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Process begins with a common goal, sometimes ends with a sigh of relief

Designing special events hard work but rewarding

Designing a special event from start to finish takes dedication, stamina and of course hard work. It begins with a common goal and sometimes ends with a headache, but it can give the person doing the designing a great sense of accomplishment.

Patricia Huggins, the University of Mississippi director of special events and protocol, has been working for the university for 36 years and has been director of special events and protocol for between 16 and 20 years. She said designing special events is challenging but also fun because she has been able to meet a lot of people and flex her creative muscles.

“You have to be very detail oriented,” Huggins said. “If all the little things come together, usually the big things work themselves out.”

Huggins recalled one time when a caterer did not show up at an event.

“Two events went on at the same time,” she said. “We worked it out and combined the two events at one location but it was quite nerve wracking. You have to learn to stay calm. You can’t let things upset you.”

For Huggins, planning a special event normally starts with a committee that decides what to do or decides on the actual event itself. Then the committee decides on a design for the invitation. Afterward, it is time to choose a theme, and from there it is on the event planners’ shoulders. Physical setup, decorations, and calls are made to caterers and other involved. Huggins manages the event to make sure everything comes together at just the right time.

One of the hardest parts, she said, is getting responses from people. But by keeping an up-to-date mailing list, things can be accomplished much more easily.

Planning an event that comes together just right can be a wonderful sense of accomplishment, but Huggins said it is a good idea to stay in the background while keeping an eye on everything.

“And you have to have a lot of good people working for you,” she said.

Communication is also important when planning an event.

“Always get it in writing,” Huggins said. “No matter whether it’s by e-mail or fax, when you place an order have something to back it up. Keep detailed records to pull everything together when the event is taking place.”

Event planners and committees can learn something from every event they do because the guest list and people who attend changes.

“You can have a standardized thing but everything still has to be very individualized,” Huggins said. “It’s a continual learning process. You have to stay up to date with what’s going on. You have to know the people in the business and their goals and what they expect from their event as well as their business so you can keep all that in mind as you’re doing your plans.”

For professional event planners, Huggins said it is also a good idea to keep up with new industry standards as well.

“Once a year I try to go to at least one conference,” she said. “I think it’s a very rewarding profession. When an event comes off and all your plans come together it’s very exciting.”

Pat Warren, senior events manager in industry and trade with the Mississippi Development Authority, said most of the events she works on are usually defined. But, that does not mean there is no creativity involved in the process.

“We’re willing to do different things,” Warren said. “Everything keeps changing so you can’t always do what you’ve always done.”

Warren said sitting down with a group to get new ideas is a good idea when planning any event. She compared keeping up with event planning trends to designing new toys for children.

“If there’s a trend that’s going on or a hot new toy, you try to pick up on it so you’re in with the mainstream of what is going on in the U.S.,” she said. “Trade shows are pretty much going to be decided upon, but you’re still trying to grab the attention of the trade show attendees.”

Remembering the purpose of the seminar or event is the key to a successful event, Warren said.

“Sometimes people would assume something isn’t a success if you didn’t have a lot of people there,” she said. “But sometimes you’ve satisfied your goal if you have only the decision makers there.”

Not only should the purpose of the event be foremost in the mind of someone planning an event, but focusing on the goals of the event is important, too. And, Warren added, “Vary your approach. Otherwise, it gets boring.”

A checklist can be of great help when planning an event. Warren uses one religiously when she does her planning. Hers categorizes food, gifts, transportation, decorations and organization and she continually goes to the committee with it to get feedback just to make sure she’s on the right track.

“It’s a real team effort,” she said. “These people deal directly with the decision makers and are sometimes better about telling us what they (the decision makers) like.”

Understanding what the role of each person who will be attending an event is important as well.

“Everybody needs to be on the same sheet of music,” Warren said. “Have a briefing the night before the event or the day of it to go over everything and make sure of what is going on.”

There are several basic questions one must ask when planning an event, said Donna Myers, owner of Custom Events and Communications, LLC. She too uses a checklist when planning events for her clients.

Some of the things on Myers’ checklist include: “Look at the location, the estimated attendance. Will there be meals included? Do you need to establish an agenda for (a) portion of the event? (Find out whether or not you’ll need) audio/visual equipment, keynote speakers… This just barely touches the surface.”

There are so many things that even she does not think about until she goes down her checklist, Myers said.

“I think one of the most important things to ask up front is, ‘What do you want? Who are you hoping to train and what are the main goals for the event?’”

Contact MBJ staff writer Elizabeth Kirkland at ekirkland@msbusiness.com or (601) 364-1042.

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