9 Proven Steps for Planning Successful Events
Want to know the secret to planning a successful event? It really boils down to four simple words, with the first three being focus, preparation and diligence.
Yes, money and resources always help, as do connections and experience. But in our many years of planning events (and helping thousands of other event managers plan theirs through our event management software), we have found that those three qualities - focus, preparation, diligence - are necessary traits in event organizers and team members if you are going to come close to planning a killer event.
Of course, these three qualities won’t amount to a hill of beans if they aren’t supported by a fourth element: having a process that accounts for the hundreds of details you will need to track and thousands of decisions you will need to make as you work towards and beyond your event date.
Let’s take a look at the nine critical steps of event management strategy that will put you on the path to event success.
Step 1 - Set specific goals and objectives
As former marketing boss once told me, “If your product claims to be everything to everybody, then it’s really nothing to nobody.”
The same can be said for event planning. If you try to create an event that makes all audiences happy by including every idea and activity under the sun, then it doesn’t have any clarity and won’t resonate with anyone.
Before you plan your first tasks or spend your first dollar, your event must have a singular purpose or goal that will drive all decisions moving forward.
For businesses and non-profits, this will probably be defined by the mission and revenue goals of your organization as well as occasion-specific objectives. Like a sales meeting to train and motivate your sales force. Or a customer appreciation dinner to thank your current customers and pursue repeat business. Or a fundraising event to collect donations and communicate your charity’s vision and accomplishments.
For social or personal events, this will be defined by the occasion-specific objectives like whether your event is commemorating a wedding, anniversary, birthday, graduation, reunion, bar/bat mitzvah, quinceanera or even a simple neighborhood get-together.
Once you determine your singular purpose, then the hard work of research begins. Most event professionals will attest to the fact that it’s vital to do your due diligence upfront to determine the feasibility of what you want to do and what efforts and resources it will take to make it happen.
As you conduct your research, you will need to flesh out any supporting goals or objectives that are critical in accomplishing your primary purpose. These goals could include things like:
- Expected sales or donations
- New clients or prospects
- Ticket sales or registrations
- Total attendee turnout
- Number of attendees trained or educated
- Increased mission / brand awareness
- Marketing objectives (list building, social media mentions, etc.)
- Media coverage
- Or simply ecstatic, very satisfied attendees
And you should always try to make these goals and objectives clear, measurable and realistic so that you can tally them up after your event is over to measure your performance.
Step 2 - Define your target audience and scope
This is really an extension of the first step, but the two items here are so critical to planning successful events that they really deserve their own section.
Your event should be built around your target audience and their wants and needs. And the first step is identifying your target audience and coming up with personas of your ideal attendees, which can include the following details:
- Demographic details (age, gender, income, profession, job title, etc.)
- Attendee needs, preferences and aspirations
- Attendee problems, concerns and pain points
- Ethnographic details (buying motivations and habits; marketing data)
- Geographic details
When defining your target audience members and their personas, you can start by asking yourself these four questions:
- What are the defining traits and needs of these attendees?
- What kind of experience would resonate the most with these attendees?
- Where would be the ideal location for these attendees to meet?
- What outcomes do you want attendees to take away from the event?
Depending on the primary purpose of the event and overall goals, you may want to include all event stakeholders in this assessment, mainly because your event may also need to resonate with employees, volunteers, participants, sponsors, exhibitors and vendors as well as attendees.
Next, you need to consider the scope of the event, which can include:
- Headcount - How many people do you realistically want to attend
- Budget - How much money do you think it will cost
- Revenues - How much money will it realistically generate
- Live vs. virtual - Would a live event, a virtual event (like a webinar or virtual conference) or a hybrid event work best
- Event format - What type of event would suit the occasion best (meeting, fundraiser gala, seminar, happy hour, networking, celebration/party, etc.)
- Style - What should the theme or tone of the event be (luxury/high-end, modern, tech oriented, rustic, etc.)
- Promotion - Will marketing or promotional efforts be required
- Geographical radius - What region or area will you be attracting attendees from
- Content - What type of content fits the purpose and audience needs (speakers, presentations, entertainment, etc.)
- Activities - What kinds of things you want attendees to do or participate in (spectating, eating, networking, learning, dancing, etc.)
By giving full consideration to the scope of your event at this stage, you have done the major groundwork for the planning process later on and have made it easier to make decisions regarding budgets, staffing and date and venue selection (which we will discuss next).
Step 3 - Establish a realistic event budget
When it comes to budgeting, running an event is like running a business. Like any good business owner, you should closely and continually analyze your costs and make sure that they do not exceed your budget or revenues for the event. In addition, whether you are relying on funds from another part of your business or organization, from your clients or from your personal accounts, you should keep a close eye on your cash on hand (or cash flow) so that you always have a buffer to be able to pay ongoing expenses.
For each budget line item, you should account for the following:
- Estimated amount (how much you want to spend)
- Negotiated amount (the agreed upon price with your supplier)
- Actual amount (invoiced amount)
- Amount paid to date
- Amount still owed
- Payment due dates w/ amounts due
HINT: We recommend that you group your budget line items into categories (and use category subtotals) so that you can easily scan your budget and quickly reallocate funds to different categories if needed.
As for your line items, you should divide them up into two categories - expenses and income - and depending on your event and particular needs, your line items can include the following:
- Advertising - print, online, social media
- Attire and beauty - apparel, hair, makeup
- Decor - centerpieces, signage, floral
- Event marketing - badges/lanyards, direct mail, invitations, postage, web site, event app, web marketing, print design, printing
- Exhibits - drayage, electrical, rental space costs, storage fees
- Food and beverage / catering - meals, appetizers, desserts, snacks, beverage service, open bars, gratuity
- Giveaways and awards - door prizes, favors, grab bags, goodie bags, trophies
- Guest room bookings - attrition, penalties, guest room charges, suite charges
- Legal and accounting
- Programming - entertainment fees (DJ or band), speaker fees, travel/lodging for programming suppliers, video production
- Staffing - audio/visual, custodial/electrical, on-site staff, security, photography, videography
- Supplies and equipment
- Transportation - guest transport
- Venue - audio/visual rentals, event room rentals, lighting, linens, parking, table/chair rentals, staffing, WiFi
- Advertising - print and online
- Exhibitors - booths, tables
- Registrations and ticketing
It’s best to get quotes upfront for all your expected costs so you have accurate information from the start. And remember to always keep your budget updated so you and your event planning team are always using current data.
Step 4 - Assemble a crack team of event professionals
Successful events hinge on many things, but having a responsive, dedicated team is right at the top.
Most events can be effectively executed by having one or a few primary event planners and then supporting staff that is either in-house or contracted out. However, depending on your situation and goals, you may need to rely on a network of employees, contractors, vendors, volunteers, committees and chairpersons to carry out all your objectives.
Typically the following responsibilities / tasks require someone to be assigned to them:
- Pre event planning (see Step 6 below)
- On-site event coordination (see Step 8 below; check-in, management of attendees, stage management, etc.)
- Sales (registrations, exhibitors, sponsors, donors)
- Marketing (web site, social media, email, blogging)
- Catering / food-and-beverage preparation
- Talent booking and coordination (keynote speakers, entertainment, etc.)
- Audio visual and event production
- Custodial / electrical
- Photography / videography
You may assign each of these tasks to individuals or teams, or one or a few team members may need share them all. But whoever you choose to take on these responsibilities, everyone on your event team must focus on delivering exceptional service. In other words, it is everybody’s responsibility to make sure that all your attendees, stakeholders and suppliers are treated expeditiously with the utmost care and graciousness, because great customer service is at the core of creating an amazing attendee experience.
Step 5 - Book a fitting venue and event date
Questions of where and when to hold your event are also not to be taken lightly, and there are many criteria to consider when making these decisions.
First the venue. When you begin considering what kind of venue would work best for your event, you should go back to your planning exercises when you profiled the target audience and scope of your event (see Step 2). Those decisions will directly guide you when considering the following criteria:
- Capacity - Will the space comfortably hold your expected headcount
- Layout and size - Does the physical space align with your activities and needs
- Location - Is the venue convenient geographically for your attendees
- Cost - Does the price fit what you have budgeted for a venue space
- Guest rooms - If you require these for your guests, does the venue have adequate space during your planned dates
- Food and beverage - Can the venue meet your catering requirements
- Staffing - Will they allocate staff members for your event and, if yes, what will they be responsible for
- Parking - Do they have free/paid parking and how close is it to the venue
- Accessibility - Is the space ADA compliant and do they have adequate ramps, elevators, etc.
- Insurance - Are they properly insured (especially with liability insurance)
- Technology - Do they provide audio visual equipment/services and is their WiFi coverage and bandwidth adequate
- Amenities - What other amenities does the venue offer that are critical to your needs (like multi-use spaces, decor, rentals, etc.)
A good practice is to reach out to event venues that match these criteria by phone or email and ask them to confirm that their space can meet your needs. If they can, you should conduct a site visit to 2-3 of your favorite options and, if those go well, ask for written proposals that detail all costs and list all services and deliverables they will be providing.
Next the event date. First, you should always plan on setting your event date at least 4-6 months in advance to give yourself enough time to plan and hire the proper staff and suppliers.
Second, you should eliminate any dates that pose obvious conflicts for your target audience members or key suppliers (think speakers/presenters, entertainment and catering) and that fall on holidays or even bad weather seasons (think hurricane season or horribly hot/cold weather).
Also, you should seriously consider dates that would enhance attendance, like piggybacking on another event that appeals to your audience, or booking your event in a vacation area during prime season (providing guests another reason to travel and attend your event). Dig deep for these kinds of motivations and attractions, as they can be a springboard for successful events.
Step 6 - Conduct a thorough event planning process
The activity of event planning and coordination is what most event professionals consider the single-most important step of all the ones we have outlined here. And it is crucial in that no event will be a success without planning. A good way to remember the importance of this step is via the 7 P’s of Planning: Prior proper planning prevents piss-poor performance.
When planning an event, task lists and event planning software will become your good friends because they allow you to keep track of the thousands of details for which you will be responsible. In addition, a solid calendaring app and communications tools like email, tex messaging and Slack are things you should deploy from the beginning. Just make sure your team members are using all the communication channels regularly and in the way you require.
As for all the items you will need to consider when planning your event, a good rule of thumb is, if it appears in your budget, then it needs to be managed and planned. However, here is a general list of items that successful event planners are always monitoring:
- Client management (internal or external)
- Contracts and legal
- Design and decor
- Exhibitor and sponsor management
- Layout and setup planning
- Marketing and sales
- Payments and accounting
- Rentals booking and management
- Schedules and timelines
- Talent booking and management
- Vendor and supplier management
- Venue booking and management
Whether you are planning live events or online events, corporate events or social events or even a company picnic, you or your team will probably have to manage at least several of these items for planning and promoting an event, if not all of them. This is where delegation comes in handy (if you are able to), but in the end you and your managers will ultimately be responsible for whether they all get the attention they deserve.
Step 7 - Launch an event marketing campaign
If you are planning a public gathering and want to promote your event (whether paid or free), putting together and implementing an event marketing plan is going to be a key component. We have a comprehensive article on event marketing, but below we will cover the basics of event marketing success.
The first thing you should consider regarding what marketing tactics to use is what media do your targeted attendees consume. For example, if your audience frequents Facebook and Instagram, if they correspond via email, if they conduct Google searches, if they visit particular web sites and blogs, then you already have a good sense of where you need to reach out to them. Do your research on your audience to determine their media preferences and how you can best connect with them.
Next, conduct a branding exercise where you create a brand positioning statement for your event (expresses the essence of your event and why people should attend); come up with a succinct name (3-5 words is ideal) and tagline for your event; create a hashtag to use on social media; and design an event logo.
If you are going to be selling tickets or registrations, now is also the time to consider a pricing strategy, which can include tiered pricing (general admission, VIP, etc.), discounting (early bird, referrals, etc.) and affiliate pricing if you plan on selling through other parties (like professional associations, industry websites and even your own suppliers like speakers or entertainers).
With regard to promotional tactics, there are many options at your disposal for creating buzz across a variety of mediums:
- Advertising (online and print)
- Content marketing and blogging
- Email marketing
- Event apps (both for marketing and an enhanced attendee experience)
- Event websites
- Media partners
- Printed collateral (posters, fliers, brochures, etc.)
- Public relations and publicity
- Search engine optimization / search engine marketing (Google ads, etc.)
- Social media - profile pages and posting via Facebook / Facebook Events, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn and Pinterest
Beware that you can spend a lot of money on marketing and end up with little to show for it. So we recommend starting out with small campaigns by first limiting your spend on targeted tactics until they have proven to provide an adequate return on investment (ROI). Once a tactic has proven itself, then you can increase spending as long as it continues to generate sufficient returns.
Step 8 - Nail down on-site event logistics and coordination
By the time you have arrived at your event day, you should be prepared for practically every circumstance, probability and issue. And part of that preparation is to have an on-site coordination plan in place that clearly maps out the entire event schedule (minute-by-minute if possible), staff and supplier responsibilities, and any contingencies if something might go awry.
Establishing a clear chain of command is vital to provide each staff member with directives of who is responsible for what; minimize confusion; and ensure that you and your managers are aware of all situations at all times. This works for the military because it reduces indecision, panic and mistakes, and that’s why it works for events, too.
Communication systems should be established that facilitate the chain of command, and they should be easy to use. Cell phones, instant messaging apps and tools like Slack can be a huge asset to simplify communications, but old-fashioned items like walkie-talkies may also be a great idea because they don’t rely on WiFi and cell phone networks (just in case they go down).
Finally, if possible, you should conduct a walkthrough or dry run of your event prior to your event day to ensure that all participants and staff know their responsibilities and places. This goes from your keynote speakers and presenters to your check-in staff, catering staff, production crew and security team.
As the professional golfer Gary Player once said, “The more I practice, the luckier I get.” And if you and your team practice your event routines and run-of-show over and over again, you will eliminate mistakes and catch issues before they happen when it counts.
Step 9 - Conduct post-event analysis and follow up
When the last attendees leave and the lights are out, your work still isn’t finished because your post-event followup is critical to the success of future special events, including improving the attendee experience and getting a jumpstart on marketing and sales for those upcoming events.
You should always, always put together an electronic survey that you can email to attendees a day or two after the event, and this survey should aim to collect data on overall satisfaction; satisfaction regarding your key goals or objectives (education, entertainment, networking, etc.); and any feedback or criticism that attendees have for any aspect of your event.
This evaluation survey should be followed up with phone calls to attendees (can be either the same ones who replied to surveys or different ones) to get answers to questions you never thought to ask in the survey (sometimes this information is more revealing and important than just measuring satisfaction).
What do you do with this information once you’ve collected and compiled it? Conduct a lessons learned session with your event principals and team members that covers all input and feedback (both internal and external). The result of this session should be an action items list of things you should implement for future events.
In addition, you should also send out “thank you” emails to your attendees as well as put up any assets from the event (like photos, videos, testimonials, etc.) on your event website and social media channels so that guests can always relive their live experiences online. Part of this post-event outreach should include pre-marketing your next event by offering discounts for past attendees and collecting their input for future programming ideas.
As you can see, there are several key items to consider to ensure all your gatherings are successful events. And although there are volumes more to learn regarding each step, this article can serve as your roadmap or blueprint for structuring a successful event management strategy.