Jill Moran, CSEP, author of How to Start a Home-Based Event Planning Business, delivers great tips about becoming an event planner. She covers developing a business plan, start-up costs, qualifications and training, finding your niche, networking with related professionals, marketing, and more. [21 min.]
Tell us a little bit about your background in the event planning industry.
Actually, my formal education was in the arts. I was a music major at the university of Connecticut, I was a guitar and voice major. And I taught for a couple of years, and then decided to go into industry, and I joined my dad’s moving and storage business. He was opening up an office in central Massachusetts, and I opened up the business for him there, and began as an office manager hiring people, training people, and also have always enjoyed sales, so began to focus on sales. And one of the areas that I took a special liking to was transporting exhibit and display material. Through the relationships that I made with clients in the exhibit and display industry, I began to be asked to do different things besides just shipping their materials to the show. I got to know a little bit about what they did at the shows, why they went to the shows. One of the clients asked if I would help him plan a gathering at one of their trade shows. So I agreed to do that, and worked with another woman inside their department on it, she was actually planning to go out on a maternity leave, said “you start the project, and when I come back from maternity leave, I’ll finish it up.” So I started the planning of it, we selected a location to have this gathering, all of their international clients were attending this trade show, and they wanted to host them to an experience where they could mingle, and the sales staff could mingle with the clients. So I started that, the woman never came back from her maternity leave, and that was my first big client. What it forced me to do was to be organized, which I was, I had shipped their materials for many years, I had to be creative, which my background in the arts helped me a little bit, I had a natural affinity for that. And just paid attention to details, listened to what the client wanted, what was their goals, and that first event was my first big client, and every year I did an international gala for them at different destinations across the U.S. So I started out in corporate event planning. That was probably 20 years ago, I guess my first event was planned, and now it is a much more formal industry, the industry of event planning. There’s corporate event planning, there’s social event planning, non-profit event planning, and basically if I were to say what is it, it is the ability to create experiences for people. I think the industry of events allows people to be together, to experience something, and hopefully leave with a favorable impression. So whether it’s driving sales, or driving support for a non-profit, or driving a social event such as a wedding or party, a celebration of sorts, the experience of the event helps people enjoy that experience.
What are some of the benefits of running an event planning business?
Well, running your own business gives you freedom, flexibility, it allows you to drive the growth process of your event business, whether you decide you want to do one event a month, or one event a year, having your own business lets you sort of be in the driver’s seat. You could work part-time, you can work full-time, it really depends on how much you want to put into it, so I think that’s one of the benefits of running your own business. Also the ability to have control over your end result. If you’re really detail oriented and you’re all about quality and you want to create a certain experience, you can make sure that happens by having your own business. You could certainly do that working with others, but you can sort of drive the brand of your company if you will by owning your own business.
How much does it cost to get started in this industry?
Well, when I first started I worked, as I still do, out of my home. And I had a computer, and a telephone, and a fax machine. I had a nice suit that when I put it on and went out to my corporate clients I was polished and professional looking, so I think owning your own business you need the tools electronically to allow you to be organized and professional with your delivery. You do not need things like extra equipment, you don’t need a color copier necessarily, or you don’t need a lot of storage for props and supplies. I think you can certainly resource out the things you need to create your events through other people that then become those product deliverers. They might give you props and decorations or flowers or glassware for parties or if you’re doing a corporate event or a meeting and you need supplies for that, you can certainly outsource a lot. But you need the necessary equipment to function professionally for your business.
Talk a little bit about developing an event planning business plan.
Well, I think you need a clear idea of what you want to be and where you want to go. You should have a short and a long term plan in front of you. How are you going to do it, who is going to help you do it, what are the professional services that you’re going to need, such as financial services, legal services, an attorney, a bookkeeper, or an accountant. A really solid liability plan so that you know when you’re reaching out to clients, you do have the necessary insurances in place so that they feel comfortable that you’re doing things properly. In terms of writing your business plan, you need to look at the market that you want to reach out to. Do you want to be a corporate or a social planner? How are you going to deliver a marketing plan? How are you going to choose the name of your company, and your collateral, your marketing materials such as business cards, advertising, will you take ads out in local papers, will you take a national ad out, all these things. The marketing of your company, the planning of your company, should be in your business plan, and in my book I into those areas in more detail. I don’t think you necessarily have to have a corporate segment of the market, you can be a children’s event planner and do children’s parties, but you still need to approach it in a professional way. So that’s the important thing to remember.
What kind of qualifications are needed to be an event planner. Are there good training courses available or do you really need a college degree?
Well, more and more colleges and universities, community colleges are offering programs in meeting planning and event planning. So it is certainly a very, very wise decision to take some courses. There is also a certification given by the International Special Event Society called the CSEP, it stands for Certified Special Events Professional. It’s a designation typically you would apply to begin this course of study, and to get this designation after you have about five years of experience under your belt. That I think would allow you to be able to show that you certainly can maneuver through the full aspect of an event from start to finish. When you’re just starting out, I think interning, volunteering, offering to work as an apprentice, working for venues such as hotels, country clubs, working in one aspect of the overall event planning industry, such as catering or floral or decor, will give you sort of the behind the scenes look at what goes into an event. Show you one piece of it. But an organization like the International Special Event Society has chapters throughout different regions. Most large cities will have a local chapter. And joining that group, the International Special Event Society, that’s a great way to have a monthly meeting, there’s usually an educational topic there, and you can even offer to volunteer work on a committee and that’ll give you great training to understand what it takes to be an overall event planner. But even after your coursework, nothing beats hands-on. So taking a class, there are two and four-year courses you can get certification programs, you can complete but also working with someone non-profits quite often will have fund raising events, I, myself, am working on a very large one for Family Service of Greater Boston called Crafts at the Castle, and we have over 200 volunteers that we need to work for this multi-day event, and I’ve reached out to different local community colleges and local groups to offer to have some of their students in their classes come and work as part of their coursework, to take a look at what goes into a 10,000 person citywide event, all the different aspects of it. So training can come in many forms, and I think it’s important to not oversell yourself when you start your business. I’m working with a young gal right now who has worked with a catering company for a long time. She wants to start her own business, so she moved to a half-time position with someone, and then she’s reached out to me to say, can you use me a little bit on some of your projects so that I can get my feet on the ground with all that goes into it. So she’s going to help me out with some events. It’s a process. I don’t think you ever end the learning cycle.
Tell us a little bit about how much an event planner can charge for their services, about setting fees and what kind of income an event planner can expect.
I think it depends on where you’re located in the country, and even internationally. I have many colleagues in other parts of the world, and it varies. It also depends on what segment of the business you want to go in. And there’s also cyclically in the economy there are times when corporate events are very lush, and people are spending a lot of money, and they’re willing to pay for very outstanding experiences. And to create these outstanding experiences for corporate clients, sometimes it takes a lot of time, and there are many fees involved with something like that. And then the corporate clients might say, we want to downplay it. We want more of a simple perspective on our events, so it depends, which is kind of a safe answer to give you, but it depends on your experience, what the market will bear, and the kind of events that you are planning. You know, I think you can expect to make hourly anywhere between $25 and $125 an hour to be honest with you. I’ve gone in and I like to say sometimes that a 20% figure is something you can kind of start with for an event, if they have $100,000 budget, you might say $20,000 might be something that they’d pay an event planner fee for. That’s probably generous. There are some clients that I’ve started at that level, and worked down because things like gaining exposure by working with that client, other experiences or business that will come out of your engagement with this client, it’s worth it. You know, wedding planners, you may charge anywhere from $50 an hour to $150 an hour depending on the client. If you’re doing a destination wedding and there’s travel involved and many more coordination of things, multi-day events involved with the wedding, it may be on the high side. If it’s a simple wedding where you’re going to help a bride select some of the services, do some contracting, might be on the lower end. So what I like to say is, you’re charging for a professional service, so depending on your client and what they’re looking for, you need to sort of negotiate through those things. But don’t be afraid to charge for a professional service. It’s not a $15 an hour kind of job to be an overall planner for an event. It’s something that you’re taking on responsibility, if you’re paying insurance coverage and fees for different things in your business, you need to make up those fixed costs through your time.
Should most event planners specialize in certain types of events such as corporate or wedding, for example is a wedding planner really a specialized type of thing where they typically would only do weddings?
Yes, many people find a niche that they’re comfortable with, working in the social market, that would be weddings, bar mitzvahs or bat mitzvahs, sweet sixteen parties, anniversaries,events, you’re dealing with things like emotions, you’re dealing with multiple people that make decisions, multiple decision makers, you know the bride might be the one that you think is the decision maker, but it might really be the parents that are paying you. So some people gravitate to working with one client. Others like the variety. My business, I have a variety. I’m dealing a lot with non-profits right now, with some of these city-wide events. I also am doing weddings, and I have corporate clients as well, so having a balance allows you to sort of plan your cash flow throughout the year.
Tell us what type of marketing techniques work best for event planning businesses.
It depends on your market that you’re trying to have a niche with. If you’re going to do weddings, sometimes going to trade shows, working with venues, hotels or country clubs, providing literature, even if it’s just postcards or one sheet overview of your services, knowing who your end client is and making sure that you face off to them. My techniques personally have been to network within my own industry, and develop a reputation that people know when they recommend you, they’re getting someone that is reputable and that knows what they’re doing. I’ve done more speaking, I do have my second edition of my book out now, and I even have done some television work. And I think when people see you as an expert in your industry, then that’s a good marketing technique because they feel like they certainly want to work with someone who knows what they’re doing. Taking ads out can be a good thing. I think face-to-face networking is always stronger than cold calling, but sometimes you do need to pick up the phone and let people know who you are and what you do. And if you focus on the market that you really want to reach, that can be very advantageous for your business.
So basically, networking with related industries such as florists or photographers, or people like that is important.
What are the biggest mistakes you see people make when starting an event planning business?
Well, I think sometimes they might start too fast. I think events in general have a very sexy appeal. You know, you remember The Wedding Planner running with her headset on, it’s jazzy, it’s fun, it’s a party scene, everyone has a good time. So I think the important thing is, we think that that’s what it’s all about, but it’s a lot of hard work. It’s a lot of late night, breaking down your event, picking up the dirty linens, or making sure people are there to do that. So being realistic about what the process is, that it’s not all glory, but there’s a lot of hard work and organization that goes into it. And also to not overestimate what you can do. I kind of laugh because my first event was because I said yes. I mean, I was in the moving and storage business, and they said we need to do this at the show, can you help us, and I said sure. And at the time, I had been volunteering locally in Boston with a Jaycees project, the Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership Program, so I had done events with that. I had been active doing local volunteer events, so I felt like I could do it. So make sure that you do have the information and your skill set under your belt before you bite too much off. The other thing I think is buying too much equipment, and renting an office, and hiring a couple people to help you, all of a sudden your overhead in your business is high, and you’ve got to bring in x amount of business. You have to make sure that you take things slowly and, I think, get the experience that you need to be able to deliver what you say you can deliver.
Obviously in your case you’ve continued to run a very successful and high profile out of your home, is that something that’s very doable?
It is. I think you have to have the right mix, and the right temperament. It’s something that I always said to my family, when I work in my office and usually I would have a door on my office, but I live in an antique home right now and there’s one door that I don’t have able to be closed, but I always said to them, do not disturb me when I’m in my office unless it has something to do with the three B’s: someone is bleeding, something is burning, or someone’s not breathing. If those do not qualify, wait until I’m off the phone. Funny story, once my neighbor’s house did catch on fire, and sure enough the house was going up in flames, so that one was okay. I was on the phone with one of my entertainment vendors at the time, and it was just really not believable, but it happens. So you need to set parameters if you have a home-based business. You also have to have the temperament not to stray. For me, I get up, and I go right in. I do manage to get a few things done in between, but there are days I don’t have lunch, or that I forgot to change out of my pajamas, because I just got in my office and I kept working. And that’s also the downside, I think you need to know when to stop. When you have a home-based business, to walk away from it, there are some projects that are just overwhelming and you just have to put in those extra 2-3 hours between 9 and 12 at night or what have you. But if you have a family and you have other people that care about you in your life, you need to sort of remember that they need time, too. So try to look at the wheel, balancing your wheel, and not overemphasizing one area of your life, but starting a business is not for the weak of heart. It takes a lot of work, a lot of focus, and a lot of diligence, and you’ll have a lot of people saying no, a lot of quiet times that the phone is not ringing and you do not have anything on your white board for business, and one of my clients wisely said to me, he said “what are you worrying about your next project for, just go play golf. Something will come, it always does.” And I guess you have to look at that a little bit too. When the times are a little slow, enjoy life, because there’s going to be a time when you are going to be very busy. Those, I guess, would be my pearls of wisdom.