When Jennifer Leah Duncan of Celebrate Event Planning in Mooresville, North Carolina, first knew in her bones that she loved planning weddings, she was just 11 years old and playing at her neighbor’s in-ground pool.
“It was a little cloudy that day, so we played ‘wedding’ instead. I picked the bride, groom, musician, told everyone what they had to do, and had it all under control,” Duncan recalled.
While she didn’t know then that acting out wedding planning could lead to a career (or fruitful side hustle!), she did realize one key thing: “I had that quality in my personality that made me want to do it then and still makes me want to do it now.”
As Duncan is embarking on her second year in her business as a professional event planner, she’s steadily booking more weddings into 2018. Her path to event planning may not follow “conventional” advice, but it’s worked for her and can work for you! Here are her top tips for event planners just getting started:
1. Get on-the-job training.
Standard advice involves finding an established event planner and working under them to gain on-site management exposure before you try to manage an event on your own. But not every small town may have an experienced event planner to learn from. What to do?
“I worked in the corporate world as a receptionist just out of college, getting paid $10 an hour,” Duncan said. “When I got the chance to plan the Christmas party for 250 people, I jumped at it. I had to contact tons of vendors, caterers, arrange alcohol, bartenders, rent a tent… My boss saw how well it went and suggested that I apply for a position in the events department, where I gained even more experience. It’s another way to learn, while on the job.”
Your current job may be a far cry from event planning, but like in Duncan’s experience, chances are your company still hosts special events from time to time. Or maybe you’re involved in an extracurricular group that holds events, be it a networking group, non-profit organization, or even your child’s school or scout troop. The important thing is less where this hands-on experience comes from and more so that it happens.
Within event management, there are tons of niche areas you’ll need prior experience in before you can truly get started, like working with food and beverage vendors, venues, and potentially even audio-visual equipment. As an event planner — and particularly as a wedding planner — your clients will expect you to manage everything. And in the beginning, as you’re getting your feet off the ground especially, that’s exactly what you’ll do. So prep for that in whatever way possible now! It’s okay to start small — volunteer to host your next book club meeting, even.
2. Look for opportunities in unconventional places.
Large bridal expos have been a key way for wedding planners to get clients and leads in the past. What works these days?
“Bridal expos are always a great way to meet brides, but they may have already made their decisions by then, and you’re competing with dozens of large companies,” Duncan said. “Promote yourself and advertise in smaller areas around large cities – you’ll be the affordable, reliable, go-to source for all their event planning needs.”
Speaking of your local community — are there any festivals, city-wide special events, or other expos you could become involved in? It’s worth looking into, as this could help you meet the area residents who are more likely to be the base of your clients as you get started. You could always start off as a volunteer, at an event hosted by a non-profit organization perhaps, and then make your desire for increased involvement known.
3. Use social media to become a local expert.
Spend time upfront to establish relationships and visit wedding venues, photographers, bakers and florists – and then blog about it.
“Most upscale venues have a nice online presence these days,” Duncan said. “But take the time to visit them yourself, note the little things about the venue that their marketing copy may have missed – lighting, the vibe, accessibility. Then, interview the managers and blog about each of them on your event planning site. This helps establish you as the local expert on many key decisions the brides will be considering. And it boosts the SEO rankings on your site or Facebook page.”
With event management, you could get a degree (like a bachelor degree in hospitality management), but the certification that matters most of all is what your network says about you. Word-of-mouth marketing is key in this profession, and promoting the services of others in the biz on social media will help you get noticed in return.
4. Create a women’s business alliance for self-promotion.
“In Mooresville, I’m part of the Women’s Business Alliance of Lake Norman (WBALKN) that has each member specializing in one key area – photography, baking, a skincare line, body wraps, massage therapy, hypnotherapy and life coaching,” Duncan said. “The great part is that all of these services work together to benefit women, and we all work together to promote and support each other. It’s a big win-win for local businesses!”
Does your city not have a women’s business alliance? Even better, in a way. That’s because you can start one and grow tons of valuable connects as a point person in this way.
5. Be willing to do whatever it takes.
Any event is about making the hosts comfortable and keeping the party flowing for the guests.
“When I work on a wedding, it’s about the bride and groom first. If the bar is overwhelmed, I jump behind there and open some wine,” Duncan said. “It’s a server mentality that I get from years in the restaurant business and bartending. You have to be able to balance it. You can tell people what to do, but if you have to wash dishes while doing it, do it!” she said.
For Duncan, a career in event planning is the culmination of many passions and skillsets. Her advice to those considering it?
“Have a strong personality, be great at coordinating details and have strong communication skills,” she said. “When I get a chance to step back and watch it all come together and they start thanking me, I get so much gratification and value from that moment.”
Now that you’re feeling more ready to get your biz off the ground, keep in mind these 9 important questions all event planners should ask themselves before diving into the industry:
Kimberly Gohringer is a writer, lifecoach, hypnotherapist, mom and kind and funny human. In addition to freelance writing, she runs Empower Now, a business that helps people make positive changes in their lives. Visit her site at http://empowernow.center.
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