Guest Column: When to Throw Out the Three-Ring Binder

Even spreadsheets have moved beyond their usefulness to event planners. Here are tips for highly effective event planners to keep pace in the industry.

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Trish King is director of events at Wrike, a work management platform used by clients including Google, L'Oréal, and Tiffany & Company.

Everyone who’s worked in event marketing long enough has some horror stories to share. Once, due to a mistake by a shipping company, my booth didn’t arrive at the trade show venue. Our team rushed to Target to buy chairs, tables, and lamps to fill our 10x20 foot space with a cozy lounge, and it wound up being a huge hit. There are so many things that can possibly go wrong that no matter how many times I have done this, it still feels like a miracle when an event goes (relatively) smoothly.

Then I remind myself that it’s not a miracle. It’s the result of meticulous planning, attention to detail, and strong communication between marketers, event promoters, and a variety of vendors who need to be perfectly aligned to get everything right both before the show, and onsite. Historically, the three ring binder has been the tool of choice for event planners trying to make it all possible, but unfortunately, they aren’t enough to keep up with the pace anymore.

As the volume of events have grown in recent years, so has the importance of face-to-face time with key buyers. Sales conversations are increasingly virtual, so the few times a year reps get to meet with prospects or buyers are priceless. But given the cost, it’s critical that event marketers get it right, from the strategy to the message and the booth. Rapid collaboration is essential, which means it’s time for event marketers to toss out the three-ring binders and adopt these new habits for planning and executing flawless, impactful events.

1. Kiss your spreadsheets goodbye.
Spreadsheets were initially invented for financial and other mathematical tasks, but they were eventually adopted by anyone who had to organize a lot of details, including event planners who needed to track hundreds of deliverables, due dates, costs, and assignments.

Spreadsheets were always a band-aid solution, and now, there are better options that events marketers should embrace. These include project management tools with mobile apps that can be used to plan the event before it begins, and to access all of the information you’ll need while onsite. These apps are like your notebook, but better, because they sync back to the cloud so nothing gets lost, and you can use them to keep in touch with your peers at the office in real time.

2. Keep everything in the cloud.
A problem with notebooks is that it’s nearly impossible to keep two in sync. If the team member who is managing vendor agreements gets stranded with a cancelled flight in Atlanta and I need to pick up the slack onsite in Orlando, I’m out of luck.

A cloud-based system allows you to create a central location for all information associated with a project or event. It essentially becomes a single source of truth where anyone can find anything they need. It’s not like email, where details are siloed in inboxes or conversations are lost in endless instant messaging threads. It’s a place where files, decisions, contracts, and conversations are all together and available for anyone on your team. If you change a deadline, or update a document, everyone can see it. That means fewer meetings and less time spent disseminating new information to team members. A single source of truth ensures everyone is on the same page in real time.

3. Delegate, delegate, delegate work (while still monitoring it).
Event coordinators would exhaust themselves if they tried to do everything themselves. But removing ourselves too far from the process would likely result in very little sleep at night. Instead of sleeping, we would be up worrying that nothing was really getting done. There is a balance: You can delegate work effectively, while still monitoring the progress in real time.

Collaborative work management software lets you assign work to contributors on your team and monitor the status of every task. You can even automate asking team members for updates. Your team can mark tasks as complete when they're done and then move onto the next pressing task. When each member of your team is responsible for dozens or hundreds of tasks, they’ll appreciate the organization as much as you appreciate the transparency.

4. Streamline vendor communications.

Event planning isn’t possible without a clear line of communication between your in-house team and external vendors. But how many times have you scrolled through endless email threads, looking for guidelines they’d sent earlier or making sure you’re reading the most recent version of a document? We have accepted such sloppy communications as a necessary evil, but in reality, it isn’t necessary at all.

Email isn’t great for long, running conversations. Instead, bring your vendors into your cloud ecosystem for threaded conversations that include files and recent updates. If you keep each topic assigned a dedicated thread, you minimize the time you spend searching for information, which let’s face it, none of us really has time to do anyway.

5. Use automation to stay on top of deadlines.
Event marketing campaigns revolve around specific event dates, which means milestones in our projects are typically hard deadlines. Event dates can’t be adjusted, after all, so we need to make sure we’re tracking to them with a high degree of precision.

There are soft dates in the process, and in the past when I needed to reschedule a task, you could see the mental calculations taking place on my face about how it affects the rest of the schedule.

There are tools that can help you automate these calculations so you can manage unexpected schedule changes with confidence, knowing you’re not derailing the entire event. Stuff happens. After 18 years in event management I know that as well as anybody. But if you’re armed with instant information about how that “stuff” affects your overall plan, you can make accurate decisions to make up for lost time. When you utilize automation, you can change one date and the computer will do the dirty work of figuring out the rest.

6. Templatize your success (and learn from failure).
If you have an event that goes off without a hitch, you obviously did a great job making a plan upfront and sticking to it, or you managed to gracefully make necessary adjustments along the way as unexpected challenges arose. Next time you have an event, you should follow that same plan. The problem with your notebook is that you can’t just photocopy it and start over again—you need to start from scratch.

Tools in the cloud allow you to access learnings from previous shows and replicate your learnings, while dissecting and studying your areas for improvement. As the volume and cost of your events grows, this will help you optimize your work, not just manage it.

Evolve with the market to thrive.
Event marketing has changed over the years, and winning the attention of buyers has become a cutthroat game of out-spend, out-execute, and out-dazzle. Some trade show floors now look more like amusement parks than conference centers. Delivering top experiences to attendees requires excellence in planning, and staying synced with your teams at all times is key. Automation, templatization, and real-time deadline tracking can accelerate your team and empower them to spend more time on strategy and less time micromanaging the details.

If you’re a high-speed and high-volume event marketer, it’s time to ditch the antiquated binder and embrace modern conveniences, like cloud software, that will help you improve event planning from start to finish.

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