4 Must-Follow Rules for Planning Events in the Trump Era

event-planning-in-donald-trump-eraTo say that emotions have been running high in the U.S. over the last month since the election of Donald Trump is possibly the understatement of the new century. Whatever side you ended up on, whatever your political affiliation, you are probably exhausted and ready for a break from the election’s divisiveness as well as the media’s continuous barrage on our senses.

However, as event professionals, we will be faced with the repercussions from this election over the coming months as attendees of all political persuasions will be coming to our events and interacting with each other. Granted, some of you may be holding events that may appeal more to one particular mindset or political leaning, but even in these cases you may have guests that widely differ in their reactions and level of attachment/detachment with the issues of the day.

So as you plan and launch events during the Trump Era, here are a few rules to follow to ensure that your events remain on track and your attendees stay engaged with each other … not enraged at each other.

1. Provide a “safe haven” for your attendees
Whether you are hosting a fundraiser, organizing a meeting or planning a party or wedding, you may have attendees with positions all over the political map. And one thing that can intimidate attendees and put them on the defensive is if they feel they or their ideas are being minimized or attacked. And when people feel cornered, they tend to lash out, which could require you to diffuse uncomfortable situations and even derail your event.

So from the outset you should make your attendees feel comfortable to be who they are and let attendees know that their role is not to judge each other but to try and understand, listen to and learn from each other. Yes, this may sound very “kumbaya”, but by setting this precedent at the outset, you can hopefully diffuse any eruptions before they occur and begin your event with a low anxiety/aggression baseline.

One suggestion for setting this example is for you or your first speaker to openly acknowledge the potential differences of opinion in the room and to reiterate the purpose of the event so everyone can stay focused on it and not on defending a position that may not have anything to do with the event.

2. Offer positive solutions
Every election season has a fair measure of negativity, but this season has subjected us to something more like an avalanche of negativity, followed by a tsunami of vitriol, finished off by an apocalypse of animosity.

Of course this is cause for concern as to what it says about the state of our government, but it also sets an unfortunate precedent in that this dark mood bleeds into our daily lives and interactions with each other. It’s as if we now expect negative interactions and outcomes in all facets of our lives, and to be honest there are many, many things in our lives to be thankful for and to embrace.

It’s one of your responsibilities as an event organizer to rise above the fray and focus on positive solutions and outcomes for your events. The events you create can be a path forward both for your attendees and for your cause, company or organization. And if you are celebrating an occasion, this can be a moment of reflection and a reminder of the common ground we share. Embracing forward-thinking themes and constructive ideas will not only unite your attendees but it gives them hope and purpose as they leave your event and return to what many feel is an uncertain new world.


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3. Don’t contribute to the noise and misinformation
As we have witnessed in politics over the last 20 years, saying extreme things and speaking in constant hyperbole often works wonders and gains lots of ears and eyeballs. The media has picked up on this and used it to spin ratings at the cost of our sanity. Marketers even stir up fake controversy to attract attention. And social media is usually the rank cauldron where all this activity brews and builds, where misstatements, exaggerations and even downright lies go unchecked and take on the semblance of truth and normality.

In the end, we all end up feeling duped by our culture, like everyone and everything is trying to pull one over on us and trick us into believing or buying something. So we approach every message and look at every messenger with suspicion.

This is why it is vital for your outreach and your message to attendees to be honest, heartfelt and sincere. Sure there’s still room to be clever, creative and even edgy. And maybe your topic or approach is controversial in and of itself. But if you think playing on people’s fears or relying on shock is now normal behavior in getting people’s attention, then you may discover that we are all getting pretty desensitized to it, and you will most likely alienate a segment of your audience that you will never get back. Don’t stoop to the level of our political discourse (or lack thereof) … rise above it. Your attendees will appreciate you all the more for it.

4. Encourage and create opportunities for dialogue
Politically, our country is as polarized as ever, and more than ever Americans’ identities are wrapped up into party affiliation. Unfortunately this has created “siloed” populations where like-minded people only seek out information that reinforces their beliefs and only interact with people who agree with them.

As event professionals, we have both an immense challenge and a once-in-a-generation opportunity to create an open dialogue among attendees so we all can start finding common ground and understanding each other better and what motivates each of us to think and act. This is where the events industry can take the lead in creating forums where dialogue is encouraged and where people can listen to different ideas and come to respect different points of view.

The key word here is “respect”, in that Trump-Era events need to encourage a respectful demeanor among attendees in which people are less inclined to judge, react or withdraw and more inclined to listen, participate and interact in a positive fashion with one another. This is the best way to ensure your attendees leave your events satisfied and inspired … and the best way to ensure they continue to attend future events.

The Donald Trump administration may well bring a fair amount of change and controversy, but by following these four rules you give your events the best chance of success in the era of Trump.

9 Unshakable Tips for Choosing Conference and Event Speakers

Event Keynote Speaker Selection Tips

When most people think back on an event and the things that left the strongest impression on them – both positive and negative – the first things that come to mind are…

  1. The food
  2. The venue/setting
  3. The speakers, content and/or entertainment

As an event professional, it’s usually pretty straightforward to get an idea of the venue and if they will be able to accommodate your needs. And you can always survey your attendees ahead of time to assess their culinary preferences and schedule a tasting with a caterer so you know exactly what you will be getting.

But properly sourcing, scouting, vetting and hiring keynote speakers as well as session speakers … well, that’s more art than science. And there’s a lot riding on how artful you are at choosing a speaker for your next conference, meeting, seminar, symposium, fundraiser, networking / industry event or any other kind of shindig.

So we asked a handful of industry experts who have either scouted and hired countless speakers for events or are speakers themselves to see what best practices they employ when deciding on who takes the microphone and the laser pointer.

1. Watch your prospective speakers perform

Hiring an event speaker without seeing them in action is like buying a car sight-unseen … you just don’t do it unless you have an unquenchable thirst for tempting fate.

“What you see is what you get,” says Mazda Miles, President of Perfection Events . “The best way to asses a speaker’s ability to be relevant and engaging is seeing how they’ve done that successfully for other organizations. Before contracting a speaker, I require video at minimum, and most times try to see if their travel schedule aligns at all with somewhere that I or one of my staff members can be to experience them first-hand.”

When you see a speaker live, you get a close-up look at all the nuances of the speaker and the reactions of the crowd, and you get to watch both as they interact with each other. It’s this interaction with the audience and the ability to read their reactions and adapt on the fly that separates top-flight speakers from the rest.

“Be sure to look at his or her video, ideally one filmed in front of a real audience,” affirms speaker and author Barry Maher . “What you want to see are continuous stretches of material, full stories, entire segments, rather than a lot of quick cuts and one liners. You’re trying to determine whether or not the speaker can sustain the audience’s interest.”

And if the speaker doesn’t have a reel … for a keynote speaker, that should be a dealbreaker, and for a session or secondary speaker, that should raise a red flag.

2. Look for speakers who research and prepare thoroughly (and who include you in the preparation)

Every speaker has their canned speech or a series of templated talks that they can draw on in a pinch. But for your events you don’t want just any speaker with their regurgitated riff they offered up at last week’s Elks lodge meeting … you want a tailored presentation that will appeal to the specific audience attending your event, which means the speaker will need to put in time either creating a speech from scratch or repurposing an existing speech with your audience (and the topics they appreciate) in mind.

“I’m looking to specifically understand how they approach various industries, sectors, and levels of professionals and in turn tailor the talk to be equally relevant and actionable to their specific audience,” says Mazda Miles.

Gauging a speaker’s understanding of the topics, industry and audience in play at your event is a great starting place, and you need to follow this up by making sure that the speech they will be preparing for your event ticks off all the requirements. So you also need to do your homework and work with the speaker to formulate the topic; review the meat of the content; review the drafts; and even watch them rehearse it (often done via video or Skype).

Just make sure to put all this in writing in your contract with your speakers so that they know and understand you require input and progress updates all along the way.

3. Make sure your speakers are willing to make pre- and post-speech appearances

Ever been to an event where the keynote speaker finishes, answers a few questions and then makes a mad dash for the door? It kinda makes the whole audience feel like he’s in a hurry to leave them (and that they weren’t really that important) and that he had better things to do than stick around and mingle.

“Making sure that speakers are open to speaking to attendees one-on-one is one of the determining factors of hiring for our events,” says Michelle Colon-Johnson, founder of 2 Dream Productions, a book publicist company.

Look at it like this … Often one of the big draws of any event is the keynote speaker or the main entertainment (BTW, some of the tips for choosing a keynote speaker can also apply to choosing an entertainment vendor), and the more time the crowd can spend with that person, the more special the night becomes for them. This is especially true if the speaker is famous, has achieved something notable or is revered among audience members. Giving your audience members one-on-one time with the speaker before and after the speech only enriches the experience.

“At the end of the day, our clients want keynote speakers to engage the audience before, during and after the event — driving attendance, maintaining their engagement and continuing the conversation,” affirms Mazda Miles.

4. Inquire if they have worked with other organizations like yours

Would you hire a motivational speaker who has little experience speaking to an audience of electrical engineers? Or would you hire a prominent nuclear physicist to motivate a telecom sales force? Probably not on both counts, and mainly because each of these speakers is out of their element.

Instead, you want to hire a speaker who knows your audience and has presented to them or something akin to them before. And this goes double for presentations or keynotes that deal with a specific subject matter or technical information … in those cases, people are attending because they want to be informed by an expert, and having a generalist speak may leave them feeling slighted.

“I recently talked with a meeting planner in the financial services industry whose boss was getting a great deal on a motivational speaker who speaks on his success in the car wash business,” relates Barry Maher. “Maybe he’ll be able to make it relevant. Maybe he won’t. And motivational speakers who don’t motivate are overpriced even if they’re free because they’ve damaged your meeting, wasted people’s time and annoyed your attendees.”

This is a great point to remember, because even a free speaker may cost you thousands when your attendees hit the exits early and decline to sign up for next year’s event because this year’s speaker was a dud.

5. Speakers who co-promote the event get special consideration

It’s always hard to market an event and get the word out, especially if it’s a new event or a one-off event that has no track record or no prior audience. Every event professional knows this, which is why we seek out every potential marketing avenue possible, including relationships with professional organizations, associations and anyone else with a membership or mailing list that hits our target market.

But often one avenue we overlook is having the speaker also pitch in and market the event to their marketing list (and, yes, the best speakers often have lists larger than the one on your computer). You can and should (if possible) negotiate this into their contract, and you can also give then incentive to market the event directly to their followers by giving them a cut of any registrations that come from their site or list (by way of some kind of affiliate program/tracking).

6. Place a priority on speakers who interview you

When first talking with and screening a potential event speaker, pay close attention to how many questions they ask and how interested they are in your mission and your audience. You certainly don’t want a speaker who dominates the conversation and steamrolls over you, but you also don’t want a pure order-taker who just sees your event as another notch on their belt.

Unfortunately, lots of event professionals don’t think about seeking out a speaker who asks challenging questions and provokes dialogue regarding what the speech and presentation should say and inspire, and Marian Thier, speaker and partner at Listening Impact, knows this all too well.

“Too often event planners look at speakers as a slot to fill rather than as a thought-provoker that will be what the attendees remember about a conference or off-site,” says Thier. “When someone calls me to speak at an event and I ask for a profile of the audience, their learning criteria, and the purpose of the keynote, if the caller cannot provide intelligent and detailed responses, I refuse the request because it’s a clear sign their client wants an edutainer, which I am not. Or, the event planner and their client haven’t spent nearly enough time talking about the role and responsibilities of the keynote.”

So if you have a potential speaker who engages with you from the outset, you have found someone who should at least make it to the next stage of the selection process only because they care enough to ask tough questions and are showing the effort and diligence they will bring to the role of the keynote speaker for your event.

7. Beware of speakers looking to make extra money selling their wares

Event budgets are like any other budget these days in that you are usually forced to do more with less. And after spending money on food, venues, decor, transportation, etc., often you don’t have much money left over. This is why it is often very tempting to save money on a speaker by selecting either someone who is an amateur and will speak for the exposure or someone who will make their money back by promoting their own books, videos and other products.

Both come with their own caveats. The amateur will probably not be as polished and may not be able to read the audience if their presentation starts to nosedive with the audience. The professional who is promoting their new book or seminar may place too much emphasis on selling and not enough on educating and inspiring, which can make audience members angry, especially if they have paid a registration fee for the event. I know I have been peeved at events for which I have shelled out for a ticket only to hear a speaker blather on about their wares or their business. Because it should never be about the speaker … it should always be about the attendees.

Be even more wary of a paid speaker who still wants to promote their wares. “If someone is wanting to sell their product so they can make more, look for someone else,” says Dave Phillipson of CEO Space. “You can always get them to include their book in the speaking price, usually for just a small amount more.”

8. Understand the risks of high-priced, high-profile speakers

High-priced, high-profile motivational or celebrity speakers can certainly be a big draw, and if you have the budget for them it’s hard to turn down that kind of appeal that could sell out your event.

However, in the words of Barry Maher, “Remember there’s not necessarily a correlation between speaker quality and pricing.”

So even though they may bring lots of people through the doors, a high-profile celebrity or motivational speaker can still lay an egg when it comes to the content they provide (if it’s not relevant to the audience) or their connection to the audience (if, say, they mistakenly identify the audience as travel agents when in fact it is composed of corporate event managers in charge of travel budgets, which one motivational speaker actually did). In addition, they can suck up so much of your event budget that everything else on the program suffers, including your second- and third-tier speakers. The market may be willing to bear Bill Clinton’s $250K speaking fees, but your event may not be able to bear it if everything else suffers and attendees are left with a mixed experience.

“The question always is, do the high profile speakers generate enough interest and ultimately enough satisfaction to cover their costs?” says Maher. “Some at the very high end may well [deserve it]. The gray area are those high-priced second tier and third tier celebrities. I’d want to make absolutely sure they were also great speakers – and a number of them are – before paying a fee that could have been used to fill several hours with quality sessions or, for that matter, improve the quality of the lunch.”

9. Check unlisted references

Every event, meeting or convention speaker, even the most mediocre ones, have good references who will attest to their stellar abilities. So you need to dig deeper regarding references for your speakers. And it goes without saying that calling on references is a must.

The best way to do this is to research what events they have spoken at in the past and call the organizers of those events to get the real skinny. Remember that many people won’t want to dump on a conference or meeting speaker when they did a substandard job … why kick a guy (or speaker) when he’s down, right? If this is the case, listen for criticism couched in noncommittal phrases and kind excuses (like “it wasn’t really his fault” or “she was having a bad week”).

7 Big Drawbacks of Event Planning Spreadsheet Templates

Event Planning Templates - Drawbacks

If you have been using a computer for any length of time, it seems that spreadsheets have been around as long as computers and are as familiar as word processing programs and email.

The story of spreadsheets really starts with academics back in the 60s and 70s who needed an easier, faster way to make financial calculations. In fact, spreadsheet programs were considered the first “killer app” for computers because of their ease of use and power. And although spreadsheet apps were first developed for accounting and financial services professionals, by the 80s and 90s they were being used by people in a variety of industries who needed to compile and manage all kinds of numerical and textual data.

At that time, event professionals quickly found a use for spreadsheets in storing things like budgets, guest lists and schedules. Since then, event pros have been using event planning spreadsheets as an essential part of their business and event management processes, and for two reasons:

  1. Spreadsheets are easily customizable and flexible enough to store all types of data.
  2. Spreadsheet programs are relatively inexpensive and don’t require lots of training to use basic features.

However, with all the advances in event technology and online event management software applications over the last 10 years, the limitations of event planning templates and spreadsheets are becoming more and more apparent to event professionals who want better and faster ways to store, access and manipulate their event data.

Yes, event planning spreadsheets can and do still have a place in event management, but before you invest all your time and effort in creating detailed event planning templates for your business or organization, consider these seven big drawbacks of using spreadsheets as the cornerstone for your event planning and management activities.

Drawback #1 – They are time consuming to set up and maintain.

Not only does it take time to program an event budget template or build an itinerary/schedule in a spreadsheet, but it also takes loads of time to add and manage the data inside these spreadsheets. Often you must go field-by-field to enter specific pieces of data, and making bulk changes to select items is tedious and slow.

Spreadsheets are inexpensive as far as upfront costs go, but the time you spend creating and updating these event management spreadsheets will probably cost you far more money and resources than if you had purchased a tool built specifically for event management … which leads to the next drawback.

Drawback #2 – They were designed for managing financial data, not event details.

Would you expect an accountant to store expenses and revenues using a room layout program? Or a project manager to manage due dates with a word processing tool? Not at all. So why would you expect a spreadsheet to do a bang-up job managing your attendee list or your production schedule? It’s simply not the right tool for the job.

As we noted earlier, spreadsheets were first designed for accountants and financial professionals, which is why they still do a good job with event budgets. But now that we have programs for attendee management, schedule building, task managers and calendaring, event planning spreadsheets are no longer the best tools for managing these types of data.

And if you do use event planning templates for these scenarios, you are spending an inordinate amount of time and effort entering data and then sorting through it when you need access to particular details like RSVP information, timeline items and task due dates and assignments.

Drawback #3 – They are susceptible to mistakes and fraud.

It’s easy for someone to make a change in a piece of data or a formula in an event management spreadsheet … too easy in fact. While your cursor is in a field, you could bump your keyboard and instantly overwrite critical data. Or you could accidentally put the wrong information in a field and not notice it until you have saved over the previous version. Or you could simply make miscalculations that snowball into huge errors  .

Ditto goes for fraudulent activity in spreadsheets. Spreadsheet fraud and hacking has resulted in billions of dollars in losses, and it’s all because entire enterprises rely on those spreadsheets to be always accurate and intact.

So if you’ve ever heard the old computer adage “garbage in, garbage out”, it applies all too frequently to event management templates.

Drawback #4 – They decentralize data (which is a bad thing).

If you’ve ever worked in an organization where they rely on spreadsheets to manage data, you know how difficult it is to keep all those spreadsheets in one central place and that it’s a constant battle to have all users put files back where they belong.

In addition, when someone makes a change to a spreadsheet and they don’t store it in the correct place, all of a sudden you have two copies of the same spreadsheet but each with different data – one old and one new. And someone must reconcile these and/or track down the different versions to make sure the correct version is in the correct folder.

What all this decentralization can lead to is lost data or bad data, neither of which bodes well when every detail needs to be accurate to have a successful event.

Drawback #5 – They don’t adapt well to changing business needs/circumstances.

Event planning templates are okay when things remain static and you don’t need to frequently alter, add or remove data columns, rows and fields. But what happens when a particular business process changes or the way you organize your information needs to change? Now your templates must change too, and they probably won’t match up with older event management templates.

In addition, event planning templates are very specific to the preferences and work habits of the person who built the spreadsheet in the first place, and that person may not have considered how other event professionals manage information. So what happens if the person who built your event planning templates leaves your organization? Or if you hire a new person who must now adapt to the event planning spreadsheets that you built? They may have a difficult time figuring out how the spreadsheets were built and how they should be used.

Finally, if you are only planning a few events, you may only have to manage a few dozen or so spreadsheets. But what if you are planning 10, 20 or even 100 events? Suddenly you are managing hundreds of spreadsheets containing tens of thousands of details, and the odds that this could become overwhelming or that you lose data increase dramatically.

Drawback #6 – They were not built for collaboration.

Really the only two ways that teams can use spreadsheets is by emailing the spreadsheets to team members or by storing spreadsheets on a shared server/folder (e.g., using a tool like Dropbox) that team members have access to.

If you go the email route, your data is again scattered all over the place and you now introduce multiple copies of the same spreadsheet into the mix, each of which may have differing information depending on who makes what changes to which version.

If you go the shared server/folder route, you could have two people working on the same file at once and overwriting each other, you don’t have granular control over who can make changes when, and you don’t have a record of who made what changes if those modifications were inaccurate.

And as your teams grow, spreadsheets don’t scale well at all because you are now multiplying the chances for error and data conflict every time you share your event or meeting planning templates with more and more people.

Drawback #7 – They make it difficult to compile and consolidate information.

If you have dozens of event or meeting planning spreadsheets and want to consolidate the contents of them or compile certain pieces of information for reporting purposes, you are in for one hell of a copy-and-paste session. This is because, unlike a relational database, spreadsheets require you to reorganize the tables and/or copy data whenever you need to pull data from disparate places across many spreadsheets.

So when you want to relate the RSVP headcount in your event attendee spreadsheet to the cost-per-person of a plated dinner in your event budget template, you are going to have to figure out how to manually copy, manipulate and marry that information.

When it comes to reporting across a number of event variables in separate event management templates, you again must copy-and-paste to create those reports. Yes, you could link spreadsheets together, but again this is massively time consuming and, if one of those spreadsheets changes, the link could break or even feed bad data into the report.

In closing, spreadsheets will always have a place in practically every industry, including event management and planning. But to rely on them solely or to make them the centerpiece of your event information management process is just asking for trouble.

6 Reasons Why the Event Binder Is Dead

Event Binders Are Dead

Before laptop computers were commonplace, before tablets were even a glimmer in Steve Jobs’ eye, event planners and managers carried around massive event binders full of printed documents and spreadsheets as well as tons of notes regarding each and every event.

These event planning binders were the event “bible” for each event and contained all of the vital details regarding the event, including proposals, vendor bids, invoices, meeting notes, contact lists, timelines, schedules, budgets, table layouts, seating arrangements and guest lists. If you went to any meeting without the event binder, you were basically flying blind because it contained all your reference materials.

Nowadays you see fewer of these big event binders, which makes it all the more amazing when you spot someone lugging one around. And although I must admit I’m a bit of a luddite in a few ways (like I still prefer to buy music CDs instead of purchasing downloadable music … compressed music files just don’t sound the same to my ears), I’m still puzzled why so many people still insist on using event planning binders when there are so many better paperless event binder alternatives available … and so many drawbacks to relying on a printed event binder for the success of your event.

Based on conversations with hundreds of event planners and mangers over the last 5 years, we have compiled the six biggest reasons why the event planners we spoke with have rejected the event binder … and why you should follow their lead.

NOTE – In the past, many conference / meeting attendees were often provided with conference binders / meeting binders that came with meeting schedules and materials; the reasons below for replacing event planning binders easily apply to conference binders and meeting binders, too (which are quickly being replaced by event apps and other technologies).

So here are the 6 reasons why the event binder is dead …
#1 – Because losing your binder would be an unmitigated disaster.

For event professionals, the hundreds or thousands of details they need to track for every event are as precious as gold and as vital as blood, and the thought of losing all of them is enough to drive any event pro to drink heavily.

Just imagine trying to rebuild all those documents; revisit all those decisions; regather all those quotes and receipts; get those contracts resigned; and retrack down all those items? Eeeesh. It’s really an impossible task, and in the meantime you are spending your valuable time rebuilding your event documentation when you should be planning the event itself. And heaven forbid if you lose it in the weeks leading up to an event.

The Solution – Store all your details on a backed-up computer or, better yet, with a cloud-based application or service that backs up your information automatically.

#2 – Because finding specific details in a paper binder takes way too much time.

If you are lucky, it may take a minute or two to page through dozens or hundreds of physical pages to hunt down a specific detail or item. If you aren’t so lucky, it may take much, much longer. This is always frustrating, and if you are doing it in front of a client or team member, it could also be embarrassing. (Granted, using binder tabs could make this slightly easier, but you still have to dig for details among a mass of paper.)

The Solution – Compare this manual process to having details a few clicks away on your computer or tablet and it’s a no-brainer which method is easier and faster for pulling up data that you need to view.

#3 – Because updating information is clunky at best.

Once you find the piece of data you are looking for, do you cross out the old, now-inaccurate information and write the new data on the piece of paper in your binder? Or are you constantly updating spreadsheets and documents and having to print them out and replace them?

Either way, changing details isn’t exactly straightforward or time-saving. And, every event planner knows that event details are constantly changing and evolving, so you are always referring back to your data set to modify information.

The Solution – Electronic data is so much easier to find, change and modify, when you are using event software or spreadsheets.

#4 – Because event binders = lots of dead trees, wastewater and a big carbon footprint.

Typically event professionals who use event planning binders go through many reams of paper over the course of a year. With that said, here some sobering numbers on what it takes to produce paper:

As the events industry makes great strides in other areas to reduce its carbon footprint, event planning binders filled with paper run counter to this conservation effort. And when you consider how much additional paper is wasted during this process on account of printing errors or disposing of outdated binder pages – estimates run from 6 to 15 pages a day – then maintaining event binders is decidedly a very dirty practice, environmentally speaking. But if you are in favor of more ugly landfills and bleak, clearcut forests, well then, who are we to stop you?

#5 – Because a heavy, unwieldy event binder is a pain in the ass to tote around.

Which would you prefer carrying around – massively heavy binders or an iPad/laptop? And especially if you are walking around a crowded conference all day long for several days? I guess you could look at this as getting some additional exercise (binder curls anyone?) but personally I’d rather go for a nice, quiet run or go to the gym than get all sweaty lugging a big binder around a meeting.

Conversely, you probably already have a laptop, tablet or smartphone, and those tools are so much easier to tote around and access your event data. It’s super convenient, and again, if your data is stored in the cloud, you can access it on multiple devices.

#6 – Because your prospects, clients and peers will think you are a dinosaur if you carry them.

Image may not be everything in event planning and management, but in many cases it’s close. Image is most certainly an important factor in both event design as well as in the way event professionals present themselves, and nobody in this business wants to appear outdated or behind the times.

So when you see someone toting around a binder stuffed with papers and slogging through it to find details, you don’t get a picture of someone who is “of the moment” or at the cutting edge of the industry. Juxtapose that to an event professional who is pulling up details quickly and effortlessly on their laptop or tablet and you can understand why people are more likely to hire and work with the tech savvy event manager. It may not be fair, but it’s the truth.

At the end of the day, you must decide what systems and techniques will make you more efficient and productive as well as present you as a competent event professional. But every year, more and more event pros are choosing to replace the event binder with computers, tablets and online software and applications, and for all the relevant reasons listed above. And whether you like it or not, this trend will continue as better alternatives present themselves.

10 Insider Tips for Choosing the Right Caterer

Tips for Choosing a Caterer

When it comes to the things that can make or break an event, few are as important as the quality, flavor and appearance of the food and beverages you serve. A lot is riding on your decision of which caterer to hire, and if you think this decision really isn’t that important, look at it this way … amazing catering can rescue an event that’s on the rocks, but bad catering will almost always send guests to the doors (or, in your nightmare scenario, to the restrooms).

In addition, because catering is often the #1 or #2 line-item cost for most events, the caterer you choose is also a significant budgetary decision and can influence how much money you have left over to spend on other areas depending on food costs and quantities.

Add in the fact that caterers can vary dramatically in their pricing and the types of meals and services they offer, and the process of selecting a caterer can figuratively and literally feel like you are comparing apples to oranges (pun fully intended).

So we talked to a dozen veteran caterers and event managers about the criteria they recommend in selecting a caterer. And based on their recommendations…

Here are the 10 top criteria event you should consider when hiring a caterer.

#1 – Responsiveness and Personal Interest in Your Needs

Of all the event and catering professionals we spoke with, this came up over and over and over again, mainly because how responsive and interested a caterer is during your initial conversations is indicative of how they will perform during the length of their contract with you (and more on contracts later).

“Many caterers will claim to have the best-tasting food made with the freshest ingredients at the most competitive price, but it is a rare quality for one to be both quick to return calls and emails and open to critiques and new ideas,” says Cheryl Lynn Foster-Gerton, an event designer and owner of An Essential Event in Denver. “While these may seem like somewhat insignificant factors when compared with overall taste and cost, they actually mean that the caterer is truly concerned with meeting the customers’ needs and ensuring that they are pleased with both the product and the service.”

A prospective caterer should be learning as much as they can about you in your first few conversations with them, so you should expect them to be talking and asking questions about 20% of the time and you providing answers and outlining your needs about 80% of the time. “If the caterer is not asking questions about the event they may see you as simply ‘the next client’,” says Lyndsey Bunn, Catering and Conference Services Manager at Silver Legacy Resort Casino . “They should be interested in learning about your event. They should be asking about your theme, the purpose, budget and goals.”

#2 – Ability to Handle Your Specific Type of Event

Not every caterer is perfect or every type of event, and many caterers themselves openly admit this.

“All of us do a broad range of events, but we are built to service different markets more effectively than others so it’s important to ask enough questions to determine if a caterer has the right kind of experience for you,” says Arthur Bassani, owner of In Thyme Catered Events in Secaucus, NJ . “Each caterer has areas they specialize in so even a caterer with a great reputation may not be the best fit for you. For example, some are more ’boutique’ and specialize in smaller intimate-type social events. Others specialize in serving large corporate and non-profit [clients], like us.”

So when interviewing your caterers (and you should speak with at least 3 caterers for any event with a reasonable budget), you need to be specific about the type of event you are planning and the type of food and/or presentation you are expecting. Otherwise, you may end up selecting a caterer who simply isn’t a good fit for the type or style of your event.

“Some caterers excel with barbecues that are great for company picnics, some with exceptional Latin-fusion for that themed event, and others shine with elegance that work well for that black-tie gala,” says Greg Jenkins, Partner at Bravo Productions. “You should select the caterer that works for that specific function, not just because you’ve used them previously for a company meeting or employee holiday party.”

#3 – Flexibility Regarding Menu Options

Practically every caterer has a standard menu or menus to choose from, and many do provide some level of built-in flexibility to adapt these menus to your specific needs by substituting specific items and/or customizing others. “Any caterer who has been in the industry and knows what they are doing should have a few different menu options that are constantly being updated and changing to keep up with current trends,” says Rene Wunderlich, Corporate Account Manager at the Inn at New Hyde Park.

However, the standout caterers will go beyond standardized menu options and be willing to create amazing fare that matches even more specific theme and dietary needs.

“If a caterer isn’t willing to adapt its menu or challenge its staff to work with and celebrate your custom theme, that’s a red flag,” says Christine Courtney-Myers of the C3 Agency . “We revise menu proposals and attend tastings to finalize each dish’s flavors and perfect the portions and presentation to compliment or amplify our event design and our client’s theme.”

An ideal caterer should also be willing to handle (or at least consider) special requests. “Ask the caterer if they are willing to include a family recipe you provide,” says Lyndsey Bunn. “Or will they work with items of special significance to the style or theme of your event? Or can they prepare vegetarian, vegan, kosher, or children’s, meals for your guests?”

All of these are important questions to ask upfront to see how far each caterer you interview is able and willing to accommodate you.

#4 – Willingness to Provide Tastings

How will you ever know what a caterer can do unless you sample their goods? And more specifically, how will you know what the menu items you are considering will taste like unless you specifically try them?

Some people shy away from asking to sample the specific items they want for their event because it seems like a hassle for the caterer, but it is standard to ask for a sampling of what you are intending to order before you sign on the dotted line.

“Attend at least 3 tastings with separate caterers and make sure you can taste what you want,” recommends Danielle Rothweiler of Rothweiler Event Design . “Never settle for a caterer that will just give you a generic sample; you need to know what the food on your menu will taste like. Be prepared to pay for these tastings if necessary.”

In addition, you can request wine parings for these tastings if they are appropriate for your event (again, be prepared to pay a fee … it’s a small price to pay to ensure you choose the right caterer). And when you are sampling the food, also attend to how it is presented, as any caterer who takes the time to properly display a sample will probably be more likely to make that kind of effort on your event day.

Are you an event manager who needs to manage catering details, budgets and assignments?

Or are you a caterer who needs to track proposals, invoices, meal selections, inventory and other customer details?

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#5 – Familiarity With the Venue

You may be in for a surprise if you hire a BBQ take-out joint to cater a formal ballroom fundraiser. Or if you choose a high-end corporate event caterer to serve a barn wedding. Why? Because these caterers may not be accustomed to preparing and serving food in such a setting.

This can get even more specific depending on restrictions of the venue itself, like in the case of museums and historical sites. “You want to be sure you choose a caterer who has worked at that venue before and knows all the rules that are typical of sites like this,” says Teresa Davenport, Associate Director of Development and Communications at Morven Park, a historical site in Northern Virginia. “For example, no red wine or live flowers are allowed inside our historic house museum.”

Even more traditional venues can also have restrictions that caterers must follow – like certain setup standards or disposal restrictions for waste food and water – so having a caterer that is familiar with a venue’s rules can potentially save you lots of hassle on event day.

#6 – Complete Explanation of Services/Goods Promised in the Contract

The caterer’s contract should clearly spell out exactly what food, beverages and services the caterer will be providing on the designated day(s). Moreover, it should protect you from non-performance as much as it protects the caterer from non-payment/default, so you may want to consider having an attorney look at it before you sign it.

Every detail should be included in the contract, included selected menus, number of servings and/or people to be served, beverage/bar service details (if applicable) and all pricing and additional services.

“An important thing to inquire about is what comes standard in their contracts and what is an upgrade,” says Heidi Hiller, Owner of Innovative Party Planners . “For example, do they quote paper and plastic plates while you are expecting fine china? That is important as the rental of these can add up. Also inquire about the number of staff [the caterer] intends to bring to service your event. The minimum ratio we suggest is 1:12, which not only includes the servers, but also encompasses the chef and his/her staff, the crew loading and unloading the truck, the dishwasher, the bartenders and the banquet captain.”

Even what seem to be small details or no-brainers should be included in the contract. “Even get everything in writing with clear terms for setup/cleanup and left overs,” says Anastasia Stevenson, Owner of Coastal Creative Events . “Most [caterers] will take leftover food away unless agreed upon beforehand and a liability release is given.”

#7 – A Well-Defined Cancellation Plan

No caterer with a shred of dignity and scruples enters into a contract with plans to bail at the last minute, but you need to make sure there is a cancellation clause in your contract just in case your caterer has to cancel.

“Get detailed information on how they handle cancellations and make sure it’s included in the contract,” advises Julia Pavlovski of Wedding Wise. “You should find out if your deposit is fully refundable and what the next steps are. And will they refer you to other caterers or help make some calls to see who is available?”

You don’t want to be left without recourse with only days or hours before your event, so just make sure cancellation procedures and penalties are in place so you do have a backup plan.

#8 – References You Can Call and Talk To

Of course you will need to check up on the caterers you are considering, and it’s always good to start online and check out sites like Yelp, Wedding Wire and Angie’s List for their reviews and ratings.

However, don’t stop there, as online reviews are not always reliable (or even authentic); for example, a good caterer may have had a few nightmare/hater clients who skew their ratings, while a truly mediocre caterer may have padded their online reviews. So see if you can track down some past clients of the caterers you are considering and reach out to them.

“People are often more forthcoming in private conversations about any disappointments in regards to the food or overall experience with the caterer than they are in written reviews online,” says Julia Pavlovski.

“It’s wise to check references, make calls and conduct one’s own due diligence,” adds Greg Jenkins. Translation: Don’t just rely on what the caterer tells you, or what their handpicked references tell you, or what the Interwebs say … do some extra legwork to ensure you are getting the straight story.

#9 – Insurance

Every caterer we talked to called insurance coverage “a given” for caterers, and you certainly don’t want to legally be on the hook for some oversight or accident that was the fault of your caterer.

“Any reputable catering company is going to have liability insurance,” says Julia Pavlovski. “If they don’t, this is definitely a red flag. This type of insurance protects them and keeps you from having to deal with any recourse if something were to happen and they weren’t properly insured.”

#10 – An Experienced Chef and Kitchen Staff

Surprisingly, how long a catering company has been in business may not be as critical in selecting a great caterer as you may think.

“Length of time in the catering industry doesn’t necessarily translate into great and tasty cuisine,” says Greg Jenkins. “The chef’s background and experience can be more important than the owner of the company who has awards on their shelf. It’s the chef, sous chef and kitchen staff that often seals the deal.”

So make sure to ask about the chef’s bona fides and CV because he/she will probably be the one most responsible for the outcome of the meal and whether your guests enjoy it or not.

And when do you know you have picked the right caterer? As Christine Courtney-Myers succinctly puts it, “When a caterer is willing and able to elegantly and expertly surprise and delight your guests by delivering beautiful, tasty and adventurous food with great service that compliments your event theme, you have nailed the catering aspect of your event.”

5 Lessons Event Professionals Can Learn From Startups

Lessons for Event Planners from Startups

Since launching Planning Pod as a beta version in 2012, we have had the pleasure to speak with thousands of event professionals and learn about their challenges in managing events and – for event planners, venues and caterers in particular – in growing their businesses.

Over that time, as we have grown from dozens to hundreds of users, we have found lots of parallels between best practices we have developed to grow our event tech startup and best practices that successful event planners use to run their events and businesses.

When you think about it, startups and event professionals often face similar scenarios. Much of the time we must build something from scratch and create something from nothing (be it an app or an event). We have to juggle and manage many balls in the air at once. We must be adept at using both our left brain (practical/rational/organized) and our right brain (creative). We often must perform miracles on a tiny budget. And failure is not an option.

So here are 5 best practices we have put to good use over the last several years that we know would also benefit any event professional.

1. First imagine what you can do with no budget

Most startups (ours included) have a shoestring marketing budget to use to grow our initial user base. As such, we have to rely on our own efforts and ingenuity to find our first customers, which means we often must rely on low-cost marketing tactics (like content marketing, social media, SEO, etc.) for the first few years of running the business.

Very few events are successful without at least a small budget to devote to things like food-and-beverage, venue space, entertainment, etc. However, regardless of your event’s budget, if you begin your brainstorming by first thinking about what you can accomplish at no or low cost, you can add more value to your event and squeeze more out of every cent in your budget for the things you must pay for.

A good way to start this process is to look at your existing assets and how you can leverage those. If you already have a marketing list and a reasonably good (and cheap) email marketing system in place, you can significantly reduce your marketing costs already. Also, startups are known to barter like hell to get the assets and resources we need to thrive. You might be able to trade your some of your services or assets with other vendors or contractors to drive down costs or create new synergies that benefit your events and/or your clients.

2. Use productivity tools and hacks to whittle down busywork

Like startups, event planners and most event businesses usually have either no staff or a small staff, and each staff member must take on dozens of responsibilities and manage thousands of details every month. We are both spread way too thin and have to wear lots of hats, and sometimes it feels like we are moving so fast that we are doing a mediocre job at everything instead of a great job at a few things.

This is why it is vital to find productivity tools and hacks to help you minimize busywork and give yourself more time to focus on the tasks that will really make a difference for your events and your business. We built Planning Pod to be a productivity tool that event professionals can rely on to help them streamline their event management processes, but there are thousands of tools available for managing tasks and calendars, collaborating and communicating online, and so on. For example, we use tools like Desk.com to automate and streamline our customer support tickets; Hootsuite to automate our social media marketing; Dropbox for managing all our electronic files; and MadMimi for simplifying our email campaigns and outreach.

Smart time management is the key to any small business, and if you can remove certain hats or automate certain tasks so that you free up more of your time for mission-critical tasks, the better off you will be.

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3. Hire people who are eager and capable of assuming multiple roles

Due to budget limitations, most startups are forced to either use unpaid interns or hire recent grads with very little work experience because those are the only employees we can afford. And from talking with event professionals, I know you are faced with similar restrictions in hiring and retaining event staff and assistants to help them run their events.

With that said, the employees you should be seeking out are those people who are 1) very eager and quick to learn new skill sets and 2) able to take on new roles as your needs multiply. As small businesses, we can’t afford to have an employee who is only capable of taking on one small set of responsibilities. We need our staff members to be flexible because we never know when a new need will arise (and they always do).

This may mean that you have to pay a little more for someone with broader work experience. Or it may mean that you have to forgo bringing in an unpaid intern in favor of a more qualified candidate you have to pay. As we have discovered in our event tech startup, the extra investment is well worth it.

4. Look for plug-in solutions instead of creating everything from scratch

Often it’s cheaper and faster to find someone who has already built the wheel than to rebuild it yourself from the ground up.

For example, often we find that some bright developer has built a piece of code for a certain function that is cheaper for us to buy and modify than to build ourselves. The same could be said for certain event tasks or initiatives.

For example, maybe a certain keynote speaker has a pre-prepared speech on a topic related to your event; it would probably be cheaper to hire them and tweak their already-prepared speech for your event than to have it custom created by another speaker. Or maybe one of the production companies you are considering has a stage backdrop and setup they have already used for another event that they can tweak for your purposes. This could save you money and free up funds for other areas of your event.

5. Eliminate all costs that don’t contribute to the bottom line

Sometimes it’s difficult to know what you should spend money on and what you can go without until after you have spent the money. We experienced this dilemma when we signed a lease for an office space 4 years ago.

We anticipated that our small team would need a place to work and collaborate in building out Planning Pod. And for the first few months of our lease, our office was a good asset in that we could work closely in creating the first version of Planning Pod.

However, as the months rolled on, we found that most of us were more productive and hit our milestones faster if we all worked from home and collaborated online, occasionally meeting at coffee shops or shared workspaces when we needed to talk one-on-one. The $3K+ we were paying for office space wasn’t contributing to the bottom line, and in fact was taking money away from other critical initiatives like marketing and customer support. So we dropped our office after our lease was over (only a 1 year lease, which makes a strong case for having a shorter lease term if you must have an office), and this let us reallocate that money to more productive uses.

I would recommend looking critically at your event budgets upfront and trimming out all the fat – i.e., those expenditures that really aren’t contributing the bottom line or could be shaved down considerably. And for your business or department, a yearly audit where you evaluate your expenditures is always a good practice so you can identify those areas where you can streamline and reallocate your money in ways that will help you grow faster.

8 Ways To Supercharge Your Attendee Engagement

Attendee Engagement at Events

As if our attention spans weren’t short enough already pre-smart phones, now event professionals have to contend with a whole technologized universe of distractions – including social media apps, gaming apps, wearable technology, media walls, etc. – on top of fighting off good-old-fashioned boredom and daydreaming.

Getting and keeping the attention of our guests has been and always will be one our biggest challenges as event professionals, and our jobs have not gotten any easier in the 21st Century. But instead of swimming against the current, some event pros have found ways to use technology to their benefit in enhancing attendee engagement, while others have turned to tried-and-true methods and even some unconventional tactics.

So here are several event engagement strategies that some seasoned event pros are using regularly to improve attendee engagement at their events.

1. Keep Everyone in the Same Environment

“Often event engagement is tainted by the layout of the event.” says Norman Aamodt, founder and CEO of Event Strategy Group . “Breakout groups are in one space, food and beverages are in another, keynote presentations are on a different floor – you get the drift.”

Instead of creating a disjointed environment of separate spaces – which silos your attendees and hence your event – consider designing a floor plan where you have one large event space divided up into concentric areas using wall panel systems. For one of their clients, Event Strategy Group designed a layout that split one large space into four separate layers, starting from the perimeter and moving inward.

“This design made the flow of the event intuitive and easy to navigate, while creating a number of open areas that encouraged interaction.” says Aamodt. “Using a wall panel system, the perimeter encompassed 10 breakout rooms. Moving inwards, the third area contained food and beverage stations, the second-to-center layer contained a Product Showcase and finally, the center of the space held a Feature Display.”

Aamodt said that interaction at the event was “at an all-time high,” and it’s easy to understand why … because everyone was in the same proximity and there was a logical, intuitive flow for attendees.

2. Set the Tone With Assigned Seating

“There is a reason why brides go nuts about seating charts,” says Cristin Massey, a PR and events pro with Cover Story Communications . “They know that it can make or break the celebration.”

She has employed assigned seating for other events like meetings and professional networking events and has seen engagement skyrocket simply because she is forcing people out of their comfort zone and to interact with new people.

At these business-oriented events, “people are more often than not just wanting to get through the presentation, check emails and get back to the office,” says Massey. So by assigning attendees to seats and/or tables where they don’t know anyone and providing them with icebreaker activities, you have created an environment that encourages engagement from the outset, which sets the tone for engagement throughout the rest of the event.

Yes, this may be old-school, but it still works because it acclimates your attendees to interact with each other from the outset.

3. Entertain First, Then Educate

Assigned seating is one way to prime the pump regarding event attendee engagement, and providing guests with some form of entertainment first also sets the stage for increased participation and creates a lighter, more collegial mood.

“On stage, engage your guests right away with live entertainment rather than video screens or slideshows,” says Kostya Kimlat of Event Magic International . “The human connection makes people pay attention, especially if they are asked to interact and answer questions.”

In addition, Kimlat also says that entertaining first can build anticipation and raise expectations about what’s coming up at the event. “When our company hires an entertainer on the main stage at a conference, we always have strolling entertainers interact with the crowd beforehand.” he says. “It’s especially perfect for a cocktail hour. [They] entertain the crowd, but more importantly, tease them about the big show to come.”

The first step in improving attendee engagement is getting organized and laying the foundation for a great event.

And Planning Pod gives you more than 2 dozen online event management tools to make that happen … try them today for FREE.

4. Employ Games and Activities Using Social Media

Since most people will be looking at their phones throughout the event regardless of what content you put in front of them, you might as well use that behavior to your benefit.

For example, Cristin Massey has used an Instagram scavenger hunt at her professional networking events to stimulate attendee participation. “This can be done with any social platform that allows for images and hashtags,” she says. “I did this at several professional work events as well as some city events and it worked incredibly well. Just create a scavenger hunt that is related and relevant to the event, then direct people to take pictures of each scavenger point and use an event hashtag. Not only will this get people moving around, engaging in the event, but it will also help to promote your event via the hashtag.”

Holly Holliday of Create Promotions also employs Instagram printers onsite at her festivals to bump up interaction among guests. “Attendees take Instagram photos of themselves and their friends and the amazing time they are having. Then they use the event’s designated hashtag and the hashtagged photo is automatically printed out at the event and a free takeaway for attendees. [It has] increased my event engagement during the event by 300%!”

And Rachel Rosenthal actually provides corporate meeting attendees with rented iPads for presenting content. Not only does it turn the focus away from their own devices, but the loaner iPads “allow the attendee to be engaged further through the use of surveys and participation during the session with questions.

5. Show Attendees Something New

Attendees are almost always interested in seeing something new at an event – in some cases that’s the reason they are actually attending in the first place. So you can either showcase the latest trends and ideas in the industry, or you can use new technology to wow them and enhance the event’s environment.

Augmented reality is one such tool for accomplishing the latter, and Elburz Sorkhabi of nVoid has used this successfully at many events to enhance attendee engagement. “This is becoming quite a large commodity at trade shows – especially auto shows – and in museums and educational environments. The idea is that in most of the above areas, most of the objects people are looking at – like stationary cars or dinosaur bones – are very static, so using augmented reality by projecting images and holograms can create an interactive and more engaging experience around these extremely static objects.”

Making a wall or structure come alive by superimposing a moving, morphing image on top of it certainly stimulates conversation and adds another dynamic element to your events.

6. Approach Your Attendees From a Variety of Angles (Literally)

As guests and attendees, we have been trained to look at a stage or focal point to take in the main content of events. But what if content and interaction came at us from different angles, engaging us in surprising ways?

Julie Austin of Speaker Sponsor has implemented such tactics to snap people out of their event doldrums. “If you keep your program the same every time it can tend to become monotonous,” she says. “There are some tricks that filmmakers use – especially in the horror genre – that keeps an audience on their toes. Make use of the vertical and horizontal dimensions and have information coming at them from different angles. In other words, do something they don’t expect. They expect a speaker on a stage and a power point presentation. They don’t expect something dropping from the ceiling or popping up from the ground.”

7. Innovate With Comfortable Seating and Accommodations

There’s something to be said for making your event environment comfortable for guests and attendees. COOK Medical Group has created such a welcoming meeting environment by outfitting their meeting space with lounge chairs and sofa-style seating (in white leather, no less).

“These large seats accommodate attendees by offering comfort and a less stratified form of seating. No rows of folding chairs,” says John Eckberg of COOK. And it is making a difference, making guests feel more relaxed and tuned into each other and the event activities.

8. Hire a Professional to Boost Your Content

Sometimes in the scramble to secure the perfect venue and create exotic menus, things get lost in the mix, and often one of those things is “content.” This is why many events end up with industry experts as keynotes and content providers … because it’s almost a no-brainer.

Industry experts can be extraordinarily knowledgeable,” says author and speaker Barry Maher. “But sometimes they can also be so dull it’s all attendees can do to stay awake. And panel discussions can be lively and instructive. But just as often they’re unfocused, redundant and so boring that after a few minutes it’s hard to even focus on what’s being said.”

On the other hand, professional speakers have spent many years honing their craft to grab an audience’s attention, inform them in unique ways and inspiring them to go out and take action on their new understandings. Plus they also have tons of experience custom-tailoring content for a wide variety of audiences.

So if you want content that will make your attendees put their smartphones down and engage, consider hiring a professional to create and deliver your content and keynotes.

You can also go a step further and hire a professional MC as well as script out your shows and main content sessions to ensure continuity and avoid those dull spots in your content.

Have more ideas on how to improve attendee engagement at events? Provide them in the comments below.