It's probably safe to assume that corporate clients don’t often attend meetings with event planners armed with scrapbooks of clippings they’ve saved since childhood in anticipation of their first convention. Likewise, rarely do planners have to accommodate meddling future in-laws or feuding family members. Those differences aside, corporate event planners can learn a lot from their wedding-planning counterparts. After all, whether it’s an annual conference or upcoming nuptials, the goal is the same: to give guests a memorable, positive experience that leaves them with goodwill for their hosts. And nobody understands the intricacies and importance of pulling off an event to remember like a wedding planner.
The Dream Setting
To begin thinking like a wedding planner, start with your venue. Wedding spaces come in a lot more flavors than the traditional church or outdoor gazebo. Couples looking to create a special atmosphere opt for weddings in parks and museums, in rustic barns or on yachts. Just as a wedding doesn’t have to happen in a church, there’s no reason you have to host your corporate event in a hotel or conference center.
Corporate planners tend to focus on their hotel relationships and rate negotiations, so they don’t always think about going outside the hotel space for events, says Portland wedding planner Carisa Smith of Adornment Events. Smith spent 13 years as a corporate event planner before making weddings her primary focus. She says corporate events often suffer from lack of personalization and, frankly, imagination. “In corporate America we kind of figure, ‘Here’s the space, here’s the tables, here’s the linen, we’ve got the food picked out, we’re done,’” she observes. “You forget that wow factor.’”
“Look at warehouse space, art studios— depending on the size and logistics, there are some really cool places in the Northwest to hold an event,” says Cindy Rosen of Encore Events in Portland. “Think about some alternative venues that may not necessarily fit the typical picture of a conference but may inspire more creativity or alertness.” The Pacific Northwest is home to dozens of wineries, museums and even lodges that can provide an entertaining and unusual backdrop for any event.
A Great Reception
No matter where you host your event, wedding planners say décor has to be more than identical tables with identical floral arrangements. Instead, try different shapes and sizes of tables, some with high centerpieces, advises Travis McBurney, owner of Seattle and LA’s True Colors Events. “If I have 50 tables, I would never do the same linens on all of them.” Instead, try mixing and matching colors, napkins and centerpieces to make it visually interesting.
Uplighting is also a very popular element of many weddings because it can dramatically set a mood and change the ambiance of a space, but corporate planners tend to overlook it. “Humor and whimsy are usually lacking at corporate events,” Rosen notes.
And while you’re at it, forget the preplated chicken or fish with a cookie for dessert that seems to be the go-to menu for many corporate events. Wedding planners long ago figured out that the more interactive and unusual the food experience is, the more fun people have. So everything from carving stations and tapas to dessert bars and food trucks have replaced the traditional reception dinner at weddings, and there’s no reason not to use them at corporate events.
Megan Gergen, wedding planner at Sun Valley Resort in Idaho, says signature cocktails and late-night food offerings have become wedding staples that easily translate to a corporate event. “As much as some of these corporate groups are on a budget, it doesn’t have to be boring, and it doesn’t have to be the same old thing,” she adds.
While wedding couples come bursting with ideas, most corporate event hosts haven’t given much thought to details like decorated phone charging stations, photo booths or fun late-night nosh. “It’s not outside of what they are interested in, but it is outside of what they are offered,” says Gergen.
Jacky Grotle of Event Success in Seattle agrees that wedding planners present more options to clients simply because they have to. “For a corporate event, it’s usually a choice between ‘this or this,’” she says. “There’s always another event or meeting around the corner. But for a wedding, they want to know all the options available before making their decision because they’re only doing this once.”
The Guest List
Another distinction, wedding planners agree, is the difference between a guest and an attendee. When event planners start thinking in terms of guests rather than attendees, they tend to put a little more thought into things like welcoming people. Grotle says that coming up to a table with a registration line presents an awful first impression at too many corporate events. She suggests making the entry more warm and welcoming with food or entertainment offerings and perhaps a fun way to find your assigned table. “Not that long ago, I did an event at the Museum of Flight [in Seattle], and to bring people forward, we had greeters before even the check-in area,” she recalls. “They were in vintage airline stewardess uniforms worn by the original stewardesses from the ’60s and ’70s, just these darling little old ladies greeting people.”
The ‘I Dos'
Wedding planners agree that one of the biggest differences between weddings and other events is the attention to detail. “Weddings are so intense that there is the check, then the double-check; plus your client is so invested, they’re checking and double-checking and their family is checking,” Grotle says. “There’s less chance for things to fall through, but if they do, it’s noticed.” Likewise, Smith says corporate event planners who do put in the extra effort to make sure details are considered reap significant rewards. “If it’s brought into the conference or seminar level, people would walk away talking about that experience 10 times more,” she remarks.
Happily Ever After
While the welcome is crucial, Rosen says wedding planners know that the farewell is equally important. “At the end of it, what about a fun send-off?” Rosen says. “We know you’re hitting the road; here are some fresh Italian doughnuts—or send them off with a bottle of water for the road. How it ends is equally important as how it begins. You have to think what you can do for them to send them off feeling like they had a good experience.”