Top 5 event management mistakes and how to avoid them

Alex Palmer, Events Director at @KinaEvents shares some top tips for making your events better in 2017

Events share one key characteristic – stress! – and being under pressure makes you more likely to make event mistakes. Here are my top 5 event management mistakes and how to avoid them.

  1. Not really listening

Too often in life we talk a lot. We’ve all done it. Somebody asks, “How are you?” and you realise (eventually) that the other person hasn’t been able to ‘get a word in’ for half an hour! We all enjoy talking about ourselves, and it doesn’t take much to get us started…

We interrupt people, we ‘butt in’ with our funny little anecdotes, and often without even realising we are doing it. In our busy world, our brains we have ‘moved on’ to the next thing – the next point we want to make, how soon until our next meeting, what we’re having for lunch, anything else that springs to mind.

This can cause problems though, when you start to make assumptions about what people want. Too often people assume what I want, and get it wrong.

Consumer brands assume that I want a window seat on a plane (I don’t – I find it embarrassing to have to ask people to move so that I can visit the bathroom), or they assume that I like particular things because I’m a women (shock news: I like things other than pink cupcakes and shoes), or particular products because of my age (eek – let’s not talk about that one!).

Ask More Questions

My point is simply this – it’s very annoying when people make assumptions about me, instead of asking me. Sometimes people don’t ask because they can’t but, more often that not, they simply haven’t bothered.

In the business world, each event is different. Just because you’ve done something a certain way doesn’t mean it should be the same way every time – it may well be that’s exactly what your boss/client wants – but maybe you should ask…just to be sure?

It can be difficult to accept that people are different. It sounds silly, but most of us would like people (in general) to be like us – to be like our friends, our family, the people we hang out with in our spare time. Those nice, shiny, happy people.

In real life, however, you have to work with all sorts of people. And they often like things done differently to you.

The key thing with events is that if you stop talking and start listening, you find out a huge amount that will assist you in running your event. One of the most important traits in a great events manager is listening. And I mean, really listening.

You can find out a lot about people through what they say, verbally and otherwise – the specific language they use (casual, formal, restrained, lively), how they dress (corporate, conservative – or not), their body language, how they talk about others, how they talk about their industry and colleagues, what their broad brush expectations are. You can find out a lot through what they don’t say too.

So, the best way to avoid this common mistake is to ask questions – and then, crucially – wait, and really listen deeply to the answers.

Don’t just jump straight in with your next question (without considering their answer, or with your opinion). It’s a great habit to get into, and I bet you’re not doing it enough. Challenge yourself to try it more!

2. Not having an eye for detail

This is a big deal. Seriously. Being sloppy with detail is embarrassing, and all too prevalent in the events world.

I can honestly say that I’ve lost count of how many times staff at catering firms that have sent me proposals for “bowel food” instead of “bowl” food.  Sigh.

A high-profile example of being sloppy cropped up just recently, at the ‘Golden Globe Awards’ in California in January 2017 (televised and broadcast around the world), where the organisers spelled the American singer, songwriter, musician and actor John Legend’s name wrong.

USA Today confirmed that Despite the fact that Legend’s last name is an actual word, a setting for “John Ledgend” was waiting for him at his seat.”  They may know his songs, but his name, um, less so. Awkward…

I physically cringed when I saw the details. Somebody should have checked, double-checked and cross-checked that list. Several people, probably!

Fortunately, Legend himself seemed to take it in his stride, but it’s just not acceptable to spell people’s names wrong, and many guests will (understandably) take great offence. It doesn’t reflect well on you, or your company, so spend the time getting the small – but crucial – details right.

This is just one example, but it’s symptomatic of a larger problem. How to avoid this comes down to two key areas.

Firstly, you have to genuinely care about this stuff. I mean it. You have to care about this stuff, even on days when you’re tired and don’t feel like it.

Of course, mistakes do happen, especially under pressure but, if a guest tells you that their name is spelt wrong, then you should feel embarrassed (and be apologetic), and not just think “oh well”.

You should care enough to do what you can to avoid it being repeated. You need to write it down, and correct it on whatever systems you can. You should let the host know. There are things you can to do to avoid it happening again, and you should make sure those things happen. Once, a guest might forgive you. Twice? Trust me, they will not be impressed…

Why is this so important? Because once you stop caring about the little stuff, you’ve probably stopped caring about the big stuff too. Making the big stuff amazing only happens by getting the small stuff right!

The other thing you have to value is time. What I mean is that you have to factor into your event planning sufficient time to check the details – and yes, I do mean printing out a list, grabbing a large ruler and a pen, and going through the list, line by line, double-checking everything. It’s totally and 100% boring and massively time-consuming, but it’s essential and it should be part of your normal preparation.

Whatever method you need, the important thing is that you should see this as part of the event planning process, not just an afterthought or a ‘nice to have’, if you have time. Until you personally value the effort made, and commit to spending the time doing it, you risk this kind of mistake happening all the time.

3. Not managing expectations

One of the hardest aspects of running events is figuring out what your boss (or client/stakeholder) actually wants, and then subsequently what they can afford (or are prepared to spend). Often there can be quite a disparity between the two, and as an event manager, it is your job to gently figure out where things stand.

You must be able to discuss – sometimes, frankly – what’s realistic (and what’s not). Occasionally, you have to ‘be the bad guy’ (whilst still being charming, of course!).

With all events, there are ways you can cut costs, and gain access to some things for free, but ultimately it comes down to managing expectations. And the bad new is, that’s your job.

To avoid this problem, you need to ask a lot of questions. And I mean a lot of questions!

I often ask my clients to ‘talk me through’ the event, from start to finish, including any post-event work. This will usually tease out in more detail what they have envisaged, and it will often raise some ‘red flags’ for me – questions to ask, and issues that need to be sorted out. It’s essential to avoid assumptions on both sides, and to set clear expectations.

If you sense people are getting annoyed by your questions, explain to them why you are asking, e.g. that you are ultimately trying to be considerate to their needs and respectful of their time. When they appreciate this, most people won’t give you a hard time.

When you stop asking questions, and rely on assumptions instead, you’re on thin ice. It’s much better to communicate well, right at the beginning, so that you’re not thrown any curveballs later on, when the budget is as well as good and spent! It’s your job to establish expectations and guide others through what is achievable within time, budget, resource and other constraints.

4. Not having a complete grasp of your budget

Whatever type of events you plan and organise, I cannot stress this one enough – you must have a handle on your numbers! If you don’t, things can go horribly wrong. To put it bluntly, if you’re scared of numbers and spreadsheets, then you simply shouldn’t be working in events.

Your budget will determine to a great extent what you can afford (or not) to do, but more importantly it is an essential planning and forecasting tool. You must respect it.

Firstly, you must have a proper event budget, in an Excel spreadsheet or equivalent format (with formulas), and you must update it diligently and on a regular basis. The key point is that you need to understand the numbers in detail yourself, as this is not something to delegate or shirk away from.

You need to check regularly that your numbers add up correctly, and are in line with expectations, flagging any areas that you are concerned about. You need to know who controls and ‘signs off’ on the budget (if not you) and how much detail they require (and when) as the event planning progresses.

Secondly, it’s essential that you factor in some contingency to your budget for unforeseen expenditure. Opinions vary about how much (as a guide, most would say in the region of 5-10% is about right), but things can (and often do) go wrong, so you need to have a margin of error factored into your budget. This should be regarded as untouchable, so don’t be tempted to dip into it.

When budgets are under pressure, this can be hard to stick to, but if you don’t, you risk all of the stress coming back to ‘bite’ you if things go wrong! Just because you haven’t experienced any problems in the past doesn’t mean they won’t happen in the future.

Thirdly, it’s important to understand if your budget needs to be recorded including or excluding VAT (Value Added Tax). Currently at 20% (as at January 2017, in the UK), this can make a big difference to your budget.Many budgets work with numbers excluding VAT (as VAT rates change) but, if that’s the case, you need to remember to record all expenditure this way, even if you are charged at source for items including VAT (e.g. food and beverage items in restaurants, or items purchased on the high street). VAT rates vary for some items, and a smaller number are except from VAT altogether, so get some specific advice if needed.

Don’t allow your budget to run away from you. Keep it in your mind as one of your most important tasks. And if something does go wrong, get help as fast as you can. Don’t bury your head in the sand. It never helps!

5. Forgetting to keep others informed

This one may sound confusing, but it’s simple. When you’re in the midst of an event – it can be all too easy (and sometimes fatal) to forget to keep others updated. Failing to do so can cause all sorts of problems.

If the last time you communicated with your boss/client/stakeholder was at the initial planning meeting, you have forgotten a key element of the event.

The other people involved need to feel valued, updated and reassured that everything is under control. You don’t necessarily have to run through every single detail with them, but you need to give them an overview and the opportunity to ask questions.

This could be the event host, speakers, those who have invited guests, sponsors, exhibitors, external partners from other organisations, and so on. Think about who your key people are in this respect.

People tend to get very annoyed if they are not kept informed. Think about how agitated you feel if, for example, an airport or train station fails to give you relevant and up-to-date information about your journey or any delays. It’s really irritating, and drives us all mad.

There may be, for example, a travel delay that is beyond their control, but it’s usually the lack of updates to us – the travelling public – that causes the maximum frustration.

Annoyed people become passive-aggressive, defensive and tricky to manage. Your job is to avoid any ill feeling arising, and you do that by showing the others involved with the event the respect they deserve.

How to avoid this lack of communication is pretty much just common sense. If you’re worried you will forget, put some reminders in your diary, add it as a task on your event checklist, or ask a trusted colleague to remind you. Whatever works for you!

Each event and organisation is different. But the principle is the same. Make sure your key people stay on board and updated, and they will respect you more.

The year ahead

Whatever your event challenges in 2017, remember that whilst not everything is within your control, with the right outlook, attitude and attention to detail, you can always make your events event better.

Happy New Year!


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