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Planning Your Company's Special Event
By Michael McCann, Com*Perfect Systems
Issue: 2001JAN

     "Special events, done correctly, are a very valuable tool because they can put groups of people together in a situation where they're talking about business," says John Allen, owner of Rand Incentive Marketing and a former Kodak marketing and sales executive. "You're putting people in a situation where they can hear from others just how good you are. That's 10 times the value of what you get from any communications you generate." 
     Special events also offer unique opportunities to relay a message. You have a captive audience that is at least somewhat interested in your company so they'll likely sit through more than just a quick event. It can give your prospects a chance to meet top executives or view how your high-tech product is made. It also gives you a chance to showcase your company's creativity, teamwork and business planning skills by pulling off a memorable event. 

Points to Remember When Planning a Special Event

Here are eight points to keep in mind when planning your next event: 

1. Make it real. 
     Have a good reason for the event. Nothing frustrates an executive more than to clear a day or more from an already hectic schedule only to find the time wasted. If you have doubts whether your event can stand alone, but would still like to draw top prospects, try adding more enticement to the event such as a party at a major sporting event.

2. Check the dates.
     You'll never find a time convenient for everyone, but your business undoubtedly has good and bad seasons. Events surrounding trade shows are sound because you know most of your customers will be there, you have a lot of your staff there, and there's inherent excitement surrounding the new products you're exhibiting. 
     People are so busy at trade shows, though, you may not get their full attention. If you encounter too much competition with other, well-established trade-show events, consider another date. 

3. Decide who will attend.
     If the event is at a trade show, are spouses invited? How many-and which-key players from each customer's company should come? You may get more bang for your dollar if you say "thank you" to that oft-forgotten MIS manager or other unsung heroes on the customer's decision-making team. 

4. Contact early and often.
     Time is money. People's schedules are planned down to the minute. "If you're planning a trade-show event, it's likely your prized customers and prospects will be invited to several parties so make sure you provide them with plenty of time to plan ahead," notes Michael Estwanik, business development manager for McGettigan Partners, a promotion agency. 
Send invitations six weeks in advance. Provide phone follow-up to remind people to RSVP so they won't be left out. A reminder call or fax just prior to the event can help gain a firm commitment. 

5. Scout the location.
     This is the stage for your event. It will determine the atmosphere as well as how much information is exchanged. Here are a few guidelines: 
-  The home office is good if you're trying to showcase your technology or want people to meet lots of executives, but it's often too distracting for both employees and visitors. There's a big chance people will wander off to visit friends or leave to make phone calls. If you choose this option, plan to tightly control the group's whereabouts. 
-  Nice hotels and conference centers work well. They're accustomed to hosting parties and can often suggest fun decorations or food to carry out a theme. 
-  If people are traveling to get to the event, provide them with the chance to experience the local culture. In the southwest, plan a western barbecue. Hold a clambake on the coasts. 
-  Look for the unique if it fits your mission, notes Estwanik. He suggests holding an event at a venue that either sells itself or is so unusual that the customer's curiosity is piqued. For one party, Varilux, a maker of ophthalmic lenses, took over Studio 450, one of New York's premier fashion photography studios. For another, the company chose the historic New York landmark, The Metropolitan Club, highlighted by famed travel photographer Peter Guttman. "The locations helped sell the party and create the perfect backdrop for highlighting the lens product," Estwanik says. 

6. Staff carefully.
     "You have to be careful of overstaffing the event because you want your customers to feel they can talk to each other without one of your staff jumping in," says Allen. "It's okay for customers to talk to each other-you have to have confidence in your business."
     Estwanik also suggests creating a supporting cast. "Waiters and entertainers can do far more than serve and entertain," he says. "In frequent contact with guests, they can often make or break a positive impression. When they are excited, they raise the energy of the party. Left out, they can distract or undermine your efforts. Take the time to explain the purpose of the event-the thinking behind the theme, who the guests are and why they are coming-to all on-site support staff (waiters, bartenders, parking attendants, florists, security guards). You will be surprised how much value they can bring to your overall sales strategy and image messages." 

7. Watch the agenda.
     You want to keep people busy enough that they're not bored or tempted to leave early, but you don't want them so busy they can't talk to each other. Be sure to provide natural gatherings so the more inhibited are comfortable introducing themselves. 
     One strong suggestion is to plan multiple events within the event. A home office tour, a mini trade show of your company's new products and a roundtable chat with executives allow people to get the same information in different ways while also providing some less structured time. 
     If you're planning a party, consider entertainment that rotates around the floor or occurs several times throughout the evening. A band can perform three sets of music, for example, while a magician can draw several different crowds in one evening. 
     There is also the time to get creative, notes Estwanik. Try to incorporate events that reinforce your message in a subtle way: 
-  Is your product sturdier than the competition's? How about a game of tug o'war? 
-  Does your product incorporate space-age technology? How about a visit from a real astronaut? 
-  Are you celebrating new relationships with international customers? How about a geographic trivia contest where your customers ask the questions about their home countries and your top executives try not to embarrass themselves? 
     Remember to help people get to and from the location. In New York, this may mean running buses or limos from the major hotels. If you're flying people between locations, it will mean designating people to meet guests at the airport. 

8. Give gifts they'll remember.
     "Parting gifts are great ways to help guests remember their positive experience," says Estwanik. "They can also be used as strategic tools to reinforce or complement a sales or image message." 
     At an event that coincided with the launch of Varilux's "It's The Lens" advertising campaign (featuring a close-up photograph of actor Tom Berenger wearing the company's new Comfort brand lenses), advertising photographer Stand Schnier was brought in to photograph each guest in the same position and lighting as Berenger. When they left, guests were given a souvenir folder with the "It's The Lens" logo on the cover and their photo inside, including the "It's The Party" logo, date and location. The gift not only reminded them of the good time they had, but it also kept the advertising theme top-of-mind long after the party lights were turned out. 
     Allen suggests sending parting gifts after the people get home. "Usually people pack up and leave, then the next contact is the salesperson. If you send a nice thank-you letter with a memento, it will be remembered for a long time." For example, he sent a Waterford crystal paperweight shaped like a football to customers who attended a Super Bowl party he threw. He also sent a wooden box containing a compass after an outdoor event. 

Not only do special events give companies an opportunity to get across their messages, but they allow for the chance to showcase the company's creativity, teamwork and business planning skills.