Something is always bound to go wrong at an event or a speaking engagement: no matter how much double-checking and following up is done, or even how much attention is paid to the details. Mistakes come in all sizes – and may be as small as leaving a plus-one off the RSVP list or as huge as sending a keynote speaker to the wrong venue.
Regardless of the magnitude, there is a systematic way for handling mistakes and mix-ups that will help diffuse the situation and not exacerbate it.
The following tips will help ensure that your relationships and reputation survive any hiccup.
Face The Mistake Head-On At An Event
Avoiding the issue will make it worse; instead, confront the problem and work through it. Turning a blind eye by pretending nothing’s wrong will not solve anything.
For example, I vividly remember one of the first major hiccups at an event I was coordinating. The event included more than 200 international guests at a historic Washington, DC hotel. Everything was going great, and the conference had sailed into its second day. I stepped out of the venue to make a few calls after the morning keynote and during the break-out sessions. Soon after, I got a panicked call from the group’s coordinator, “There is a mouse playing peekaboo in the front of the room.” I could hear shrills from ladies in the background. I gathered my thoughts for just a moment, and said “I’ll be right there.” I had no idea what I would do onsite, but I knew that I had to acknowledge the problem, be present, and help remedy the unwanted guest issue. Pretending that there was no mouse was not going to make the problem go away.
Once back in the room, I made an announcement for the session to take a quick coffee break in the adjoining room, then I found the hotel manager and maintenance, who quickly took care of the issue. I found that my acknowledgement of the problem and direct approach impressed the client. It also put their minds at ease, knowing that everything would be taken care of. When a problem arises at an event, face it head-on!
Take Responsibility (even if it's not your fault)
In the midst of a minor or major emergency at an event, it does not matter whose fault it is. What matters is that the emergency is resolved. Blaming a colleague or vendor only wastes time. Instead, take a different approach, the high ground approach: take responsibility, and then take action to improve the situation. There have been many instances where I took responsibility for an issue that was completely out of my control or not my fault.
One particular incident was at a summer conference with about 1000 kids, ages 10-15. Leading up to the conference, I managed the venue and AV logistics, while my colleague handled all catering and programming needs. Lunch time rolled around on the first day of the conference, and the kids were ready to eat. Unfortunately, the lunches my colleague ordered were on the opposite side of campus from where the hungry kids were waiting. Instead of pointing the finger at my colleague, or waiting for her to handle the issue, I took responsibility for the mix-up and gathered a team to retrieve the lunches. It was a quick fix made even better by a blame-free response.
Keep Your Cool & Remain Calm
There is a reason you can’t yell fire in a crowded room! Panicking when faced with an issue at an event is guaranteed to only make everything worse. The event planner should be the voice of reason and calm when something is wrong. I have found that confidence, assertiveness, and composure not only ease the mind of the client and guests, but allow you, as the planner, to think more clearly and better solve the problem. Additionally, your demeanor sets the tone for how your clients and guests will feel. If you're panicked, then their state of worry will only be exacerbated. Keep in mind that you are the leader and that you always need to appear in control of the situation.
With the recent Superstorm Sandy, I was faced with countless phone calls and emails as some of our events were affected. I kept a calm demeanor and provided reassurance as much as possible; these actions helped calm our speakers, their support staff, and most importantly, my boss. It kept them worry-free. Yes, it took extra time and effort on my part – more phone calls, emails and meetings – but it paid off because those same speakers and their staff are more than happy to work with me again (as my name now has a positive connotation in their minds). And, as importantly, my boss could not be any more pleased.
Use Your Resources
When an issue arises at an event, the first thought you should have as an event planner is “who can help me with this issue?” Event planning is a relationship-focused industry, and you must rely on the knowledge base of others to accomplish goals. Vendors tend to solve what seem to be impossible problems very quickly and easily simply because it is their area of expertise. Even if they are on an hourly contract, sometimes it’s worth spending a bit more money to use their services as they are much more effective and efficient in solving the problem at hand – it’s their job. Additionally, I bring a cheat sheet of all vendor names, phone numbers and email addresses to the event with me. That cheat sheet will often include client contacts, speakers, and event VIPs. I then take an extra step and pre-program those phone numbers and emails into my phone so that everyone is on speed dial and only a click away!
One time at an event, I had a speaker present a fairly dark PowerPoint that was impossible to see. It was too late to change the background of the presentation, and the audience was starting to complain. Instead of trying to fix the problem myself by playing around with light switches in the back of the room (not knowing which switch belonged to which lighting grid), I consulted the AV and lighting staff onsite. They simply worked a little magic on their lighting boards to increase the projector brightness in addition to bringing down the house lights, and magically the problem was solved. Using your resources and vendors is a great way to solve problems quickly and without incident; it also helps to build the relationship and trust you have with your vendor.
Follow-Up & Take Notes
Acting like nothing ever happened doesn’t make an event snafu disappear, and it doesn’t help your learning curve. Mistakes should be used as a learning tool for planners. After you remedy a problem, revisit the issue at a later date to figure out what started it – do a root cause analysis. Then, take note of where the problem arose and how you reacted to it. Such an analysis will help you improve your craft so that you not only avoid a similar problem the next event, but that you also improve your interpersonal skills to better resolve future situations.
Early on, I learned that no two problems are the same in the event world although there may often be similar triggers to those problems. All you may do is take manage well upfront and make plenty of contingency plans, based on past experience, to prevent similar issues from arising at your next event.
These tips should serve as a roadmap of how to handle not only the problem, but also yourself while projecting a positive, professional attitude. My final piece of advice is that you learn to accept that there is no such thing as a perfect event. More importantly, it is how you handle an event's imperfections that will absolutely reflect on you as an event planner—for better or worse!