This session was moderated by Carolyn Ray (@carolyn_ray)
Participants shared high and low points—their best and worst event planning moments during the session on learning from event successes and failures. The discussion focused on techniques participants had used to deal with issues in event planning, as well as to recover from challenging situations.
Participants came from a variety of event-planning backgrounds, including more technical and industry-specific events, corporate events, and social and fundraising events.
Sharing some of their biggest event disaster stories, participants discussed issues about lodging, including overbooked hotels, and the benefits of resort versus inner-city venues. One participant said offering lodging at the convention location is advantageous to exhibitors. While their competitors are traveling to or from the convention, those already onsite have the opportunity to stay and socialize with clients and other exhibitors.
Another participant said planners are often not onsite for the events they organize; a big challenge is conveying information to the organizations holding the event, and acting as a go-between for the organizers and the person who initially requested the meeting.
Participants discussed delegating tasks to people who are working at the event. Not knowing the client or the organizer’s level of background in planning often seriously impedes the role of the event planner, making it more difficult to delegate tasks effectively.
Participants said one solution is to send a primer or checklist to the person onsite, outlining how an event should be run. While this could maximize efficiency, participants felt it might be difficult, given the turnaround times required for events. It would also be difficult to communicate much of the implicit knowledge that event planners acquire during their careers. One participant added, “We’d end up handing them books, blogs, articles, and telling them, ‘Read all of this.’”
Participants discussed appropriate reactions and responses when problems arise. Several participants emphasized the need to address problems calmly; they noted that when volunteers and other less-experienced personnel are responsible for running an event, they may have trouble remaining calm enough to be effective.
A participant outlined the “stages of trade show grief”: “First, take a deep breath. Take a step away, scream out loud if you need to. Next, call as many people as possible and ask for help. A lot of people are afraid to reach out and ask for help.”
“Being the best at your job is knowing when you’re not the best at your job,” a group member said. Another participant agreed, adding that failing to admit a lack of knowledge it can be a lot more damaging, and can make the person look ignorant.
Once a planner admits they are unsure of how to handle a problem, they can invite counsel from someone who has strengths addressing that particular issue. In turn, planners can offer their own areas of expertise, making it easier to ask for assistance.
Participants acknowledged that most problems cannot be planned for; it is best to develop a skill set that enables them to deal with any situation. Such a skill set can be acquired by having more experience, and undertaking more events, increasing the number of “war wounds.”
While most participants agreed with this outlook, one noted that many problems can be defused by having an adequate and prepared staff. This means experienced people who know how to deal with a crisis situation, and don’t “pick up the phone before they have all the information.” The participant said that when a planner’s response to a problem is, “I need to get my supervisor.” Meanwhile, the person experiencing the problem often does not have time to sit and wait for the planner to find someone to deal with the issue. Participants discussed the issue of effectively empowering staff, giving them the opportunity to handle difficult issues.
Participants offered their biggest, most memorable and entertaining “oh-shit moments.” Much of the time, they said, the value of addressing a situation with humor allowed the event and the planner to move past seemingly major difficulties and errors. However, participants cautioned that it’s important to know the client and their expectations, and gauge the acceptable level of humor in each situation. Not everyone will think a situation is funny, and some clients might expect a more straightforward response, such as a concrete list of possible solutions.
One participant described an experience with a military-based client group. To meet this client’s expectations, the planner found it was important to offer definite solutions in a straightforward manner. “That group doesn’t want to hear a ‘plan A or plan B,’” she said. “They want definitive answers. It took me a long time to realize, but they didn’t want to hear options, they just wanted to know what was going to be done.”
Above all, situations that require crisis management must be handled with poise and grace. Good manners in such situations are invaluable, and hold the key to calming people down. While much of this is inherent knowledge, it is beneficial to brief employees and volunteers on the subject. Through offering “Customer Service 101,” employees can learn how to defuse negative situations in advance.
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