Life of the Party

Life's a party--if you're an event planner, that is.

By the time he was 18, Dylan Marer had his own event planning business, which he ran from his frat house. "I'd be on the phone with clients from AT&T or IBM, and I'd have to tell my frat brothers to be quiet because I was working," recalls Marer, now 30.

The Costa Mesa, California, entrepreneur, who started his career as a caterer's assistant at age 14, earned enough money to put himself through California State University, Long Beach, where he earned a marketing degree in 1992. But the days of coordinating spring break vacations and student ski trips--and frantically searching for stained corporate client files in stacks of papers at the frat house--are long behind him.

Today, Marer is president of Innovative Meetings and Events Inc., a full-service event planning and project management service with expected sales of $4 million this year. He and a staff of 14 are responsible for corporate executives feasting at a Hawaiian luau or doing crazy beach Olympics in Cancun.

He's one of a rapidly growing number of event planners--professionals from a wide variety of backgrounds who help corporate and private clients create memorable experiences, whether it's a sales meeting for 10, a wedding reception for 100 or a convention for 1,000. Because it's such a new industry (only about a dozen years old) it's tough to say how many event planners there are out there, says Sharon Jansen, owner of Special Event Business Advisors, a consulting firm in San Clemente, California. But where there's money to be made, you can bet there are entrepreneurs.

And there is money to be made in event planning. Meeting Professionals International, a trade organization that represents meeting planners (one category of event planners), estimates sales for the meeting planning industry alone top $83 billion annually. That doesn't include the additional revenues generated by professionals who plan weddings, events for special interest groups, children's parties, class reunions or other niche markets.

Those figures will continue to grow, industry experts say, as more busy people look to turn over the details of coordinating an event to someone else. Corporations will always need event planners because a well-produced event, such as a sales meeting, can promote staff productivity and, in the long run, boost the bottom line. It's hard to pin down typical sales for event planners, since the range is so wide. Jansen says event planners who work at it part time may gross as little as $20,000 annually; some full-time event planners enjoy sales of $100,000 or more, on up to the millions.

In addition to its potential as a growing market, event planning attracts start-up entrepreneurs because it's a business that can be started from home with very little capital. After four months of traveling in Europe in 1996, Jennifer Palmer, formerly an events coordinator for Starbucks, returned to the States with an entrepreneurial itch. Using a computer and $40 worth of business cards printed at Kinko's, Palmer launched Marketing Edge SF from her apartment in San Francisco. Although she operates solo, the 29-year-old says her firm, with 1998 sales of $120,000, has no trouble attracting clients.

"In Silicon Valley, a lot of companies don't have the in-house resources to plan meetings and events. Huge layoffs in the Valley mean demand for independent contractors like myself," says Palmer, who has a Rolodex of 500 names of customers she worked with while at Starbucks.

For those like Palmer who serve corporate clients, training seminars make up the largest number of planned events, followed by sales meetings, trade shows and conventions, according to Meetings & Conventions magazine.

While event planning may sound like a lark, it's not something to rush into. "Just because you once planned a baby shower doesn't mean you can be a successful event planner," Jansen cautions.

First, you need experience. Event planners come from a wide range of backgrounds, but most have some previous experience in the industry, often having worked in a related field, such as catering or meeting planning. And as certification programs become available through schools like George Washington University in Washington, DC, and the University of San Diego, competition will become fiercer. "People will flock to get those letters [CMP, for Certified Meeting Planner] behind their names so they can stand out from the crowd," Jansen says.

You also need to be detail-oriented, have a good head for numbers (cost savings are important to clients; many event planners go out of business quickly if they can't work within a budget), be able to simultaneously coordinate numerous people and activities, have technical expertise (since many events require high-quality audiovisuals), be able to market yourself effectively through networking and cold-calling, and not wilt under long days and deadline pressures. It's important to live in or near an urban area that can supply you with a steady stream of clients. A little personal charisma doesn't hurt, either, Palmer says, since event planners need to be able to sell themselves as much as they're able to execute a successful event.

You'll definitely need a niche, something that sets you apart from the pack. Marer, for instance, offers clients a Web site service. His firm will set up a Web site with details about the upcoming event, an agenda and a way for participants to sign up and make room reservations online.

Robert Tuchman, 27-year-old president of Tuchman Sports Enterprises in New York City, got the idea for an event planning business that focuses on sporting events after reading an article in Entrepreneur magazine. Tuchman makes arrangements for clients from Fortune 500 companies (like Pepsi, Frito-Lay and Hewlett-Packard) to attend events such as the Super Bowl and the U.S. Open. Although his 2-year-old company racked up sales of $2.5 million last year, he admits running an event planning business isn't always easy. "My most sleepless nights come when I'm planning an event," Tuchman says. "It's absolutely critical that everything be perfect and all the vendors do their jobs. But worrying ensures I go in prepared."


Pamela Rohland (prohla@aol.com) is a freelance writer whose work appears regularly in national and regional publications.

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