I’m terrified of planning events. If I put all the time and effort into a giant birthday party for our company and no one shows up, who will eat all of my handcrafted cake pops? Worse, what if only a handful of people arrive and it’s… boring!? This is the stuff of nightmares for me and consequently I have serious FOBE – Fear of a Bad Event.
Alas, parties must be planned and happy hour invitations distributed. More often than not, the event goes just fine (or maybe even well!). Drinks are drunk, food is eaten, games are won. We were curious, though, if there was a way to guarantee success of an event. Are there people who are just awesome at planning parties, wellness weeks, and client outings all of the time?
It turns out there are. Enter Lindy Newton Gallagher.
Gallagher is the owner of Happy Everything. Happy Everything is a DC-based company that provides handmade event decor in convenient packages for those who want to add a custom touch to their events. In addition to her business, Gallagher has extensive experience planning galas for nonprofits like Teach for America, Ronald McDonald House, and Boys and Girls Club of Anaheim – not to mention a southern upbringing with people who love entertaining.
We asked Gallagher to dispense some advice on how to plan a successful event that people actually are excited about coming to. Let’s just say we were impressed – and we’re excited about our invitation to her next event.
1. Use external resources to visualize your event
When you’re planning something for your company, the group brainstorm often begins and ends at date-picking and budgeting. Once those details are handled, there’s usually a handoff to one person to lead the actual details for the event – and that can be downright terrifying. All of a sudden, you have a couple thousand bucks, a date, and a vague directive: “Let’s have a wellness week!”
Gallagher’s first piece of advice is to start with better visualization to develop a strong and cohesive message. “When I talk to a client, it’s all about figuring out what the purpose of the event is,” she told us. “What do you want your guests to take away? Is it a visual thing or an emotion? [Maybe you’re a] non-profit and you want them to take away the feeling of tugging at the heartstrings. But it can also be visual – what is the vibe?” Starting at the basics helps you drill down to what’s really important, which guides your focus for the whole shebang.
Gallagher recommends putting your idea into pictures. “When tackling the what [clients] want to establish with an event, conversations on the phone aren’t necessarily that effective. We create a shared Pinterest board and see what speaks to them.” Visual starting points can influence invitations, food choices, and favors. Or for non-traditional events, like wellness weeks, if you find yourself looking at pictures of ragnars and Tough Mudders, you know yoga classes aren’t really in line with your vision.
Having a visual guide starts to mute the thousands of ideas competing for your attention and pares down your choices to just a few. You can start to move forward more calmly with your eye on the prize.
2. Plan in advance and standardize your practice
Very few companies maintain a full-time staff member for coordinating internal and external events, so these often become added work on someone’s plate. The rushed planning of events is evident when the person in charge just doesn’t have the time to make the perfect event happen.
Forward planning is the key – the sooner an event is put together the sooner you can recruit attendees and generate buzz. Gallagher gave us some insight into her process: “First of all, being able to sit down and think (in advance) of what the guests’ expectations may be is a great start. Then plan for those, and always have a contingency plan. Events never go as planned. I actually create a “Minute by Minute” document for myself with all of the events for the day, beginning at set-up and ending with break-down and follow-up. I list the task, the time, the owner and any notes that are helpful. This guide helps me keep track of the many to-do’s for the day. Because I’ve spent some time (again, in advance) thinking through the day, I know that if I follow my plan, I won’t miss a step.”
While this is intuitive, it’s hard to replicate. Gallagher suggests taking the time to analyze your successful events and creating a repeatable process. “When I worked on a gala in Phoenix for the Young Nonprofit Professionals Group, we put together a planning timeline that people could use and transfer to other events.” That meant that once Gallagher’s guidance was gone, the team could recreate the successful event easily. In the corporate world, this could be a simple Company Events Checklist or a How-To. The key is that once you figure it out, write it down!
3. Know your goals and measure what you can to repeat success
Metrics and data have become the standard practice for many corporate divisions, and this applies to events as well. Identifying the goals of an event can be difficult, though, and measuring the goals even harder.
Attendance is the first indicator of success. The visualization step is also an important inflection point to identify any other goals. Some of these metrics can include the level employee engagement at the event (did everyone just sit by the beer cooler?), the number of people who would attend a similar event in the future, or continued engagement (i.e. subscribing to a newsletter, implementation of daily meditation, etc.).
If your goals are not numeric, you can use feedback to provide context to your success: “Sometimes the goal is a feeling you can’t quite measure. Capitalize on the excitement right after the event. Have attendees rate the event as a whole, and also comment on specific pieces that you’d like to measure.”
This feedback can give you a holistic picture of the event. Additionally, you can give attendees an action step (like tagging all photos with a hashtag) to increase engagement and build out the branding for the next event. Plus, you’ll have built-in visuals for your next event with pictures of everyone having a great time!
4. Meet your audience where they are to increase attendance
Alright, worst case scenario: You get a low turnout for an event you worked super hard to plan. Don’t worry, we’re not judging you – it’s happened to us too. Sometimes, your gut reaction to an event with low attendance is to scrap the whole thing. It turns out, though, that lots of times it’s more about the “how” of the event advertisement, rather than the event itself.
There are tons of typical strategies for incentivizing people to attend events: prizes and raffles being the top contenders. While these can work, prizes don’t necessarily reflect your real goal, and can sometimes detract from the overall vibe you’re trying to create. Gallagher suggests instead to focus more on branding: “Capture the audience with branding the event, and have something visually appealing. Then take that and meet people where they are. Think about your target audience, where they are in their world, and how you reach them there.”
The key here is being aware that everyone engages with your message in different ways and being flexible enough to tailor your message to your targets. As Gallagher puts it, “Think about different mediums: send an email, put fliers up, make an announcement. Not everyone is going to get reached in the same way, so think about these strategies in advance and see if they work. Make sure to ask people how they heard about it!”
5. Have fun and relax!
And one last word of wisdom:
“Parties and events are fun and exciting, and working on the logistics can be too! Remember that while the details can be stressful, most of the time people don’t notice what goes wrong. I have a background in performance and theatre and it’s actually very aligned with hosting events. If you’re doing a show, people don’t remember if you dropped a line. It’s the same with the event. At TFA we called it being a duck – you look smooth above water but below you’re kicking away!”
To save time and ensure your next event is one people won’t forget, reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll help you strategize!