planning an event

A great and memorable event  takes time, money, sweat, tears…well, hopefully not tears.

But it does take a lot of planning to get it right and, when the event is over, you’ll discover that each person had a completely different experience at the same event. So how do you prepare for something, like a conference, meetup, or press event, and how do you prepare for the reaction to it?

Each week, I attend 1 Million Cups here in Bismarck-Mandan. At each meeting, a local entrepreneur will present their business idea, answer and ask questions, and get feedback. 1 Million Cups is also a great way for people within the community to network and drink a free cup of coffee. I started going for the free coffee, to be honest, but the event was so well done and insightful that I kept coming back. In fact, I now live tweet on their Twitter account each week!

What could make an event that good? How can you plan an event like that yourself?

1. Give yourself time.

No matter how small or simple the event, you need to give yourself enough time to troubleshoot and problem solve. A lot of last minute details will pop up and you’ll want to have time to deal with them. This means you need to start planning early for several things:

  • Booking speakers: A speaker will need anywhere from six months to a year’s notice before they agree to speak at an event. If you are extremely lucky, a speaker will be able to come last minute but DO NOT rely on this. Have a speaker booked months in advanced and even have a back-up or two. This will help prevent scrambling at the last minute for a replacement, or ending up with no speaker (or a bad speaker).
  • Booking a venue: One of the first things on your to-do list should be to book a venue. Without knowing what your venue is capable of, you really can’t plan much. Have a back up venue, just in case. This is especially important if the event takes place outside (weather can be unpredictable.)
  • Booking a block of hotel rooms: Along with a venue, your event may need to have a block of hotel rooms set aside for guests traveling to multi-day events. You want to be sure attendees will be able to find a place to stay; the last thing you want are hotels that are full and have no rooms left.
  • Contacting the press: People have to know about your event if you want them to attend, so don’t be shy about letting the press know you’re having an event. Send them a press release with the information about the event, including information that alerts them to whether or not the event is something they might want to cover.

Keep in mind that this is a short list. There are a multitude of things that need to be planned ahead of time.

2. Focus on your goal.

Stick with the theme/purpose of the event. It’s easy to get side-tracked or want to please more people, but stick with your goal. A lack of focus makes it difficult to pull an event together and the end result is confusing for the guests.

In order to determine your goal, think about what feeling you want people to walk away with. Do you want people to be inspired? Do you want people to  take action? Do you just want people to be entertained? What do you want people to bring to the event and what do you want them to take away?

3. Make useful lists.

When planning any event, lists are your best friend. You can use any list system you’d like, but make sure that the important tasks are first.

When creating your list, the most challenging and important tasks should be on top of the list. For example, the venue, food/drinks, and speaker/entertainment have to happen, so be sure those are in place first. When the big items are in place, you’ll find it easier to plan the smaller details. Plus, it can be hard to plan the small details if you’re not sure how big the venue will be, what the time the caters are showing up, or what type of entertainment there will be. Think big-picture first, then worry about the details.

Where will you keep your list?

  • Evernote Is my personal favorite. It’s a great platform to get organized and I’m able to share it with multiple people.
  • Google Docs is similar to Evernote, and great for those who make heavy use of Google products already. There, your able to create documents and share them with people. They can have specific permissions, like just being able to view or being able to edit the document.
  • Google Keep is a simple note and list application that makes lists easy.
  • Wunderlist lets you plan for events, collaborate with others, and access the lists from anywhere.

Which ever list platform you choose (and you might even choose pen and paper), just be sure it fits what you need. Complex tools don’t always help plan for simple events. There are a lot of online resources to help you with lists for event planning, but you should always customize a pre-made planning list for your own event. Each event is unique.

What’s your favorite list app? What do you use for planning?

4. Get help from others.

Asking for help isn’t a bad thing.

Volunteers can be a great source of help, as long as you know where to find them. Find groups or organizations that might be interested (or benefit) from your event. Reach out to local universities to see if students would be interested, particularly those with related majors. Students might be a great source for help with social media, marketing, or public relations, for example. They build experience and a resume, and you build a great event.

Don’t forget to reach out to your own social media fans or blog readers. They might love to help, too. Consider giving away free entrance or other swag as an incentive to get involved.

There are always some little details that need to get done. Give them to your volunteers to do. Just be sure to treat them well and thank them. This will make them want to help you out again.

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5. Know what your audience expects.

What does your audience expect from your event?

As I mentioned earlier, I attend a weekly event called 1 Million Cups Bismarck-Mandan. There are 1 Million Cups events all around the United States. I guarantee each event is different, although the goal of each is the same: to engage entrepreneurs in communities around the world. My expectations for my first event were low, because I had never heard of 1 Million Cups before. However, after the first event, my expectations rise every time.

Now, I expect there to be an insightful speaker(s) who has a unique business/business idea. I expect them to give advice to the audience, but also need advice back. I expect there to always be delicious coffee and friendly people to network with. I’ve gone to eight of these events and I have yet to be disappointed.

It’s important for an event to reach and connect with their audience. 1 Million cups connects with me because I’m interested in what the speakers have to say. I love getting and giving advice, meeting new people, and I have a strong love for coffee, especially free coffee!

Determine your target audience for your event. Find what interests them so you know how to plan everything from speakers to entertainment and food. Know if your audience will have disabilities and plan accordingly making sure everyone has access to the full event.

6. Have the outcome in mind.

What would you like the outcome to be? Is there a call to action? Would you like people to sign up or buy something? Join a movement?

The outcome is different than the goal. The event has a purpose, and the outcome is the action that comes from that purpose. Perhaps your goal is to inspire people to help out in their community. The outcome might be an entire community-first movement from those who participated. Or perhaps you hope the outcome is a stronger connection between the community and your business (e.g. Riggs Partners and their efforts with Smashburger).

7. Scheduling the date and time.

Be smart when you’re planning the date of the event. Don’t plan it too close to holidays or other similar, related events that are happening in the area. Make sure your target audience won’t have to decide between your event and another one.

Yet again, knowing your target audience helps. Does your event target high school students? Make sure you’re not conflicting with sports seasons or extra-curricular events. Full-time workers? You might want to keep your event to weekends.

If you do have to schedule your event the same day as another event, make sure it’s at a time that doesn’t conflict with the other event or try to make your event more appealing than the competition.

8. Be realistic about what’s possible.

It’s fun to day dream about events, but make sure you’re being realistic when planning.

Know how much time you have to pull off the event and know your budget. If you’re planning a bigger event, give yourself a few months. You won’t necessarily need more money for a bigger event, you’ll just have to be more creative.

9. Stick with SMART goals.

Be smart and stick with SMART goals. This will help keep the event reasonable.

  • S – Specific. Use action verbs to describe the 5 W’s: who, what, when, where, and why.
  • M – Measurable. Make sure your goals can be measured. If they can’t be measured, how can you let sponsors know if you were successful or not?
  • A – Achievable. Once again, be realistic. It’s so easy to think big, but plan for what your resources and time allow.
  • R – Relevant. The goals need to be relevant to why you’re planning the event in the first place.
  • T – Time-bound. Set mini goals for when tasks need to be completed to help keep you and your team on track with time.

10. Budget

It’s easy to say, “Oh, this will be a small event. It won’t cost much,” and never set a budget. If you do this, you’re setting yourself up to over spend, by a lot. Set a budget, keep an expense report. If you find yourself straining against your budget, you’ll have to get creative (maybe even DIY!).

There are many places you can go to help for planning your budget and working with finances. Mint.com, for example, is free and fast. Another site is Planning Pod, which can do much more than just help you with a budget. Planning Pod can help you track, create, build, manage, collaborate, and prepare. You can also create your own budget managing system using Excel or a Google Docs spreadsheet.

It’s also important to know how you are paying for an event.

Are you paying for the event through sponsors? If so, be sure to get your sponsors first, before you sign contracts or start spending money on the event. It would be unfortunate to have a sponsor pull out of the event when you have signed contracts and booked the venue and entertainment.

11. Get Creative

Bring in fresh ideas. It’s important to try new and creative things at events. And if you use DIY, it can help keep the cost down.

How do you keep the cost down and stay creative? You could find a few DIY books, watch DIY shows, or…Pinterest. It’s a great resource for event planners. You can browse for ideas for all types of events, finding ideas on everything from food, drinks, decorations, games, and more. It’s like the holy grail of DIY.

Julius Solairs lists 20 different Pinterest boards to follow for different components of events. This post by  Angela Schelp has some tips on how to plan an event via Pinterest. This post by Yusno Yunos has some great ideas on why using Pinterest is an exceptional tool for event planners. As you can see, Pinterest is a great tool to use when it comes to planning events.

If you’re not a fan of Pinterest, try DIY blogs that focus on great event planning. You’ll find great blogs that give you the help and inspiration needed for planning a variety of events.

Whenever there is a craft fair near by, go to it. You may not buy anything, but they are a great place to get ideas and meet makers who might be able to help you out with your event for a reasonable cost. I was involved with a fundraiser where we were to have a product to sell. When I was brainstorming ideas I thought about a tie blanket I saw at a craft fair. We were able to get fabric stores to donate the fabric, and the fundraiser turned out to be a huge success.

Ideas are everywhere.

12. Marketing

One of the most important aspects of an event is marketing it. If you want people to show up, you need to let them know the event is happening. Don’t just assume people will tell their friends and the event will spread by word of mouth.

Where is your audience most likely to see your message? TV? Radio? Social media? Promote your event where your audience is. You might even want to send out a press release.

In order to help organize your marketing efforts, a marketing plan is necessary. You’ll be dealing with press deadlines, and staggering your promotion of the event on social media. Perhaps you’ll be writing blog posts leading up to the event, and have to coordinate with writers and designers for those posts. A plan–with a timeline–is the only way you’ll get the marketing to fall into place. An editorial calendar is a great tool, too.

13. Incorporate social media

Every event should incorporate social media.

Not just to promote an event, but also during the event. If Twitter is an appropriate medium for your audience, create a hashtag for your event. It will help people spread the excitement of the event while at the the event, or while talking about attending the event. Attendees can interact with one another. It will also make measuring your reach on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, more effective.

Another reason to use social media is because it’s an inexpensive way to market/advertise your event. By creating a hashtag and an event landing page on your site and on social media platforms, you start the conversation ahead of time.

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How else can you use social media at your event?

  1. Hashtags: Incorporate the hashtag throughout the event. You can post signs and place the hashtag in the bottom right corner of presentations. You can also have a live Twitter feed streaming all of the tweets with the hashtags.
  2. Vine: Have a volunteer post vine videos of the event during the event and encourage others to post as well.
  3. Instagram: Have an Instagram account for the event and post lots of pictures. Be sure to incorporate the hashtag and try to follow and interact with the other people using it. Repost (“regram”) your attendees’ posts. It creates a relationship and makes them feel more attached to the event.
  4. Facebook: You can incorporate Facebook by posting pictures and sharing attendees statuses. You can also release information, like what times speakers are speaking and in what room. It’s a good way to stay connected with your guests.
  5. YouTube: Create a video of the event to show on the last session of the final day.
  6. Questions: A good way to bump up the social media interaction is have your attendees ask questions while incorporating the specific hashtag. The questions could be for a speaker and at the end of the presentation a few of those questions will be asked for the speaker to answer.

If you’ll be posting photos online, be sure you have signs that alert attendees that you’ll be taking photos during the event and posting them online, and that by being present they agree to this. Social media branding at an event level works!

14. Feedback

Be sure to get feedback from everyone involved with the event, including yourself (you probably learned a few things, too!).

Get feedback by using the email list you built when attendees signed up, or have them fill out a survey before they leave. One of my favorite survey sites to use is Survey Monkey. It’s free (unless you want to add special features) and easy to use. When the survey results come in, they are organized in easily readable formats.

Sometimes, people don’t like filling out surveys, so maybe you could offer an incentive to encourage people to do it. Gift cards, entered into a drawing for a big prize, swag–something people would actually want.

Getting feedback from your team, attendees, and vendors creates a positive relationship. So, even if something went horribly wrong, letting them share their opinions about it will create an overall positive vibe.

15. Have FUN

As challenging as planning and executing events is, take time to enjoy it. When you’re at the event, take a second to stand back and soak it in. Think of all the hard work you did to pull everything together and take pride in how everything worked out.

Have you ever planned an event? What do you wish you’d known before the event that you know now?