The Accidental Event Planner

Guest Author: Gurinder Whall, Your Event Mentor 

“We need to plan our annual conference” says The Boss

Plan a conference? ….me?  But what do I know about organising events?!

Does that feel familiar?

Very few administrative staff set out to become event organisers. One day, something that should be really be dealt with by an event agency, lands in your in-tray and you’re soon on a stressed out, fast-track ride to event management land.

You won’t just hit the ground running, they’ll be some serious skidding and tumbling along the way too.

And if that’s not enough, it’s all being wedged in to an already packed-to-the-max daily schedule… travel and hotel bookings, organising the diary, setting up meetings and generally being the all-seeing, all-knowing oracle for The Boss. 

Ever the professional, many administrative staff take whatever comes their way in their stride. You’re used to dealing with the unexpected, the last minute, even the unusual. Practice makes perfect and the more you do something, the better you get at it.

No pressure… but…

However, event planning has many unique challenges and the biggest challenge is facing the fact that your practice in this field is all being played out in public and there’s no-where to hide if things start going pear-shaped. That can be an immense amount of pressure for anyone.

You really don’t have time to start creating new systems and processes to keep your event planning smooth and pro-active, so you do what you can and hope for the best. Yes, you may find yourself stuffing badges and delegate packs late into the evening before the big day, but you’ll get your head down and get it done.

You’ll probably already have fumbled your way through learning about budgets, how many people a gallon of coffee will serve, optimum meeting room configurations (don’t forget those obstructing pillars), why a good AV person is gold dust and how demanding and temperamental those VIPs can be.  Dealing with the simple logistics is challenging enough, and that’s before you even get to meeting architecture and ROI.

I’ve been organising a wide variety of events for nearly 20 years…everything from arranging and minuting a 2-hour forum for 15 people to handling all the logistics of a celebration event at St James’ Palace for over 250.

I’ve organised tightly-timed coach tours of working hospitals across a traffic-ridden London and put together surprise boat trips for teams (and dealt with a delegate who refused to get on the boat). There really is an immense amount of pride and satisfaction at the end of the day knowing YOU did all that.

But I, too, started as an accidental event planner, so I feel your pain!

From accidental to expert

I actually trained as a graphic designer and, after seven years designing books and being immersed in print deadlines, strict budgets and organising suppliers and contributors, I realised my strength lay in continuing to develop these skills somewhere else.

I jumped ship and became the administrator for a high-profile national programme of a large membership organisation and rapidly had to deal with a wide range of people …it was all a far cry from the quiet, creative space I had been used to.

It’s taken many years of things going wrong for me to understand what structures and systems I need to put in place to ensure those fails don’t get repeated. And as well as working on client events I’ve now got enough knowledge and experience to advise individuals and organisations, empowering to deliver their own meetings and projects more efficiently with less stress.

And things WILL go wrong! It’s inevitable that with so many pieces of a complex jigsaw needing to come together within a short critical, time-frame, some of them will fall off the table, or just not fit. Every event is different, even if it’s an annual one.

Learn from the mistakes of others, you’ll never live long enough to make all those mistakes yourself” – Groucho Marx

Network, not just with other administrative professionals, but also with other event organisers, share the wins and fails and hopefully you’ll start learning what critical bases need to be covered to minimise stress and maximise producing a great event for everyone.

Have I stood outside a hotel waiting and wondering why the delegate transfer coaches haven’t turned up? Yes.

Have I booked 3 days’ worth of speakers for the wrong week? Yes!

I’ve even had to leave an event just before it started due to a death in my family.

I wish I’d had someone to guide me through the early years and be a sound-board for my slips and trips. Like many of you I have a cool, calm and fast-thinking approach to deal with the unexpected and I’ve learned one major thing about myself in the last 20 years – virtually nothing phases me, and that’s helped me build the confidence to take on new challenges and trust myself that I can deal with whatever comes up on the day.

The key is not to react with “I can’t deal with this” but “HOW can I deal with this?” and you’ll find yourself coping with whatever the day throws at you. And if you think you might be a “freeze” or “flight” type rather than a “fight”…then I would highly recommend mindfulness and meditation to support your on-the-job learning.

For starters, to get a clear handle of the main areas you need to think about for any event or meeting, download my free event planning checklist here.

Trust yourself. You’ve got this.


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