I recently had lunch with my mentor, an old-school wedding planner who expanded her agency beyond weddings to plan some of the most notable national events held in Florida in the 90s. She is a true planning pioneer who, for all practical purposes, invented planning and introduced the world to the face-to-face marketing potential of national association meetings, product launches, and $1,000/plate nonprofit fund raisers. She’s a little old lady now and, as I watched her eat in silence, I began to wonder how this quiet, tidy, little lady grew to be one of the biggest event planners in the country at the end of the 20th century. Here’s a few minutes of the conversation that ensued. What wisdom!
ME: Sally, how did you get started as a meeting planner? I mean, there wasn’t any such thing when you started your agency, was there?
SALLY: My college roommate was getting married in 1968, and she was completely undone about it. She was so excited that she couldn’t even set a date after her fiancé told her to pick any date she wanted. I was so excited for her that I began to help her pick the date and the venue and the band and the caterer and the florist and even the clergyman. What started as two best friends screeching at one another turned into a six-month avocation. I did nothing else. I was working at an insurance agency as a secretary and every day at 5:00 I’d shift gears and work into the night on Joan’s wedding. Well, it went well. Everything went off without a hitch, and at the reception Joan’s cousin asked me if I would help her plan her impending nuptials. One thing led to another and before you know it I started working from my apartment planning weddings full-time.
ME: What was it about that first wedding that made you think you might want to do this for a living?
SALLY: The thing I loved about that first experience was that it was personal. I really loved Joan and really cared about her wedding. I never had that feeling in the insurance office. I thought…Wow…I really love doing this for people I care about. This isn’t work. This is fun. This is personal. And I was so gratified at Joan’s wedding when everything went so well, and she was so pleased that I realized I needed to do something I really cared about for people I cared about. I kept that personal commitment throughout my entire career, even after I started working for big corporations. I made sure I really cared about a client before I would take a commission. I recommend that “personal attachment” to every planner of every event. You won’t care about your work if you have no personal attachment to your clients… and it will show. You won’t be happy in your job and your clients won’t be happy with your performance. That “real caring” is the magic sauce for event planners. That’s what separates the greats from the run-of-the-mill.
ME: How did you go from planning weddings for friends alone in your apartment to planning big corporate events?
SALLY: Well, I began to get a reputation as someone who could handle all the details and knew all the local vendors. So, the first skill I had before I even realized it was that I was learning my way around venues and caterers and bands and florists. I could put a good team together to pull off an event. That’s still the main skill I recommend new planners develop. A great planner is only as good as the team he or she can pull together.
ME: How did you transition from being a wedding planner to a corporate event planner? I mean, what made you think you could do big events? Is it the same skill set in your opinion?
SALLY: Aside from really caring about your client and having a personal relationship with them, I think that big corporate event planners need two other skills that I think came naturally to me. The first is fanatical attention to detail. I might be OCD for all I know.
ME: Oh, you are. Take it from me.
SALLY: Well, I’m glad of it. As the size and complexity of events grew, on one level I never even noticed. Each event was its own story, and I would handle every detail as they came up. It never occurred to me to consider the amount of detail. Every detail got the same amount of my attention. That frame of mind is a must for a big event planner. No stone goes unturned. It’s just natural to people like me.
TUNE IN NEXT WEEK
I will publish a little more of my interview with Sally next week. The more we talked the more I realized that Sally was a legendary event planner not because of what she did but because of who she was. Next week she explains how we can all rise above run-of-the-mill, as she calls it.