In the last seven years, I threw 5 bar mitzvahs and a wedding. This is in addition to countless global executive events and conferences over my 25+ year B2B marketing career and the 8-10 events our charity Jeremy’s Circle holds each year for hundreds of children and their families.
I don’t love planning events. They make me nervous. The level of uncertainty is huge – from suppliers that may or may not deliver to the weather which may or may not cooperate. And everyone who attends is a potential fan or critic. But here are some basic pointers that can help you plan a successful event, even if the thought of planning makes you shudder. If you don’t have the patience to read to the end, scroll down for an event planning checklist.
Always start with the money. Your budget is going to impact every decision you make so first and foremost know how much money you have to spend. Now subtract 15% and that’s your working budget. You’ll thank me later.
When it’s not a standalone event. Family celebrations, in particular, can be several events rolled into one. At the bar mitzvah last month, we also threw a Thanksgiving dinner the Thursday before, a dinner for the out-of-town guests on Friday, and then the main event was on Saturday. The upside is that these events serve as “warm-ups” for the big event, bringing your guests closer together. The downside, of course, is the organization and expense. These should be considered when building your budget.
Pick a date and time and commit to it with save-the-date messages up to a year before. This is particularly important for guests who will need to travel and/or tend to be heavily booked. You don’t need to get fancy with save-the-date messages. You can design something adequate in a free program like Canva and send it by email, SMS, Messenger and/or Whatsapp depending on your crowd.
Make your invite list and check it twice. Santa Claus might not be coming to town, but if you invited all your cousins except one…well…your aunt is going to give your mom a mouthful. I like to use Google Sheets for this so I can share with comment permissions only with those I need to consult with (and then unshare when I’ve received enough input). Have separate columns where you add up your adult and kid guests because generally, the caterer will charge you differently for them.
Location. Location. Location. The venue should give your guests a unique experience that reflects you (or your company). It should match the number of people that are coming and the mood you want to capture. If the space is attractive enough, you might not have to invest in extra decorations. The caterer often includes simple centerpieces for free. Every room looks better with flowers.
The food better be good. Most caterers have tastings. This is not your opportunity to show a chef how much you know about cooking. I’ve been to tastings and overheard others tell the chef how to cook the dishes better. Save it. The purpose of the tasting is to select which foods will best suit your guests. Really. Your guests hit the gym that morning so they could eat dessert. Make it worth their while. That said, if you have guests with dangerous food allergies or other critical dietary requirements, you should definitely tell the caterer early in the process and remind them repeatedly.
About alcohol. Let’s face it, parties tend to be happier with alcohol. You may be able to save money by buying hard alcohol at a discount from outlets or DutyFree and bringing it to the caterers yourself. Can’t hurt to ask.
Get your stakeholders involved. If it’s an executive event, keep the business team updated. They are the ones speaking to your guests before and during the event. If it’s a bar mitzvah or sweet 16 – then involve the kid in the decision making. If it’s a wedding, ask for advice from your future in-laws. Take them to the tastings. Have them speak to the DJ or musicians about their preferences and talk to them about your entertainment plans.
That’s entertainment. Fun is not one-size-fits-all and you want your guests of all ages to have a good time. What will happen at the event? Will there be a presentation? Dancing? Singers? Speeches? Interactive games? Photobooths? Magicians? Caricaturists? Have a plan for the evening outlining the timing and make sure all your suppliers on hand know and are prepared. If you want to show a video or other multi-media, go the day before to make sure the equipment works. Almost all of us have been to an event where the guests wait patiently while workers-in-black scurry around a stage fixing whatever was broken. If you see with your own eyes the day before that all is in place and working, you will sleep better that night!
Expect 10-15% to not show up to a personal event like a wedding and even more, like 30-40% to not show up to a corporate event.
RSVPs need to be managed. If you are using an event site like Eventbrite, this is a no-brainer. The site manages it for you. Otherwise, use email for RSVPs. Consider creating a special address just for the event like BobTurns60 at gmail.com. The idea is to keep all the communications in one place so no RSVP gets overlooked. Check each of the RSVPs against your invitation list. Don’t assume that just because they didn’t RSVP, they won’t show up. Some do. So you need to follow up with anyone who has not replied to you as you get closer to your event. Also, don’t assume that just because they said they were coming they will.
Some people will not go to an event if they don’t think they have a safe and affordable way of getting there and back.
Parking is Precious. How will people get to the event? Do they need parking? Should you arrange for transport? Will the bus need a place to park? At the latest bar mitzvah, which was on the other side of town, we pre-ordered a fleet of Gett taxis for the kids in my son’s class. This cost us half as much as a mini-bus. Whatever is decided, the details should be included when you send your invitation to your guests.
Send guests home with something branded, to serve as a reminder of the experience. I once threw a “5 senses” themed executive event. The guests could choose their giveaways in advance – which helped us collect the RSVPs – headphones for sound, scented candles for smell, etc. It doesn’t need to be so complicated. Photo magnets with the name and date of the party are a popular and affordable souvenir.
The week before the event check-in with each and every supplier. Remind them of the exact location (they also need to know where to park), date and time and the services you closed with them. Do a wardrobe check. Does everyone have something appropriate to wear? Do they need mending or ironing? Don’t leave it to the last minute – there will always be something more urgent to do the day of the event.
Expect the unexpected. Don’t forget to enjoy yourself. You threw a fun party – so relax and have fun. Things WILL go wrong. I promise. At our latest event, roadblocks appeared inexplicably on the street of the venue so the taxis had to stop down the street. The caterer messed up the seating cards, so some people had 3 cards and some had none. The tables were too close together. The cola was placed in carafes and no one drank it because they couldn’t identify it… Lots of things that were not 100% under my control went wrong. As I knew they would. But my kid had a great time – a fun, meaningful, and memorable experience with people he cares about. And his friends had a great time. And my family and friends had a great time. And so did I. So mission accomplished.
Two words about after: Thank you. After the event, thank your guests for coming. Handwritten notes are lovely, but it might just be easier and totally acceptable to send short messages to their phones.
Event Planning Checklist
- Define your budget
- Build your guest list
- Close the date
- Send out save-the-date announcements
- Close the location and menu (tastings! yum!)
- Where can your guests park their cars?
- Create the invitation (and if relevant – webpage)
- Distribute the invitation and manage the RSVPs
- Close on the music – playlist, DJ or band
- Close on a photographer – stills, magnets, and/or video
- Order giveaways
- Finalize decoration
- Wardrobe check
- Arrange transport if necessary
- Check-in with all suppliers a week before
- Let yourself have fun at your event!
- Thank you messages
I think I covered everything…if not, or if you have more tips, please share in the comments. Good luck with your next event!