Event Management (or how not to panic)

My professional background is in running events with authors in bookshops, although over the past 20 plus years I’ve ended up running a wide variety of events in extremely varied locations including a significant number with a fundraising goal. The first event I ever ran was a bookshop signing with Norma Major, wife of then Prime Minister, John Major. My induction to event management therefore involved the Secret Service, sniffer dogs and armed police; quite a beginning.  Since then, I’ve managed events with a former President of the United States, movie stars, rock stars, bestselling authors, comedians, debut authors, scientists, teachers, and pretty much everyone in between.  They’ve been public events, sponsors’ dinners, debates, stage shows, festivals in fields, charity fundraisers, multi-day conferences, VIP launches, and numerous talks and signings in single or multiple venues.  From all this experience I’ve learned a few basic principles, which I’d like to share with you.

The fundamental rule to organising any event is to start planning early, and to plan for every eventuality you can possibly think of.  It’s always worth having a contingency plan in place, as sooner or later, if you organise enough events, you’ll need to use it.  An obvious example is to have waterproofs on standby if you’re planning an event outside (even in high summer).  I remember planning a Harry Potter event in June, and it involved about 3,000 people being outside for a number of hours.  I bulk bought 3,500 very cheap plastic poncho macs, and when it started to rain mid-afternoon the entire crowd was extremely grateful that I was able to just hand one out free of charge to everyone.  The goodwill achieved through this small piece of planning helped create an extremely successful event (instead of a washout, if you’ll forgive the analogy).

My planning always starts with a list and a spread-sheet.  Because I work for multiple clients, I keep a project book, divided into sub-folders per client.  And if I’m planning more than one event per client, then each event gets its own section within the project book (my email inbox is similarly organised – by client, by project and by event).  That way, any notes or emails relating to a particular event are always easy to find, and keeping everything in one place allows me to track what’s been done and what’s still to do – only emails that still require action remain unfiled in my inbox. If you are running events in a fundraising department, the same principles apply, even though you effectively only have one client.  

The spread-sheet I keep per event is likely to have several tabs.  One will be a planning timetable – what needs to be done by when and by whom.  This might be something along the lines of ‘get quote for press release’, and beside this will be the name of the person I need to get the quote from.  This will come before the line saying ‘write press release’, so when I (or whoever needs to write it) start to write the release I know I’ll have all the information I need already in place before I begin to write.  There will be a budget tab, with every expense noted.  The overall budget might be one I’ve been given by the client, or it might be one I’ve generated taking into account the aims and objectives of the event.  I will try and build some contingency into every budget, although it’s not always possible.  If I’m given an overall amount then I’ll split that into costs such as staff, travel, catering, entertainment, venue hire, PR and so on.  I can often use the same basic template and tailor it to the individual event.  There will be a staff tab – who is going to help and what they’ll be required to do.  That will also need to cover what times they’re required, how they’re getting there (if cars are required for example), and any specific staff requirements (for example someone helping can’t stand for more than an hour).  

If it’s a fundraising event there will be a guest list – who is expected, where they are from and any particular info needed about that guest. This tab will form the basis of the briefing notes that I will circulate in advance of the event.  The briefing note will contain key messages to be conveyed to each guest, and who needs to be the person conveying those messages.  When possible the briefing note also needs to contain photos of the guests, so they are easily identified by the member of the team that needs to talk to them, without any embarrassing conversation trying to work out who anyone is.  The briefing notes will ensure that all members of the team are aware of their responsibilities in the run up to and during the event, and will help to make sure that it all goes as smoothly as possible. There will definitely be a tab for schedule of the event itself – broken down into anything from hourly sections, to by the minute planning, depending on the type and duration of whatever the event is.  The great thing is, once you have developed your own template for this, you can start to improvise, and only work with the tabs you need for any particular occasion.

Aside from planning, the other most important skill is the ability not to panic.  I have a fairly calm and confident personality, and I’ve found it a natural extension of that to project an air of calm confidence when I’m managing events.  When things go wrong, panic is actually the worst thing you can do.  It worries everyone around you, and it prevents you from thinking of a solution.  Take a deep breath, and take a moment or two to work your way through a number of scenarios in your head before you decide what you’re going to do.  Then tell everyone calmly and with authority that THIS is the solution, THIS is what you’re going to do, and it will reassure them all that you know how to cope, you know what’s best, and that everything will be alright.   Think swan – serene on the surface, paddling like crazy underneath.  I was recently running a charity dinner for a large number of guests who had paid a reasonably large amount to be there.  The format was supposed to be food, then speeches, then entertainment, then a final speech.  But twenty minutes in the ovens in the venue broke, and we knew it would take an additional 30-45 minutes to sort the problem (by wither fixing the oven or finding an alternative oven that we could borrow.  So, we simply switched the evening around.  We did the entertainment first, then we did the speeches (which we needed to do to buy the extra cooking time we ended up needing) and then food was simply served last.  Not ideal, but everyone had a great time, and not a single paying guest realised we’d had a problem.  

Once the event itself starts, I try to ensure that as Event Manager, I don’t have any particular job to do, leaving myself free to decide where I’m going to be most effective.  It might be beneficial for me to spend time talking to clients or sponsors, working the room to ensure everyone is getting the most out of whatever the event might be, or to guide senior organisational representatives in doing so, or introducing key guests and prospects to them.  Standing around and making small talk can be a big part of the job, and taking the time to make it look like you have all the time in the world to chat (even if you don’t) is important.  Never look flustered or rushed, never run in front of clients or sponsors (you can walk in a determined fashion if you need to get somewhere quickly, but keep smiling at people as you go), and always try and ensure that by the time the event has finished you’ve managed to speak to everyone on your hit list.  Small talk may seem tedious, but it can make the difference between achieving a goal and not.  It can be used as a way of communicating key information about the event and the charity, and is an opportunity to take a potential supporter on a metaphorical journey.  You can use it to really enthuse them on a one-to-one level.  In the future a conversation you had at a drinks reception could open all sorts of doors.   Cultivate those contacts.

And that is basically it. A lifetime of experience can really be distilled into just two key points:  plan early, and keep calm.  Although actually I’m going to add a third.  Enjoy it.  Events can be very stressful, but when they go well, wow, what a buzz.

Jo James  |  April 2015