9 Habits of Remarkably Successful Event Planners
Top event pros around the country share how they practice self-care, stay organized and inspired, empower their teams, and more.
Job site CareerCast recently ranked “event coordinator” as the sixth most stressful job of 2019—and for good reason. Few other industries require quite the same mix of creativity and logistics, demanding event pros to balance budgets, stay hyper-organized, and work long, physically punishing hours while also keeping clients happy through innovative, design-driven gatherings.
The country’s busiest event planners have adopted some must-do habits for practicing self-care, finding inspiration, working with a team, and staying sane on event day. Here are insights from 11 veteran event producers, designers, caterers, and other industry pros.
1. They exercise and meditate regularly.
Event production can be a physically demanding job, so planners make wellness a priority. “My workouts are non-negotiable,” explains Allison Pieter, an independent event and trade show producer based in Los Angeles. “Being in shape makes it easier to stand all day and night for an event and handle a sometimes relentless travel schedule. I add the workouts to my calendar each week, and do not move them unless I am traveling, period."
Cara Kleinhaut, founder and C.E.O. of Agenc, a Los Angeles- and New York-based experiential and digital marketing agency, agrees. “For over 20 years I’ve been doing Pilates three times a week, and I meditate and do kundalini yoga (almost) every morning and keep a very healthy diet,” she says.
Lisa Chu, managing partner of New York-based experiential marketing agency Team Epiphany, found exercise particularly helpful this summer when her team was producing large events for Coca-Cola, HBO, and BET within the same three-day span. “I’m a big advocate of working out because it helps burn off negative and anxious energy to help eliminate stress,” she notes.
Meditation is also a way many planners regain their focus. Sebastien Centner, founder and creative director of Toronto-based catering and event management firm Eatertainment, likes to use a Muse headband so he can meditate while traveling.
2. They know how to relax and recharge.
Self-care can go beyond the physical. “I record all of my favorite programs so I can watch one or two episodes and rest my mind at the end of the day. I watch with no phone and my Frenchie, Gaston, on my lap,” says Larry Abel, the Nashville-based owner of creative and experiential agency Abel & McCallister & Abel. “I also take some ‘me’ time each week to go and get a manicure and pedicure in a peaceful environment to relax and think.”
André Wells, the founder and C.E.O. of Events by André Wells in Washington, D.C., also recharges through grooming. “Hair trims and facials relax me,” he explains. “I try and make sure I maintain my grooming needs at all times. I love going to the spa, using the sauna and all of the amenities. You have to be good to your body and yourself.”
Designer Debi Lilly, owner of A Perfect Event in Chicago, has her own post-event routine. “When I feel steamrolled and flattened after 18-hour days nonstop, my go-to for sanity is to treat myself to my favorite luxury: a lazy, slow morning with the kids in bed followed by a big carb-loaded breakfast and a spa pedicure and massage—with the paraffin and the neck and shoulder massage and all the things. It really helps instantly push me back to feeling healthy.”
3. They’re always on the lookout for inspiration.
“I call it ‘constant awareness,’” says Abel. “There is inspiration and beauty all around you, if you are open to seeing it. I try to always take a moment to look around me—and that is when creativity hits. I’ve found inspiration while pumping gas or taking a walk to the corner store, and I always capture my inspiration with a photo or making a note to myself.”
Wells, meanwhile, likes reading biographies for inspiration. “Biographies really help you to understand the journey of life and the many paths to be successful, to find answers, and to cultivate relationships,” he notes.
Many event pros are most inspired by new experiences. Chris Drury, president of New York-based communications and event marketing agency Drury Design, likes to go to the theater, or see a movie, a concert, or take in new art four nights per week. Kleinhaut, meanwhile, is most inspired by travel. “Immersing myself in new cultures, taking a walk through history, art, food, culture, markets—and the more different than our culture, the more interesting,” she says.
Pieter agrees. “Travel is my muse. Completely upending my routine, exploring new cities, and engaging with new architecture, food, customs, and people inspires me to look at the world in new ways. Whether a weekend trip or a vacation overseas, I always bring home new ideas.”
4. They rely on technology to stay organized…
“My schedule is completely integrated with every device I have—a Mac, 2 PCs, 2 iPads, and my iWatch,” says Drury. “I also live in MS OneNote. Everything I do is there: words, drawings, sketches, pictures, audio recordings of meetings, the works.”
5. … but they also know when to put down the phone.
“There’s always going to be an enormous amount of incoming texts, calls, and emails,” notes Brett Hyman, president of NVE Experience Agency, an experiential marketing firm with offices in New York and Los Angeles. “However, when I am in focus mode or in a meeting, I am fully present—that means no computer and no phone, not even putting a phone face down on the table. I turn off notifications on my computer so not even a Slack message can creep in.”
He continues, “I believe that both parties suffer greatly when one person is even slightly disengaged. I also find that when both people are completely tuned in, meetings are exponentially more productive and meaningful.”
Abel, meanwhile, believes in keeping a daily, hand-written list of tasks in a physical journal. “I go over them every morning and again at night. Then I rewrite the list again, eliminating those tasks completed and adding new ones. The repetition of writing the tasks helps me remember it throughout the day and keeps it top of mind,” he explains.
And be kind to yourself if you can’t finish your to-do list for the day, says Wells, who also prefers to hand-write notes either on whiteboards or on his office walls, which are chalk-painted. “There are just not enough hours in the day to get all you need to do done and finished, so I prioritize by importance and by my temperament for the day."
“When I find myself losing motivation, I break down my to-do list into multiple, smaller tasks and start with the easiest one first,” adds Pieter. “The little accomplishment helps me to re-engage and dive into the bigger responsibilities. In the instances where that doesn’t work, I step away from the computer and go for a short walk or otherwise change my surroundings. After 15 minutes of fresh air, I’m recharged and ready to go.”
6. On event day, they prepare thoroughly—and then know when to let go.
Prepare your team as much as possible before event day, suggests Drury—and then trust them. “There’s not much you can do the day of the event except count on the team,” he explains. “I get up super early, and get to the event way ahead of time to make sure everything is still on schedule. I pace a lot, take deep breaths, and listen and watch everything.”
"Lists, lists, and more lists—that is my pro tip," says Lilly. "Every single design detail, pick-up, drop-off, staffer name and hours, everything is listed in our event sheet. When one single detail isn't listed in black and white, that's when it can be overlooked. Having all the steps and times and addresses and cell phones and exact floors to push on the elevator is our key to smooth execution with a smile."
Adds Pieter: “Eat a healthy breakfast—that may be your only full meal all day! Bring healthy snacks to eat on the go; I find it easier to stay sane if I’m not hangry. Also, I always keep a small notebook with me to write down last-minute changes.”
Abel also emphasizes the importance of thorough preparation before an event. “Check, recheck, and check again all the key elements of your production before event day,” he says. “It helps make the event day run smoothly and gives you time to focus on those inevitable last-minute issues that every event has come up. I dry-run the event in my mind over and over and over to make sure we haven’t missed a thing.”
Ultimately, says Shai Tertner—founder and C.E.O. of Shiraz Creative, a full-service creative agency with offices throughout the U.S. and abroad—you need to trust yourself and your team. “Make sure you are fully buttoned up before the event, then everything flows well the day. With years of experience, you know you’ve got this,” he says.
7. They surround themselves with positive, hard-working people.
“It helps to have co-workers that have a positive disposition during a build or production,” notes Chu. “These are often high-stress environments, and having negative people compounds problems rather than working together to find a solution. Surrounding myself with a positive team keeps me motivated to come to work every day and take on challenges head-on.”
Kleinhaut agrees. “I realize that jobs are jobs, but it’s all about the people at Agenc who show up every day, that are loyal and hardworking,” she explains. “Seeing them progress in their careers and become amazing producers from interns is the most satisfying part of what we do.”
Centner adds, “[I try to be] ultra-calm around clients and the rest of my team. People feed off your energy, and if it's nervous energy everyone gets anxious and stressed.”
8. They celebrate small victories, and always acknowledge their teams.
It’s easy to analyze what went wrong and forget to celebrate what went right, continues Centner. “We try to make sure to really take the time to celebrate when something good happens—we land a big new client, we pull off a difficult project—so we can relish in that positive energy.”
Drury agrees, noting that empowering the team is “the most important thing we do.” He says, “We celebrate the success of every member of the team, and they are recognized at our monthly KeepUp Live meetings where we share success stories, show pictures and videos from the events, share client kudos, and sing the praise of unsung heroes on jobs.”
Tertner, meanwhile, recognizes his team through “thank-you notes, compliments and recognition on a job well done, and making sure they take time off when they need to," he says. The team also has a staff-wide chat where they share inspiration and videos.
“No person succeeds without a good team,” adds Wells. “You can learn something from anyone, so I try and give praise and thanks. … We have a bar in our office, so when we need a drink we make one. I often think breaking bread together is important—we go out to eat often as a team to strategize, reflect, and celebrate.”
9. They keep things in perspective, and rely on family and friends to stay grounded.
When he’s feeling overwhelmed, Centner says, he tries to remember that “we are not curing cancer or sending someone to the moon. I love what I do and of course, it has to be perfect—but we can't take ourselves too seriously.”
He adds, “My wife and partner, Sheila, has always been a huge part of my creativity and success. She is my biggest critic and biggest fan all bundled into one. With the amount we work in this industry, you need a family that supports you 100 percent, and I am lucky to have that in spades.”
“I vacillate between complete panic that I will never be hired again, and, ‘God, I love my job,’” laughs Todd Fiscus, owner and creative director of Dallas-based event design firm Todd Events. “That ping-pong keeps me motivated. That, and my baby girl—gotta make the world as good as I can for her.”
Most importantly, adds Wells, “Laugh often and a lot! … Ignore the noise and competitiveness of the business; stay in your lane and do you.”