NEW YORK “As I've become more skilled at producing events for my company, I don't see any reason to pay outside planners when I can go directly to vendors,” says Catholic Relief Services events manager Karen Moul, a 14-year industry vet whose in-house event experience includes stints at AT&T, Johns Hopkins University, and the city of Baltimore. “Learning to source everything myself was a bit of a trial by fire, but it was well worth it. I don't need a broker or a middleman to do what I can do myself.”
Moul is not alone, and her experience reflects an industry shift. A recent BiZBash survey of more than 300 event planners and vendors reveals that nearly 80 percent of industry pros have seen in-house planners taking a more hands-on role in planning their events and meetings in the past three years. Most agree that the role of the independent event planner is evolving, as budgets continue to shrink and in-house teams are getting savvier.
More than half of in-house planners and two-thirds of independent planners and other vendors say shrinking budgets account for a large part of the control shift: Clients want to be more involved with the numbers so they can better control spending. “I wouldn't say that I suddenly felt I had developed the right skills to abandon outsourcing one day. It came with experience, and that experience was driven by budgetary concerns,” Moul says.
Jackie Bernstein, president and partner of Empire Force Events, adds, “The trend has been the clients wanting to see the actual cost for each line item. They don't want us to say the dinner is $300 per person—they want it all itemized.” In fact, half the in-house planners in our survey report clients asking to see more detailed budgets in the last three years.
Clients are now asking third-party planners to play the role of consultant, offering suggestions and connecting them with suppliers, or soliciting planners' help to find resources, like a venue that meets their event's needs. “With our smaller budgets, we utilize outside planners and vendors for their roles as on-site assistants and consultants, rather than complete planners and executors,” says Ventiv Health project manager Lanya Larece. “With an emphasis on cost-effectiveness, my in-house staff now takes on a more strategic role than ever.”
But it's not just a function of shrinking budgets in a tough economic climate—some in-house planners (about 20 percent of our survey respondents) say their companies' events and marketing divisions are getting bigger. “When I came on board in 1998, there was a two-person marketing department and now there are five people,” says Eisner accounting firm marketing supervisor Jennifer Wolff. “People are taking on more in house. Companies are not necessarily creating new departments, but creating new [event-related] jobs—new responsibilities.”
As divisions are growing and taking on more tasks, corporate marketers are getting more knowledgeable. Shrinking budgets forced event management in house, and the process of producing their own events educated the corporate teams. Now they have access to many of their own resources, and they may simply need local experts to help in areas like destination management. “My ability to rely less on third-party event planners was driven primarily by budgetary concerns; however, I [am capable of] creating, negotiating, and executing events on my own. I will utilize their services when I'm holding events outside of the New York tristate area and I am unfamiliar with the regional vendors,” says JPMorgan assistant vice president Dawn Nacional.
Javier Sanabria of destination management company Shackman Associates International says his clients are now more involved with the process of coordinating the details. “Our clients won't go over our head, but they'll tell us, 'Use these people for that task because I've had good results with them in the past,'” he says. “And they're sending us dozens of messengers with flower samples and fabric tests for tablecloths and napkins.”
Some educated in-house planners are reluctant to relinquish control over their events because they feel they know their own brands best; half of the in-house planners who responded to the survey said they've been acting as their own creative consultants and brand strategists more now than they were three years ago. “We like keeping much of the planning in house because it enables us to produce the clearest representation of our original vision,” says Jane Glastein, public relations director for W Hotels Worldwide.
Leighton Devine, director of destination services for the Ritz-Carlton on Amelia Island off the coast of Florida, agrees. “We once hired outside decor companies that would do a whole theme party for us, but we stopped doing this and started making our own custom props or outsourced to manufacturers,” Devine says. “It allows us more control over the look of the party and more artistic license.”
Still, experienced outside planners say they have skills that make them valuable. “The in-house person may have an excellent marketing background, but may not know everything we know about events,” says the Experiential Agency's Alice Turner. “We make a great team with our clients because they know everything about their brand and we know everything about the event industry in their city. Ideally we can achieve a balance.”
Independent planners understand the reasons for the control shift, and many agree the new dynamic improves communication with their clients. “We have more back and forth now,” says Shackman Associates' Sanabria. “It helps the clients understand us better, and vice versa.”
The shift in power means event firms need to demonstrate the value they bring to their clients to justify their fees. “[Corporate planners] know they can do events cheaper if they do it themselves, but why do they look at it as an unnecessary cost, when it's a service?“ says Bernstein of Empire Force. “You could send your laundry out to get it done, or you can do it yourself. What's it worth to you?”
Compared to three years ago, do you feel you are taking a more hands-on role in planning your events and/or meetings and working with outside planners and/or vendors?
Strongly agree: 47%
Somewhat agree: 29%
Somewhat disagree: 1%
Strongly disagree: 1%
No Change: 21%
INDEPENDENT PLANNERS & OTHER VENDORS
Compared to three years ago, do you feel your in-house/corporate clients are taking a more hands-on role in planning their evens and/or meetings and working with outside planners and/or vendors?
Strongly agree: 28%
Somewhat agree: 51%
Somewhat disagree: 7%
Strongly disagree: 1%
No Change: 13%
If you feel you are taking a more hands-on role, which of the following reasons do you think accounts for the shift?
Shrinking Budgets: 56%
Larger in-house teams/growing departments: 19%
Savvier/better educated in-house teams: 37%
Which of the following activities do you do more often now than you did three years ago?
Go on your own site inspections: 54%
Act as you own brand strategist/creative consultant: 50%
Request to meet directly with vendors instead of working through outside planners: 46%
Ask for more detailed budgets: 46%
Request more meetings to discuss event plans with outside planners/vendors: 16%
Source: BiZBash Online Survey, conducted August 18-28, 2004