If there was a common theme at the Special Event 2007 (produced by our sister magazine Special Events), held January 9-12 in Los Angeles, it was that this industry, which started out as a cottage industry (or a “garage business,” as insiders like to describe it), has finally evolved into a profession.

But as some event planners admitted during a panel discussion at the show, there really is no bar to entering this business. For example, the latest trend is for vendors (mainly caterers, but also production companies) to add “event planning services” to their roster in an effort to become a turnkey solution for clients.

But this goes against the true role of an event planner, which is to bring the best combination of vendors (florists, caterers, entertainers, staging companies, etc.) together to meet a client's needs and budget. As Mona Meretsky, president of Comcor Meeting & Events Production, Fort Lauderdale, Fla., put it, “It seems that every time the economy declines, vendors hire a single person and call themselves ‘full service.' What bothers me is when a person says they do it all but don't really know how to do it all. In the end, it lowers the bar for the entire industry.”

Another trend is the involvement of corporate procurement departments in outsourcing decisions. Only the largest planning companies have the time or resources to fill out the detailed requests for proposals that companies require; even when they do, most report that they rarely hear back from those companies.

One planner told me that he has lost three of his longtime clients in the past couple of years because he hasn't been able to compete at the RFP level. Other event planners argue about whether they should charge a management fee for their services on their RFPs rather than marking up line items. To me, that's a necessary step for event planners to evolve into a profession. They need to be up front about how they charge — and you need to ask.

There are other ways to distinguish the true event planners from the rest. At the show's Academy Awards-style final evening at the Shrine Auditorium, Special Events presented Gala Awards in 35 categories. The winners are companies you should get to know. Also, the International Special Events Society (ises.com) has a certification program, the CSEP (Certified Special Event Planner); all of the top planners I know have those four letters after their names.

So when you're hunting for a special event pro, look for those initials, ask for referrals and what honors or awards they have garnered — and demand the best.

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