A Seasoned Event Organizer’s Tips & Checklist
Everyone loves a great event! It takes an incredible amount of planning, project management, and also stage management to run an event that feels great to participants. Detailed planning is critical. You need a great team of people that you can work well with, you need a high level, realistic perspective, and you need to be organized. Really organized.
I’ve created a checklist that you can refer to when you’re planning your next event. I’ve tried to include all of the best event organizing tips that I can offer from my extensive experience as an event planner. This advice comes from my own experience running major dance festivals like Frankie 100, over 12 years of dance workshop weekends, and local specialty festivals like the TD Niagara Jazz Festival, Rawstock Niagara, and the Niagara VegFest.
Obviously, every event is different and this checklist should be scaled accordingly depending on the size and scope of your event. A two-hour book club party is going to be scaled much differently than a four-day jazz festival. However, the core principles remain the same.
1. Set the Date
As early in advance as possible, set your dates. If your event is an annual one and the event takes place at the same time each year, you have an advantage, but either way you should lock that date in stone ASAP. Make sure to add the date to your website as early as possible.
Be courteous and coordinate your dates with other organizers in your community. Let them know what you have planned and avoid conflicts when possible. Reach out to other nearby organizers, or related community leaders, and be respectful and communicative.
2. Secure the Venue
The next most important step is to book and confirm the venue. Even if your event takes place in the same place every year, confirm it and get it booked. Unless the event is taking place in your own backyard, this is really critical. Make sure to lock into your venue as early as possible.
3. Send Out a Save the Date Announcement
Your full promotions might not begin for some time, and you might not even have any other details set yet, but as soon as you have your date confirmed and your venue booked, update your public. In today’s day and age, people are becoming more and more busy and it’s essential to notify your community as soon as possible. Update your website with the preliminary save-the-date information, and send out the high level announcement on social media and in your newsletter.
4. Build A Great Team
You may already have a core team in pace, but consider what staffing needs your event needs based on your new event scope and budget. Depending on the size of your event, key members might include:
- Fundraising Lead
- Sponsorship Lead
- Stage Manager
- Volunteer Coordinator
- Marketing & Promotions Lead
- Guest Liaison & Hospitality
- Security Lead
- Green/Eco Team Lead
- Roadie/Logistics Team Lead
- Travel Liaisons
A great event is only as good as its people. Not only do you need to find great people who you can work with, but you need to build a team that will be communicative and caring with each other. Building a team of hard working, dedicated, mutually respectful, inclusive people is probably my number one tip when it comes to event organizing.
5. Establish an Organizational System
These days, there is some great project management software available. I love Asana. It’s really changed the way that I work and think about work. If you’re new to it, consider picking up the Asana Definitive Guide. And where would we be without Google docs? I can’t live without my shared Google spreadsheets. A shared Google Calendar might also be useful for your team.
6. Set Out the Organizational Timeline
Depending on the lead up time to the event, determine what benchmarks should take place when. When considering major timeline benchmarks, consider all factors, like the launch of your promotional campaign and the date that ticket sales will open should not conflict with other related events or holidays that will distract from your message.
Make sure that as much of your organizing will ready in advance as possible so that in the final weeks (or even final month, depending on the timeline), most of the large pieces have already been finalized. That way, you can leave yourself wiggle room for putting out fires (the inevitable unexpected) and troubleshooting.
Also, if you’re planning to have any type of after party or volunteer appreciation party, set that date in advance and stick to it. Otherwise, it’s likely to fall by the wayside.
7. Create a Schedule for Regular Team Meetings
Depending on the size and scope of the event, meetings might take place in person or by conference call and should ramp up from monthly or bi-weekly to weekly leading up to the event.
Strive to keep meetings on topic. It’s important to respect people’s time. The meetings should be friendly, but not so casual that you just end up winging it. If you’re in charge, take your leadership role seriously and work to continuously motivate your team and make them feel valued. Take the time to communicate and check-in frequently with your Team Leaders to make sure that they are on track and equipped to mobilize their team own smaller teams if they have subordinates. The larger the project, the more important it is that you focus on mobilizing your people.
8. Budget Budget Budget
Get serious about your event budget. Remember that every event is scalable. If your event is in it’s infancy, be conservative. Start out small. Make modest projections of how many guests you might realistically expect to attend your event. It’s advisable to under-budget on attendance while over-budgeting on costs to ensure that you have a safe buffer zone for unexpected expenses.
There are always unexpected costs and even with extensive experience, you never can anticipate what they will be. If you could, they wouldn’t be unexpected. Set aside some a reserve in your budget for emergencies and unforeseen circumstances. I recommend a buffer of about 10%-15% as a safe buffer zone.
Set out a clear policy for expenses. It can be very tough for staff, and especially volunteers, to carry expenses around for too long before submitting for reimbursement. Setup a clear system for your team. Be very cautious about asking volunteers to expense items. I much prefer a petty cash system, and the petty cash available on-site during the event should always be bigger than you think, just in case.
9. Give Your Event Shape
Determine the specific details that will give your event character. This will depend on the type of event that you’re holding. Whether it’s booking and determining special guest needs, booking bands or artists, securing guest instructors, celebrities, local officials, etc. now is the time to work within the budget that you created and shape your event into a blend dreams and reality. This is also the time to manage any artist contracts and riders, and lock in to specific guest requests.
Consider all the ways that the event will affect the guest experience:
- The event’s vision & mission
- Event branding, tone, messaging, communications
- Entertainment and/or educational value
- Decorations & overall feeling of the event
- Flow & energy; what kind of “ride” will you be giving your attendees throughout the course of the event. You don’t want to underwhelm your guests, but you also don’t want to overextend and plan more than is realistic for them to absorb.
- Create value so that guests walk away feeling like the event was a worthwhile experience that was worth the price of admission – even if the event was free!.
Go back to your budget constantly to tweak it and ensure that everything still fits.
10. Operations & Logistics Planning
Now it’s all about balancing logistics with the flow of your event. What should take place when? What parts of the event will be the best attended slotted in where? What logistical support will be required based on how your schedule flows? Think about the way that your event flow will feel from your audience point of view, and also consider the human resources that will be required to execute that plan. As you lock in to your finalized schedule, be as realistic as possible about how much time needs to be allotted where. Various aspects of event setup always take longer than you might think.
- Organize Registration and Tickets
Unless your event is free, you’ll need a way to manage attendance. What type of ticket or wristband will be most appropriate for your event? What will your re-entrance policy be if someone leaves and wants to come back in? Will the tickets or wristbands be enough for re-entrance, or will you need a hand stamp of some kind?
- Determine Technical Needs
- Determine Equipment and Supply Needs
- Determine Administrative Needs
- Establish an On-Site Communications Plan
How will your team communicate throughout the actual event? I’m a big fan of walkie talkies with the ear piece attachment. I’m also a fan of being as hands-free as possible. As a woman who usually dresses up to be presentable at the events I’m running, I plan on wearing a belt so that I can attach the walkie talkie to the belt.
I am not a fan of cell phones which you don’t hear ringing in loud spaces. I still carry my cell phone on me because you always need it for something, but I set an out-of-office reply on my email to let people know that I’m in event mode and won’t be able to attend to email. If it’s important, it’s better that they call.
Make sure that you have someone who will be in charge of fielding phone calls and email from the public during the event, or set an office responder for that account that includes all of the FAQ information that someone might need at the last minute.
- Consider All Possible On-Site Needs
Get your team involved to make sure that as many brains are considering gaps that may need filling as possible. Will your guest artists need water? Lunch? Who will be responsible for that? Are there enough toilets onsite or do you need to order port-a-potties? Are there enough seats? What about coat check? Think about all of the variables, then think about them again so that nothing slips through the cracks. Revisit this line of thinking often.
11. Return to the Budget
Review your budget again to make sure that costs are still lining up with projections or revise the budget as needed.
12. Launch the Full Advertising Campaign
And begin ticket sales/registration, according to the timeline you originally set out. I’m not going to go into too much detail about the PR side of this other than to say that a strong social media presence is very important. Establish a hashtag for the event and encourage photo uploads during and after the event. Having someone live Tweet the event can also be a good idea.
13. Check Up on your Event’s Health
Check ticket sales in the weeks leading up to the event. Are they where they need to be? Does the event need to be re-scaled, either up or down, based on the current level of sales? Consider whether or not you’ve over or under projected your supply quotas and scale back or add on to make sure that you can meet the needs of the event without either losing money or overselling.
Also, make sure that you’re checking-in with your team members regularly. How are they feeling? How is morale? Take care of your team, and they will take care of your event. Neglect your team, and the event will suffer for it. Your people are everything.
14. Walk the Critical Path
Walk the Critical Path of your event with your Team Leaders to make sure that all aspects of event flow have been considered. By this, I mean create a day-by-day, hour-by-hour, schedule for the event that includes who/what/where/when for event details and staff. You can do this as a flow chart, or I happen to love spreadsheets. However you do it, get it down in writing and get your team on-board to create a functional critical path.
There needs to be a clear understanding among your team members of who is responsible and on-duty when. Who is committed to the early morning setup shifts? Who is dedicated to late night and clean up? Your team must take the time considerations seriously.
Part of running an event is understanding that you really aren’t there to have fun. Of course you enjoy seeing your vision come to fruition, but while the event is taking place, you are responsible. Drinking, dancing, socializing, celebrating, etc. is for your guests and not for you to partake in unless you are clearly off-duty or taking a break from responsibilities at a time when you are clearly not needed by your fellow team members.
- On-Site Financial Control
You need a clear plan for managing cash and financials on-site. Who will be responsible for delivering the float/cash box? Who will check-in periodically and remove excess cash to a safe location? Who is paying bands, guests, artists? This should be decided and scheduled clearly in advance.
Who will be responsible for bringing any printed lists or information that you’ll need on-site? I really prefer to go paperless in the rest of my life, but there is always a need for printed information on-site. Whether it’s registration and ticket lists, lists of volunteer schedules, site maps to facilitate smooth setup, or even something as obvious as the schedule of events, you’re going to need printing and someone needs to clearly be responsible for bringing it.
In terms of equipment, don’t just assume that everyone will have their own laptops on-site, and don’t assume that they’re comfortable using their own laptops. I personally am happy to use my own laptop but I’m not comfortable sharing it. Other people will have their own preferences and that needs to be respected. Same with the use of cell phones. That’s another reason why I prefer walkie talkies; it’s not fair to assume that your volunteers are willing to use their own air time, and the same goes for staff unless there’s an expensing policy.
If you’re using a square to accept credit cards, you must determine in advance whose phone will be used. Giving up their phone for credit card transactions means that they won’t have it for personal use. This needs to be taken into consideration.
Don’t assume that there will be wifi available and be careful about relying on the internet for important on-site tasks. Check in advance, and save or print backups of the information.
Make sure to review the Critical Path again in the final week before the event.
15. Run the Event – Show Time! Event Proper
Follow the plan that you set out in your Critical Path. However, there are times when you need to be flexible. A really good event organizer will know when it’s time to change parts of the plan. Do what needs to be done based on the reality of the moment.
Take the time to respect and appreciate your team members while the event is on, even – no especially – when you’re under pressure and feeling stressed.
You’ll be overworked and busy during the event, but try to be as present as possible aware that your plan is materializing into fruition. As an organizer, events tend to fly by from your vantage point behind the scenes, but try to appreciate what you’ve created!
As an individual, I try to be as organized and responsible for myself as possible. By that I mean, I try to pack all of the clothing, gear, a bottle of water, and also snacks so that I have everything I might need for the day already with me. Even if there is a planned break where I might have time to go back and change, etc. things can change and it’s better to have everything you need with you from the outset. Get your coffee and breakfast first before the call-time. If you’re the point person for volunteers or subordinates, brief them with the same suggestions in advance so that they can also plan accordingly.
- My Personal Must-Have Onsite Items, aka. My Event Kit
- Ziplocks – In a variety of sizes, ziplocks are extremely handy to keep at your event’s front desk. They can be used for a variety of things, from organizing cash, receipts, loose papers, pens, pencils, tickets, etc. You can never have too many ziplocks!
- Sharpies – ie. permanent markers. There is always a need to write signs or label items (including writing on ziplock) and it’s very handy to have extra sharpies around.
- Cell Phone Charger – Because you always run out of charge. Always.
- Laptop – And charger, because you never know what you might need to reference or look up onsite.
- A Small Purse – As a woman who dresses ‘up’ for events, I don’t usually have pockets and there are things that I need to have with me for functionality. I have a small purse that’s big enough to hold my cell phone, a pen, a sharpie, a little change, an event or personal credit card, and lip stick. 🙂
- A Larger Bag or Backpack with Everything I Might Need – Including print outs of my important documents, a folder that seals or a large ziplock to keep and seal important incoming documents, a bottle of water, a change of clothing and change of shoes (usually I leave the house wearing something very casual and then change into something nice before the event starts), several snacks, hand wipes in case we end up doing something dirty and it’s inconvenient to find a washroom to wash up, makeup and a comb to freshen up before the event proper.
- Great suggestions from Rich:
- First Aid kit // Combo of Band-Aids+Tylenol+Advil
- Sewing needles and white+black-thread
- An 1/8th”-to-1/8th” audio cable (headphone size) with an 1/8″ stereo to 1/4″ mono adapter. (Can come in really handy for emergency DJ’ing / Audio issues.)
- A Belt – So that I have something for my walkie talkie to hook onto. In a pinch, I can hook it to my small purse instead but it gets clumsy.
16. Conduct an Event Post-Mortem
After the event, conduct a post-mortem meeting as soon as possible to review the event. Create detailed notes while the event is fresh in your mind. Discuss the successful or needs-improvement aspects of the event with your team.
Don’t postpone the post-mortem! Despite being tired, it’s important to attend to this as soon as possible or you’ll lose all momentum.
Review finances and budget in the first few days after the event.
Also look at how the team worked together. Sometimes the truth can be a bit brutal, but it’s important to be communicative with your team so that you can learn and grow. Make yourself listen to the good, the bad, and the ugly, as well as any praise. The constructive criticism is far more valuable than any pats on the back. Don’t be self-deprecating but don’t succumb to hubris either. Live, learn, improve.
Once the wrap up has taken place, relax and look back at what you’ve accomplished. Feel proud of a job well done!
If you have any comments, questions, or suggestions of items you would add to your own checklist, please let me know!