QUESTION: What qualities should you look for when you hire a professional event planner?
ANSWER: The patience of a preschool teacher, the creativity of an artist, the financial savvy of a CFO, and, sometimes, the insight of a mind reader.
To find out the real answer to this question, we spoke with two corporate meeting planners to learn what they look for when they hire independents. Lisa Hutchison, supervisor of the user conference for BMC Software in Houston, (www.bmc.com) has been in the industry for 15 years and is in charge of three events per year, the largest of which has a budget of $4 million. Kathleen Moore, vice president, global event manager for JPMorgan Treasury, who has been overseeing meetings for 11 years, plans 40 to 50 meetings a year with an annual budget of $2 million. She is based in New York.
Corporate Meetings & Incentives: How do you view your relationship with the independent event planner?
Kathleen Moore: I regard it as a partnership. I want to work with someone who is an extension of my brain — but with more resources and creativity!
CMI: What skills do you want from independents? Support? Creativity? Technical expertise? Execution? Access to resources? Money- or time-savings? Something else?
Lisa Hutchison: We are usually looking for a one-stop shopping module, someone we can pass the whole event off to and then, sometimes, just pieces of it.
CMI: How has your opinion of event planners changed over the course of your career?
“We look for one-stop shopping. Someone we can pass the whole event off to.”
— Lisa Hutchison, supervisor of the user conference for BMC Software
Hutchison: I started as a hotel salesperson, then became an event planner for an incentive company, and now I'm a corporate planner. So I have seen the circle.
Moore: Since I began my life as an event planner knowing absolutely nothing, and every year realize I know less, I have come to value my relationships with trusted partners more all the time. They are worth every penny I spend on them. The difference is that now I am more knowledgeable about the basics, and understand what can and cannot be done with whatever budget I am working on, so I can make more efficient use of outside experts.
CMI: What characteristics or skills make you hire the same independent repeatedly?
Hutchison: Knowing the customer.
Moore: Trust, chemistry, consistent delivery, creativity, resources — and willingness to give my crazy ideas a shot!
CMI: What characteristics of independents drive you up the wall?
Hutchison: Shoving suggestions down your throat.
Moore: Unwillingness or inability to charge a flat fee instead of cost-plus — my biggest peeve! Also, not calling me back within seconds — just kidding!
CMI: What are your criteria for contracting with an independent? What must you see first?
Hutchison: Deliverables and references.
Moore: Creativity and flexibility. Chemistry. Then pictures and descriptions of previous work, and references from other planners that I trust.
“I regard my independent event planner as a partner. I want to work with someone who is an extension of my brain — but with more resources and creativity!”
— Kathleen Moore, vice president, global event manager, JPMorgan Treasury
CMI: Then how do you work with them?
Moore: I prefer to work first with a letter of agreement, then a. I prefer planners who don't low-ball to get the bid; if they do, they'll be sorry.
CMI: Finally, the big question: How do you keep your events on budget?
Hutchison: I give the company the money and they manage it.
Moore: I try to get the right amount of money budgeted from the beginning — including a nice juicy contingency plug. I also tell my own management what my assumptions are for the budget: number of attendees; given exchange rate (for non-U.S. functions), etc. What the planner must do is be honest and work with me to get the greatest value for the money. Ultimately, it's my budget, and I'm responsible for it.
Lisa Hurley (email@example.com) is editor-in-chief of Special Events magazine, a sister publication of Corporate Meetings & Incentives, published by Intertec Publishing/PRIMEDIA.
Looking for an Event Planner?
Where to Start
The International Special Events Society (ISES) • The event planning industry's major association. All ISES members have a minimum of three years' experience and provide examples of their work in order to join. Think of it as a form of pre-screening.
Check out the online “ISES Finder” service, which lets you specify the type of service, location or both you need and then returns with a list of ISES members.
Certified Special Events Professional (CSEP) • Look for CSEP designation, awarded by ISES, when you choose a planner. CSEPs must pass an all-day test administered and evaluated by The George Washington University, and submit an event portfolio for review by a panel of GWU professors and peers.
Special Events magazine • The resource for event professionals who design and produce special events, it is packed with event ideas, best practices, and practitioners.