07/23/2012 07:30 EDT | Updated 09/22/2012 05:12 EDT

Tips for Fool-Proof Event Planning


I am often asked what was the biggest business mistake I'd ever made? Goodness knows I have plenty to choose from, although I prefer to look at these blips as lessons learned -- the hard way.

At any rate the first one that always comes to mind is our May Play Day. It was early on in running Company of Women and we decided in our great wisdom, to offer a fun play day for busy working women.

We booked a hotel for a Saturday in May, had speakers, fun activities like manicures and massages, nutritious lunch, and some vendors in place so the women could get some retail therapy. Part of our rationale for the event was that we could showcase our members -- all women business owners. Participants were given their Passport to Play when they arrived.

It's just not many of them arrived. Now we'd partnered with the local newspaper and at enormous expense purchased the full back page of the paper and ran the ad several times. I am sure you can see the dollar signs.

We'd assumed that if the ad was large enough, the women would see it, and sign up in droves. Trouble was, we were banking on the fact that first, the women actually got the paper, and second, had the time to sit down and read it. Wrong.

Now I have to say the actual event itself was a success, in that those who did attend had a great time and were blown away by the experience, but financially we lost money, big time.

So what did we learn?

1. Stick to what you are good at. This was outside our normal realm of programming and while we know how to put on a fun event, we were trying to attract a bigger, different and new audience.

2. Big fancy ads don't work. Especially if your target audiences doesn't even read that publication. Now today, you would spread the word virally but back then that wasn't an option.

3. Do your homework. Busy working women are well... busy. Saturdays tend to be catch-up time in the home and full of activities with the kids.

4. Get yourself known. The women we wanted to have attend didn't know us so had no reason to change their weekend plans. We hadn't built a reputation with them.

5. Start small. In order to build up that reputation, we could have offered an evening event that would have been a taste of what a whole day with us would have been like and built up a database of women keen to be involved.

6. It was a lot of work. Even if the event had been successful financially, there was a hefty price tag. It was labour-intensive and as a team of two at the time, we over-stretched ourselves.

7. Build in decision time. We likely could have pulled the plug on the event without incurring all of the costs, but by the time we realized that we were not going to have the numbers we wanted, it was too late. And we were also banking on last minute registrations and people at the door.

"Getting bums in seats" is the event planner's dilemma always, as people are notoriously bad at registering in a timely fashion, but reality is, sometimes you have to make the tough decision to cancel, for while you may lose face, you run the risk of losing even more if you carry on.

While there is some merit to carrying on and building an annual event, we were burned. We backed off, licked our wounds and decided never again.

If you are about to embark on a new project or event, learn from my mistakes. Do your homework before you set sail, then you are less likely to get stuck in muddy waters, but be prepared for stormy weather. Murphy's Law is such that something will not go to plan.

And if you really get side-swiped, remember you can always bale out, much better to cut your losses than to go under.

Bottom line, you need to learn to tread water and swim, before you jump in the deep end.