Updated: Jun 1, 2020
When companies hire inexperienced event professionals they often pay the price. Managing a corporate event is the easy part of an event planners job, the tough part is negotiating contracts, preparing for the worst and managing well when things go wrong.
I’m sure we can all agree that this COVID-19 crisis has been a huge disruption to almost every major industry, hospitality and travel especially. As the owner of an event management agency this crisis really hit me hard. My revenue for 2020 dropped by 90% I remember sitting at my desk on a Wednesday in early March, I finished preparing the production schedule for my conference, Haste and Hustle. I was so proud of the agenda, the speaker line up and how all the pieces were coming together. Just two short days later I had a call with Sir Richard Branson’s team (my headliner) and got some upsetting news that they were hoping we could postpone. I knew COVID-19 was starting to have an impact, but with only a month to go before my event I felt like with the right precautions we’d be fine. I was wrong. So just 3 days later we made a postponement announcement. Believe it or not that was the easiest part of the last 2.5 months. It’s taken a steady commitment to managing each of my clients events with a calm and problem solving mentality.
The challenge of a pandemic for an event planner that books events all over the world is that well, the attendance has dropped to zero. So in mid-March I began the task of renegotiating hotel contracts, airline flights, off site excursions and much more. I am so grateful for Lorraine Simpson through all of this. She and I work collaboratively on all the travel components for my events and she is by far the greater negotiator. Between the two of us we were able to renegotiate every single contract with no penalty to our clients. I attribute this huge win to the valuable relationships that we’ve both built. Lorraine has also been in the travel industry for years and truly understands the system and how to turn a potentially negative situation into a win-win for everyone.
Planning events can be easy and hard depending on the scale and scope of what you are doing and a lot of these jobs are given to executive assistants and fresh new planners. I don’t want to knock these people because typically they are exceptionally good at what they do, but international meeting and event planning does require a few more skills than you'd expect, especially during a crisis. Let’s look at the key skills needed to manage an event through a crisis.
Strong positive relationships
Professional event planners and travel agents spend time every month attending industry conferences to connect with property managers, tourism boards, airline representatives, production companies etc. There are also hundreds of hours a year spent on site inspections and familiarization trips to connect with properties, venues, and entertainment options. I know this is something we all do in our respective industries, but it’s important for clients to understand that this leg work is why we as planners can make things happen for you. We build these partnerships with the event suppliers to pass on discounts, increase options in each contract and in the case of a crisis it gives us significant support. I recently had to cancel a huge group incentive trip to a European country and the 5 star hotel was willing to provide a date change with no penalty because of the amount of business Lorraine and I have brought to them.
In depth knowledge of the travel industry
The travel industry is tricky to figure out, there are so many suppliers, so many companies and so many ways that customers can ‘do it themselves’. However I do like to remind people that when you book travel with Expedia or Travelocity or whatever online booking system you use don’t be fooled into thinking that you’re getting a better deal because you’re not paying a travel agent. The reality is those online platforms are travel agencies and they make just as much commission on each booking as an in-person agent. The difference is that in a crisis are you going to phone the barely trained customer service rep at Expedia with no relationships at your property or with your airline to solve your problem? No, that is when you want to have a respected agent that has been working with the property or airline or DMC throughout your planning process. Someone who knows the in’s and out’s of the industry and can go to bat on your behalf. I am lucky because over the past few years I’ve been able to attend so many of these industry events, fams and site inspections. I also have an absolutely incredible partner in my business, Lorraine Simpson that is essentially the Google of travel.
In 2019 I decided that it would be important to start studying negotiation, I had seen a speaker talk about negotiation skills and it hit me hard because it’s not my strongest skill. I attended a small negotiation workshop at the Dovetail retreat in September and began reading books like ‘Never Split the Difference’ and ‘Getting to Yes’. I also started following the advice of Fotini Iconomopolous (the speaker and trainer I had met and studied under). This year I really understood the value of developing these skills. Event planning is not just about making spreadsheets and handing out lanyards, it’s about making sure contracts are negotiated with every supplier and when a crisis hits, it’s about making sure you are going to bat on behalf of your clients. Thankfully I have a great team of people that I partner with, again including Lorraine and my wonderful lawyer Dave. Negotiation also ties back into the previous points. It’s much easier to negotiate where a strong business relationship exists and when your industry knowledge is exceptional.
Licenses and accreditation
In so many instances I see companies working with planners that lack any formal training and proper accreditation. This puts the client and company at risk, especially when there is travel involved. It is important to ensure that whatever travel partner you work with is TICO certified, with proper insurance. This is crucial in a crisis because when you need support having someone backed by a credible governing body.
Excellent knowledge of contracts
Contracts are incredibly confusing and when you are trying to negotiate a fair deal that also protects your client, it’s important to have someone that understands all the doublespeak. Also contracts can be so different between suppliers, countries and properties. A strong and experienced understanding of all the contractual obligations is key in hiring a strong planner or agency.
Recovering the losses that have occurred can be incredibly tricky, but this opportunity tends to rely on the knowledge and skills listed above.
Reach out to each property, airline, caterer, DMC etc. to discuss in detail how you can support one another by postponing. There has to be a win win and it likely won't be a complete recovery of 100% of the funds. However a candid conversation with the person in charge and some good guarantees moving forward is a great place to start.
Check with your credit card company about chargebacks. If a property is unwilling to accommodate you in the face of a global pandemic then there can be some options with your credit card.
Look for ways to repurpose materials and bookings, through second hand selling of items and gifts, donations to charities for a charitable receipt or storing for a future event.
Recovering losses can be a challenge, but so far we've had 100% success rate for each of our clients and we are always thrilled to share that information with them as we prepare to move forward.
At Mobi Events our number one role is to make sure our clients events are well planned, safe, secure, engaging and meaningful. We work to ensure that each of the planners we have on staff have the training necessary to manage through any challenge. If you need support please reach out to us at www.mobi.events.
Also, if you had any sort of loss or penalty with your event travel due to COVID-19, please reach out we may still be able to help you recover some of those funds.
By: Shauna Arnott