Behind the Scenes: 10 Lessons from a "Chaos Coordinator"

Have you seen the shirts that say Event Planner = Chaos Coordinator? They always make me chuckle, as there's probably some truth to it. During the heat of the event, my job is really about coordinating my vendors, volunteers, and guests throughout the adrenaline-packed day.

Event marketing is crucial for a resort destination, so much so, that we invest in about 175 events per year. And, it isn't just about marketing these events anymore. We are crafting an experience for our guests. Sure, during events, our location will experience heavier traffic, which is a direct correlation to merchant sales. It's already a win. But, events also help create an experience for our guests. If it's a great event, then we may just create a few repeat visitors, and possibly brand ambassadors too.

Since I've just come off a major festival for my company, I wanted to share a behind the scenes look at what I value, what I like to focus on, and what I've learned from our bigger festivals. 



1. Know your absolute deadlines.

And, hit them before that date.

You are going to have so many deadlines -- deadlines for media buys, deadlines to go print, deadlines for ticket sales, deadlines for merch, and even when to order linens. Rarely do those deadlines change, and if they do, it’s often not in your favor. So, check things off your deadline list as soon as you can. Don’t let them linger!

Here’s a hard truth: Deadlines might not mean the same thing to you as your vendors. Deadlines for designers shouldn’t be the same day the media ad is due, as you will have edits.  For me this year, it was plates. I was so excited about these bamboo plates, and I ordered them on deadline day, only to find out every single plate – and all my back up options - could not be in my hands in time. And, the shortage forced me to order much too big and much more expensive items, which almost blew my budget.

Estimates mean nothing and should only be used for what they are – an idea. You don’t have the true “deadline” until you placed the order, and sometimes until you pay the deposit.

2. Back up everything.

Back up everything, including all phone calls and meetings. Written communication and notes are crucial for any event planner no matter the size of the event. This communication protects you. 

Quick story: I will never forget a lesson I learned in my first job. My boss gave me a bit of advice — keep a phone log. I remember thinking it was a bit lame, since I was so cool with my grown up job, but wisely followed his instruction. During each call, I wrote down the time, phone number, name of the person, employer, and what was discussed. Every time. One day this lesson actually worked in my favor.  We often worked with radio stations with ticket giveaways to help drive promotion for concerts.   I kept detailed notes from my phone calls with three radio promotion leads. But, one guy still gave away front row seats -- often what we called a 5- 4 -3- 2- 1 deal. It built excitement, and it was great for the radio station. However, I didn't have those tickets to give away, and definitely didn't promise them.  It was a touch situation to be in, as we didn't want to ruin our relationship with the radio station, but we couldn't do anything about the tickets.  We found a way to work with the artist management team, and got the "winners" backstage passes instead. Thankfully, I had my phone log to prove that I had not acted out of character, and definitely did not promise something I didn't have! It at least backed up what I promised. (I was able to later trace back through emails too, and also had a signed contract that stated the number of our front section general admission tickets. Again, not front row seats.) 

Back to present day events, there are so many moving parts. I’ll be the first to admit I can’t remember everything. Whether your prefer paper contracts, filed emails, Dropbox folders with PDFs, Trello boards, Slack groups – keep a backup. 

Write it down, or type it out. Whatever works, just create a practice that holds both you and your vendors accountable. It’s easy to get confused, or refer to something that might be for another event!

Bonus tip/ confession:  I often text thoughts to myself. For some reason, it works for me, and it’s easier than opening up all these apps if it’s just a quick thought. I go back through texts as part of my morning ritual routine.

Keep track of:

·        Any promise to the vendor – table? space? linens? A chance to sing on stage with the band?

·        Expected payment, especially if you adjust anything after the quote. Let’s say you add more lighting to a tent, so the invoice needs to be changed. You need a new contract with updated pricing. *Here’s a great example of where I would text myself as I’m standing by our vendor making changes, and then I would send a reminder email for an updated invoice that next morning* 

·        I’m finding in recent events once it’s crunch time, vendors can be a bit panicky. Don’t argue, but also don’t agree with something you know in your gut isn’t right. Table it to discuss after. Suggest to recap after the event is over. Once the heat of the moment has passed, reference your communication or notes, and follow up.

I’ve had people try to back track on what is agreed to, and I can't even begin to think how many times I've referenced or resent an email to show where any issue was discussed. Keep in mind this may not help, and people can and will go back on their word -- but at least you know you are in the right, and you can verify your agreement with your boss after the fact.

Let’s say you can’t resolve the issue, no matter how hard you try. Here are a couple of things I always think about:

·        Think about this relationship with the vendor. Are you wanting to work with them again? Will you run into them in the grocery store? Will you see them at your kid’s soccer game?

·        Remember they are people too.

·        Resolve the situation. Do your best to maintain a professional relationship and make sure you both come out on the up and up. (Sometimes a t-shirt for their staff, a bottle of wine, or a simple thank you note can go a long way.)

3. Be transparent and share your knowledge with your team.

It does absolutely no good for you to be the only one with all the info. Re-read that.

Don’t hoard information because you think that’s how you bring value to the team. You are bringing value by being the leader of the event and everything you have worked on up to this point.

Your team needs to be able to find answers, and they need to be able to find those answers quickly. There were so many times that I was on the phone with a distributor or our accommodations team -- and things would be happening right in front of me. You can multitask only so much, and it's vital during those crunch times that I can point and my team knows exactly what needs to happen. 

4.  Try to have inbox zero; voicemail zero; text messages answered daily.

It's not always possible, I know. But sometimes you can answer quickly and file it away as handled! You aren’t crafting a Medium post, people just need answers. Leave off the formalities, answer the email, and keep moving. And don’t think too long about it. If they need more clarification, they know where to find you. 

But hopefully, you’ve already done such a good job of communicating, the questions are simple!

Another hard fact: while I would prefer everyone text me their questions during an event, it doesn’t happen. I always have a vendor or two who want to talk on the phone, and I know it’s going to be either a long conversation or something we’ve previously discussed. I still humor the phone call, as I know they are going to keep calling.

5. Get Help!

You can’t do everything. Get help.

Make sure your team, hired help and volunteers have assignments and know your overall objectives for the event. They will be representing you all over the festival, and it’s important that they be knowledgeable about the event and the facility.

6. Remember your ticket holders are currently your most important customer. 

That ticket holder, for the time being, is your target audience.

They need to hear music as the event begins, they want to see food on the table, they want the wine to be flowing, and they want the event gates or doors open early.  Every detail doesn’t have to be perfect at this point.

Key takeaway - your audience will remember how you made them feel – important, special, respected.

Also on this note, I’ve decided I don’t like the saying the customer is always rightInstead of saying this under my breath at given situations, I’m now saying to myself the customer is yours. For that time, for that day, that’s who your customer is.   

So, what if you have a problematic customer?

Keep in mind that this guest and ticket holder expected something. Find out what is it that they didn’t get. Sometimes, they will just feel better once they’ve let it all out and will continue on their merry way.  And the next turn of events is crucial as this customer is either going to be your advocate or your enemy, but it all matters how you handle this situation. 

·        Don’t take it personally.

·        Be professional.

·        Be kind. Smile.

·        Be empathetic.

·        And remember it’s ok to say no. You may not win them over as a repeat customer, and that is ok.  But try your hardest to make them smile, or laugh, or agree so that you can both move forward.

7. People LOVE the word free.

Guests love giveaways/ take-aways/ gifts -- anything that's free, or suddenly included in the ticket that maybe they didn't know about -- it's a win. 

Encourage vendors to have free giveaways- hats, sunglasses, cozies. People LOVE free swag.

I don’t often advertise what food we will have as part of our event. We may tease the chef or the restaurant, but never what they are serving. After several festivals that have included food, I’ve learned this can change last minute. It’s always dependent on the night before or who’s cooking or maybe even how creative they are feeling. We’ve done taste tests, and previews, and it always seems to change. Just know some things are out of your control, especially when it’s donated or viewed as a marketing arm of the company. It’s just an added bonus!

8. Keep the experience & product varied.

We have all types of wines - high end, Sonoma County, Napa, Italy, all the way to rose in a can. People want to see their favorite wines and they want to try something new too. It’s an experience, so keep it an experience. We sold out of $15 bottles of wine; we also sold out of $125 bottles of wine. Product was moving. We offer VIP lounges, exclusive tasting, beach yoga, and grand tastings. We sold out of every event this year, and it helped bring in a variety of audiences, which is invaluable reach for our brand. 

9.  Recap immediately, and start your research for the next year.

Recap as quickly as you can. I know you might be exhausted after the event, but getting thoughts from your team is crucial. There are so many things that they will remember, and it’s mostly the things that irritated them that you need to know! So, what went wrong? I have started inviting everyone back to my office, let them vent, ask questions, and then pop open a bottle of champagne. While everyone is cheers-ing I’m probably typing away or texting away to myself – but the feeling is there! And the feedback is crucial. 

Then take a look at the data you collected. Start researching what you want your target audience to next year. Check out other festivals. What’s working and what’s trending that you can add to your event!

10. Take Care of Yourself.

No one likes cranky Julie. 

I need sleep and I need to be full. I usually carb up leading up to the event like I’m preparing for a marathon.  I need to rest. I pull long hours for these events at least two weeks out before the festival. Crunch time is real. But I try to still be in my pj’s by 9:30, all electronics off.  I wake up the same time every day, and perform my morning rituals.

I go for walks to break up the day. I block off my calendar to practice deep work when I can’t be interrupted. I don’t book any other meetings, or plan any social events with my friends. It can wait.

After the event - book a spa day. Read a book on the beach. Go socialize you’re your friends every night that next week. Whatever it takes to get you back to your old self.

And then give yourself a pat on the back.

You did it, again!