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Over my career, I’ve had the opportunity to plan a wide variety of events, from conferences to weddings and fancy galas to golf tournaments. While the specific details that go into each of those events vary widely, the lessons I’ve learned in the last decade-plus are always applicable. 

Learning to plan events is very much an experiential endeavor. There’s only so much you can learn from a book or a class, which oftentimes means you’re thrown into the deep end, figuring out how to handle things on the fly. 

I hope that sharing some of the mistakes I’ve made and how they’ve made me a better planner can help you avoid them yourself!

1. If it’s not in writing, it’s not real

You know what they say about what happens when you assume – and that couldn’t be more true for event contracts. The printer you assumed was included in the tech package. The utensils you assumed would come with the catering order. The request you assumed wouldn’t entail an extra fee. They all add up to time, money and brain space you can’t afford to spare, and the solution is simple: get it in writing. 

Even if it seems redundant, even if the other party gives you the runaround, even if it was agreed to verbally, get it in the contract, get it in an addendum, get it in an email. Extra work on the front end can save you major headaches down the line. 

Related: Speaker Management Strategies for Your Association Event Learn More >

2. People don’t read

So, you’ve included something in your terms and conditions, which means you’ve got it covered, right? And then a decorator shows up the morning of a wedding with a gigantic ladder and is about to start hanging things from the ceiling, which is definitely prohibited and definitely a liability issue. 

Now you’ve got to break it to the bride that the decor she envisioned (and paid for!) won’t be complete. Yikes. 

Sure, you laid it out in the terms and conditions, but the contract was signed a year ago and wasn’t given another thought. Incidents like this were a catalyst for me to add steps into the planning process where we went over what was and wasn’t allowed at additional points with both the client and third-party vendors. No matter how many times you’ve reminded folks about something, it never hurts to remind them again – important details should be available in multiple places and reiterated multiple times. 

3. Something will always go wrong

The client didn’t provide enough party favors, there’s rain in the forecast for the day of the golf tournament, there’s a tornado evacuation at 3 am the last day of your conference. For the average person, the reaction is panic. But you’re an event planner and this is where you shine. 

Staying calm and skipping over panic mode into problem-solving mode is arguably the most crucial skill for any event planner. 

It can take time to develop, but once you do, you realize you can put the favors at every other place setting because half of them will get left behind anyway. You work with the golf club to move up the start time. You sit in the hotel parking garage basement with your team and message the speakers and attendees about pushing back the start time. It can take time to develop, but once you do, you realize you can put the favors at every other place setting because half of them will get left behind anyway. More importantly, you don’t beat yourself up about things that are out of your control!

4. It never hurts to ask

When you’re busy trying to make everyone else happy, it can be easy to forget that vendors and service providers are working hard to make you happy. While it's important to be conscientious of their time and appropriate compensation, you never know what accommodations they might be able to make that will make your job a little easier. 

The special dietary requests that seem daunting to you are probably “been there, done that” for catering and banquet teams. If you just know that a venue would be perfect for your program, but it’s a bit over budget, the sales team might have more wiggle room than you expect. And you’ll be surprised at how many industry colleagues have advice on handling the logistical nightmare you swear no one has ever encountered. 

Will it work out perfectly every time? Of course not. But you’ll be surprised by what you can achieve just by asking.

Related: Everything You Need to Know About Event Planning for Associations Learn More >

5. Take time to read and research

Every step of the planning process requires research, which is one of the rare times my degree in history is relevant to my job! As much as I love research, I know not everyone does, but you can’t underestimate its value. It’s crucial to understanding the needs of your audience, selecting top-notch vendors and keeping up with industry trends. 

Reading an industry newsletter led me down a rabbit hole about Liberating Structures, which I then incorporated into digitalNow. Researching innovative event formats gave me the inspiration for SURGE Smackdown, one of the most engaging and fun sessions we’ve ever had. 

On the other end of the spectrum, a lack of research has led to some of my most frustrating and disappointing mistakes. As a result, I build research time into my planning process and consciously try to ask for help and clarification where I need it. Asking for help doesn’t come easily to me, and I’m sure other planners feel the same – we feel like we’re supposed to have all the answers! But ensuring you have enough information to make well-informed decisions is always worth it. 

6. Rest is not optional

I run on adrenaline during events. I’m here, there and everywhere, just like Roy Kent. And as soon as everything is packed up…I crash. The adrenaline is gone, the exhaustion sets in, and I need a break. Overwork and burnout are extremely common for event planners, and there are times, like the final lead-up to and on-site at events, when extra hours are an unavoidable part of getting the job done. 

That means you have to be extra intentional about building in recovery time. Give yourself the time you need to wrap things up post-event, and then shut. it. down. Your brain and your body need to disconnect fully, and while it’s easier said than done, it’s worth setting boundaries and having conversations with your boss/client/team about how you can make it happen. You’ll be able to function better in the short term and continue to be engaged and excited about your work in the long term. 

I hope by sharing some of the lessons I've learned along the way, you’ll feel less alone when you make mistakes of your own and see them as opportunities to learn and grow into a better event planner.

Ashley Satterfield
Post by Ashley Satterfield
February 9, 2023
Ashley Satterfield has a decade of experience in event planning, spanning corporate, non-profits, and weddings (yes, bridezillas are real). She is a graduate of University of South Florida, where she studied ancient history and women’s studies. Ashley lives in Katy, TX with her husband.