also play one hotel off another. For example, if the Hilton is offering you $170 a night for sleeping rooms, you can challenge the Marriott to beat their price. When every penny counts, you can save a lot of money by negotiating for everything.

4. Make a List, Check It Twice. A major challenge in planning an event is keeping track of all the details. Between coordinating the load-in of multiple vendors to tracking the flights of your keynote speaker, there is a lot to keep an eye on. There are two easy tricks to help keep things straight.

First, create a master checklist covering every conceivable event-related task and the date by which each task should be completed. This will serve as a handy reminder of items to complete and will make it easy to chart your progress. The week before the event, circle back with each speaker, vendor, and hotel contact to re-confirm your arrangements.

Second, create a binder with tabbed sections covering each element of the event. This tool will keep all your vital information in one central place. Your binder should have tabs for lodging, transportation, flowers, audio-visual, menus, invitations, and conference speakers.

5. Build the Buzz. To ensure your event has maximum impact, effective marketing is important. Begin by selecting a topic and speaker with broad appeal, and give the event an interesting title that will entice participants to attend. Once you’ve pulled together a top-notch program, you need to get the word out to your target audience. Give your guests ample advance notice of the event so they can mark their calendars. Send out a “Save the Date” notice six months in advance to help build buzz. The invitations for the event should hit the mail no less than four to six weeks from the event, and follow up with e-mail reminders to encourage guests to RSVP as you get closer to the event.

Be sure to make it easy for guests to RSVP. Online registration is a great tool, but you should also give guests the option to register by mail, fax, or phone (just in case you have some guests who are not tech-savvy). Promote the event on your organization’s Web site, and include a link to the registration Web page.

You can also boost your attendance numbers by partnering with like-minded organizations—for example, members of a local Rotary club or state policy organization might be very interested in attending an event in their area. This creates a great opportunity to bring your message to a fresh new audience.


Further Reading:

For a nuts-and-bolts guide to planning an event, the comprehensive reference is Event Planning: The Ultimate Guide to Successful Meetings, Corporate Events, Fundraising Galas, Conferences, Conventions, Incentives and Other Special Events by Judy Allen (John Wiley & Sons). Also, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Meeting and Event Planning by Robin E. Craven and Lynn Johnson Golabowski (Penguin Group) provides a good overview.

If any dignitaries will be in attendance at your events, be sure to pick up a copy of Protocol: The Complete Handbook of Diplomatic, Official and Social Usage by Mary Jane McCaffree and Pauline Innis (Devon Publishing). This book covers the protocol of seating and receiving lines as well as the proper use of titles for royalty, elected officials, and members of the military.


Ms. Kayrish is Assistant Director of Special Events at The Heritage Foundation.


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