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It's Your Party

Mix business with pleasure as an event planner.

When you hire Naomi Kolstein to plan an event, be prepared for something fun and fresh. "My company provides celebrity look-alikes, imposter speakers, magicians, DJs, dancers and a variety of other talented entertainers. We arrange corporate treasure hunts and custom-written murder mystery gatherings," says Kolstein, president of Naomi's World of Entertainment Inc. in New Hempstead, New York. "We try to be as creative as possible and to exceed the client's expectations."

Kolstein is a prime example of the special breed of innovative, ultra-organized entrepreneurs who earn their fortunes as professional event planners. Planners typically arrange and execute entire events--everything from sales meetings, staff retreats and company picnics to birthday, holiday and children's parties--for both corporate and private clients. For Kolstein, this frequently involves selecting sites, preparing menus, lining up speakers and entertainers, decorating meeting facilities and arranging sound systems.

Event planning has emerged as a promising growth industry, especially for detail-oriented entrepreneurs who cope well under pressure and enjoy working with others. "Right now, the hospitality industry is huge--it's a $145-billion-a- year industry, and that number is only going to increase," says Tim Lundy, president of the International Special Events Society (ISES), an international special-event planning association in Indianapolis. "Event planners already earn a respectable share of the profits in the hospitality industry, and there's no telling how much their appeal will continue to grow in the years ahead."

Lundy speaks from experience. In addition to his efforts for ISES, he's been operating his own Atlanta-based planning business, Distinctive Design Events, for more than a decade. Over the years, Lundy has come to realize that, of the two basic markets for event planning services--the corporate market and the private market--he prefers to target clients in the corporate world. "The private market is a bit less predictable in my area, and corporate work is nice because it generally takes place Monday through Friday," he says. Other entrepreneurs take the opposite approach; many seek a blend of both corporate and private clients.

Whatever the emphasis, the basic goals of event planning remain the same: to oversee the dozens of tasks that accompany planning an event and to fulfill all the client's needs while remaining within a budget. Generally, this involves locating attractive sites for various events, arranging for catering, hiring performers, supplying flowers and decorations, preparing and mailing invitations, and coordinating transportation or lodging. It also involves negotiating contracts and competitive rates with suppliers to ensure that clients receive the most bang for their buck.

In exchange for their services, planners receive either an hourly rate, a flat fee or a percentage of an event's total budget. The annual net profit for a typical event-planning business averages $75,000, according to expert sources.

Event planning requires long hours, meticulous organization, creative vision, carefully honed people skills and the ability to deal with unforeseen crises. "Our job is making sure that when we say, `Take the third left after the highway,' it really is the third left," Kolstein says. "We are the entire backup system for every event, making what is a lot of work and a lot of detail appear effortless at the time of the function. It's fun to work behind the scenes, and it's a real thrill to see everything come together. But it's incredibly hard work."

One key to success is specialization. After deciding to focus primarily on corporate or private social events, many event planners decide to specialize further by becoming, for example, the local expert on children's parties, bar mitzvahs or company picnics. Establishing a niche early on makes it easier for clients to find you, especially through referrals.

Another key to success, if you have relevant expertise, is to maximize your share of the profits by providing a particular service related to the event, in addition to planning it. This approach has worked quite well for Sandra Tenenbaum, president of Occasions by Sandy in Englewood, Colorado, who usually caters the same events she plans. In fact, the event-planning portion of her business grew from the catering company she started in her kitchen 30 years ago.

Tenenbaum is proud of the way her business has grown since she and her husband combined catering and event planning into a single, powerful package. Net profits have increased at least 10 percent per year in recent years, and what started as a homebased operation has blossomed into one requiring a 10,000-square-foot facility.

"The most important lesson I've learned has been to promise my client a lot and deliver even more," Tenenbaum says.

Event planning is an attractive opportunity for new entrepreneurs because it's challenging, fun and poses relatively low barriers to entry. Friends, relatives and associates can easily turn into clients. It's feasible to start this kind of business from home with start-up costs somewhere in the $10,000-to-$20,000 range. And you can boost cash flow by collecting deposits from clients in advance. If you've got a flair for fun, event planning could be the perfect business.


Kylo-Patrick R. Hart is a freelance business writer in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

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