As the afternoon keynote speaker for the 2011 BizBash New York Expo, famed event planner Colin Cowie spoke about how the shifting economy has created a more astute client and a renewed sense of competition among event planners. “I'm happy to report that there's more confidence [in the industry] and people are spending money again, but our market has changed—our customer has become very savvy,” he told the audience at the Jacob K. Javits Center, noting that instead of calling just one planner, clients now shop around to compare prices.
While showing photos of a few favorite recent events he produced, including the wrap party for the final season of Oprah Winfrey’s TV show and Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries’s “Welcome to New York” party, as well as a couple of weddings and a 40th birthday party, Cowie touched on the importance of diversifying an event business as a way to stay ahead of the uncertain economic landscape. He noted that work on his online wedding magazine, Colin Cowie Weddings, which launched this week, began two and a half years ago as work started to dry up and he realized weddings were the most recession-proof area of his business. “When the phone stopped ringing and a lot of things were canceled, I started working on Colin Cowie Weddings,” he said.
But, beyond diversifying, Cowie stressed his belief that the most important way to differentiate yourself from the competition and win business is by paying attention to client and staff relations. “The fat has been taken out of our market, but I believe great customer service is how we will bring value back into our businesses,” he said. Instead of delivering reactive service, in which the guest has to ask for a problem to be fixed, Cowie suggested creating a proactive, detail-oriented customer service program that anticipates the needs of the guest. But Cowie was quick to point out that even the best customer service program is useless without instilling that plan in employees.
“Nothing is going to work unless [you have] a motivated team of people to really deliver a certain level of luxury,” said Cowie, explaining that it’s important to educate staffers, and suggesting that planners use role-play to make ideas stick. “Give them the right tools, and then teach them to use those skills together with common sense and logic—because every time they go into a situation, it's going to be a different situation,” he said.
Cowie also explained the importance of teamwork and communication as a way to help set employees up for success when it comes to customer service, as well as the need for elegance and consistency. “The customer should always get consistent, singular service—this is what's going to differentiate us from our competitors,” he said. Cowie told the audience that after every event, he asks his staff and his clients what could have been done better in order to always be improving his company’s performance. “Maintain high standards—anything I do, I like to do it 120 percent,” he said, “If you can do 120 percent, then I call that passion, and passion is the fuel that allows us to stand out from everybody else.”