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Latoya Johnson of WM Events

11th-Hour Events: Pulling Off Successful Last-Minute Productions

Taking on last-minute event projects can boost your reputation and your bank account, but strategize for success.

In a perfect world, all clients would bring in an event planner several months or even a year or two in advance of an event. The planning team would have the opportunity to propose a variety of ideas, secure the ideal venue and book just the right entertainment. With the experts on board, event production would be as stress-free as possible.

However, anyone working in the event industry for a while knows that having the benefit of plenty of advance notice and planning time is not always the case. At WM Events, we have taken on many last-minute events, and they have come our way for a variety of reasons. Whether an individual thought they could handle the planning and production themselves, the events person at a company left mid-planning, or a celebrity decided to host a bash at a moment’s notice, events with a quick turnaround come with their own challenges and rewards.

With many of these speedy productions under our collective belt, we’ve been able to develop strategies that ensure even last-minute events offer the high quality our team is known for. From the guests’ perspective, each event looks and feels like it took many months of planning.

1. Know your bandwidth.
Before saying yes to a last-minute event, review your current workload and honestly assess whether or not your team has the ability to handle the rush project. Ask yourself whether you truly have the staff available. And beyond manpower, do you have the transportation, decor and materials available, or are too many of your supplies already dedicated to concurrent events? Would complicated arrangements need to be made to fulfill the Johnny-come-lately? If everyone is swamped and you would not be able to deliver a high-quality production, it’s better to decline or offer other options

2. Go on a fact-finding mission.
Once you decide that the new event will be doable, begin by immediately gathering as much information as possible. In many of the last-minute projects we have handled, some planning has already taken place, so we get all of the details on the location, load-in and load-out times, the time of the event, any contacts or point people, the loading dock, parking situations and other information that will help us strategize. We also find out from the client exactly what they need us to do--sometimes that changes during the project as we take additional tasks off their plate.

If there are graphics involved in the event, we get specifics on sizes, material type, pictures, location and placement. Because these elements can take time to develop, perfect and produce, this is information that is needed as soon as possible.

Most importantly, we obtain specific information about the budget. This is a detail that must be determined before moving forward on any planning because there may not be time for negotiating prices and fees.

3. Do the hustle.
With information gathered, we begin the planning process by putting together a thorough task list, which will contain anything and everything that will need to be done between now and the strike. After compiling the list, we ask someone on our team not involved with the particular event to review it. The extra eyes help point out any holes or discrepancies.

Once the task list has been developed, we start by tackling any items that require immediate ordering or a bit of time to turn around. This might be a custom order for special linens, specialty flowers or decor, branded material or graphics. It also includes licenses, permits, insurance (COIs) and other bureaucratic details. Along these same lines, make sure you cover all of your logistical bases; for example, does your tent require an inspection, or does the venue or client require the full names of all the employees setting up, delivering to and breaking down the event?

4. Keep it simple.
Even though you want the decor to be outstanding, try not to get too complicated with your design, especially if materials might not be available. If you come up with amazing ideas that require a lot of production, you might do yourself more harm than good when time is tight.

Staying focused also helps maintain the budget. Check in advance with vendors for pricing and to make sure that the products you want are readily available. Additionally, try to avoid rush fees. You can do this by encouraging your client to make speedy decisions. In general, you get more bang for your buck if you aren't spending a portion of you budget on unnecessary rush fees.

5. Communicate internally and externally.
Throughout the project, keep staff and vendors updated on an ongoing basis. A weekly or more frequent check-in with the client can be helpful. However, you probably won’t want to update the client on every small change or continuously throughout the day because it might become confusing. Organize all of your updates into agendas for the planned check-in meetings or calls.

While items get handled and new tasks get added to your master list, keep tabs on production. You can also create separate task lists for the production team, and be sure to include deadlines. The important factor is keeping everyone on the same page at all times. With a last-minute event, there is no time for confusion, miscommunication or mistakes.

Taking on 11th-hour events can be stressful, but with the proper strategies in place and successful execution, they can boost both your bottom line and your reputation. Rush jobs allow event planners to charge a higher rate, so putting in the overtime is worth it. They can also earn your company a “can do” reputation and impress clients who return for future projects. But always be mindful of your capacity and how the event may benefit your company. Not all events are for you!

Latoya Johnson is a design assistant at Atlanta-based WM Events. A chef, dancer and world traveler, she graduated from Smith College with a BA in American studies before embarking on a seven-year stint as a small-business owner. At WM Events, she is responsible for bringing event elements together to ensure cohesiveness; in this role, she has often been called upon to turn last-minute productions from proposals into reality.

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