How to Become a Corporate Event Planner
It’s been about two years since I’ve actually told my business story.
It used to start with “When I was 12, I always wanted to write stories…” and end some fifteen minutes later, delivered with passion, but not a whole lot of substance.
Now it’s “I plan strategic events for big tech, ecomm, and digital entrepreneurs…what do you do?”
The longer you’ve been in business the more the story has to condense. There are more battles fought, more lessons that have been earned, and you learn to share your expertise in a way that proves you earned each business wound.
So what used to be a small story about how I sat in my 15-year-old Honda Civic and booked my first client and screamed because she was going to pay me actual money to plan her actual event, has now turned into a 5-second bridge story about how booking my first client led me to realize event planning could be remote.
Often, those smaller stories that we all tell during the early years in business get lost to the people who have only just met us. Yet, those smaller stories are the ones that are the most crucial for those of us who have been in business for years to tell, because they are the most helpful to the people who want to build what we’ve built (or, more humbly, who don’t want to feel the loneliness of struggling to pay the rent).
So today, I’m digging up my small stories.
I probably get one email a week asking me how I started my event planning business. Most of the time, I get really humble about it, and minimize it — Oh, I don’t know, I just made a website and emailed some people and then I just kinda got clients and it’s super great!
To be fair, I think that “How did you start your event planning business” might be the wrong question. I think the better question is:
What mistakes did you make, and despite all of them, how did you manage to stay in the game?
And over the years, I’ve done more Google Searches than I can count about “How to Become a Corporate Event Planner” and hoping that someone, SOMEWHERE, would give better advice than “Get your certification!” (which I don’t have and which I don’t think is actually good advice).
So today, I’m writing you that article…but really, this isn’t an article about How to Become a Corporate Event Planner. This is an article that’s really titled:
How Do You Do Something That People Tell You Is Hard And You Can’t Do, But You Know You Want To Try, So You Do It Anyway
And really, it’s not as crucial to know the HOW to start a business — in 2019, starting a business is as simple as registering your LLC, buying a domain name, and telling everyone you know what you do. The real truth? The one that no one talks about is how you trust that you’ll keep going after 2 years or 3 years or 5 years? That’s the REAL question.
1. I got really good at telling people exactly what I did (and then, actually told them).
Let’s practice: Hi! I’m Lauren Caselli, a strategic event planner that works with eCommerce, tech, and digital entrepreneurs to help them host incredible in-person experiences that build their communities and strengthen their customer loyalty.
Let me tell you — that phrase did not just fall out of my mouth one day when I was manifesting the vision that I had for the business. That phrase is at least 4 years of evolution…from “I’m an event planner” to “I help small businesses plan client events” to “I work with tech companies on their conferences” the current incarnation above.
The more I practiced telling people what I did, the better I got at it. And the more I told people, the easier it became to hear the questions that they had for me about what I did (“Oh you help businesses? So like, do you do weddings at all?”), which gave me more information about how to refine that pitch again.
Listen, I get that you might not actually know what it is that your business does…so if you’re still working on crafting it and getting good at it, try this formula:
I’m (name) and I work with (types of businesses that you work with). I help them (what is the action that you help them take) in order to (what is the result that your clients get).
That’s it! Now repeat, over and over again until it’s almost as easy as brushing your teeth.
The reality is that this WILL change over time. As you work with one awful client and the next awful client, you’ll shift the type of business you work with, you’ll refine the action you help them take, and you’ll get to see in earnest the result that you help them get. But none of that happens without DOING. So go do!
2. I hired people to help me (but not to DO things for me).
One year in to my first business, I paid someone $500 to help me figure out Squarespace (the platform I’m currently using to deliver this ON POINT piece of written content). It was EXCRUCIATING to part with that money, but now, I can make edits to all of my service offerings in 15 minutes if I need to, AND I’ve trained my team to make edits, which means we save gobs of money on technology help.
Two years into my business, I hired a CFO to train me on how to understand a profit and loss statement. It took him TEN. WEEKS. to explain to me that I was LOSING MONEY on most of my clients. I was working an incredible amount on their projects and was not paying myself nearly enough to do so. The $2000 that I spent working with him were life-changing because not only did he give me some tough love about how i needed to shape up and ACTUALLY start running my business for real, but he showed me how to use numbers to guide my pricing decisions. Had I not invested in that 1:1 support, I’d still be charging $5000 per project and wondering why I was tired all the time.
Then, last year, I hired a coach who essentially forced me to DOUBLE my rates. Let me tell you, I wanted to fire her so many times because that to me was easier than facing the idea of that big of a rate hike. But you know what? I did it and eventually, it paid her fee 3 times in 2018 and will continue to return. But at the time, spending $1500/month on a coach made me cringe…it took a ton of faith for me to feel comfortable enough to follow her advice and I had to trust the process more than once in order to overcome all the fears I had about changing my pricing.
So all this to say that it will be scary to invest in your business, but it will be even scarier and harder to justify investing in yourself. You will definitely learn some things by DOING them, but you will learn even more by hiring the right people to help you see your blind spots.
And no, you’re never done having blind spots. I have blind spots right now and I need help uncovering them. The difference now is that I know what it’s like to have massive blind spots and be pushed to the other side of them…and I won’t ever go back to trying to figure it out all by myself.
3. I went to visit my clients — in person.
You DEFINITELY can run a business exclusively online and never ever have to meet any of your clients in person. But let me tell you, taking the leap to actually going to visit your clients is a game-changer.
I always say that the magic at events doesn’t always happen in the room — it happens during morning coffee, it happens over a glass of wine at night. And now I know that this applies to my clients too. My clients hire this company because we’re excellent event planners…like, really really good.
But that’s not the only reason they hire this company. They hire us because we’re excellent people to be around. We have great insight. We go the extra mile and we work hard to make sure they are being taken care of, too.
To be honest, I didn’t learn any of that in school. I learned how to take care of my clients because I learned how to take care of myself. I learned that most people in our ultra-busy world need a break and they need someone to look them in the eye and ask them how their heart is feeling. I couldn’t have done any of that unless I did my own work (see below on that).
4. I learned to talk about money.
You know what I realized that I loved talking about?
I love understanding how business owners make money, spend money, pay themselves, pay their employees, cut overhead, expand overhead…basically, I’m obsessed with the accounting side of the business.
I love talking about what people charge, I love understanding how they best serve their clients, and how they get paid for that.
But I didn’t always love it. In fact, I was often embarrassed about how long it took me to actually pay myself a decent salary (or, let’s be honest, ANY salary).
I sat in my first money seminar when I turned 30 years old, and I remember looking around the room at the women in there and how much they knew!
They knew so much about stocks and bonds and investment accounts. About maxing out your benefits and starting a business and finance. I knew none of it! I felt embarrassed and sad for myself.
But then I realized that the only way I was going to be able to get to the point where all those women were was to sit.in.the.dang.room. and continue learning. Over the last four years I’ve read finance books that haven’t made any sense to me — and then two years later I read them again and they FINALLY clicked.
Now that I’m here to the place where money feels fun and not stressful, I realized how much knowing about money makes me feel less scared of it. I can negotiate with clients or ON BEHALF of clients without feeling that I don’t know what I’m talking about.
So, if you’re stressed about money, go read this book and this book and know that you are DOING something to solve your money stress by taking slow baby steps toward understanding money in the first place.
5. I saw a therapist and learned that my attitude is my responsibility.
The first time I announced that I was going to be a corporate event planner, the first person I told said:
“I tried that. It’ll never work in this town.”
After which, I promptly went home and cried. Which seemed like a ridiculous response to me, and so then I went to ask a therapist about it.
While the only reason I went to see a therapist is because I wanted to stop crying in meetings and during hard conversations, after 5 years of weekly sessions, I started noticing that my response to how events in my life and my business (and at events) became more measured, less stressful and easier to navigate.
Which meant as a bonus side effect that:
• When people told me I couldn’t do my business, I wasn’t triggered by it.
• When a client said no to my proposal, I wasn’t triggered by it.
• When someone tried to negotiate my fee extremely low, I could say no without feeling bad or guilty.
Do I think you need therapy to do all of those things? No, but I do think all business owners need someone by their side, telling them that the stories that you tell yourself about how people will react are probably false.
Also, when I started focusing more on myself and taking into account my own reaction to seemingly impossible events, other things in my life got easier. Conversations with friends or family that used to be fraught with me justifying my position became easier and I became less insistent on being right or understood.
This trickled over into business and I finally stopped working with clients where I had to justify why something was a specific way. I got pretty in tune pretty quickly with people who didn’t want to actually understand why something was expensive, which meant I could say no to those clients faster than I could say no to other clients.
6. I got really comfortable with asking better questions.
This single skill (learned from therapy and also from taking work with people who were better than me — see below on that) has turned me from just an event planner to someone who can get to the bottom of why a certain client is feeling a certain way about a certain thing.
If someone is giving me grief about a line item that I’ve estimated as quite high, it usually comes from a place that has nothing to do with the line item. So before, I would do everything in my power to just LOWER that line item (negotiate the shit out of the contract, ask for more and more and more from the venue, etc.), which often led to a ton of stress and not a lot of result.
Instead, what I should have been doing is digging into WHY they didn’t want to spend a certain amount of money on a specific line item. I should say “what feels not great about spending $15 per person on notebooks”. When the question starts there, we find out that they want to be eco-friendly and not buy things that aren’t reusable…which opens up a completely different narrative about budgeting and why we had certain things there in the first place.
Asking better questions, asking MORE questions than you think you need to is a skill that most people aren’t comfortable with because they feel like it makes them look like they don’t know what they’re doing.
This is completely untrue. The truth is that most people aren’t great at communicating their needs in the first place, and they often need the support of someone who CAN humble themselves enough to ask questions instead of assume that they know everything about what the client is trying to say.
7. I took work from bigger companies to learn what they did that I wasn’t doing.
For two years as I started my own business, I freelanced for a company that was sort of a similar type of company to the one I was trying to build, but in a completely different market (mostly healthcare). Learning from them and getting to work on projects with them was a DREAM because they taught me so much about client care, client management, how to engage new clients, and how to deliver on promises.
If you haven’t ever worked with someone who does what you do but professionally, here is your permission and encouragement to start. Seek out a “bigger” marketing agency than you and ask to do work for them at half your normal rate. Take a course from them, pay them to coach you, then ask for an internship or part-time contract job after that so that you can learn how successful companies are run.
Everything I’ve learned, I haven’t taught myself…I’ve paid or been paid by other people to learn it while doing it. Sometimes, I overestimated my ability and ended up getting fired by a client (yep, it’s happened). Sometimes I’ve stayed in a contract where I knew I couldn’t serve the client anymore and then had to fire them (yep, that’s happened too).
If you’re in a place where you feel like something is wrong with your process and you can’t quite figure out what it is, pay to learn what the successful people are doing (or offer to help them for a cheaper rate) so that you can figure out EXACTLY what it is that makes a successful process and use that knowledge in your own business.
So now it’s your turn.
So if you’re on the come up, I want to know:
What is one thing that you’ve learned about running a business in the last 6 months - 1 year? How did this lesson change the way you work?
And if you’ve already shone and now you’re polishing your light, I want to know: