The Main Event

written by Bill Kopp

Western North Carolina's natural beauty and business infrastructure combine to make the region a popular hosting ground for events. Whether they're corporate meetings, concerts, weddings or conventions, large-scale events require meticulous and expert planning. Meeting those demands are several dozen event planning professionals, ranging from one-person operations to deep-bench staffs of workers, all dedicated to handling the logistics, problem solving and troubleshooting duties essential to a successful event.

What and who is an event planner?
Do a Google search for "event planners" and an overwhelming number of the results will be wedding planners, florists, and venues that host -- rather than primarily plan -- events. Pretty much anyone can hang out a shingle and call themselves an event planner. Even the International Institute of Event Management concedes that there's no universally accepted definition of what constitutes an event planner. The Institute's web site offers up an industry definition of a planner's functions: "Event planning is the process of managing a project such as a meeting, convention, tradeshow, ceremony, team building activity, party, or convention."

That description includes an array of tasks including "budgeting, establishing timelines, selecting and reserving event sites, acquiring permits, planning food, coordinating transportation, developing a theme, arranging for activities, selecting speakers and keynotes, arranging for equipment and facilities, managing risk, and developing contingency plans."

The organization follows up that definition with another slightly different "official" definition per the U.S. Department of Labor, plus what it characterizes as "an optimist's view" and a pessimistic one. The latter focuses upon the high stress level of the job.

Holly Beveridge of Studio HB Events & Communication concedes that confusion is commonplace. "People often don't understand what an event planner does," she says. "They ask, 'What exactly do you do again?' I explain that my work is to be sure every detail required to make that event happen is taken care of.

"I may even list off some of those details, unless I see their eyes start to glaze over," she quips.

She uses the iceberg analogy to explain how she views her role. "Any conference, event or production is like the tip of an iceberg: it's the part that you see," Beveridge says. "An event planner takes care of the massive details lying beneath the surface, the bulk of the iceberg that most people will never see." To her, an event planner's job is simply to get things done, often working behind the scenes.

Beveridge enjoys her work, but allows that there's at least some truth to the idea of event planning as a stress-filled endeavor. "I was mildly horrified, but not completely surprised, to learn last year that 'event coordinator' was listed by as #5 in their Most Stressful Jobs of 2018 list," she says. While suggesting that such an assertion is "a bit extreme, maybe," Becca Knuth, managing partner at Asheville Event Company allows that "we have definitely had our fair share of stressful situations and clients with high expectations." She says that the ability to multitask, think on one's feet and "manage those stressful situations with a calm demeanor" are requirements of the job.

"On some events we could be considered more of a project manager," says Knuth. "But it's essentially the same thing." She says that the staff at Asheville Event company think of themselves as concierge-style planners, "above and beyond what most other planning firms offer."

Canton- and Asheville-based Cordial & Craft also makes an effort to define itself beyond the already blurred parameters of event planning. "We started calling ourselves an event production company," the company's co-founder Lexie Harvey admits, "because we have so many varied aspects to our company that work together."

There is no licensing program for event planners, though there are a variety of professional certifications available. In a 2016 salary survey, the Professional Convention Management Association's Convene Magazine found that planners holding a Certified Meeting Professional certification earned an average of about $85,000 annually while those without the CMP designation made nearly $9,000 less each year. Meeting Professionals International offers its own Certified Meeting Management (CMM) designation.

Training is worthwhile, but ultimately, planning companies with multiple staff often require that new hires come with experience. "So many people come to us with the illusion that event planning must be so fun and glamorous," says Knuth. "It takes experience, a solid understanding of event logistics and requirements, and attention to detail."

Getting with the plan
The types of events managed and coordinated by the region's event planners vary widely. While a few pride themselves -- and stake out a position in the market -- as having expertise in a particular kind of event, many planners have the skills and know-how to put together events for consumer, corporate and institutional clients.

Becca Knuth says that her firm produces large-scale corporate events, grand openings, corporate milestone events, festivals, conferences, weddings and fundraisers. In addition, Asheville Event Co. is sometimes contracted directly by local event venues "for consulting prior to launching their venues. We have two planners who specialize in full service planning, large scale corporate events and festivals," Knuth says.

Flat Rock, N.C.-based Studio HB Events & Communication's focus is part of its name. Holly Beveridge says her expertise lies in both the promotion and execution of events. Her one-person operaiton specializes in conferences, concerts, academic ceremonies, educational programming and non-profit fundraising events, but Beveridge's experience also includes planning for seminars and symposia, receptions and celebrations, races and promotional events as well. In all cases, she notes that Studio HB "places a strong emphasis on event-related communication and marketing."

On occasion, Western North Carolina-based event planners take on work outside the region. "We were recently in California working on a product launch for an Asheville-based company," says Harvey. Locally, the firm specializes in fundraisers and grand opening. "And of course weddings," she adds. Asheville Event Co. plans weddings outside of Western North Carolina as well.

Even though wedding planners are effectively a business type of their own, most (though certainly not all) event planners in Western North Carolina handle weddings. Those that do often focus on specific niches or wedding type. Knuth says that Asheville Event Co. plans "destination weddings" for the luxury market. "Those clients choose Asheville as their wedding location even though they don't live here," she explains, adding, "We don't really produce birthday parties, anniversaries or elopements."

Organize and delegate
Very few event planning companies maintain in-house staff to address every single one of the multifarious demands placed upon them. They turn to a list of vendors; keeping that list current and well-rounded is an important part of successful event planning.

All of the planners interviewed for this story say that they work with a preferred list of local vendors to provide specific services. Those services might include bartenders, musicians, deejays and other live performers, beverage distributors and suppliers, bartenders, furniture rental companies and many other vendor types.

Celine & Company's owner Kim Lloyd articulates a perspective common to all of these planners. "We do work with a preferred vendor list of local professionals who mirror our production and customer service standards," she explains, "But we're open to meeting and working with new vendors as well." Knuth adds, "we try not to work with the same vendors repeatedly; we like to consider ourselves 'matchmakers' in the sense that we get to know our client and recommend vendors that we feel best suit their vision and budget. Our list is pretty extensive and reaches outside Asheville."

"I've found word of mouth and referrals to be the best way of identifying quality vendors," says Beveridge. "And I always prefer to work with local businesses. I do like to see, taste or experience the work or product in action first, to be sure that I'll be proud of the finished product or service."

Harvey says that Cordial & Craft prefers working with established and trusted vendors over "someone we've never worked with before." She says that using a new vendor can be "a big risk, one that can end up costing a lot of time and stress in the end."

But they do keep their eyes open, and for practical reasons. "You can't guarantee that your go-to caterer or technician will always be available on your event date," Beveridge points out. "So it's good to have multiple options and choices." Mary Minton of M7 Event Solutions echoes that sentiment. "And we love engaging with other local small business owners," she says.

The qualities most sought in vendors are mostly obvious ones: a high standard of quality, flexibility, reliability and a commitment to being a team player rank high on most event planners' lists. "Collaboration is a huge part of our planning process," says Knuth. "We seek out vendors that are open to being part of the creative process and creating a unique event experience together." Harvey looks for a spirit of creativity. "If you aren't being creative or having fun in your industry, that can take away from the experience of our clients," she says. Placing a value upon sustainability and having a local focus are assets as well, says Beveridge. In the end, being a successful vendor for an event planner comes down to professionalism.

Trending events
To the extent that it's practical and fiscally responsible to do so, planners highlight the adaptability of their skills to most every type of event. But they also keep an eye on emerging trends. For example, the high-end destination wedding events Knuth mentions have slowed a bit in 2018 and 2019, she says. "But," she adds, "we're seeing an increase in 2020." She also observes that corporate events are on the increase; the company did more corporate work than weddings in 2018, a trend she attributes to the number of new businesses in and around Asheville. Specific to what clients are looking for at events, she notes an increased emphasis upon "a food experience, not just a meal."

Lloyd points to clients' greater focus upon sustainability issues. And she has noticed another trend: conferences utilizing alternate formats, moving beyond simply booking ballrooms. Instead they're making use of "Asheville's unique event spaces in conjunction with area hotels," she says. Minton concurs: "Companies are more often opting to hold their gatherings in an event venue known for great views, atmosphere and food, in comparison to the traditional plain hotel conference rooms of the past."

Beveridge notes increased interest in group experiences that take advantage of Western North Carolina's "natural beauty, endless outdoor activities, and unique array of culinary and beverage experiences." She points to recent growth in music trails, art walks, historic trolley and comedy tours, beer camps, wine trails, farm visits and foraging tours. "People are coming to our area for an experience," she says. That fact adds to the appeal of scheduling conferences here. "They love the added value of combining business or education with memorable, one-of-a-kind travel." She notes that the term "bleisure travel" is turning up more and more often. "That's combining business travel with leisure," she explains. "Many people consider the appeal of an event destination as an important factor in deciding which meetings and conferences they're going to attend; they add on days for personal and leisure time."

Minton adds that while clients are increasingly interested in unique décor and outstanding food options, they're always looking for "what is going to be most cost effective while also adding the most guest engagement."

Juggling all of those priorities -- some of which might seem in direct opposition to others -- is the brief of the event planner. And to put these events and experiences together, organizations turn to these experts. "With the growth of the city, I've been seeing many more businesses seeking event help from professionals instead of handling it all in-house," says Harvey.

Risk and reward
All of the event planners surveyed for this story carry liability insurance; because of additional activities in which some engage, extra insurance is sometimes required. "Our insurance requirements are different than a [typical] event planner in that we travel with food items and serve alcohol," says Celine and Company's Lloyd. "We carry additional insurance for the security of our clients and employees." Serving alcohol carries additional risk. Harvey notes that because her company is known for its event beverage service, Cordial & Craft carries additional liquor liability coverage.

General liability and professional liability policies -- also known as Errors & Omissions coverage -- are considered standard and recommended within the field, says Beveridge. But the insurance needs of each event planning company are unique. She notes that "a large event venue hosting thousands of guests, for example, may require a planner or event client to have higher levels of coverage than a small meeting venue where you're holding a conference or event for 30 people." As with any kind of business endeavor, it's best to consult with a professional to determine the type and amount of insurance needed.

All of the event planning professionals with whom we spoke were reluctant to give specifics on any disaster stories of events gone wrong ("I'm saving those stories for my book," laughs Becca Knuth). But to a person, each mentioned weather-related factors as the single biggest wildcard in event planning. "I have dealt with 17 inches of snow, forty mile per hour winds on the South Terrace at Biltmore Estate and a whole lot of rain," says Knuth.

"Any time alcohol is served, you know some interesting things can happen," says Minton, diplomatically choosing not to elaborate further. "Every event has to seem perfect for the client and guests," says Lloyd. "Our job is to protect that veil of perfection and turn a 'disaster' into a triumph."

Not surprisingly, details about success stories are easier to come by. "Transforming the U.S. Cellular Center more than once has been a really rewarding experience," says Knuth. Beveridge relates an anecdote about the logistics involved in delivering a featured guest to an event moments after the guest had been in a serious care accident. She recalls "a blur of radio chatter and last-minute plotting with our team" as they sorted everything out, and calls the event "an exciting caper. And it reminds me why I love planning events."

Plan ahead
The logistics involved in planning an event vary in each case. Lloyd ticks off a list of some of the most frequently encountered issues: "Location, weather, transportation, vendor quality control, budgets, client personalities and interpersonal family relationships." Knuth points out that quite a lot of logistical planning takes place well before the actual event. For outdoor events in particular, site visits are part of the process of assessing parking, power, water, rest room and other requirements. And such events can include planning for "everything from transporting guests to building a venue in a field," she says.

Harvey says that one top logistical priority is rule-following. "Most of our interactions are with the vendors involved, making sure everyone complies and respects the rules of the venue."

Beveridge begins by getting a clear picture of the client's mission and vision for the event. Once the desired end result has been established, she says that she works "backward from the final date and goal to create a timeline, action plan, and task list." The task list might be quite lengthy for a corporate event and include such items as "venue selection, speaker or artist selection and contracting, catering and technical arrangements, marketing and communications, advertising, print assignments and deadlines, event materials selection and ordering," she explains.

If a particular task falls outside the purview of an event planner, they think on their feet. "We have been asked to do many things that we consider outside the scope of a normal planning process," Knuth admits. "We just manage it the best that we can and try to offer solutions. Unless it's something that we consider unsafe or logistically impossible, we do our best to comply."

"By nature, most event planners have the ability to juggle and execute a breadth of tasks," Beveridge says. "The secret is to determine the things you enjoy and excel at, and know which areas are better handled by others." Harvey has a policy of avoiding saying no. "Some tasks," she says with a smile, "just cost a bit more."

Preparation for an event can -- and often does -- start early. "Where large numbers of guests are involved, sometimes initial planning begins two to three years before the actual event date, particularly when substantial blocks of hotel rooms and transportation needs are involved," says Beveridge. But most corporate events have a shorter planing period, "some six months, some six weeks," says Knuth. Ultimately, like most every factor involved in the event planing process, each situation is unique, and the time required to plan effectively varies greatly. "Sometimes we're called a day or two in advance when other [vendors] have last minute call out," says Harvey. "Other times we are working with a client two years in advance; we're booking October 2020 now."

Pricing, too, varies widely depending on the event. " Most of our events are priced by project fee, others a percentage," says Knuth. "Especially if there are a lot of unknowns on the front end." Beveridge says that Studio HB's pricing is generally based on an hourly rate. "I provide a proposal based on discussion and needs assessment with the client, and an estimate of total hours," she says. Celine & Company's Lloyd points out that corporate clients often have pre-set budgets. "We help those folks understand how to manipulate their entire budget to include their prioritized line items," she says. Minton notes that event pricing can vary based on the time of year, too.

Location, location, location
Asheville and other cities and towns offer a number of venues suitable for hosting events. The planners interviewed for this story maintain good relationships with multiple venues so that they can suggest the ideal location for each unique event.

While most event planners work in a variety of purpose-designed and/or non-traditional venues, a few are location-specific. Celine and Company Catering and Events primarily hosts events at its downtown Asheville location, On Broadway. Kim Lloyd notes that her company works with an assortment of event types. "We work with individual clients as they plan celebrations and special occasions," she says, "as well as fostering long term corporate and nonprofit relationships."

M7 Event Solutions hosts events at the Crest Center & Pavilion atop Crest Mountain, a few miles northwest of downtown Asheville and at Claxton Farm, halfway between Weaverville and Barnardsville. "You name an event you'd like to plan in the Asheville area, and we have it covered at our venues," Mary Minton says, ticking off a list of examples that includes corporate parties and luncheons, weddings, fundraisers, school proms and nonprofit benefits.

Asheville Events Company's Knuth says that her company plans many events at Asheville's Biltmore Estate and Grove Park Inn, Canyon Kitchen at Lonesome Valley in Cashiers and Highlands' Old Edwards Inn. "For corporate events, it varies," she says. "We have done several events at the U.S. Cellular Center, transforming the space for fundraisers and a human resources conference as well."

Beveridge's experience includes planning events at many of the aforementioned venues; she mentions the Renaissance Hotel and Diana Wortham Theatre as popular locations as well. "There are a growing numbers of breweries, wineries, hotels, restaurants and colleges in our area that provide excellent event and meeting space," she says. "There's no one-size-fits-all approach to venue selection; it's dependent upon the type, purpose and personality of each event. No two events are alike."

One of Cordial & Craft's specialties is cocktails. "We are at Chestnut Ridge [in Canton] almost every weekend as their in-house bar staff," Harvey says. "Otherwise, our events are scattered all over."

Part of the region's economic engine
Event planning is big business in Western North Carolina. Even with the large number of planners in the region, there are plenty of events to keep local planners busy. "In 2018 we produced 14 corporate events," Knuth reports. As a result, the company planned fewer than its average of 15-20 weddings that year. Minton says that M7 plans and hosts over 300 events annually at its two locations. Cordial & Craft has more than 100 clients per year; Celine & Company plans for about twice that number. And Beveridge, whose business is new, has prior experience planning more than two dozen large-scale events (including conferences and concerts) annually.

And planners from outside Western North Carolina play a significant role in local event logistics, too. Among its other roles and functions, the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority's Convention & Visitors Bureau (branded as Explore Asheville) helps attract events to the region. "In the first half of this fiscal year, our sales team hosted 251 groups on the ground with an estimated revenue of $7.3 million (hotel, meeting room rental, F&B and A/V costs) going to area partners," says Dodie Stephens, the BCTDA's Director of Communications, adding that "these meetings and conferences hosted at local hotels are just a slice of the event business in Asheville."

"Event planning has a tremendous cultural impact on our region," says Holly Beveridge. "All of those events require the work of many, many event planners just to happen, let alone to thrive and grow." But there is a danger of what Minton describes as too much of a good thing. "Hotels, wedding and event venues and breweries are springing up all over Western North Carolina," she notes, "with the market currently over-saturated for this type of start-up business venture." Still, in the short term the outlook for event planning in the region looks bright.

The Asheville-Buncombe County Economic Development Coalition's most recently cited research data (November 2018) doesn't break down industries or business sectors to specify event planners. Event planning activities would fall at least partially under the coalition's Hospitality and Tourism business cluster, a classification responsible for an estimated $449M in annual sales and employing over 7,000 people, and that's just within Asheville.

Start planning now
With today's crowd-sourcing approach to problem solving, some will consider going it alone when it comes to planning a major event. But targeted expertise and ability to find quick and effective solutions to problems are hallmarks of the most successful event planners. For those who want or need to know that everything will go smoothly -- or for those who simply don't want to contend with the stress and headaches associated with event logistics -- choosing to work with one of Western North Carolina's event planners can be a wise decision indeed.

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