How to run the perfect corporate event
The guests are invited, the speaker is briefed, and the caterers are booked. What can possibly go wrong?
If you haven’t planned your event meticulously, the answer is almost everything. No matter how exciting the content of your seminar or presentation, a scruffy hall somewhere with poor audio-visual equipment is not going to reflect well on your company and your brand.
As with any area of business, planning is everything, but planning events can be a minefield for the uninitiated. The trick is to know what the pitfalls are so that you can avoid them and also avoid wasting money.
There are a million and one reasons why you might want to organise an off-site event, from PR, marketing and developing client relationships, to staff away days and internal conferences. The purpose and content may be different, but they have a surprising amount in common in terms of what will make the difference between a frustrating waste of time for all concerned, and a genuinely valuable occasion that will make your company shine. At IT marketing agency Mason Zimbler, senior account manager, Bryony Thomas is in charge of event organisation. She says off-site activity is a valuable marketing tool offering the opportunity to meet their target audience.
“It’s an opportunity for face-to-face interaction, answering specific questions that are not covered by generic marketing materials. Most importantly it is an opportunity to see if the chemistry is right. People buy people – and a seminar or exhibition gives an opportunity to see if these are the kind of people you’d like to do business with.” Off-site activity is also beneficial for internal events, such as training courses, and annual or quarterly reviews. When these are held on company premises they are often plagued with ‘urgent’ interruptions. “Holding events off-site is more expensive, but the benefits far outweigh the cost,” argues Graham Keen, managing partner of corporate development company, New Impetus. “If you’re trying to get people to think in new ways, it’s important to be able to step aside from normal work life and be objective.”
The more time you can have to plan your event, the better, as this ensures you have the pick of the best venues. At Mason Zimbler, Thomas says this is not the only reason for putting the venue first: “There are obvious practical reasons like getting your preferred date and rooms, but also because a venue sets the tone for an event. A good event has a tone that flows through all elements: marketing, registration staff and the venue. If one of these doesn’t gel it can ruin the overall feel.” Your choice will be either to do it yourself or to use a venuesourcing agency. Using an agency may save you time and money because they will have the contacts and the knowledge to get you the right venue at better rates than you could achieve alone. Either way you need to consider carefully where you are going to hold your event. Think about whether you just need a serviced office for a meeting, a hotel, or a dedicated conference venue. Dedicated premises have the advantage of being designed for your purpose and are distraction-free. They also have on-site conference teams who spend all their time supporting events, and can offer inclusive prices, which help with budgeting.
At PR company Four Communications, Margaret Flanagan has organised all kinds of in-house and client events, from formal receptions at the House of Lords to glamorous celebfilled parties, and she agrees that the venue is the key. “The type of venue you choose will depend partly on how much control you want. You may want to hire a blank space, or do it all yourself, or book a venue where they do everything except give you a choice of caterers. Check you are going to be able to do what you want to do – we once booked the Reform Club for a launch and then found out no photography was allowed.”
She adds that on no account should you ever trust a printed floor plan of a venue, she advises a visit with a tape measure to check the actual size of the room, including height if you are going to be putting up display stands, and any obstacles.
At Bournemouth International Centre, Clive Tyers, head of conference and events says that there is no such thing as a perfect venue. “But you can make a venue perfect for you. We would never take a booking without the client visiting the venue and getting a feel for how an event will work.”
Similarly, at Wembley Conference Centre, director of sales and marketing, Peter Tudor, says you should always visit the conveniences at your prospective venue. Make sure you can attend a tasting session by the caterers and check all the facilities, after all, food and toilets are the two things that make people comfortable.
Sourcing a venue that is appropriate for the type of event and whoever is going to be attending it is also crucial.
“You want everyone to go away with a positive outlook, to feel well looked after and privileged to have been there,whether they are a client or staff,” says Andrea Afrifa, groups and event director at restaurant reservation and event booking service, Toptable.co.uk. Essentially, the venue has to make you look good, and that boils down to how much effort is put into keeping the venue in good order. Above all, however, as Keen says, “it’s about the people at the venue, and whether they will go out of their way to satisfy your requests, rather than being put out. There are some physically impressive venues that I just wouldn’t go to purely because the people there are not particularly good people.”
At new events company Dandelion Creative, Debby Lee says the venue staff can make or break how your guests feel about the event and your company.
“The venue staff and door staff need to be briefed that everyone is a somebody and needs to be looked after and made to feel welcome,” she says.
The price is right
Having a proper budget early on is crucial. It will determine the venue you can hire and every other aspect of the day. There is no point in splashing out on a grand location if you are serving egg sandwiches and orange squash. Kathy-Ann Fell, business development manager at Unique Events and Vision Development Training, also points out that the budget must be linked with what you want to get out of the event in terms of hard business benefits. “Ensuring the budget delivers both value for money and tangible results for a better company performance means that there is not much room for manoeuvre, once the faithful have gathered.”
It is important to scrutinise exactly what is included in the price of venue hire, as this can vary significantly. Many venues do not have standard rates – the cost and what is included and excluded from the quote will depend on each individual event, but the golden rule is to check, check and check again and always negotiate.
A basic price may end up being inflated by the various hidden extra charges that are incurred on site. “You can often get stung for hidden costs and many venue providers will forget to mention the additional extras that can make a difference to your final bill coming into budget,” says Etc Venues’ sales and marketing director Mary Fowell.
When you consider that a hotel may charge between £2.50 and £6 for a single serving of coffee, the cost of your event can easily spiral. “It leaves a bad taste and a lot of explaining to receive an invoice after an event that bears little resemblance to the initial quote,” says Caryl Jones at event organiser and venue manager, Initial Style. Prices are always negotiable for a series of events, and you can get good deals if you can be flexible with your dates. You can also save money on things like food, alcohol and goody bags if you are prepared to be a bit cheeky.
“Blagging can work – perhaps a local drinks or catering company will provide drinks or food in exchange for inclusion in the event literature,” says Flanagan at Four Communications. You can also cut costs by organising sale or return drinks and free glass hire. Catering companies will charge you twice as much for wine as buying it yourself, but they are usually happy to serve what you provide.
It should be clear by now that planning is the key to a successful event. If you don’t have particularly good event organising skills in-house, you may find it worthwhile hiring an event or conference organiser elsewhere, you could hire either a company or a freelance specialist.
Experience counts when it comes to finding the right venue, how to create the right atmosphere, and knowing the pitfalls to watch out for. But as Lee says, if you do use outside help you must make sure they can deliver on budget.
“Anyone can be creative on a big budget, but you also need operating skills, like dealing with a bolshie security guard, operating a cloakroom, or speaking to a sound engineer – all the things that let an event down. But don’t give all the responsibility to your events company – someone from your company should attend key planning meetings.”
A lot of good event planning is down to common sense, and having enough time to get everything done properly. If you’re planning anything in December, for instance, you are going to have to start looking for a venue very early. Allow around six weeks for invitations and factor in time to print any required brochures. Get someone to phone all delegates the day before to confirm they are attending. Lee suggests budgeting for a member of the venue staff to be on your payroll for the time you are there, to help you with boring-butessential things, like light bulbs and where the power points are. At Wembley, Tudor adds that if you talk to your venue team about the type of event you are running, they are likely to be able to suggest what will work best on their premises.
What makes a memorable event?
You want everyone to be talking about your event for the right reasons. Success is down to a wide variety of factors including creativity, picking the most appropriate venue, having excellent speakers and stimulating content, great catering and making your guests feel comfortable and special.
It’s also down to thorough planning, and practical considerations, like, making sure you’ve checked the sound so there’s no nasty feedback on microphones, and making sure delegates know how to get to the venue.
The size of the event and the number of delegates or guests is less important than making sure you have organised a day and a venue that is entirely appropriate for that group. You should also have a good reason for holding the event, as Lee says; “If you are trying to communicate something about your business, make sure everyone knows what that message is.”
At Mason Zimbler, Thomas, adds that memorable events are well branded. “Right through from the initial invitation to the thank you letter they receive, it should have a consistent look and feel. We recently did an event with a photography theme, where the invite looked like photos being returned from the lab, the delegate packs and badges looked like negative strips, the presentation was themed as a film reel and the thank-you letter continued the theme. We received excellent attendance and feedback.”
And if all else fails, a familiar face helps. Flanagan at Four Communications says: “People always love a celeb, either as a speaker or an attendee. A journalist or two always adds kudos to an external event as it makes it appear newsworthy.”