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9 Tips for Managing Event Client Expectations Right Now

Honesty, flexibility, and a strong backup plan are key to keeping clients happy during labor shortages, supply-chain issues, and other pandemic-related challenges in the event industry.

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Photo: 13_Phunkod/Shutterstock

Between staff and labor shortages, local vaccine- and/or capacity-related restrictions, and supply-chain issues, clients may not get everything they want at their events these days. And as event planners navigate this new, new normal, it can be tricky to calmly navigate and communicate these setbacks in a way that keeps clients happy.

“Expectations are everything in the event business,” says Dusky Norsworthy, founder of Behind the Scenes, a Memphis-based event planning and project management company. “When we are the ones setting them, it’s important to remember that they are within our control.”

So, how exactly do you control those expectations—while also producing the event of your clients’ dreams? We asked planners and producers around the country for their top tips.

1. Don’t sugarcoat the issues—and take the time to thoroughly communicate any challenges.
“Honesty is always the best policy. When I am unable to deliver on a client's ‘want,’ no matter how large or small, I clearly explain why we’re unable to deliver it and then present two to three alternatives that will enable us to achieve the exact same result,” explains Melissa Park, global event producer at Melissa Park Events in New York. “On the whole, most clients understand that there are additional layers of complexity around in-person events right now, and are appreciative of the creative alternate outside-the-box solutions we’re presenting.”

Jessica Mills, events manager for Cassia restaurant in Santa Monica, Calif., agrees that transparency—and education—are key. “I think in the past we may have sugar-coated things a bit and kept some of the details from our guests and clients because they weren't always relevant before. Now, though, I think the more we can explain to them, the better we can educate on why we need what we need, the easier our interactions tend to be when it comes to the final experience," she says.

Mills finds that setting expectations early—for example, that her restaurant requires proof of COVID-19 vaccination for all patrons and event attendees—gives both sides the freedom to decide whether a partnership will work. “It also sets things up really nicely so that when we are the right fit, the client knows absolutely and is ready to work together,” she adds.

Colin Faul, vice president of production for Agency EA in Chicago, encourages planners and clients alike to expect the unexpected and be open to realities. “Certain food and beverage items, vehicles, materials of all kinds may be hard to come by and you don’t always realize it until you uncover it on your own. Maintain consistent and transparent communication with your client throughout the planning process,” he notes, sharing a recent example where items for a conference giveaway were lost due to shipping delays. “Unexpected costs were incurred with reordering product and shipment rush fees—however, we were in constant communication with the client, leaving no room for surprise.”

2. Start managing expectations during your very first interaction with the client.
"It’s easier to set expectations from the first client interaction than to let the client bring their wishlist and then have to explain what is or isn’t possible,” points out Aleyda Martinez, an event planner at Tlapazola Party Rentals in Los Angeles, whose team works to keep its website constantly up to date so customers can see the most recent prices and availability. “[Our website] has also been helpful for us in setting cost expectations—we strive for transparency in this area, and it’s easier for customers to read a breakdown of delivery/setup fees than it is to hear it explained over the phone. At the end of the transaction process, they know exactly what they’ve rented, when they can pick it up (or have it delivered) and how much it will cost. This makes it easy for everyone to stay on the same page."

Charleston, S.C.-based stationery and invitation design company Dulles Designs is also taking a proactive approach. “We're recording and sharing two-minute videos proactively every two weeks, explaining to clients the status of any shipping or materials delays,” says founder Emilie Dulles, who notes that while she hasn’t run into any supply-chain issues right now, she’s anticipating some delays as the holidays approach. 

3. Always have a detailed backup plan—or four.
“COVID-19 has meant abrupt, sudden shifts and repeated changes, and nearly every time we thought we were ‘out of the woods,’ yet another setback hit,” says Norsworthy. “Plans B, C, D and E are always going to be as detailed as Plan A. If there’s any chance the client is going to need something else to fall back on for their event, planners need to be prepared to pivot quickly and easily.”

Another important note? “You want your alternative routes to look as appealing and exciting as the main road," she adds.

4. Get ready to adjust your timelines.
“Our mantra to clients all year long has been ‘get it done early’ because last-minute rushes are expensive and not as guaranteed,” says Dulles. 

And don’t rest on old assumptions—approaches that worked earlier in the pandemic may no longer be relevant, notes Alyse Courtines, SVP of global accounts at Opus Agency in Los Angeles. For both health and safety considerations as well as supply-chain issues, she adds, this means working consistently to get ahead of the latest research and cost implications—and clearly communicating that to clients.

“Everything from agenda blocks to registration pricing to the ever-present supply chain/labor shortage impacts on service levels warrants review,” adds Courtines. “This means the planning cycle might need to be a bit longer and more in-depth. … Anecdotally, something as simple as a supply run on-site can now take hours. Shipments can be delayed; stock can be out. … Remaining focused on what we can control, planning ahead as best as possible for what we can’t and collaborating closely with our clients to ensure we find successful solutions together seems to be the best formula for the moment.”

5. Consider tweaking contracts and budget plans. 
“Make contracts as flexible as you possibly can without being unfair to yourself or the client,” says Norsworthy. “This is definitely a time when force majeure needs to be refined, answering the question of ‘and then what?’ once any part of the contract cannot be fulfilled.” For example, if keynote speakers can no longer travel to an event, she says, plan B or C might mean prerecording a message or speech. 

Meanwhile, Valerie Bihet, owner of Miami-based event production company VIBE Agency, suggests having “a miscellaneous line in your budget to account for any additional spend needed for rushed orders to fix a shortage or needing to change vendors.”

6. Always plan for backups. 
Dulles says, “In the event of any supply chain breakdowns, we're explaining to Dulles clients that being open to multiple options and remaining flexible with final textures or papers or colors is the best way to get what you want and in time for each event."

She’s finding that the most successful strategy has been presenting multiple options to the client and reserving or even purchasing back-up inventory, while also “explaining to clients with room in their budget to retain multiple vendors or have duplicitous orders for critical material pending, instead of risking going without,” Dulles explains. “You may end up staffing one too many bartenders, ordering more flowers than you need or having an abundance of catering ingredients, which can all be donated to a local church or charitable event if need be.”

6. Hone in on what’s most important to clients.
Encourage your clients to clearly define their event's main goals and priorities, suggests Kristen Liggett, who also works for Agency EA as VP of client services. “What do they want or need most, and what are the ‘nice to have’ components? Labor shortages and supply chain issues are global challenges affecting all industries, and because of this, quick decisions need to be made and prioritized based on what matters most to the client.”

7. Encourage clients to adjust their mindset. 
“Although this can sound sacrilegious when talking about meeting planning, I'm often trying to help clients think about content and connections over logistics,” notes Lee Gimpel, founder of Better Meetings, a Washington, D.C.-based meeting design, facilitation and training company. “Of course, the logistics of an event are a really big determinant of its success. However, I think we often over-weight how much the audience cares about all the things in the background versus what they're really getting from the event.”

This may mean sacrificing a specific floral centerpiece or menu item, but focusing more on the human interactions that actually happen at those dinner tables, he says as an example. “Luckily, when it comes to content and connection, those are things that we usually have a good deal of control about. It may mean that we have to design the event a little differently at the start, or we might have to train our speakers to present in a new way, or do something different with our reception. … [But] in the end, if you deliver a really great event where people feel like their time was well spent and they got to engage with other great people, they can be very forgiving when it comes to how long the line was to get in or how crispy the cheese puffs were.”

8. Spend time cultivating your relationships and building trust. 
“During a crisis, your relationships with clients and vendors are more important than ever,” says Bihet. “You need vendors you trust who will be as honest with you as you are with your client, and clients who know you are giving them the full truth of what is going on. Developing that trust by being fully transparent, even if it’s about a problem, is the only way to get through the tougher times when issues come up, without losing that client relationship or their events.”

9. Stay positive.
Above all, “Be the solution-focused positive ray of sunshine through the storm clouds," says Park. "Believe me when I say, they’ll appreciate it."

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