Throughout my career, I’ve helped plan many events, ranging from small parties to large corporate functions with 200+ people. Most of my experience comes from trial and error. Whether it’s an offsite social event, holiday party, corporate event, birthday celebration or happy hour, there are a lot of common themes as far as planning and execution goes. So with that, I want to share some basic guidelines and tips with you!
One of the first things to consider when planning an event is to think about your audience, your goal and strategy, and the feel or ambiance that you looking for. Is this for employees, friends and family, or customers? What is the reason for this event? i.e. Are you celebrating something, aim to increase employee engagement, or want to network and establish closer relationships for business purposes? What do you hope to accomplish at this event? By answering these questions first, you will have a better idea on expectations and outcome. Having a clear vision in mind from the beginning will really make planning and execution more streamlined. Any event you plan should create excitement and benevolence. You should use it to grow your business and as an opportunity to strengthen relationships with employees and your clients and customers.
Now that you have a clear vision in mind, you are ready to really start planning! Having a checklist of to-do’s is necessary to keep you organized. You should start putting a concise list together of all the things you need to do and sort it in a timeline. One thing that I really advocate for is getting people involved to help with the planning from the very beginning and start assigning roles. Here is a template for an initial planning meeting (which can be used even if it’s only you doing all the work):
- Budget: it’s good to set your max all-in price for the event. To do this, you should break down the estimated cost per expense first. If you set a budget up front from the beginning, you’re more likely to stick by it. This sounds like common sense, but believe me, some people just start spending away thinking all is good, and then next thing you know you’re money is down the drain.
- Estimated # of guests & guest list: Think about the size of the party and then start organizing a list of invites. I like to use excel for sorting names and email addresses and/or home addresses. This will come in handy later when you’re ready to email a calendar invitation and/or send through regular mail.
- Venue: Is the event at your house? Is it at a bar or restaurant? A private event space? Narrow down the venue based on your expectations for the event and consider the room capacity. If it’s outside of the home, be sure to schedule a site visit to meet with the event manager(s) and walk the property. Envision what the space will look like on the day of your event.
- Set a date: This part seems like it should be easy, but not always! You may need to check several people’s calendars to make sure they have no major conflicts. If there are specific people that are required to attend, you definitely want to check with them personally on their availability. You’re not going to get everyone to attend, unless you’re lucky, so it’s important to choose a date that will drive max attendance. If you are planning for a large group and want several specific people to attend, I recommend creating a survey via surveymonkey.com asking for everyone’s input on preferred dates. Allowing folks to provide input on their availability will ensure that you’ve covered your bases and chose the best date possible. Also, if you’re planning your event outside, be sure to think about rain dates, if applicable.
- Send an invite to guests: You may design a template in an email marketing tool, use Outlook or Gmail, Evite, Facebook, or send a paper invitation in the mail. Whatever platform you decide to use, you should have all the critical information noted for your guests (name, date and time, location, phone number and/or email address for contact purposes, how to RSVP, etc.) You may prefer to have people RSVP using a customized survey link or voting button, especially if your event is large, it can be much easier to track. If you are concerned about accommodating any special needs like dietary restrictions at your event, please note that as a call to action in the invite as well. If you don’t care about the RSVPs, then just say ‘regrets only’ or mention nothing at all. For those manually tracking RSVPs, I like to use Excel.
- Food & beverage: Are you doing the cooking or are you hiring a caterer? Is this a cocktail reception or private sit-down dinner? Think about the type of food that you (or your audience) will want to have at this event and how much you need to feed the crowd. Is it casual finger foods, heavy appetizers, full 4-course meal? If it’s at a bar or restaurant, they typically have a separate private menu of food to choose from. If it’s at an event space, many have a restricted list of preferred vendors that you must use, so do your research first and see what works best for your event. The food will also depend on the timing of your event. Anything between 11-2pm is lunchtime, 2-5pm you can get away with several appetizers, and after 5pm you’ll want to serve dinner and/or several heavy appetizers. Does anyone have dietary restrictions or food allergies? You should always have at least one good vegetarian option to be on the safe side. These days, gluten-free is also something to think about. You usually don’t have to finalize the menu with a caterer or bar/restaurant until a few weeks prior to the event date, depending on the size of the party. For beverages, is it an open bar where everything is based on consumption or are you setting a ‘cutoff’ price at the bar? If the event is at your house or another event space where you’re purchasing all of the drinks yourself, it could be a little more complicated since you’re doing the choosing. It’s usually safe to have both a white and red wine, 2-3 types of beer (a light, pale ale, and IPA, for example), few sodas and juice, and bottled water. Maybe 1-2 liquors, but this all depends on the type of party youre throwing and whether you know your guests beverage of choice. In my experience, beer and wine works well. Don’t forget the ice! Homemade sangria is also a nice touch if you want to be cool hostess. Tip: for DIY events in the home, I like to use online food calculators to estimate how much of a specific food is needed to feed the crowd. The worst thing is not having enough.
- Is there a theme? Do you need décor? Balloons? Flowers? Lighting? Make a separate list for this and head to the party store ahead of time.
- Entertainment: will you have a DJ or can the venue stream music for you, perhaps? Some places will let you use your iPod or phone to stream your own music to their sound system. I’ve done it! Do you want a photobooth, props, guest speaker, caricature artist? Photographer to capture the memories?
- Marketing? You want to get the word out and create a little FOMO, right? Consider making fliers, personal outreach via email and word-of-mouth, and other forms of advertising, if necessary.
- Hotel room block needed for those traveling? If so, always negotiate the pricing and make sure you find a location that is conveniently close to the event venue, if possible. A hotel sales manager will always start with their top rate for a group booking, but it is always negotiable. So name your price!
- Transportation or parking? Will valet be needed? Do you want to book a shuttle bus for your guests to/from the event? For people simply traveling on their own, it’s always helpful to include a map/directions/parking tips if the venue isn’t so easy to find and if parking is limited.
- Audio/visual needs (A/V) needs? Are you holding a meeting, presentation or any other talking points at this event? Do you need a podium, microphone, speakers? You may need to think about Wi-Fi access too, depending on where your event takes place.
- Gifts: are you giving anything away to your guests like ‘goody bags’ or swag?
- Additional communication: a few weeks ahead of your event, you may want to send a reminder email to your invited guests asking them to RSVP if they haven’t already. If you hired a caterer, they will want a final headcount at least one week prior to your event too.
- Run of show: dependent on the type of event, you may need to create a ‘run of show’ outlining the complete details of your event from the beginning to end i.e. opening remarks, appetizers passed, food setup, A/V placed, speakers in place, etc.
- Miscellaneous: are there any disabled or handicapped persons attending, which would require a ramp and/or elevator access? Any other special needs to consider? Will you need to have a registration table for people to check-in upon arrival at the party? Are there name tags needed? Coat check? If the event is at your home and your event is in the winter, make sure to set an area aside for people to hang or lay their coats.
- Follow-up post event: usually this isn’t done if it’s a personal event, but if it’s work-related, this is important to solicit feedback from guests on what worked well and any comments they may have for improvement on future events. If you received gifts or donations, be sure to send ‘Thank You’ cards or send a personal email.
These are just a few basic items to think about when it comes to planning an event. It can be more or less involved than this. Either way, hope it helps and good luck!