Industry Leaders at BizBash L.A. Expo Stress Innovation and Negotiation

By Alesandra Dubin June 16, 2009, 11:46 AM EDT

The right response to these times is to adapt, innovate, and negotiate. That was the message communicated by many of the speakers at the BizBash Los Angeles Expo at the L.A. Mart on June 11—who overwhelmingly believed that getting smart and staying positive are the most productive reactions to economic challenges. “It's easy to be good in good times," said veteran publicist Howard Bragman of Fifteen Minutes, an inductee in BizBash's hall of fame.

To be good in bad times, planners are developing their negotiating skills and casting wide nets. To keep costs manageable, Warner Brothers special events director Hillary Harris now gets three outside bids, as well as a bid from the studio’s appropriate internal department. “That keeps everybody honest,” said Harris, who responded quickly to the downturn by restructuring her team and encouraging the group to innovate and learn new skills. She has begun training her team in AutoCAD drafting and design software to provide a higher level of service for events on the lot. “If you can’t significantly change your budget, what’s the added value you can bring? What separates you from your peers is being ahead of the game. [My group meets every day so] there’s feedback and it keeps my team enthused. It’s really paid off well.”

Harris said she still welcomes pitches from vendors with new ideas—even in the tough economy, if not especially because of it. “No matter what we’re facing right now in economic times, there still is business out there. I am a curious person and I want to see what’s new and different. What I like is when somebody sends me something and follows up, with no pressure.”

Infinity Events president and owner Robb Thornsberry also suggested that planners can save by consolidating vendor needs. “When a vendor has an opportunity for multiple streams of revenue, they are far more likely to work with you on a lesser budget overall,” he said. “Ask what group is in the hotel before or after your group. Perhaps the planner from that group would split the cost of audiovisual [production] or lighting, provided your setup suits their needs or vice versa.”

Thornsberry added that planners can benefit from simply asking for a discount in the current climate: â€œYou don’t ask for it, you don’t get it. The least offensive time to ask is now.”

Further, planners should get on board with any available resource, including social networking tools like Twitter—and should use them wisely. “There’s a lot of noise on Twitter… It’s not a one-way street. It’s about listening,” said IML director Ray Hansen. “You have to listen and pay attention, and you’ve got to contribute. You have to start giving people valuable information. Otherwise they’re not listening to you.”

Times may be tough, but expect a full rebound, said industry vets. “Parties are not what they used to be, but they will all come back,” said Mary Micucci of Along Came Mary. “You just have to weather the storm. You have to keep up with the trends and be ahead of the game.” Micucci said she adds roughly 10 new hors d’oeuvres to her menu every month to offer planners fresh options.

Mattel senior meeting planner Pat Moore summed up the industry’s evolving approach this way: “We’re tightening the belt and doing things different and smarter.”

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