Here are 10 recommendations when planning, organizing and staging an event:
Innovate, be creative, think out of the box. Since most of your audience has probably been in dozens of conferences and events, make sure that they remember yours.
Make sure your attendees socialise and network, since one of the main objectives of you event is to help them interact and get to know each other. And since it is always hard to break the ice and meet new people, consider organising dynamic sesisons and/or harness the power of gamification (serious fun through the integration of game mechanics can add power, impact and focus to a meeting or event, a message).
Understand your audience and tune the event's message and content to them. Your attendees are your costumers, so make sure that you know all about them in order to offer them an experience on par with their expectations. Furthermore, you must always include question time after each presentation or session.
If you have little or no experience in event planning, partner with a qualified professional with a long track record of success in the industry; and if you are experienced but want to save on employing a professional, there are literally thousands web-based tools designed to help you plan all the aspects of your event.
Establish clear goals and methods to measure success and return on investment (ROI).
When choosing a venue, check up on its Wi-Fi network. Having Wi-Fi is not the same as having a robust, reliable network. And on the subject of Internet, if you really cannot provide free Internet, consider offering a low bandwidth for free and then charging for a premium service.
Include green or CRS initiatives in the event programme: despite the extra cost, you will be surprised how important they are for a growing number of people.
As soon as the decision is taken to stage an event, ensure that you have an engaging event website (including desktop, mobile, and tablet versions) up and running in the shortest time possible and that it is frequently updated; the Internet is the most powerful tool in your marketing arsenal.
Harness the power of the social media so as to promote the event before it is held and to prolong its life afterwards.
Video the action on the exhibition floor, interviewing exhibitors and visitors, which can then be posted on the official website and the event's profiles in the social media so as to show those that didn't make it what they missed.
The 10 Don'ts of Event Planning
Here are 10 things you shouldn't do when planning, organizing and staging an event:
Don't charge for Internet access, parking or lunch, since these hidden extras are highly irritating. Attendees really loathe having to pay separately for Internet access, parking, coffee, etc., so try to make sure that everything is covered in the registration fee.
Don't just talk about yourself and/or about how marvellous your event is, since its success is largely due to your delegates/attendees/guests, so make sure you emphasize this.
Don't take the "do more with less" maxim too far. If the budget isn't generous enough for organizing a face-to-face event, go virtual: it's always better than leaving a poor impression; and don't always accept the cheapest quote for venue rental and services. As with second hand cars, the cheapest is usually never the best.
Don't leave the participants in the dark if you decide to implement green initiatives at your events; their active participation is all-important.
Don't forget to ask your participants about their food requirements; at large international events there are bound to vegetarians, people with dietary restrictions for religious or health reasons, etc.
Don't rely solely on volunteers for your event's staff needs. Although usually very willing, you also need a core staff of tried and trusted professionals.
Don't always choose a chic but noisy venue for your networking events; a lot of people really do want to be able to hear themselves over the din; and don't organise a social programme without options, since not everyone likes paintballing or Yoga.
Don't improvise on the day: most people will not appreciate it.
Don't weigh attendees down with printed matter. In the Internet era, paper-based information is now obsolete and will probably end up in bin anyway.
Don't forget to follow up after the event; feedback from the participants is vital for ironing out problems and planning for future events.
Why Stage the Event?
Whether for 50 or over 500 attendees, planning, organizing and staging a congress, seminar or workshop can be a daunting experience, even for the most level-headed person. Needless to say, a badly organized event will reflect very negatively on all the stakeholders. For this reason, there are several important issues that should be addressed before embarking on the planning stage: first and foremost, is it really necessary?
Before taking matters any further, you must ask yourself if the event you plan to stage is the quickest, easiest and most cost-effective method of reaching your target audience in an efficient, personal way. Nowadays, there are much less energy-consuming and expensive ways of achieving the same result, such as a videoconference or hybrid event, combining both virtual and face-to-face elements. Despite the swift emergence of the virtual event phenomenon, there are a number of event formats where personal contact between participants is crucial for professional, educational or networking reasons, such as workshops, incentives, team building activities, or customer loyalty programme events.
Planning and Organising
Once you have decided on the type of event, the next thing you must ask yourself is if you, yourself, will do the organizing, alone or as the co-ordinator of a planning committee, or whether it would not be better to hire an organising agency or a freelance specialist.
If you have the experience and human and material resources to do it yourself, there are literally thousands of Web-based tools and mobile tools now available – and many more in the pipeline – to facilitate the task. For instance, eventilo.com is an online registration tool that can save you hours of work, since it allows you to create a customized event webpage, and automate a broad range of registration-related and organizational tasks, and even integrate social media, all of which can be embedded in your own website. The tool also includes viral marketing and networking features via, Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, among other social networking platforms.
If choosing the second option, the expert in question may be a person with the necessary planning skills "on lone" from an outside agency, or any one of the many agencies, companies and professionals working in the industry – professional congress, convention and/or exhibition organisers (PCOs), congress travel and destination management companies (DMCs), event and meeting planners, trade show, fair and expo organisers, incentive houses, event management companies, traditional travel agents, etc. Whoever you choose, it is a convenient solution when the employees at the company "owning" the event are unacquainted with the task – doing the job on your own might prove to be a false economy with drastic consequences.
What should be borne in mind, however, when outsourcing is that not all agencies, companies or professionals advertising themselves as such are members of a professional association, like, for instance, MPI (Meeting Professionals International), SITE (Society of Incentive Travel Executives), SpainDMCs (Spanish Association of DMCs), SIMA (Spanish Incentives and Meeting Association), OPC Andalucia (Andalusian PCOs), OPC Spain (Spanish PCOs), UNAV (Spanish Union of Travel Agents) or ICCA (International Congress and Convention Association).
One way to get round this problem is to make a shortlist of associated professionals or companies that can provide you with reliable testimonials from satisfied clients or that have been strongly recommended to you. To avoid nasty surprises, above all when organising an event abroad, it is advisable to look for a highly recommended professional, with an excellent track record. To this end, Spain's convention bureaux can provide useful information concerning venues and suppliers, as well as a number of courtesy services, such as transfers and sightseeing.
Whether you choose to rely on your own resources (in-house organisation) or prefer to outsource to a professional, an event planning committee ought to be set up. A dependable, responsible, flexible person who is used to teamwork and empowered to make decisions is the kind of profile you are looking for. The co-ordinator must therefore be involved in the selection process, with the power to veto the appointment of unproductive, unqualified or conflictive members. Furthermore, although no important people should be left out, it is wise to limit the number of committee members to the strictly necessary.
One of the first decisions the planning committee ought to make is whether the organisation is to be in-house or outsourced, partially or totally. If the former option is decided on, the members of the team in charge of organisation (from one person to a group, depending on the size of the event), including intermediaries, should be identified, along with the different phases of the planning process in which each of them will be involved. Should the outsourcing option be chosen, the usual procedure is to prepare a request for proposal, which should include as much information as possible, such as the target audience, expected attendance figures, Internet/Wi-Fi requirements, past history of the event, if available, etc.
There are a number of things, all interrelated, which must be very clear to all the stakeholders before getting started, the first of which is the event format.
Corporate events, association congresses, managerial retreats, training or coaching courses/workshops, incentives, scientific or medical conferences, golf meetings, team building, product launches, publicity drives, trade fairs; the list goes on. There is also no rule against multidisciplinary or hybrid events, mixtures of two or more activities with the idea of reaching a wider audience, economising or generating extra revenue.
As in other sectors, an important trend in the meeting and event industry is that of sustainable events. Albeit slow in catching on, more and more companies are now embracing green practices both in their day-to-day operations and at their meetings and events in an effort to reduce their carbon footprint. Green and carbon compensation initiatives come at a price, but then again they also act as a differentiating factor that will be much appreciated by an increasingly larger number of attendees/delegates. Since there is a wide range of initiatives that can be implemented – using water fountains versus bottled water, mobile apps and web-based tools to save on paper, recyclable lanyards and badges, the use of local produce in catering services, etc. – there is always something that can done, however small.
Another trend that has made inroads into the MICE industry is corporate social responsibility (CRS), which is about how companies manage their business processes to produce an overall positive impact on society, or the continuing commitment by business to behave ethically and contribute to economic development while improving the quality of life of the workforce and their families, as well as of the local community and society at large, among other definitions. And as with green initiatives, CRS is also now an important differentiating factor that is much appreciated by event attendees/delegates, especially those belonging to the younger generations. Again, the type of initiative chosen – from donating a small percentage of registration fees to a local charity to an afternoon's work on projects ranging from reforestation to restoring a building, through four- or five-day incentives dedicated solely to a specific project at home or abroad – will depend on the budgetary resources and time available. Making a difference is now part and parcel of the corporate philosophy of a growing number of companies and, needless to say, CRS initiatives are excellent for boosting their visibility and reputation.
Target Audience and Anticipated Attendance Figures
Although a lot of the core decisions will probably be taken by senior management, everybody involved in planning (the co-ordinator and the planning committee) should be left in no doubt as to the format and duration of the event, and be duly informed of any changes in plan. Furthermore, they should know who is to be invited and the anticipated attendance figures.
If you are not entirely sure who is your target audience and how many people can be expected to attend (which is usually the case when there is no event history available), this can turn planning (and budgeting) into a nightmare.
In the case of recreational events, courses/workshops, one-day meetings, incentives or team-building activities, this issue normally does not pose too much of a problem. Events that are expected to make a profit or at least to break even, however, are another matter. For instance, if the event involves several overnight stays and coincides with a holiday period, it might be diplomatic and even necessary to allow the attendance of spouses and children, with the added organisational problems and, if applicable, at an added cost.
Frequently, outside speakers or workshop leaders, who might require a fee as well as travel expenses, and, if foreign, maybe an interpreter as well, will have to be engaged (sometimes well in advance). The same goes for special guests, such as VIPs or media representatives.
In the case of events such as annual or biennial tradeshows, congresses, conferences, conventions, concerts or sporting events, when attendance figures can fluctuate from one edition to another depending on the destination and the economic climate, among other factors, it is essential to harness the enormous marketing potential of new technologies and social networks well in advance, developing a user-friendly, frequently updated event website (including mobile and tablet versions), as well as listings, pages and profiles in Facebook, Twitter, Google+, etc., and investigating the wide range of web-based tools and mobile apps now available to event planners. Harnessing the power of social media will not only help the organizer/owner reach a wider audience before the event held, but will also prolong its life afterwards, as well as providing valuable feedback.
Event staffing should also be considered, this being determined by the size of the event. Staff might belong to the sponsoring agency, if available, or casual, probably the cheapest alternative if the event is going to be staged abroad. In the case of sporting events or tournaments, the possibility of using volunteers should never be overlooked. Security should also be addressed, above all in the case of large events, such as trade fairs, exhibitions, or when VIPs are expected to attend. Last but not least, special arrangements will have to be made for participants with disabilities.
The next point on the agenda is the budget, which is not just a lowly spreadsheet but a document combining planning and managerial activities, including a list of anticipated expenses, funding sources and projected revenue. In a lot of cases, planners will be obliged to work to a fixed budget. On the other hand, the event might be expected to break even or to make a profit through registration fees, entrance tickets, stand space rental, sponsorship, subsidies, product sales, merchandising, etc. If non-profit, it is essential to determine right from the start which expenses will be assumed by the different stakeholders.
On the subject of expenses, insurance is often overlooked. Albeit increasingly more expensive, all possible risks ought to be considered before deciding on what kind of insurance should be purchased, besides public liability, which is a must.
Since the person who picks up the bill is usually the "owner", he/she should be included in the budget planning process from beginning to end; this has the added advantage of allowing the co-ordinator and the planning committee members to be kept continuously posted. The job of controlling the budget and approving payments, from pre-event planning to post-event auditing, should be the co-ordinator's alone; if too many people are involved, it will be difficult to keep track of expenses and, consequently, to bring the co-ordinator to account for overall expenditure. As a rule, the co-ordinator or person in charge of budgetary planning should set aside 10% for contingencies.
One important trend that is here to stay, and which is intrinsic to budget planning, is the measurement of an event's return on investment (ROI). Organizers, be they external or in-house, are now expected to justify their event budgets down to the last Euro or Pound. And this also involves achieving measurable, quantifiable goals – i.e., an increase in sales, greater brand recognition, lead generation, etc. Therefore, those planners or agencies that cannot guarantee effective ROI measurement should be avoided.
Timing can also make or break an event. Lead time is all-important, but more often than not too little is allowed for planning and organising, this being particularly the case with the corporate sector. As a rule, big events ought to be planned with at least a year's lead time.
When working with a fixed budget, it is an advantage to have alternative dates in order to obtain the best rates for accommodation, meals, venues and recreational activities. Moreover, flexibility as regards dates is an excellent negotiating tool.
There are plenty of additional factors that have to be considered, such as the professional obligations of all the participants, whether they be delegates or speakers, other events of a similar nature that will be held on or around the same dates, religious or bank holidays, holiday periods or the expected weather conditions. In short, the task of selecting a set of dates to suit 100 people, let alone 500, is not a simple exercise, above all when having to work with a restricted budget.
Location and Venue
Both for budgetary purposes and for other important considerations, the question of where to stage the event should be agreed upon early on in the planning process. This decision might be taken unilaterally by senior management or the owner, who might be precise (a charming hotel in Madrid, for instance), not so clear (any type of venue within a 25-mile radius of Malaga), or rather vague – "Well, anywhere'll do, as long as it is original and good value for money."
Unless the event requires a more secluded venue, the place should be easily accessible: close to a motorway, a train station or an international airport. If long-haul flights are involved, participants will arrive with jetlag, so the last thing they will want to do is to embark on a long car, coach or train journey. The distance between the airport and the venue must be reasonable, i.e., no more than two hours away, whatever the mode of transport.
Needless to say, the venue should be comfortable and well-suited both to the type of event being planned and to the average participant profile. Knowing the participants' tastes is crucial when deciding on where to stage the event and the kind of venue that should be used. Since people are now moving away from more traditional venues, the opportunity to innovate (without going over the top) ought not to be overlooked. Even if a certain destination has been imposed on planners, this does not mean that the venue has to be unimaginative. Museums, heritage buildings, botanical gardens, haciendas, theatres, yachts, and wineries, to name but a few, are becoming increasingly popular as alternative venues.
Drawing up a shortlist of venues, including their pros and cons, will help stakeholders to make an adequate choice. With the Internet, venue inspection trips are not as important as they were before; although in the case of large events it is still a wise move to go on at least one.
And on the subject of the Internet, a venue's wireless network can make or break an event. Nowadays, whether it be a high- or low-tech event, it is essential to have a reliable network. There are a number of key questions that organizers should ask the venue's management in order to avoid any unpleasant surprises. There should also be a telecom team on hand throughout the event to handle incidents.