How to Plan an Event: A 10-Step Guide
Ah, the hectic—yet rewarding—world of event planning. Chances are if you’re reading this guide, you’re starting your first major foray into such a venture.
Whether you’re forming an event planning team at work or opening your own event planning business, you need guidance on how a major event comes together, from event management software to selecting a caterer.
I’m here to help.
In the past, I’ve written guides focusing on individual event issues and components, but this time I wanted to go deeper.
I’ve created this comprehensive ten-step guide on how to plan an event from start to finish. It’s jam-packed with instructions, tips, and software recommendations to keep your event planning organized and on track.
Bookmark it, print it out and mark it up, and reference it whenever it’s time to kick off your planning process.
Ready? Let’s dive in!
1. Develop a vision for your event
Your vision is the foundation of your event. It’s a breakdown of what you’d like to see go into and come out of your event, and can touch on speakers, revenue, attendees, and media attention.
To get started, you have to know where you’re going. How can you figure that out? By asking three questions that’ll establish your vision:
What is your ultimate goal for this event? This is the why that got you (or your client) moving in the first place. Are you hoping to raise money for a cause? Launch a product? Increase brand awareness? A combination of smaller goals? Determine what you hope to accomplish, and why this event is the way to do that.
How many attendees do you hope to attract? If the event is an annual affair, aim for year-over-year growth in attendee numbers. If it’s the first time you’re hosting an event of this kind, it’s even more important to nail down a target attendee number so you can measure success (and create a budget; more on that later). Research attendee data for similar events hosted within the past few years to get an idea of what to expect.
How much revenue are you hoping to collect from this event? Like the attendee question, your aim should be year-over-year growth. Answering this question will help you establish your budget, and lay out what you need to make in order to recoup expenses.
While they’re often what springs to mind when you think of event planning (and one of the more fun aspects of the process), choosing themes, colors, and branding for your event come later.
Keep yourself focused at the outset, and lay out the justification for your event. Record everything, and keep your notes organized in your preferred project management software/app.
2. Put your team together
Once you build your event vision, it’s time to start assembling a team that’ll make your vision possible. However, hiring team members isn’t as simple as asking a few volunteers to hang banners up and sign in guests.
As the event’s director, you’re responsible for filling the various roles reporting to you, including those that require specific technical skills. While not applicable to every event, the below chart is a good overview of roles you may need to staff.
If you’re not sure where to begin searching for candidates, Capterra’s talent management blog offers a host of helpful resources, including a list of ten industry-specific job boards (with relevant fields such as media/communications and technology).
Once you’ve contacted and interviewed your candidates, use this list of important follow-up questions to make your final choices.
After you put your team together, establish communication channels to foster successful collaboration and healthy dynamics. Chat software like Slack, team-based work management software such as Wrike, and the old reliable Google Hangouts are great communication options.
Keep in mind, though, that it isn’t enough to implement a new communications system and hope your team performs well together. As team leader, it’s important for you to foster these relationships through group activities and exercises.
3. Create an event budget
Depending on your point of view, finances are either the most exciting or the dullest aspect of event management. Regardless of where you fall, finances are arguably the most important component.
No money, no event.
Whether you’re making the business case for having an event at all, putting on an event for a client, or planning out the finances for an approved event, a thorough budget is crucial.
Here’s a list of key expenses to include in your budget:
Venue (room rental(s), security deposit, parking)
A/V (projectors, internet/Wi-Fi, speakers, microphones, cameras)
Catering (bartenders, servers, food, beverages, linens, table settings)
Entertainment (musicians/DJ, speaker fees, associated housing and transportation costs)
Miscellaneous (your catch-all category; include venue decor, seating, additional event staff, taxes, and fees)
To help organize your budget and streamline its creation, check out these event budget templates.
4. Choose your venue and date
You’ve established your budget, so it’s time to go venue hunting.
Before you start searching, make a list of key practicalities (these should be mandated by your event vision). Reference this list frequently while you’re looking and touring.
Here are a few suggestions to get your list brainstorming session started:
What kind of parking will you need?
Will you need your own A/V equipment, or will the venue provide it?
Does the venue have adequate cell reception throughout, or will you need to provide a Wi-Fi connection?
How much floor space do you need?
Do you need an open space, or segmented areas/rooms? (If the latter, how many rooms do you need?)
How far in advance does this venue book? Is it available in the window you’re looking for?
What are the deposit, cancellation, and refund policies?
5. Identify and engage event partners and sponsors
To stretch your budget and increase your reach, corporate sponsors and community partners are the way to go.
In addition to helping you cut costs, buy-in from larger players can open advertising and attendee exposure avenues you may not have had access to before, add stability to a smaller operation, and increase your chance for success. With more benefactors in the mix, your event poses a much smaller financial risk to your company or event firm.
When you’re ready to seek sponsors and partners, follow these four tips:
Understand their marketing objectives. Are prospective sponsors/partners looking for an opportunity to improve their public image? Do they want exclusivity in advertising? It’s important to know the answers to these questions when seeking sponsors so you aren’t caught off guard when your partner/sponsor asks for advertising space or inclusion on an event initiative.
Identify the real decision makers. It’s important to know who to talk to so you don’t end up repeating your pitch, or counting on a partnership that falls through because your contact lacked the authority to build that relationship. Some businesses defer such decisions to their marketing teams, while others may require you to climb the ladder to the executive level.
Make sure their business compliments your vision. If you’re running an animal rights event, you aren’t going to partner with Perdue. Seek partners with a business vision that matches your event vision to ensure a more enthusiastic relationship. This also allows you to push forward with your event without angering or repelling any attendees by presenting a conflicting message.
Know when to ask. Most businesses plan out their major sponsorships before the start of their coming fiscal year. If you’re seeking corporate sponsorship, it’s important to make inquiries well ahead of time to ensure you’re on their radar when the time comes.
6. Develop your event branding
You have your goals, you have your budget, and you have your team. Now, it’s time to start the fun stuff.
What is your event name?
What’s the theme of the event?
Do you have a logo?
What’s the color scheme and overall aesthetic you’re after?
Most of this should be handled by your promotions coordinator(s), with team input.
If you’re on a strict budget, creating branded materials (especially for online marketing) can have little-to-no impact on your spending if you use the right tools. Graphic design tools like Canva, Piktochart, Pixlr, and GIMP offer some (if not all) of their services for free. Some come with pre-made templates to make the process even easier.
When making graphics and other marketing materials, optimize for each marketing outlet. Social platforms don’t follow a universal image size, and if you get it wrong your image can be cut off by dimension limits, or render poorly.
Keep this cheat sheet close at hand:
Facebook: 1200px by 630px
Twitter: 440px by 220px
Instagram: 1080px by 1080px
Pinterest: 222px by 150px
7. Develop and deploy your event marketing campaign
OK. Your basic mechanisms are in place. It’s time to start raking in those attendee registrations.
There are multiple ways to market your event to potential attendees, and each appeals to specific generations. Traditional marketing methods such as cold calls and mailings are best suited for older prospects; research shows that millennials aren’t inclined to answer your calls or run to the post office to mail their responses.
Often, digital marketing strategies are the most useful in our technologically driven age. Nearly everyone has a cell phone (92% of American adults) and a social media profile of some kind (81% of Americans). Based on these figures alone, event planners (new and old) should focus on the digital marketing realm in 2018, and beyond.
Digital marketing avenue: Social media
Let’s break down your social media marketing options by platform, and examine the best age range to reach using that platform, post optimization guidelines, and some suggestions on the best places/ways to post on each.
Best for: Marketing to attendees aged 18 to 49
Join and post in groups relevant to your event theme (whether it’s political, environmental, business-oriented, technology-focused, or otherwise)
Use visuals to make your posts as appealing as possible (both static images and videos)
Post at least twice a day on your Facebook page to maximize engagement
Best for: Marketing to attendees aged 18 to mid-20s
Limit hashtags to two per post
Send out no more than three tweets per day
Use GIFs and images in your tweets to increase engagement
Bonus: Check out Capterra’s guide on boosting Twitter followers
Best for: Marketing to attendees aged 18 to 34
Post at least once per day on Instagram
Adopt a “the more the merrier” mindset on using hashtags on Instagram
Be sure to use different hashtags with each Instagram post in order to avoid an Instagram “shadowban“
Digital marketing avenue: Content marketing
This is my specialty (and my day job). Content marketing is the creation of online materials to share and promote a brand (in this case, your event) through videos, blogs, and social media posts.
Content marketing is a great way to attract attendees and talk up the benefits of attending your event. Your content should be useful and relevant to your event, whether it’s how-to guides or resource lists.
But, it isn’t as easy as cranking out a few blog posts and watching the attendees roll in. Building it doesn’t mean that they will come. An effective content marketing strategy requires commitment and optimization.
Work on your search engine optimization (SEO)
While it’s great for readers and attendees to discover your content through social media, relying on Facebook and Twitter is becoming less and less effective due to drastic algorithm changes. To combat this, you need to establish yourself (and your event) in search engine results (Google, Bing, and the like).
How can you do this? The magic of SEO.
Here are five key actions to optimize your content so it performs well in search engine results:
Produce content on a regular basis. Whether you opt for blog posts or YouTube videos, it’s important to establish a regular publishing schedule. Producing content regularly shows Google that you are a consistent and reliable source of information, leading to higher search engine rankings. Once, twice, three times a week? It’s up to you, but be consistent and let your audience know when they can expect new content from you.
Keep your content on topic. Google uses web crawlers to evaluate your content, juxtapose it to the promise of the headline, and make sure it delivers on that promise. If your content doesn’t deliver, your low search rating will reflect that.
Conduct keyword research. Using high search volume/low competition keywords is the key to a high ranking on Google’s search results page, but your keywords need to be relevant to the promise of your content. If you need help finding keywords to target, use tools like Google’s Keyword Planner Tool and KeywordTool.io.
Link internally. Linking to relevant content on your website or channel helps decrease your bounce rate (the percentage of visitors that leaves your site after visiting only one page). The longer a visitor spends on your website, the more likely they are to convert (register for your event).
Seek out guest posting opportunities. It’s important to establish relationships with other outlets that are relevant to your event. Guest posting is a great way to do that, and it gives you the opportunity to increase event exposure and drive traffic to your event website. More exposure means a wider range of potential attendees. Wide exposure from other sources also tells Google that your content is useful and relevant (based on how often your links are referenced).
8. Determine your tech needs
Technology is necessary to facilitate a successful event. You know this. Your team knows this. But, what exactly do you need?
Below, I’ve broken down three tech types you’ll need at your event, along with a few experimental options to consider.
Once potential attendees start seeing event advertisements and notices, you need a system in place to handle their signups. Make sure your website has a signup field for attendee registration, and a data collection system to store and manage all those registrations.
Most event management software options provide registration functionality, but if your existing software system lacks registration features you’ll need to procure event registration software.
The five highest-rated options in Capterra’s event registration directory are Configio, VBO Tickets, Arlo Training and Event Software, Ticket Tailor, and RegFox (each has a five-star rating and more than 50 user reviews).
If you want your audience to hear what’s going on and remain engaged during your event, you need some equipment.
Specific needs will vary by event, but most events require some combination of the following:
If you don’t have this equipment on hand, check with the venue to see if they have anything you need. If they don’t, check with local music and equipment rental stores.
If you’re hosting a large event, seamless communication is essential. Communication equipment doesn’t have to be expensive (or cost anything at all).
If money isn’t an obstacle, check with local stores for walkie-talkie and headset rentals.
For readers who have carte blanche with their event budget, consider introducing new event technology to step up your game.
Here are a few options to explore:
RFID: This technology uses Bluetooth to simplify ticketing by allowing attendees to use mobile devices to pay for and enter an event.
360 degree video: Provide guests who couldn’t attend with an immersive video experience that gives viewers control of what they see.
Beacons: Beacon technology uses Bluetooth and mobile devices to allow ticketing, payment, and event mapping.
9. Identify and hire other vendors
We’re in the home stretch!
Your team is collaborating smoothly, you have all of your equipment, and event registrations are rolling in. Now, you need to lock in the rest of your vendors. Your event might require unique vendors, but most events need (at minimum) some form of catering and entertainment.
Catering: Survey registered attendees to find out what their tastes are, and if you need to make any special food accommodations. There are multiple free survey tools that can help you gather this feedback.
Now that you know what kind of food you plan on having at your event, it’s time to go searching for a caterer. Websites like Yelp and even Google’s own reviews section provide insight into the quality of all types of businesses, including caterers.
Build your short list of caterers to contact and negotiate the best price for your event.
There are a few steps you should take when booking musicians, entertainment, and/or guest speakers for your event:
Survey your attendees to see what piques their interest
Contact the agent or booking manager to determine associated fees and individual needs (speaker bureaus can facilitate this process)
Book flights/transportation and make necessary lodging arrangements
10. Final preparations
You can see the light at the end of the tunnel, but we’re not quite there yet.
Event week is here, and it’s time to set everything up, give it one last glance, and host the darn thing.
What to do before the event:
Call participating vendors to double check on equipment, catering, and sponsors
Check in with the venue owners/managers to confirm the date and time everything will be ready to begin setup
Test all of your equipment as it arrives at the venue
Set up your ticketing system for guest check-in
Create a final schedule handout
Prepare swag bags with vendor materials
Set up a volunteer management system to track shifts and responsibilities if you’re bringing on extra help
Once the event starts, lock in your overseer role. Manage your guests, their needs, and your staff, but not on a granular level. Focus on the experience and facilitating a smooth operation. Trust in the prep work you’ve done, and the team you’ve assembled.