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Advice for Stress-Free Event Planning

Pam McCarthy of Five Star Events shares quick tips for staying sane amid the chaos

Mar 6, 2017

by Alberta Venture Staff


Illustration Jenn Madole
“People will remember the food, good or bad”

Life is all about learning to accept the things you can’t control, and so is event planning.

If you’re planning one right now, you might suffer a miniature panic attack just imagining some worst-case, uncontrollable scenarios: flight delayed; “Where’s my driver?”; salmonella; flash flood. There are countless things to worry about that you don’t even know you should worry about. And, worrying aside, there’s not much you can do about it.

But despair not. No event will ever sail by without a hitch, but you can learn to manage the mistakes. What’s important is that you hide your errors from your guests. You know you can’t control everything, but they don’t. With that in mind, Pam McCarthy returns with advice on the problems that are in your control.

Don’t fudge the budget

The first question you should ask yourself after conceptualizing your event is how you can afford to put it on. Come up with a pricing model that weighs different venues, caterers, entertainment choices and other expenses, and, if you can, get those ­numbers in writing. That way you can confidently negotiate those contracts and slip them into your budget again without any major disturbance.

Perhaps as importantly, McCarthy says, make sure you have a contingency fund. It’s ironic that taxes – the one thingbesides death that you’re bound to face – are forgotten in so many well-meaning budgets. “If you’re going to spend $10,000 on food, that’s around $12,000 once you add the gratuity and GST,” she reminds us. Unexpected fees, too, can creep up on you, so make sure you have all setup fees, administrative charges and delivery fees in mind. And, again, be confident in your negotiations. It’s not your vendors’ job to look through your contract and cross your Ts.

Location, location, location…

The most sought-after venues often book up a year or more in advance, so plan ahead. This can cause problems if you’re, say, an oil company that’s laid off 600 employees in the time between planning and partying, so try to have the best grip possible on how many people to expect. Trade shows, which might host hundreds of vendors, require more space, so your choices will be limited already (the upside is that choosing is that much easier).  

The venue will almost certainly be one of your biggest expenses, so it’s key to spend money only on what you need. Don’t be tempted by the glitz if it’ll make too big a dent in your budget. (Maybe BMO Centre isn’t best-suited for your startup’s Christmas party.)


Illustration Jenn Madole
Avoid food fights

Figure out far in advance whether you’ll be using the centre’s kitchen, should it have one; internal catering will give you a much different price per guest than hiring an outsider caterer. McCarthy has seen pesky administrative fees – for things like barbecue rentals, staff uniforms and disposable utensils – add up to 40 per cent on top of the original budget. Keep in mind dietary restrictions, as well.

This should go without saying, but make it the best meal you can afford. This is not the place in your budget to skimp. “People will remember the food, good or bad,” McCarthy says. “They might not remember the keynote speaker’s closing remarks, but they’ll remember the chocolate lava cake they got for dessert.”

We’re sure your brother-in-law’s jazz-­fusion jam band is stellar, but they might not be the smartest entertainment choice. McCarthy is a big fan of local talent, but recognizes that it’s not always the best fit, as tempting as it is to hire someone who doesn’t need a hotel room and a flight home. Non-local speakers often need first-class accommodations and airfare, as well as food and drinks (which might have to be first class, too). Again, have a contingency plan for some of the details – what if the plane is late or the cab doesn’t show up? – because “so much can happen between when a person leaves for and arrives at their destination that’s completely beyond your control,” McCarthy says.

The good thing is that the more you hire this kind of talent, the better terms you’re likely to be on with their agent, which could help you negotiate the price next time you need them.

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