Posts Categorized In Running Your Event Bus.:

Selling Your Event Business: Positioning Your Firm for Maximum Value

Posted October 17, 2016

It seems like every other week I get a call from someone looking to either buy or sell an event business. The mergers and acquisitions market for companies in this space has steadily heated up over the past few years, driven by several factors, including low interest rates and the surprising staying power of live events as effective marketing vehicles and revenue generators.

Here then, are a handful of key takeaways I’ve shared with a number of business owners who’ve been approached by potential buyers.

Types of Buyers

Potential buyers fall into two main categories:

  1. A Financial Buyer is someone who would buy, but not operate, your business. It could be a private equity firm, private investor, etc. They’re looking strictly for a financial return on their investment, and what they’d be willing to pay for your company is based solely on what the existing business can generate on its own.
  2. A Strategic Buyer, on the other hand, wants to buy your business because it complements his existing business in some way.  For example, an event agency that specializes in logistics might purchase an agency that’s known for creative design so they can land bigger jobs that require both skills. Generally speaking, strategic buyers are willing to pay more than financial buyers because, in addition to whatever financial returns the business generates, their core business benefits from some type of synergy as well.
    • When I sold my event agency several years ago, it was to a strategic buyer from Europe who wanted to expand into the U.S. By having a truly global footprint, this further enabled them to bid to become agency of record on a worldwide level for multinational companies.
    • TIP: Think about what types of strategic buyers might find value in your business. This might require some out of the box brainstorming. For example, a rental company might buy an off premise caterer as a way to lock in their ongoing flow of rental orders.

Recast Your Financial Statements

Most small businesses manage their books to minimize income taxes. Under their accountant’s guidance, they often run a wide range of expenses through their company, many of which are borderline legitimate. This could include cars, travel, meals and entertainment, etc.

Before getting ready for a potential buyer to review your financials, pull out any expenses you ran through the company that a new owner honestly would not have to pay for. On the flip side, if you’ve been underpaying yourself (or not paying yourself at all), plug in a market-rate salary for what a new owner would have to pay for someone to run the business.

Further, look at any cost savings that might accrue to a strategic buyer. If a competitor is buying you, for example, you might be able to consolidate office space, staff, marketing, etc. Show the buyer what the financials of your business could look like once they buy it and apply those savings.

Explain the Past

Any buyer is going to do their due diligence on your company, so assume whatever skeletons are in your closet will be uncovered. It’s always better for you to control the story and come right out and explain any blips you’ve encountered. If your sales took a hit one year because a top account executive left or a key client shut down, explain why that was an unusual circumstance and/or how you’ve learned from the experience so you can prevent hit from happening again.

Sell the Future

Ultimately a buyer is interested in what your company can do moving forward, so it’s up to you to sell the potential of the business under new ownership. Perhaps your business could land bigger accounts by leveraging the internal resources of the new owner. Perhaps profitability shoots up by eliminating redundancies. Think about the best case scenario and be prepared to show the new owner how to get there.

Too Many Eggs In One Basket

Break out your company’s revenue and profit by client. Does a large chunk of business come from one customer? I know a woman who ran a great event business but got hammered when one customer which represented 50% of her revenue put their mega event on hold for several years. Likewise, are you overly reliant on a single employee? If he/she left, would you lose any business? Is a lot of your revenue contingent on being an exclusive vendor somewhere? If so, a buyer will want to look at that contract and see when it expires and how ironclad it is.

These are things a potential buyer looks out for, and the more of them you have, the riskier your company is.

TIP: If you do fall into this category, start making plans to spread your business out so you’re not heavily dependent on any one customer, employee, exclusive deal, etc.

Want to Talk?

Selling your business is a huge step, and one you’re likely only going to go through once. If you’d like to chat with me about it, feel free to email me.

Winning New Business By Playing Hard-to-Get

Posted May 23, 2013

Velvet Rope

You’re having a night out with friends and pass by two nightclubs.  The first one has a guy out in front handing out 2-for-1 drink coupons to every passer by, trying to waive you into the club.  The second nightclub has a red velvet rope blocking the entrance, and is guarded by a doorman who, when not intentionally ignoring you, is sizing you up to determine if you merit entrance.

Which club seems more appealing?  OK, I know there’s a small portion of readers for whom nothing else comes even close to discounted drinks.  But for the rest of you it’s not even close.  The more the first nightclub stalks you, the less you want to go there.  Conversely, the more exclusive the second club is the more you want to try and get in.

The hard sell is such an obvious turnoff when we experience it as customers, yet so many sales people and small business owners still practice this approach.  But you don’t have to be that guy, the what’s-it-gonna-take-for-me-to-close-this-sale guy.  You can flip the model.

Instead of trying to convince your customer to buy your product or service, how about having them try to convince you to take their money?

What if you played a little hard to get.  What if, after giving your presentation, you said, “We’re not right for everyone,” and made it clear you don’t take just any business.  You want the right business, the right client.  Pivot the conversation and change the dynamic.

You can even apply this approach to an initial call with a prospect.  Try saying, “I’d like to show you our capabilities, hear about your needs, and see if we’d be a good fit to work together.”  The implication is, as much as they might say no, you might say no also, which removes some of the pressure on the prospect.

This works best when you actually believe what you’re saying.  You should have a clear idea of who your ideal customer is, and why.  And you should want to have that discussion with a prospect about whether they are the right fit for you.  When you get to that place, you’re no longer in traditional sales mode.  You’ve shifted to an intelligent business conversation among equal potential partners.

 

Landing the $1 Million Event

Posted April 16, 2013

At some point in your tenure, if you run an event planning company or agency, you’ll aspire to land the really big project, the mega event, the million dollar event.  OK, it doesn’t have to be a million dollars; it can be $100,000, $250,000, etc.  The number is variable; the key element is that the event is bigger in scope and stature than anything you’ve done before.  The event management skills may be there and the confidence may be there, but are you really prepared to do what it takes to play in the big leagues?

I had the pleasure of interviewing Mark Shearon for our Maverick Series recently.  Mark is the Founder of Proscenium, a top events agency based in NY, and an industry veteran who has played at the mega events level for over two decades, including Walmart’s 17,000 person, 5 day shareholder meeting, the launch of Boeing’s Dreamliner, numerous Olympics events, and others.

Walmart Shareholder Meeting

Here he shares some insights into what you have to be prepared to do to land that huge event.

  1. Expect to do all the work up front without knowing if you’ll get the job. Shearon explains that prospective clients want to see a detailed vision of what you’ll do for them before hiring you, and that means basically planning out the whole project on spec.
  2. Get comfortable with the concept of giving your ideas away, on a massive scale.  One of the most common concerns I hear among planners and designers is their fear of presenting super-creative ideas, and having the client basically steal them, and have a competitor execute them.  While this happens far less frequently than people may think, it is somewhat of a risk.  However if you’re not willing to share your ideas, you have virtually no chance of landing major events, so it’s usually a risk worth taking.
  3. Be ready to spend between $30k and $50k of your own money to produce the proposal, with no guarantee you’ll land the job.  That includes the time of your own staff, as well as any external costs which may include graphics, animation, consultants and more.
  4. Be persistent.  Shearon’s team (then at TBA Global) bid on the massive Walmart shareholder meeting unsuccessfully for four years before finally being hired.  Once hired, they kept the client for quite a while, but it definitely takes determination to keep submitting bids year after year.
  5. Show that your team can play at the highest levels.  This goes for your in-house staff as well as your vendors and freelancers.  Shearon’s lighting designer, for example, is the lighting designer for U2 and Jay-Z.  Clients of mega events want to see that you’ve got a roster of heavy hitters.

Giving Away Your Ideas to Win New Business

Posted March 28, 2013

A few people are going to steal your ideas.

Not a lot, and certainly not as many as people might think, but a few will.  Yet whatever that number is, it pales in comparison to the number of people who will hire you, recommend you, and rave about you as a result of the ideas you shared freely.

Expert writing on wall

When you’re in a service business, there are few ways to land a new client more powerful than being given the opportunity to show them how smart, creative and innovative you are.  You’re showing them you’re a thought leader, and people like to work with thought leaders.

Unfortunately, many people are so worried the client will take their ideas and have a competitor execute them, they clam up in a presentation meeting.  They focus on past work, show their portfolio, maybe get to know the client and the project details, but they hold back on sharing any new ideas.

I’ve got some great insights and ideas for you,” they’re saying, “but you’ll have to hire me first to find out what they are.” 

Whey I ran my event company, I would have loved to follow a competitor like that in a pitch meeting.  After I’d impress the client with my thinking, show them how much I understand what they’re looking to accomplish and freely brainstorm with them, the competitor didn’t stand a chance.

Yes, you should get paid for your ideas.  And I did – only after I got hired.  It seems strange, I know, but the truth is many times we’d land a job largely based on ideas I’d already given the client for free.

No one will argue that it’s unethical for a client to take your idea and have someone else produce it.  Morality aside, however, it’s simply bad business, and it’s counter-intuitive to the client’s best interest, which is why so few actually do it.  After all, they’d be taking a risk that the competitor will be able to execute your ideas properly.

But the deeper reason is that the client’s more likely to bond with you, be inspired by your passion, and want someone with your creativity by their side during the execution phase.

Plus, think about how the different confidence levels speak about a company’s expertise.

  • One vendor is saying, “I know others can execute my ideas, so I’m worried you won’t need me if I give them to you.” 
  • The other is saying, “The ideas I’m giving you now are only part of what I bring to the table.  I may modify them, change them, or give you even better ones while we work together.  And in any case, no one can execute them the way I would.  I’m not worried about your ability to find someone else to run with my ideas, because they’ll never measure up to what I can do for you.”

It takes a bit of a leap of faith, and you have to believe in your value, but once you start thinking this way, you’ll see what a powerful way it is to win new clients.

“Everyone Has A Plan Until They Get Punched In The Mouth”

Posted January 30, 2012

Reporter:  “I hear your opponent has a clever plan for defensing your left hook.  How do you respond?”

(Heavyweight boxing champ) Mike Tyson:  “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

Iron Mike Tyson

How great is that quote?  Tyson, of course, was known far more for his fierce punching power, intimidating stare, and occasional biting of an ear, than his gift of philosophy.  Yet the purity of his comment makes it a perfect analogy to the business world.

The premise is this: planning is done when it’s calm and quiet, but, like a boxing match, the business world is anything but calm.  It throws you unexpected curve balls that have the capacity to demolish your business.  It also tees up great opportunities, if you know how and when to seize them.

The point is, how well will your plan stand up if, and when, your business get punched in the mouth?  In his prime Tyson hit you so hard, you were lucky if you could even remember what your plan was, let alone execute it.  The worst thing you can do is assume you will have clear sailing the whole year.  Assuming that you WILL get that punch in the mouth at some point, SHOULD be part of your plan in the first place.

Let’s say, for example, you want to grow your business from five clients to eight clients in 2012.  Just build a sales plan to add three new clients, right?  Wrong.  The smart planning would assume you may lose one of your five core clients, and build a sales plan to add four new ones.  Even if your work product is great and your client relationships are awesome, things happen.  Events get cancelled, clients leave jobs, etc.

The list of random, unanticipated “punches in the mouth” that can impact your business is massive.  If I told you 20 years ago that the biggest unforeseen events to have dramatic impact on our industry would include bird flu, ash from a volcano in Iceland, the near collapse of the US financial system, and commercial airliners crashing into the World Trade Center, you’d think I was nuts.

On the micro level, what do you do if your key producer or account executive quits, or if your biggest client cuts their event spend in half?  I know several owners in our field whose businesses took a beating the years their mothers became seriously ill over a protracted period of time.  Not only could they not spend enough time on their companies, but when they could it was hard for them to focus.

So if you’re launching a new website, hiring more staff, or embarking on any other growth initiative, assume there will be some disruption to your business at some point, and plan around that.  Build in a cash cushion, allocate more time to accomplish things, etc.

It’s also important to retain some flexibility.  If business conditions don’t respond to your game plan, you may need to change tactics.  When the US financial crisis hit in 2008, the Treasury Department’s initial plan was to buy toxic assets from the banks.  When that didn’t work, they shifted to injecting capital directly into the banks, which ultimately pulled us back from the precipice.  If your business fails, you don’t get any points for having stuck with your plan.

Don’t get me wrong, planning is very important.  If you don’t make a business plan for hitting your goals this year, you won’t get there.  But to make a plan that relies on perfect business conditions is naive.  Think through scenarios that would result in a body blow to your company, and start formulating responses to them in advance.  And build as much fluidity as possible, giving you the maximum amount of flexibility to adapt.

When the punches come, let your competitors be the ones caught off guard.

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.

Telling Truth to Power (Clients)

Posted October 2, 2011

“The customer is always right,” is a mantra we hear so often that it’s become canonized as one of the first rules of business.  Alas, like most sweeping generalizations, it is also blindly misapplied.  For while it might make plenty of sense in retail, when it comes to consulting (or event planning), it can ruin your business or your career.  Here’s why.

In retail, stores sell products.  Retailing is simply about delivering those products to consumers through a pleasing, cost-effective experience.  If a consumer is unhappy with the experience they get at a retail store, the assumption is that they can always go somewhere else to buy the same product, so there’s almost no reason NOT to make the customer happy, even at the retailer’s short term detriment.  Keeping the customer as a continued shopper, in the long run, is the ultimate goal.

Service businesses, on the other hand, provide much more customized interactions.  The client comes to us for our specific, individual advice and expertise.  We take time to learn about them, their events, their goals, styles and desires, and then design and recommend solutions specifically tailored to their needs.  If the client wants to do something that is not going to work, it is not only in our best interest to push back, it’s in the client’s interest too.

If you’re meeting with your accountant to discuss your taxes, and you want to write off your massage treatments as a business expense, (because, hey, you come up with your best ideas on the massage table), would you want him to say, “whatever you want, you’re the customer”? No way.  You want him to look you hard in the eye and say, “Nice try.  Unless your client is the masseuse, that’s not going to work.”

Pamela Fields, CEO of Stetson

Sometimes pushing back to a demanding client can be difficult and awkward.  But that’s what they need, and that’s what will make you invaluable to them.  In the Business Section of today’s New York Times (Valuing Those Who Tell You the Bitter Truth), Pamela Fields, the CEO of Stetson, talks about the importance of hearing divergent opinions from people who feel comfortable disagreeing with her.

The phrase, ‘Speak Truth to Power’, is typically applied to politics, where too often our leaders surround themselves with sycophants who are more interested in sucking up than in telling the truth.  But the mantra applies everywhere.  In sports we often see star athletes get ruined because there is no one in their entourage who speaks up about what’s in the athletes best interest if it means disagreeing with him.  (think Mike Tyson)

And it certainly applies to working with our event clients, whether we are independents or agencies talking to paying clients, or in-house planners talking to our internal business unit clients.  Soften the blow as needed, but you have to deliver the news.  If the client’s really set on a lousy idea, try,

That’s a great idea.  Unfortunately I just don’t think it’s appropriate for this event because _______.  Believe me, I’d love to say we can do it, but it’s my professional responsibility to advise you why I don’t think it’s going to work.  The last thing I want is for you to come to me afterwards and say, ‘You’re the professional; why didn’t you warn me about this?!’  So this is me, officially warning you that I don’t think this will work.”

It’ll be difficult, no question.  But they will respect you more as an expert, and you will become indispensable to them.  And that, ultimately, is what you want.

Getting Your Business to that Elusive ‘Next Level’

Posted September 22, 2011

When you’re in school they make it pretty clear what it takes for you to move up to the next grade: do your homework, pass your finals and maintain a certain grade point average, and off you go.  Out in the workplace, it gets a little harder, but in most companies you can also find a rough road map on how to move up, what the next level is in terms of job titles and what you need to do to get there.

Alas, when it comes to running or owning a business, it ain’t so easy, which is why the most common complaint I hear from other business owners is about their inability to get to that elusive “next level”.

The first question I ask in response is, “describe what that next level looks like to you,” and you’d be surprised at how often that actually stumps people.  But it’s really important, because without knowing where you want to go, how will you know if you get there?  It’s like the old bicycle analogy: you can pedal as hard as you want on the back tire, but if the front tire is pointed in the wrong direction, you’re lost.

The “next level”, of course, means different things to different people.  Invariably, many answers include financial metrics such as increasing sales, increasing profits, improving margins, etc., or customer metrics such as landing bigger clients, or more high profile clients, etc.   Getting there, involves two exercises: a road-map exercise, and a skills assessment exercise.

Road Map Exercise

  1. The 1st step is to hone in on these factors, and attach some numerical and qualitative goals to each, so we know what that next level looks like.   Let’s say your event company has been at $1 million in sales for several years, and you want to get to $2 million.
  2. Next we would break this down.  Let’s say your $1 million business comes from doing 40 events at $25,000 each.  To get to $2 million, you can either look to double the number of events (e.g. 80 events x $25k ea.); or double the size of each event (e.g. 40 events x $50k ea.), or some combination of both.
  3. So what does your company need to look like to service that kind of income.  For example, from an execution standpoint, if the answer to #2 is to double the number of projects, we’d probably need to add account managers/event planners, or perhaps hire more assistants to support the ones you already have.  If the answer was instead to double the size of your projects, we might explore adding additional services to offer clients, or having planners with deeper skill sets to service these bigger clients.  The point is to visualize your company at this next level, then reverse-engineer a plan for getting there.
  4. This is an over-simplification of course, and only focuses on the execution aspect.  You’d have to extend this exercise into marketing, finance, management and other areas, figure out how fast you can afford to grow, etc.

Skills Assessment Exercise

Even if you can create a clear road map for getting to the next level in the above exercise, however, that doesn’t mean you’ll be able to lead your business there.  The reason is that the skills required to start up a business are different from the skills needed to take an existing business to its second level.  And those skills are different from the skills needed to take a company to its third level, sell the company, take it public, etc.  At each phase the game changes, and the skills needed to excel change with it.  Much like a reptile sheds its skin as it grows, so a business needs a new infrastructure when it grows.

This is probably the single biggest reason companies struggle to get to the next level.  They assume simply doing more of the same, or doing it faster or bigger, will yield the desired results.  Big leaps forward, however, usually require substantial changes in how you operate.

For example, a $25,000 event usually has no written RFP.  The specs are delivered verbally, and your proposal can be done on Word.  To go after a$500,000 event, on the other hand, you’ll need to plow through a 20 page RFP and your proposal will likely need custom illustrations, professional quality copy writing, graphic design and possibly animations in order to win the job.  The event budget alone will take at least 10 hours to put together, and you’ll likely be asked for your company’s sustainability policy, detailed bios on your staff, an org chart of your production team, etc.  Plus, the selling process takes a while to even generate the RFP in the first place.  And there’s a good chance you’ll need to upgrade to a higher level of staff in order to land and produce an event of this caliber.

If it seems like a big investment is needed to get to the next level in this example, well, that’s because it probably is.  But at least now you know you can’t get there by simply “pushing harder” within your existing framework.

Manage Your Energy, Not Your Time

Posted September 2, 2011

If you’re like me, you’re constantly frustrated by not getting all the things done that are on your To Do list.  Figuring out what to do is the easy part for us, and we simply assume that putting it on that list is all it takes to ensure completion.  Bzzzzz!  Wrong answer!  Johnny, show our contestants what they win just for playing our game!

Alas, our To Do lists are the fly paper of business; they’re so sticky they indiscriminately attract all kinds of things, and once something’s stuck there it’s hard to come off.  Peeling them off is so elusive, tons of productivity gurus have written books on how to get things done.

One of the most insightful I’ve found is a book by Steven Covey called “First Things First”.  In my class on Prospecting for New Business, I talk about perhaps the most illuminating part of the book, the Four Quadrants.  (For more info on this see my earlier blog post).   The idea is to force yourself to schedule things that are important, but not necessarily time-sensitive.

Not All Hours Are Created Equal

However, as helpful as that is, some tasks require different amounts of creativity, energy, intelligence, etc. than others, and unfortunately our levels of those traits vary greatly throughout the day.  Some people are sluggish in the morning and are at their productive peak in the afternoon; for others it’s the reverse.  The key is knowing your own rhythms and scheduling your tasks to best suit them.

Schedule your most important, complex, and creative tasks (proposals, blog posts, client meetings, etc.) for when you are the most energized and clear-headed.  Move the monotonous yet simple tasks (data entry, basic bookkeeping, expense reports, etc.) to your sluggish periods.

For another example, in her class on Catering Creativity, Stella Ballarini suggests that if you’re hitting a creative wall when it comes to menu planning, shift gears and focus on drink options instead, which are invariably much simpler.

Avoid ‘Switching Time’

Jed Weinstein, of WCMG Events, turned me onto a great article by Tony Schwartz and Catherine McCarthy in the Harvard Business Review called “Manage Your Energy, Not Your Time”.   The authors identify a number of tactical suggestions for productivity improvements, and after tracking them through a group of loan officers at Wachovia, found that the group that implemented their methods improved performance by over 20% vs. the control group.

One of their suggestions is to avoid distractions.  They found that “a temporary shift in attention from one task to another—stopping to answer an e-mail or take a phone call, for instance—increases the amount of time necessary to finish the primary task by as much as 25%, a phenomenon known as “switching time.” It’s far more efficient to fully focus for 90 to 120 minutes, take a true break, and then fully focus on the next activity.”

I’ll take this a step further, and suggest that once you get your head into a creative mode, for example, you stay there and bang out as many things requiring creative input as you can.  It takes a while to shift gears, so why not knock out a second blog post while you’re still in a creative writing mood, for instance?

Replenish Productive Energy Levels

You can also replenish your energy level during the day as well.  Simply taking a break to walk around the block without making calls or checking emails can renew your productive energy significantly.  It may seem paradoxical that you can be more productive by cutting out 20 minutes of work time to clear your head, but it’s true.

If you take one thing away from this post, it should be to move away from the concept of managing your time during the day as a uniform commodity.  All your working hours are not equal, and by simply understanding that you have some parts of the day where you’re more productive than others, and then matching those hours to tasks requiring similar energy levels, you’ll both accomplish more, and feel better about it in the process.

Failing Up: The Blessing of Mistakes

Posted August 23, 2011

Mistakes are part of the human condition.  By nature we are utterly imperfect beings.  Eventually, we screw up in everything we do: relationships, finances, business, you name it.  We can’t help it.

What we can help, however, is how we react to these mistakes.  We can blame them on others, on circumstance, on getting a raw deal.  Or we can own up to them, and learn from them.  Few things in life are as powerful as the epiphany that comes from truly learning from a good mistake.

Over the 20 years I ran my event firm, I made every mistake in the book, both in terms of event management, and in business management.  I was pretty determined, however, to not make the same mistake twice.  (OK, sometimes I made it twice, but definitely not three times.)

Running events, by definition, entails glitches, things that don’t go according to plan. I used to tell prospective clients that anyone who tells you they’ll produce a flawless event is full of crap.  Events become fluid, moving things and take on a life of their own.  At some point, you simply have to pray to the event gods, regardless of how much planning you’ve done.

What separates the men from the mice, so to speak, is how we react to these glitches.  Whether it’s your event, your business or your personal life, it can be incredibly liberating to own the reaction and response to whatever comes your way.  The jerk on the highway who cut you off didn’t make you mad; you made yourself mad.  You can’t control the highway jerk, but you CAN control how you react to him.

Tavis Smiley, a talk show host on NPR, wrote a book with the absolutely coolest name, “Fail Up: 20 Lessons On Business Success From Failure”. The premise is to enlighten us on how useful and instructive failures can be.  Thomas Edison is famous for pointing out about the numerous failed attempts at creating the light bulb: I have not failed.  I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.”

George Santayana

Stellar service-driven organizations in our industry are know for how they respond to problems.  Years ago I stayed at the Four Seasons hotel in Bali, and the final night of my stay, some genius in banquet sales decided to book a beach party for a pharmaceutical sales team, that ran into the wee hours of the night.  Needless to say I got no sleep, and my calls to the front desk were of limited utility.  The next morning, ready to storm the castle, I asked to speak to the manager.  He had a full write-up of the previous night’s problem, and began by apologizing profusely, and said, “Would you allow me to please comp your stay last night.”  This far exceeded anything I’d expected, and to this day I walked away raving about the hotel’s response, instead of their screw up.

When the philosopher George Santayana said, Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” clearly he’s referring to past mistakes.  Hitler invading Russia in the winter, and failing to learn the lessons of Napoleon’s blunder doing the same thing over a century earlier.  That kind of thing.

The world is imperfect, and we are imperfect.  Yet every imperfection, every mistake, has an opportunity buried inside it.  It lies there, waiting for us to seize it.  Will you grasp it, use it, and grow from it?  Or will you be blinded by the mistake itself, and let it slip away?

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.

The Day-Of Planning Dilemma

Posted July 14, 2011

Here’s an advance peek at my next In Business column for Event Solutions magazine.

“I think I can plan the event myself.  I just want to hire you to be there the day of the event.  You know, just to make sure everything goes smoothly.”

If I had a dollar every time an event planner was told this by a potential client, I’d be sipping cocktails on a beach in the Caribbean.  Forever.  Because I’d be able to own the island.  (Tell me I’m wrong).

The Planner Wanna-Be

For better or worse, this is reality, and complaining about it is like trying to hold back the tide.  These are the facts:

  1. There are lots of clients who are planner wanna-be’s,  That’s good, because it means we have cool jobs that people want to emulate.
  2. The wanna-be’s know that their event is too important to do it completely on their own, and know they need some level of professional support (even if it’s just day-of).  So let’s say there’s this final 15% of the planning process where they perceive enough value in what we do that they’re willing to pay for it.  That’s also good.
  3. But the wanna-be’s don’t perceive enough value in the other 85%.  And that’s not good.
  4. There will always be SOMEONE who’ll take a few bucks to show up ‘day of’ and try to be some kind of security blanket to the client.  That’s neither good nor bad; it just is.

[One way to look at these wanna-be’s is not so much as full paying clients who now want to just pay for day of, and instead think of them as an entirely new market sector who never would have hired anyone at all.  The market for planner services has grown, and this kind of thing is an inevitable step.]

That said, the biggest challenge planners face in showing up the ‘day of’ is that you’re literally walking into an event planning s**t storm.  It’s like being given a Stop sign, a whistle and a pair of white gloves and being asked to direct traffic at the roller derby.

Option 1: Educate the Client on the Value of Full-Service Planning

Odds are this is the crux of the problem.  Look, if you got arrested, you’d never think of saying to your attorney, “I think I can handle my defense myself (I was on the Debate Team, you know), but I’d like to hire you to just sit next to me the day of the trial.  To make sure things go smoothly.”

Can an attorney provide SOME value showing up the day of the trial?  Yeah, but given what’s on the line, wouldn’t you prefer he look at the case files in advance?  Of course you would, because you’re smart enough to know that you don’t know law.  So your job here, is to educate the client on all that goes into the planning process to insure a successful event.

Space constraints prohibit me from doing so here, but here’s a suggestion to help you out:  start keeping a journal and jot down all the things you do that a typical wanna-be doesn’t realize you do.  The list will grow quickly.

This is part of the value you bring to the table, along with your experience, creativity, vendor relationships, etc.  Getting to the point where you realize the full value you offer, and being able to communicate that to a client and stand behind it, is the holy grail of running an event planning business.  It’s the key to everything.

Option 2: Re-Think ‘Day-Of’ as ‘Planning Lite’

Clients came up with the whole day-of idea, but that doesn’t mean we have to stick with it.  What they really want is very limited planning; that last 15%, as some kind of insurance policy against an event disaster.  So how about you re-frame your service offerings as ‘Planning Lite’, and give the client 8 hours the day of the event, plus let’s say 6 hours in advance, broken down into 1 hour calls or meetings with the client every month for the 6 months prior to the event.

This accomplishes two things.  (1) It prevents you from walking in totally blind, and (2) More importantly, it gives you a chance to up-sell the client and convert them into Full-Service Planning along the way.  Each of these 1 hour planning discussions is an opportunity for you to show your stuff, and invariably the client will start to see all the important things you should be doing on their behalf, but can’t, given the limitations of Planning Lite.

If you do go this route, be up front with the client about the limits of what you can accomplish with Planning Lite, and be sure to advise them you can’t be responsible for the event’s success, but you’ll do your best  to make things go as smoothly as you can.

One benefit to this kind of service, is it really forces you to track your time.  When I teach my class on Planner Pricing, regardless of the pricing model people choose, I tell them it’s critical to know how many jobs you can do in a given year, which requires time tracking.

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.

          When to Fire Someone: Toxic Employees & The Curse of Mediocrity

          Posted May 18, 2011

          [Author’s Note: Yes, I know it’s been almost two months since my last blog post.  Where have I been, you ask?  OK, I’ll just come right out with it: I’ve been sleeping with another audience.  There, I said it.  Don’t get me wrong, you’ve been great; I just needed something . . . new.  Actually, as many of you know, I’ve been buried in event training and education land, working to get the Event Leadership Institute ready for prime time.  If you haven’t been yet, take a peek; the site is live, though the official launch is coming soon.]

          Below is an advance peek at my next In Business Column for Event Solutions Magazine.

          In my last column I talked about becoming a boss and hiring your first employee, and outlined the process for effectively training and ramping up new hires.  Alas, not all employees work out.  One challenge small business owners face is the hassle of replacing underperforming workers.  Larger firms with dedicated HR departments can, and do, manage this process more efficiently.

          But with a small business, the owner typically has to do it all: fire the person and find his or her replacement.  Most people dread both tasks, the first because it’s wickedly uncomfortable; the second because it’s a huge, time-consuming pain in the ass.  So they end up ignoring the problem, rationalizing that the person’s performance is not THAT bad.

          The damage a problem employee can have to your company can range from moderate to catastrophic, but in any case it is usually far greater than you think.  Let’s look at two scenarios.

          The Toxic Employee

          This is the person (let’s call her Toxie) who is unhappy about something (their compensation, their boss, etc.) and develops a chip on their shoulder.  But Toxie isn’t content with keeping her irritation to herself; she’s got to share her misery with others.  She whispers in the ears of her co-workers, firing them up.  “Can you believe they want us to work on a weekend without paying us overtime!?”, or, “We shouldn’t be expected to do this task; let the interns do it!”

          Toxie’s frustrations aren’t validated until she gets others to join her cause and storm the castle.  She wants to bring others’ morale down to her level, and pretty soon her drama starts consuming more and more of everyone’s time. When that happens, she’s got to go.

          Toxic employees by definition spread their malcontent around the office, like a cancer.   And like a cancer, they need to be removed before the damage gets worse and more healthy employees get infected.  In sports we see examples all the time of athletes that “infect the locker room” and become a bad influence on others; rarely are those teams successful, no matter how good that athlete may be.

          The Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations

          Sometimes you’ve got a mediocre employee, however, with a great attitude.  Unlike Toxie, this person will be the first to admit when they fall short in their performance.  They don’t blame anyone but themselves, and they have the support and sympathy of their co-workers, and you, their boss.  This is the mediocre/low performer, so let’s call her Melo.

          Now, you might think, what’s the harm in keeping Melo around?  There’s no collateral damage to others like you’d have with Toxie, right?  Wrong.  The risk here is that by keeping Melo around, your A players might be tempted to measure themselves against her, and start settling for A- and B+ performance.  Worse, they may lose respect for you by continuing to allow someone to stay on who clearly is not meeting the job requirements.  Either way, they become a drag on your company’s mojo.

          In some ways, Melo is a much harder situation, because she’s likely to stick around longer.  Eventually Toxie wears out her welcome and pushes you to take action.  Firing Melo is like giving away a pet that you like but refuses to be house trained.  But if you want to grow a strong business instead of a half-way house, you know what you need to do.

          Firing Someone

          In my 20 years of running an event company I’ve probably fired 8 people, and the only thing worse than firing someone is firing someone who doesn’t see it coming.  That’s a sign that you haven’t clearly explained what you expect of the employee and/or given them proper feedback.  It’s a miserable feeling on both ends of the table.

          To avoid this, make sure you lay out, in writing, your job expectations, and give frequent and specific feedback at regular intervals.  If the performance problem doesn’t improve, be very clear about the consequences that will ensue if it’s not corrected.  If you do this right, nobody should be surprised when they get fired.

          Once you’ve bitten the bullet and terminated an under-performer, you’ll be amazed at the ancillary impact it has on everyone else’s performance.  It sends a message that not getting the job done will not be tolerated, and the other employees will begin stepping things up.  Plus, the replacement worker usually brings fresh energy and drive to the office and you’ll notice everyone’s productivity will receive a boost.

          These tangential benefits, however, are lost on your business if instead the problem worker quits before you fire them.  Please understand, I would never advocate taking away someone’s livelihood just to boost office productivity.  What I am saying is, if you’ve determined that a worker is no longer a good fit for your company and cannot turn things around, you’re better off taking the bull by the horns and proactively dealing with the issue directly.  It demonstrates strong leadership and your commitment to high standards for everyone you hire.

          Becoming A Boss

          Posted March 23, 2011

          NOTE:  Here is a sneak peak at my In Business column in the next issue of Event Solutions Magazine.

          @hgivner: Luv your ES column! My biz is jamming, am so busy I can’t handle all the work myself. Ready 2 hire my first employee.  Any advice? Candace, Independent Planner, LA

          I got this Twitter message last month (though Candace asked me not to list her Twitter handle).  My first response is, how great is it that people are so busy again!  Now, hopefully Candace has read my previous columns on how to calculate her fee structure so she’s profitable, and not just busy (because we all know they ain’t the same thing.)

          My second response is that hiring her first employee is not the only solution to being super busy.  Candace could instead use this as an opportunity to raise her rates, be more selective in the kinds of clients and events she takes on, etc.  The buzz she’d create by turning away clients because she’s so “in demand” will do wonders for her reputation.  Because make no mistake, hiring an employee will change the nature of her business in many ways, some of which she may not anticipate.  But if she still wants to move forward in becoming a boss, here are some tips to do it right.

          1.     Hire Someone To Replace the Lowest Paying Part of Your Job. You know the phrase “chief cook and bottle washer” which describes how entrepreneurs often have to do everything?  Well, in this case you want to start by hiring someone to do the bottle washing part, which presumably is the lowest paying.  Make a list of the main jobs you do in your business (sales, marketing, event operations, administration, etc.) and next to each one list approximately how many hours a week you spend on it, and what you think the market salary or hourly rate is for someone to do that task.  Your first hire should be the lowest one, because that’s the cheapest way for you to free up some of your time.  Your goal is to then shift that time toward the highest paying part of your job, which presumably is working with your clients.

          2.     Allocate Time to Manage Your Employee. Unfortunately, those low level hours your employee will take off your plate won’t all become available to you.  Why?  Because managing your employee takes time.  This is probably the biggest oversight people make when hiring someone.  You’ve got to factor in time to interview, train, coach and manage them.  And the more time you put in teaching someone how you want them to do something, the less time you’ll spend putting out fires if they mess it up later.

          3.     Create A Detailed Job Description. List as many of the tasks & responsibilities this person will have as you can think of.  This will not only help with accurate recruiting and interviewing, but will also serve as an outline for your training and a benchmark for performance evaluation later. And when you begin your training, start with the phrase, “Here’s what I expect of you.”

          4.     Document Your Training Process. When I ran my event company, I got a lot of things wrong, but one thing I got right fairly early on was to create written training materials.  This is an investment the first time around, but when you hire additional staff, it provides two great benefits: (a) It saves you a ton of time, and (b) it insures consistency in how your staff gets trained.  Here are some examples of the types of things I wrote down and would give to my new hires for us to review together:

          a.     Info About the Company. This is a no-brainer that too many people miss.  I wrote a short script for people to learn on how to explain what we do and what key points I wanted them to convey.  Your employees are ambassadors for your company; empower them to properly represent you.   I’d even give them an oral test on this before allowing them to answer the phone.

          This should include a list of Frequently Asked Questions by clients and suggested responses.

          b.     Instructions on Repeatable Tasks. This includes step-by-step procedures for things like running reports, doing inventory, creating a timeline, etc.  (My personal favorite was how to download postage to our Pitney Bowes machine.  I had one admin create that instruction sheet, and it was literally passed from one admin to the next over a fifteen year span.  To this day I never learned how to download postage.)

          c.      Info About Company Benefits & Policies. Candace probably isn’t thinking about this, but she can bet her new employee will.  How many vacation days do I get?  How many hours a week do I work?  What happens if I work all weekend on a job, do I get Monday off?  Is there health insurance?  What’s the travel reimbursement policy? It’s best to think these through and write them down.  They don’t have to be perfect; you can always change them.  (The first time an employee asked me this stuff 20 years ago I remember thinking:  “Benefits?  You mean working for me isn’t a joy unto itself?”)

          5. Provide Frequent & Clear Feedback. Most new bosses are reluctant to criticize their hires, and instead let things go.  They eventually either learn to tolerate mistakes, or it builds up and the only criticism that comes out is “you’re fired.”  This helps no one.  Employees need your feedback.  If they’re doing something wrong, tell them immediately.  Likewise, if they’re doing it right, give them a pat on the back acknowledging it.

          6. Be Their Boss, Not Their Friend. I’m sure this will be the one area I get the most hate mail on, but 8 out of 10 bosses in this industry I polled for this column are just that; they’re bosses.  The other two like to be buddy-buddy with their staff and like to think they’re all one big happy family.  I’m not saying you need to be a mean-ass boss, but rather that if you become too friendly with your staff it eventually compromises your ability (& backbone) to give disciplinary feedback and to push them to achieve superior results.

          It’s far more important that your employees respect you than like you.  It may make your stomach turn to see them clam up when you approach them at the water cooler, knowing that its you they were gossiping about, but in the end its what’s best for your business.

          *In my next column, I’ll talk about how to handle an employee that’s not working out.

          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).

          The Case Against New Year’s Resolutions

          Posted December 30, 2010

          From Thanksgiving through Christmas we’re sucked into a whirlwind of gorging on humongous family feasts, blowing our budget on holiday gifts, and partaking in revelry at lots of holiday parties. Everything builds to the dramatic crescendo of New Year’s Eve, when we stay up later and party harder than any other night.

          It’s no surprise that against this backdrop of massive overindulgence everyone is guilted into making a sweeping series of resolutions for better behavior in the new year.  We’ll eat better, exercise more, watch our finances more carefully, etc.

          I used to make a bunch of resolutions every year, and even write them down.  When I invariably failed to achieve them all, I’d schedule quarterly reminders.  Like that helped.  And its no fun being confronted with your under-achieving self at such a festive time as New Year’s Eve.

          The problem is that resolutions are extra credit, stuff above and beyond what we’re already doing.  Nobody makes a resolution to stay at their current weight, for example, which is probably a challenge as it is.  And because we’ve got a whole year to complete our resolutions, we tend to aim high.  You’re not going to lose a pound or two, you’re going to drop five or ten.  On the business front, you’re not going to survive or grow by 5%, you want to grow by 30%. So unfortunately, the whole resolution business is doomed to failure.  It’s like betting against the house in Vegas: you may get lucky once in a while, but in the long run you have no chance.  The only difference is that you have a lot of fun in Vegas.

          And just in case you’re pretty happy with where you are personally, or with your business, there’s a non-stop torrent of self-help books, business blogs, and the like telling you what to do better. All excellent fodder for the Resolution Express.

          Another problem with resolutions is that in today’s society, in order to lead a good, fulfilling life, the media gives us such an impossibly long and agonizingly detailed regimen to follow, that practically everyone walks around feeling some angst when they invariably come up short.  Next year, we kid ourselves, we’ll pick up the slack.

          Take health for example.  When I go for my annual physical, my doctor asks me how many servings of fruits and vegetables I get a day.  I tell him two, if I’m lucky.  He counters that I should have five.  I remind him there are only three meals in a day, but the math doesn’t throw him.  “You really should have five”, he says with a straight face.  “Try to snack on an apple or a bag of carrots.”  Uh huh.

          If you want to feel inadequate at event planning, subscribe to Jeff Hurt’s blog, MidCourse Corrections.  Every time I look at my laptop it seems there’s a new post by Jeff, listing 10 trends in conference planning I need to know about, or 5 things speakers do wrong at meetings, or 7 reasons attendees are falling asleep at our programs.  It’s all good stuff, and Jeff’s one of our industry’s great minds, but let me tell ya, you have no chance of implementing everything he recommends; it’s just too much. You’re lucky if you integrate 10% of his ideas, and the truth is he’d probably say that’s just fine.  But of course you look at the 90% you can’t get to and see the flashing neon “Under-Achiever” sign in your mind.

          Overwhelming isn’t it?  With all these standards that we fall short of, it’s a miracle we actually make it through the year at all.  But instead of giving ourselves a pat on the back for those things we did get right, we make a list of all the things we neglected to do and come up with resolutions for next year.

          So here’s my suggestion. Get out of the resolutions racket altogether.  Simply be happy you made it through another year.  If you absolutely have to make a New Year’s resolution, it better be a real life-altering one, though I would argue that if you need to wait until New Year’s to put it on your to do list, you’re not off to a good start.

          So, on the personal side, if you’re a heroin addict, getting yourself into detox is a worthy resolution.  But if your goal is to cut back on those orders of Buffalo wings, don’t even bother.  Just try to appreciate your friends and family as much as possible.  And on the business front, just take super-good care of your best clients and employees; in the end you can’t go wrong by doing that.

          “Beware the Daring of A Cautious Man”: The danger of a half-hearted RFP response.

          Posted November 8, 2010

          You’re sitting at your desk staring at an RFP you just received for a nice big job.  It’s big bucks if you get it, and a high profile client to boot.  The kind of event you sit around hoping lands on your desk.

          You’re so excited that after scanning the RFP you call the client up to thank them for the opportunity, and to ask the usual qualifying questions.  The answers wipe the smile off your face pretty fast.

          “How many other event companies have you sent this to?”
          “Twelve.”
          “I see you’ve done this event before.  Is the incumbent firm being asked to bid?”

          “Yes.”
          “If you don’t mind me asking, were you happy with their work?”

          “Yes, very happy.”
          “Why are you seeking so many other bids then?”

          “We want to see what other ideas are out there.”

          Not exactly the greatest signs.  You furrow your brow in frustration and briefly try to use your special powers to make the client’s head explode through the phone line, then politely thank them for the opportunity again and tell them you can’t wait to show them what you’ve got.

          Yes, of course it’s not professional to ask twelve companies to create detailed proposals, but that’s a whole other discussion, and at the end of the day, nobody is forcing you to bid.  Do you have a chance to win the business?  Yes, but with an incumbent agency in the picture, it’s not great.

          Now, there’s two types of “not great” situations like this.  The first is where the client is forced by their Procurement Dept. to bid the work out.  Generally, they have every intention of re-hiring the incumbent vendor, but need to satisfy their internal process.  In this case, they normally don’t get more than 3 of 4 bids.   They want to get the minimum number needed to satisfy procurement.

          The second situation is the one described at the beginning of this post, where a client really does want to see what else is out there.  That’s why they’ve bid it out to so many people, which is really annoying.  On the flip side, you can bet they will look at your proposal.

          So what do you do?  You can either acknowledge the time commitment in creating a winning proposal, factor in the long odds of winning it, and pass.  Or you can roll the dice, show them your best, and keep your fingers crossed.

          The one thing I encourage you NOT to do is phone it in with a quick proposal that’s not your best work.  In the twenty years I ran

          NY Times Columnist William Safire

          my event company, I often had account executives want to do this, saying, “I’ll just throw a quick proposal together.  Don’t worry, I won’t spend too much time on it.”  To which I usually responded, “if we bid, we bid to win.  Otherwise forget it.”

          ‘Go big or go home’ is another expression that conveys this principle.  But perhaps my favorite is ‘Beware the daring of a cautious man,’ by former New York Times columnist William Safire.  He wrote this after the failed attempt during the Carter presidency to rescue the hostages in Iran.  (Yes, I am that old and I did read the newspaper in high school.  Sometimes.)  Apparently Carter sent in a small team of helicopters, and when two of them had mechanical trouble the whole mission had to abort.

          I don’t know why, but that quote has always stuck with me.  What I take away from it is that it’s ok to be daring, and it’s ok to be cautious, but you don’t want to be cautiously daring.

          In this case, there are worse things than actually not getting the job.  If you do a half-assed proposal, you probably won’t get the job, AND the client will be so under-whelmed by your work they will not ask you to bid on future projects where the odds are better.  Worse still, they will spread their mediocre opinion of your company among their friends and colleagues when asked.

          Far better to politely pass on the opportunity.  Say you don’t bid under these circumstance, or say you’re simply too busy.  Or pull out all the stops and go for it.  Yes, the odds are against you, but if you wow them they’re far more likely to use you in the future, and they will spread a very positive word about you.