As the economy begins to pull itself out of the worst recession in decades, special event professionals work in a changed landscape. If you want to be a player in events, be prepared to play under new rules.
Whipsawed by the miserable economy and public fury at perceived “excesses” by companies bailed out with taxpayer money (the notorious “AIG effect”), in-house corporate event pros face a new day. Working with fewer resources, they must still create events that inspire and motivate, all without giving off a whiff of wastefulness.
The good news: Some in-house event pros are just as busy as ever creating events for their companies.
The special events created by Los Angeles-based Herbalife are key to helping the global nutrition and direct-selling company recruit and retain top distributors. As a result, vice president of worldwide events Margaret Launzel-Pennes is increasing the number of events she oversees. “We just had our biggest quarter in our 30-year history,” she says, “so proportionately, our special events get larger.” Her happy challenge: finding event spaces that are large enough so that her guests have a great experience.
Likewise, the event workload is up this year for Valerie Ulrich, director of special events for San Francisco-based First Republic Bank, compared with the 2008-09 period. Her guest counts at events have also stayed the same.
But Ulrich has to keep appearances in mind at all times. “I try to avoid anything that appears to be ‘resort’ or ‘spa’-like at hotels because perception is still important,” she notes. Even though she can get bargain rates at many properties, “We try to make it ‘feel’ less opulent,” she says.
Other in-house event pros have seen their event work change radically.
WHERE'S THE VALUE?
The events manager for a major high-tech company, who asks to remain anonymous, notes certain events are on the chopping block. “Top management continues to host their annual meetings, and long-term, there are no plans to cancel them,” she says. However, “Smaller meetings that cannot show a clear ROI are being canceled or scaled back.” She adds, “Events that don't add a value proposition to the company and its business are being canceled, with nothing in particular replacing them.”
Another senior event manager, who also remains anonymous, says that more and more, she is taking customer-facing events directly to the customers in their local and regional offices rather than asking them to travel to a central location. And all this takes place in a “‘no-frills’ environment,” she says.
TIGHT BUDGETS, TOUGH DEMANDS
Independent event professionals are in the same pressure cooker as their in-house corporate partners. A combination of skintight budgets and shrinking lead times is forcing them to produce more with far less.
Mark Baltazar, CEO and managing partner of New York-based Broadstreet, notes that many categories of special events have fallen by the wayside nowadays. “Programs that cannot be tied directly to revenue are gone,” he says. Overall, event programs are “smaller, scaled-down and business-focused,” he says.
Veteran event producer Andrea Michaels, head of Sherman Oaks, Calif.-based Extraordinary Events, notes that clients expect plenty during the proposal process these days: “They expect fully fleshed-out proposals delivered with very little or sometimes no information; they expect that proposals that take a great deal of research and preparation can be turned around in too little time — sometimes in a matter of hours. They expect that you can be accurate as well as creative, but will not allow the time or money for a site inspection. And then they expect that they can take whatever time they need — or want — to review the proposal, ask for renderings, floor plans, revisions, etc., with no guarantee that you have the job. And finally, they expect that you will produce the job without a deposit — because it's now too late to generate payment — and oftentimes ask you to wait for 30 to 90 days for payment. Want me to go on?”
Despite the rigors of the new event world, some event pros see positives. For example, some corporations are switching out the “luxury” element of events past with a philanthropic angle.
“Community involvement is becoming more prevalent in our corporate culture,” according to John Short and Bill Svoboda, owners of Kansas City, Mo.-based EventPros. “Clients are decorating holiday events with toys that are subsequently donated to children's charities, and hosting their employee picnics in conjunction with public fundraising events to ensure their employees are aware of the company's civic commitments.”
And though it's no longer business as usual, “It shouldn't be,” says Martin A.J. van Keken Jr., CEO of MVKA Productions of Vancouver, British Columbia. “We talk a lot about the green movement and ‘no waste.’ I believe the same should be said for the fiscal management of events, meetings and productions.”
Nancy Shaffer, owner of Washington-based Bravo Events by Design, says the change in the business climate means her company has changed the way it does business.
“This challenging time has presented us with an opportunity to redefine how we present ourselves to our clients,” she says. “We now have them seeing us as strategic partners who need to be involved earlier in the planning process, and we encourage them to include us at the table with the marketing department, C-level executives and other decision-makers.”
PARTNERS IN PLANNING
How can the vendor partners of in-house event professionals help their clients succeed? With teamwork and transparency, these professionals say.
Her smart vendors “volunteer to be at the event to make sure whatever I ordered from them is flawless,” Ulrich notes. “I am amazed at how often vendors set up and depart.”
Launzel-Pennes urges her vendor partners to make pricing transparent. “We know companies need to make money; we just want to control our spend,” she says. She also looks for flexibility in pricing and services, and proactive customer service — “not trying to sell us things we don't need.”
In an environment where glitz is out, our anonymous in-house event professional urges vendors to deliver “substance.” Vendors should take an altruistic stance by “focusing on diversity/inclusion, and ‘greening’ events,” she says.
When will things improve? Although many event pros say that streamlined events are the new normal, they also are optimistic.
Baltazar expects some growth this year and next. “But that won't be certain until the fall,” he notes. “If the economy is growing, and the recession is a V instead of a W, there will be more likelihood that planners will have more confidence to increase their budgets for 2011.”
“We have seen shorter lead times for some of our smaller and mid-range projects,” notes Sharri Earnest, creative director of Los Angeles-based Los Angeles Party Designs. “However, we have some very large events on the books for 2011 and beyond, which shows the business is out there.”
Launzel-Pennes sees a brighter future for corporate special events as a whole. “It's been lean for too long,” she says. “In the 25 years I have been doing events, I have seen the pendulum swing back and forth dramatically at least half a dozen times. We have overreacted and overcorrected over the past couple of years, but people need to connect, and events are the way to do it.”