Follow our advice and avoid the common pitfalls that can catch out even the most experienced event organiser

Illustrations: Pietari Posti

Squaremeal Venues and Events Organisers Guide - 20 golden rules of event planning

Setting a budget is easy. Sticking to it is the tricky bit. Inexperienced planners come a cropper by not keeping on top of the small expenses, which can soon add up to create a scary surprise. Don’t fall into the trap of spending on no-shows. A 20% dropout rate is normal for events, so book for fewer than you invite (but negotiate a good rate for last-minute confirmations).

What’s most important to you? Lots of flowers or ample amounts of booze? A grand venue or first-rate AV? Make a list of what you need, in order of importance, then be prepared to make sacrifices in the less crucial areas.

Remember, you’re creating an event for your guests, not your MD. There are too many stories about venues being chosen because of their proximity to the boss’s house, for instance. Think about what the majority of your guests would like, and plan around those logistics.

The internet is a great resource for finding venues and suppliers, but it’s not as good as your friends and acquaintances. If you’re thinking of booking someone, ask around to see if anyone knows about them. Use the Squaremeal Concierge service. If you organise lots of events, then get on Twitter. It’s invaluable for sourcing advice and deals, while Instagram and Pinterest can give you visuals of a venue without you having to leave your desk.

This is a competitive industry with a lot of suppliers chasing your business. Insist on a designated account manager – a single point of contact is a necessity, not a luxury. Ask how many events your suppliers have worked on within the past month. If it’s less than two, there’s probably a good reason. Find a balance between accepting their advice and being pernickety: bad suppliers may try to guide you down the path of least resistance to make life easy for themselves.

You could hang on for a last-minute deal, but most event companies offer good discounts for early bookers. You’re also much more likely to get what you want when you give plenty of notice. Take venues, for instance: popular alfresco spots tend to get booked for summer dates by mid-March, while the best Christmas venues can be taken more than a year in advance.

If you’re looking for a bargain, book during quiet days or periods. Mondays and Tuesdays usually offer better value than Wednesdays or Thursdays. Instead of holding a Christmas party in December, you could pick up a bargain in January, the quietest month for event suppliers. Another option is to book an afternoon event, as lunches are cheaper, and there’s a definite cut-off when people can be left to their own devices and the corporate card can head for the hills.

Your budget shouldn’t be a closely guarded secret. Be upfront and approach suppliers that are beyond your budget – they’ll often be prepared to do a deal, especially if you’re booking in a quiet period. Increased spending means better rates (which is why it often makes sense to use an established event organiser, who is booking suppliers all the time). Finally, be reasonable. Driving costs down is one thing, but go too far and it will create ill-feeling between you and your suppliers, putting paid to lasting relationships. Aim for added value, such as free soft drinks or extra staff on the night, rather than massive discounts.

Be sympathetic to teetotallers. Offer soft drinks that look like the real thing – no orange juice during the fizz reception – so that abstainers don’t have to answer the same impertinent question again and again. Need to make room in the budget for booze-free libations? There’s a reason why prosecco outsells champagne these days.

Don’t just pick a ‘hot’ venue and shoehorn your event in. Think about what type of event you want to put on and pick the venue to match that. A grand Victorian ballroom might not be ideal for a hi-tech product launch. And why spend a fortune decorating a venue if one with the right look exists already? Don’t be scared by a high headline price either. Costlier functions will usually have a more switched-on events team and should be able to offer great added value, making them cheaper in the long run.

Lengthy queues for the cloakroom will put guests in a bad frame of mind from the outset – ditto waiting for name badges. If you expect lots of people to arrive at the same time, have extra staff on hand to avoid bottlenecks and make sure there are drinks waiting on the door. Cocktails may look great but not everyone appreciates them, so provide fizz, water and a non-alcoholic choice too. Bottled beers should always be on hand – you may not like them, but they will definitely be requested. For a networking event, try to have greeters ready to provide introductions.

Sample both food and drink before committing to a caterer. Good suppliers should offer a tasting as a matter of course. If a venue has a party booked in, ask if you can sneak along beforehand to see what the space looks like when prepped.

Staff events are tax deductible. Businesses can offset £150 a head per year against any annual events that are open to all employees, such as the summer barbecue or Christmas party. It’s worth dropping a gentle reminder of this to your finance director if he or she is being shy with the company card.

Filling a goodie bag is a fine art. Don’t waste money on useless tat, and think carefully before having your company’s branding stencilled on anything that’s cheap. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Everyone appreciates posh bathroom products, some good-quality chocolates, or a mini bottle of fizz. Even a bottle of water and some reading material for the journey home will go down well.

Remember, you’re the host and you have a duty to feed guests. At evening events, many people will have come straight from the office and won’t have eaten since lunch. Hungry guests aren’t happy guests. Consider bowl food rather than canapés – it’s more filling and usually cheaper.

Everyone’s been to an event which has been spoiled by multiple dull speeches. Lay down the law to any speakers, as far as you can. Set them a strict time limit, especially if there is more than one involved. And do insist that they prepare. Nothing annoys guests more than a speaker droning on interminably without making a point about anything. Waffle is rude.

Make sure your guests have all the information they need in advance. A map is a good idea and you should always include the full postcode, as many guests will be navigating by smartphone. Be clear about dress codes too. If jeans and trainers are unsuitable, tell everyone in advance.

A simple one this, but often overlooked. What other events are happening on your chosen night? Will you be chasing the same guests as another function? Always check the sporting fixtures, particularly the Uefa Champions League. Men are likely to dodge an event if, say, Chelsea are playing Real Madrid. If it can’t be moved, or it’s too late, consider making a feature of a clash. For summer events, why not screen Wimbledon? 

You need to make sure that you’re on site well in advance of your guests. Check everything, from the sound system to the lights. Enter the venue the same way as your guests will. Test your door team with a tricky question or two: are they creating the right initial impression? Can anything be improved? Have the timings been properly worked out and does everyone know them? Continue to spot-check things throughout the evening, right down to the loo roll and the hand towels.

Nothing’s more frustrating than wanting to escape a party but having to queue for ages at the cloakroom to collect your belongings. Be prepared for the exodus. If you want the party to continue, make sure you’ve arranged to be on a guest list somewhere appropriate, preferably nearby. Remember: your company could be held liable if something happens to an employee on their way home from a staff party, so don’t shirk on booking cars. 

This article was first published in Squaremeal Venues + Events 2017 Guide