Corporate events run the gamut from industry conferences to internal executive summits that bring together leadership from an organization’s various departments and locations. Whether you’re holding an internal event, industry conference, or major customer-facing event, planning a corporate event requires serious attention to detail and exceptional organizational skills (along with the ability to keep a cool head under pressure) to ensure the event goes off without a hitch.
We’ve put together this comprehensive guide to corporate event planning to walk you through all the critical steps and planning stages with ease, whether you’re an event-planning veteran or overseeing corporate event planning for the very first time. When you’re ready to get rolling, download our comprehensive, interactive Corporate Event Planning Checklist to guide you through the process, step-by-step.
Establishing the Business Case
Before you get into the nitty-gritty planning details, you first need to establish the business case. In other words, what purpose is your event going to serve? Find out what deliverables key stakeholders are expecting to get out of the event, such as:
- Annual state-of-the-company event, where progress and the vision for the next year is shared with executives and team leaders.
- Training or roll-outs of new programs and initiatives. Many organizations hold corporate events as an all-hands-on-deck approach to gaining broad support and backing for new products or services before they’re launched. These events can also be valuable in bringing sales and marketing teams up to speed so that they can effectively market and sell the latest company offerings.
- Rolling out new incentives programs or recognizing recent performance with awards.
- Building brand awareness or nurturing relationships with valuable partners or prospects.
The rest of your planning process will hinge on the business case, so it’s worth your time to clearly establish what that purpose is before getting started. Doing so means you can easily justify the point and convey the benefits the company will gain from the event.
Whatever the business case, make it measurable. Define the outcomes you hope to achieve and build in methodology to measure performance.
Developing Your Timeline
Now that you know the why, you need to start thinking about the how. The first thing to do is develop a master timeline for all phases of planning, beginning with today and ending with post-event follow-up.
Your timeline will serve as your master outline for every step in the process, a checklist that you can tick off in the weeks and months to come to ensure that you’ve covered all the bases. While there’s no single universal timeline that works for every corporate event in every industry, there are many timeline examples and templates that you can customize and build on for streamlined planning. Here are a few:
Budgetary constraints can dictate every aspect of a corporate event, from venues to refreshments, travel, speakers, and more. Determine your overall event budget and then allocate funds to each aspect of event planning including:
- Venue and exhibition hall fees
- Lodging (for team members, keynote speakers, etc.)
- Materials (printing costs, etc.)
- Event staffing
- Gifts for attendees
If your event will host vendors in an exhibition hall or through another arrangement, these fees can offset some of the costs you’ll incur. You can also consider seeking event sponsors for a mutually-beneficial arrangement – sponsors get promotion and publicity, and you get more funding to work with.
Make sure your budget is flexible. If you end up getting a great deal on a venue, for instance, you can re-allocate some of your funds to secure that coveted keynote speaker, upgrade lodging, or opt for classier refreshments. No matter how tight or generous your initial budget, make sure your initial breakdown includes a contingency fund. Unanticipated expenses are common, and you don’t want to end up sacrificing in another area to make up the difference. Your event budget should be documented and include both estimated and actual expenses.
Planning Breakout Sessions
Breakout sessions are just one possible activity at corporate events, but breaking up attendees into smaller, more targeted groups is one of the most viable ways to make the event meaningful to every attendee on a personal level while getting more accomplished in less time. Instead of having all attendees sit through sessions that aren’t relevant to them, break it out into smaller sessions.
Each breakout session should have a time estimate and also include a buffer to allow for unexpected delays or other problems, such as technical hiccups. For instance, allow 70 or 80 minutes for sessions expected to last for an hour.
Other activities to consider:
- Guest speakers or lectures
- Product launch presentations
- Closing statements
- After-parties or wrap-up celebrations
All of these activities should be carefully planned on your master event timeline, and each individual breakout session or activity should also have its own mini-timeline, including time allotted for setup, introductions, presentations, and time for independent teamwork (such as for workshops), as well as any other tasks specific to the activity.
Finding the Perfect Venue
You’ll need to find a venue that meets your requirements, meaning:
- A sufficient capacity to hold your desired number of attendees
- Within your budget
- Offers access to an exhibition hall if needed, either on-site or in the vicinity of the main conference area
- Adequate facilities to meet any audio-visual needs, such as projection screens for keynote presentations
The best way to find the right venue at the right cost is to send your meeting requirements to a few select venues and request written proposals. You’ll want to do this early in your planning process, as the best and most sought-after venues are often booked well in advance.
Another consideration is whether you’ll need space for an exhibition hall. This is most commonly needed for events like industry conferences, where vendors pay for space in order to promote their goods and services to their target audience. Industry conferences provide the perfect opportunity for vendors to connect with a large number of ideal prospective buyers in one place over the course of a few days.
Lining Up Keynote Speakers
Keynote speakers can make or break an event. Even internal corporate events, such as management retreats, often enlist a keynote speaker to deliver a motivating, thought-provoking presentation to engage attendees and build enthusiasm.
A keynote speaker, or guest speaker, may be a motivational speaker, an authority figure in your industry, a leader from a partner or sponsor company, a published author, or even a celebrity. There are a few considerations when it comes to keynote speakers:
- Ask for recommendations and find out what authority figures have given talks at similar events. Look for videos of past presentations to determine if a speaker is a good fit for your audience. You can also look for speakers who have given talks in your niche at TEDx.
- Look for a speaker who is knowledgeable in your industry. While general motivational speakers are often well-suited for most events, it helps if a speaker can relate and speak to the challenges attendees are facing. That doesn’t mean you need to line up a speaker who has worked in your industry, but you should make sure that they have talking points that will resonate with the audience.
- Consider their social reach. An industry leader can amplify your promotional efforts by promoting their upcoming talk at your event with their audience.
- Will they be compensated? Most often, companies pay for travel and lodging for guest speakers who need to travel. Professional speakers and industry authority figures often command high fees for speaking engagements, so plan your budget accordingly.
- What equipment do they require? Most speakers use A/V to supplement their talks, so find out what your speaker needs and make arrangements for the proper setup.
What fees do keynote speakers typically command? Speaking fees can vary depending on how sought-after a speaker is and their level of expertise in your industry. According to Evan Bailyn, speaking fees range from free, to travel costs only, to tens of thousands of dollars, even into the six-figure range. That’s quite a wide range, so decide how much you’re willing to pay for a speaker before you begin your search.
You can, of course, expect to pay more for a celebrity speaker and also for well-known authors. Bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell, for instance, is believed to command fees around $80,000 for speaking engagements. Also, note that you can expect speaking fees to be two to three times higher if you work with a speaker’s bureau than if you enlist a speaker directly. Most major conferences, Bailyn says, pay speaking fees in the range of $10,000 to $20,000.
The total cost of lining up a speaker isn’t just limited to speaking fees, so plan your budget for the full picture, including fees, travel and lodging, meals, and so on. Obviously, you want to give your guest speaker the royal treatment and leave them with a great impression.
Exhibition Hall Considerations
If you’re having an exhibition hall as part of your event, you’ll need to plan the layout based on the number of registered vendors and their requirements, such as electricity, space, and so on. This information should be gathered on registration, which then gives you a full picture of exactly what you have to work with when you’re configuring the layout.
Your venue should provide you with a basic floor plan and any other information you require about the space itself. Using this information, you’ll want to draw a complete layout with space designated for every vendor while allowing ample space for attendees to browse. Make sure you’re aware of all venue rules and restrictions on vendor space (booth sizes), lighting, signage, or other requirements that will impact your exhibition hall configuration.
Soliciting exhibitors is a substantial undertaking in itself, so you may want to appoint a committee or individual who can take the lead on this aspect of event planning. Create an exhibitor prospectus that includes:
- A letter of invitation from the conference chair or exhibitor chairperson
- Key highlights about the event
- Benefits to vendors
- Information about attendees including key demographics and categories
- Details about the conference and exhibition (dates, times, location, anticipated attendance)
- The floor plan for the exhibit hall (this template should include the designated space available for each vendor, but will not yet include assigned vendor names)
- Contract and rules
- Information on sponsorship and exhibitor packages and general pricing information (offer several packages including exhibitor/sponsorship combos, packages with larger vendor spaces, packages that include additional signage throughout the main conference areas, etc.)
- Registration form (complete with fields for all essential information, such as requirements for A/V access, etc.)
- If this is not the first event you’ve held, include testimonials from past attendees and photos from previous events
Most importantly, you should have a registration deadline that’s far enough in advance that you have time to plan the specifics and place each vendor in the most appropriate space on the exhibition hall floor. You might also consider offering an early registration discount for vendors to encourage timely signups.
Now that you have registration covered, you’ll also want to prepare an exhibitor service kit that includes all the information vendors need to ship exhibit signage and other items to the conference location in advance. Send this information to vendors six to eight weeks in advance and post it on your conference website for easy access. Include information such as:
- Conference and exhibit hall schedule
- Setup and teardown times for before, after, and on each day of the event
- The final exhibition hall layout, including all assigned vendor spaces
- Rules and regulations
- Security and insurance information
- Information on electrical, telephone, and internet access
- A list of service contractors and vendors with pricing and ordering information
- Shipping information
- Tips and additional resources to help vendors plan their displays
Note that when planning your exhibition hall and floor plan layout, you should also try to minimize competitive issues. You might avoid having direct competitors as official event sponsors, for instance, instead restricting sponsorships to one company per industry or niche. Additionally, you should avoid placing direct competitors side-by-side in the exhibition hall as a courtesy.
Food and Lodging
Food and lodging is often tied to your venue. If you’re booking conference facilities at a major hotel, for instance, it makes sense to book a block of rooms for attendees in the same building. It cuts down on transportation costs for attendees because they won’t need to take a taxi or public transit each morning to get to the main conference hall. Plus, it’s simply more convenient. For large events, it may be necessary for attendees to stay at nearby hotels due to budget or space constraints, so it’s a good idea to provide information for several nearby accommodation options along with information on public transit to make it easy for attendees to arrange for daily transportation and plan their schedules in advance. If possible, reserve blocks of rooms at the most convenient hotels – you can often get a discount for attendees by reserving blocks of rooms.
Likewise, your venue may have contracts with preferred catering companies. You may or may not be required to choose from these options, but opting to work with the venue’s established partners can be beneficial even if it’s not a contractual requirement. Why? Caterers who have experience working with certain venues already know the ins and outs of working with the venue, so it tends to result in a more seamless event. Also, they may offer discounted rates for events held at partner venues.
For food and refreshments, buffet-style breakfasts often work well at corporate events. Food choices such as muffins and bagels, coffee and tea, and even scrambled eggs and toast can work well for large numbers of attendees. A buffet-style breakfast also makes it easy for attendees to choose foods and enjoy a light breakfast during the day’s opening ceremonies or introductions at their tables. You’ll also want to make light refreshments available during breaks. Cookies, crackers, cheese, fruits, and vegetables are convenient options. You may choose to provide lunch or build a daily lunch break into the schedule. Lighter fare is generally the way to go; attendees are busy meeting and talking with new people, and heavy midday meals can contribute to afternoon fatigue, so when in doubt, go light and offer healthy options.
In most cases, corporate event attendees are left on their own for dinner. You may have an evening awards celebration or want to hold a formal dinner on one day of the conference; otherwise, it’s often most convenient for attendees to make plans for dinner with small groups at local establishments. In fact, having the opportunity to dine with new acquaintances and enjoy a meal with a smaller group is one of the biggest benefits of attending a corporate event, so give attendees most or all of the evenings to engage in these types of networking activities.
When planning food and refreshments for any major event, you’ll want to consider special dietary needs and preferences. If you do plan to host an all-attendees formal lunch or dinner, offer at least two entrée choices (three is better) and allow attendees to submit any dietary requirements in advance. Offer at least one entrée option suitable for vegans and vegetarians. Discuss the available options with your caterer and make your guests’ preferences and requirements available in advance to allow for more inclusive menu planning.
In many cases, you’ll need additional staff to ensure that your event goes off without a hitch. It’s a good idea to have staff on hand who can aid vendors with exhibit setup and tear-down, staff who can replenish beverages and refreshments throughout the day (if not handled by your caterer), and staff who can help manage check-ins, help attendees with directions, arranging transportation, and other needs.
Hiring experienced event staffers will greatly reduce your stress and can dramatically shorten your to-do list (which, obviously, is at least a mile long at this point). It’s well worth the investment to ensure that there are enough hands on deck to help attendees and vendors with whatever they may need, and it gives your event a professional, polished vibe. Even if you’re planning your first-ever corporate event, you’ll leave your attendees with the impression that you’re a veteran planner by ensuring a fantastic experience for all.
Of course, cost matters. Look into various options for finding qualified event staff. Staffing agencies are one option, but on-demand staffing platforms can help you quickly fill positions with pre-screened, experienced event staff – and at a lower cost compared to the typical cost of working with a staffing agency. You should also look for temporary event staffers who can augment your in-house team members who will be on hand for the event and fill in the gaps to create a well-coordinated, seamless experience for your attendees.
A few tips to keep in mind for hiring event staff:
- Write a detailed job description that clearly outlines the desired skills and experience, as well as any behavior traits you’re looking for. If you’re hiring event staff for attendee-facing duties, look for candidates with the right personality to mesh with your brand image.
- Offer competitive pay to attract the top candidates, but keep in mind that the most qualified, experienced staff don’t necessarily always come at the highest price point. Look at resources such as Payscale.com and Salary.com to find out what the typical wage is for event staff in the location where you’re holding your event.
- Avoid hiring friends and family members to help staff your event. It’s rarely a good idea to hire friends and family for any reason, but in this case, you only have one chance to leave a lasting impression – opt for experienced event staff.
Marketing and promotion should be a part of your event from the get-go, meaning you should create a marketing plan when you begin to plan your event and work it into your timeline. You should start promoting your event months in advance, because your marketing efforts serve multiple purposes:
- Getting the attention of potential attendees
- Encouraging early signups
- Capturing leads for potential sponsors
- Engaging potential vendors/exhibitors
- Getting PR leading up to and during the event
Marketing should include multiple channels, such as public relations, social media, and traditional marketing, and use a variety of tactics such as:
- Creating a compelling event website (this is step number one!)
- Social media advertising
- Promotional rewards (offer a free subscription or product for attendees who sell x number of tickets by promoting your event)
- Email marketing (promote your event in your own newsletter and secure mentions or ads in other industry or partner newsletters)
- Billboards and local advertising (can be useful tactics for hyper-local events)
- PPC (pay-per-click in search engines as well as banner ads on relevant websites)
- Press releases
- Guest blogging (ask your sponsors, partners, and speakers if they’ll publish a post leading up to the event)
- Discussion forums and groups (think Facebook and LinkedIn groups as well as industry-focused discussion forums)
Really, there are dozens of marketing tactics you can employ to boost event recognition. Remember, word-of-mouth will often be your biggest marketing boost. The earlier you start registering attendees, lining up speakers, and signing up sponsors and exhibitors, the sooner they’ll start letting their audiences know they’ll be attending, speaking at, or sponsoring your upcoming event.
Also, identify photo and interview opportunities with speakers, exhibitors, and attendees prior to the event. These assets make excellent material for blogging and social media posts both during and after the event. Finally, consider offering free or deeply discounted press passes for securing solid media coverage.
Pre-event prep not only includes everything we’ve already discussed, but also the finer details in the days, weeks, and months leading up to event kickoff. A few of these finer details you should plan for include:
- Printing and materials
- Decorations and signage
- Setup and tear-down
- Name tags and access passes
- Registration processes and space at the venue
- Obtaining necessary licenses, permits, and insurance
- Sending reminders to attendees, exhibitors, speakers, and sponsors
- Finalizing seating arrangements and place cards
- Conduct a final registration check, make sure you have all registration badges and an up-to-date list
- Get promotional items, gift bags, and prizes ready for attendees, VIPs, speakers, and exhibitors
- Confirm media attendance (remember those free press passes you doled out as part of your promotional strategy?)
This list is, of course, not exhaustive. Your specific checklist in the final days and weeks prior to the event will be specific to you and the odds and ends that you have remaining to wrap up. Above all, delegate! Don’t attempt to handle every one of these tasks on your own, or you’re sure to miss important details.
Part of creating an unforgettable experience is keeping your attendees engaged from the moment of arrival to the final wrap-up. That means having enough staff on hand to make the rounds and ensure that attendees are comfortable and enjoying themselves, planning interactive workshops, lining up engaging keynote speakers and break-out session leaders, and essentially making the entire event as interactive as possible.
It’s become a pretty standard practice to create a hashtag for your event that can be used across social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, and you should follow suit. Include your hashtag in promotional materials, on your website, and in all communications leading up to the event, during, and through post-event wrap-ups. Not only does it encourage attendees to share their experiences with their audiences on social media, but it makes it easy for you to monitor event-related discusssions across the social web.
There are plenty of ways to engage attendees both online and in-person, including:
- Build lounge areas throughout the exhibition hall and main conference areas to encourage networking and casual interaction among guests.
- Have a photo booth complete with masks and funny props at your wrap-up party. (Everyone likes to let loose and show their goofy side now and then!)
- Use “fun facts” about attendees on their name badges. It makes for a great ice-breaker when interacting with other guests.
- Use social listening boards to enable attendees to give feedback, ask questions, and share thoughts throughout the event.
- Provide attendees with social media posts they can easily share or customize to engage on social media without taking valuable time away from the main happenings. Likewise, send follow-up materials such as photos and other graphics after the event to make it easy for attendees to share their great experience.
- Give attendees plenty of breaks to allow them time to regroup and recharge.
- Plan activities dedicated to networking in the conference schedule. Whether you hold a social hour after a busy day or plan a mixer for smaller groups following breakout sessions, it’s a good idea to mix formal presentations with more laid-back activities to keep everyone active and engaged.
- Keep engagement in mind as you configure your layout and seating arrangements. Is there a seating configuration that would foster more casual discussion? Use it. The purpose of a corporate event is to learn and network, so make it easier for your attendees to achieve their goals.
That’s a Wrap: Post-Event Follow-Up
Your event’s not over when it’s over. Post-event follow-up should be a part of your planning timeline from day one. Depending on your business case, the follow-up after the event might even be the most critical component.
Strong follow-up after the event fosters customer loyalty and retention (for customer-facing events), builds your team atmosphere (for both internal and external corporate events), and it can translate directly to ROI by closing deals initiated during the event, or at least nurturing leads further down the sales pipeline.
So what should your follow-up plan include?
- Surveys: Ask attendees for their opinion on various aspects of your event, such as lodging and transportation, food, quality of the presentations, etc. You should also ask for their key takeways – what did they learn? What did they find most valuable?
- Social Media: Continue making social connections with vendors and attendees following the event. It’s a perfect ice-breaker, really: “It was great to meet you at the conference last week. Looking forward to connecting with you.”
- Content: No corporate event is complete without solid content follow-up. Whether you were live-blogging or live-tweeting the event as it happened, you should follow-up with a few blog posts highlighting major happenings, talks, workshops, or other specifics. For internal events, a writeup in the company newsletter is a must.
- Thank Yous: Don’t forget to thank your attendees, speakers, sponsors, and exhibitors. You can do this publicly through your post-event promotional efforts, but you’ll also score points by reaching out to VIPs personally to ask about their experiences and thank them for attending. Nothing beats the personal touch.
- Wrap-Up Reporting: Gather all the essential stats from the event and write a comprehensive wrap-up report to outline your goals, results, and lessons learned. You may write a wrap-up report for key stakeholders, for your sponsors, or for everyone involved in planning and executing the event. This report is another great place to thank VIPs and give kudos where it’s deserved. This exercise will serve you well when it’s time to write next year’s proposals!
The Ultimate Corporate Event Planning Checklist [DOWNLOAD]
If you’re getting ready to dive into the complex planning process for your next corporate event, download our comprehensive, interactive Corporate Event Planning Checklist. We’ll walk you step-by-step through all the essential tasks and considerations you need to cover to pull of your most successful event yet.
Obviously, planning a corporate event – whether it’s your first or 25th rodeo – is a major undertaking that requires exceptional organization and attention to detail. Following these steps and best practices will help you pull off an event that’s sure to impress.