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Yes, Your Event Can Work With That Timeline: Here’s How

February 17, 2022

For years, planning timelines for annual events were 364 days long. As soon as this year’s event ended, the event planner could let everyone begin working on next year’s event. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken timelines and sliced them by 1/3rd. Decision-makers are making decisions later and later. Your efforts to prioritize safety by making decisions based on the most up-to-date, latest-information comes at the cost of everything being paused until the leader says go. And “go” is not for the same traditional in-person event, it’s more likely a green light for a virtual or hybrid event. 

How do you stay calm when you have 1/3rd of the time? What about when the pivot from in-person to hybrid means you have 3x the work to do? Let’s talk about getting 3x the work done in 1/3rd the time.

Advance Preparation Is Your Best Guard Against Rushed, Poor Event Planning

“When the time to perform has arrived, the time to prepare has passed.” (Vidmar) “if you fail to plan, you plan to fail.” (Franklin) Just like planning an event on a compressed timeline squeezes months of progress into weeks (or sometimes days), this article compresses years of experience into. 

Summer bodies are made in the winter. Use your offseason to prepare your mind with wisdom to stay calm. If you’re reading this in the heat of a compressed timeline yourself, immediately begin fleshing out your checklist with observations noted on the fly from the words below.

What Do You Do If You Weren’t Able to Plan Ahead and Time is Tight?

FIRST THINGS FIRST

Covey coined this phrase and it’s worth repeating. Some big questions just have to be answered before most things can occur, like, when and where is the event? Everyone’s availability, your resources, everything pivots around this. 

BIG ROCKS IN THE JAR

It’s beginning to show its age, but there’s a great visual demonstration of what happens when you don’t put the big rocks in the jar before the sand. When it comes to events, deciding rough headcount, in-person versus virtual, or better, hybrid, these decisions have to be made. And remember, leadership does not have to be tied to a title. No matter your level of authority, you can make recommendations. 

LONGEST LEAD TIME

Before the pandemic, the supply chain was something out of sight and out of mind. Products were just available on shelves, overnight shipping actually happened overnight, etc. In the new reality, if something’s going to take three weeks to get printed or sourced or shipped, start there. 

ACTION IN THE ABSENCE OF ABSOLUTES

Lastly, nothing above has to hinge on absolutes, unless you allow it. It can be natural to fall into a victim’s mentality of needing someone to save us. Thoughts like, “If only this leader would get back with me I could get to work on XYZ,” are natural to creep in. You can do this. You’ve made a lot of executive decisions “backstage” before weighing the odds, deciding about forgiveness vs permission, and with reasonable practicality, taking action in the absence of absolutes. It may sound absurd until you consider the alternative, which is failing the overall mission of not having an event at all. 

Recognize Which Elements of Event Planning You Can Not Control

PLAN B vs LET IT GO

Some variables are just out of your control. These are things that need to be listed, thought over, and then ultimately decided on whether to make a Plan B or to just let go. Don’t be blindsided when these things pop up halfway through your tight timeline. Give them thought early on and either have alternatives or let them roll off your back. An example would be if a presenter gets sick. Audiences can get sick, vendors can get sick, but with presenters, the show must go on. So, decide early which presenters you need a Plan B substitute alternative for to still cover the content, or, which presenters can’t be replaced so you know which ones you’d just have to let it go. Does the State of the Union address get done by the vice president if the President is sick, or, does the nation need that news on that date so they accept the Vice President stepping in?

EYES ON THE PRIZE

Speaking of letting go, you aren’t going to be able to hold onto everything. It’s just not practical, or healthy, and your people need you healthy for the big day. Some details, like perhaps the exact color of the balloons for an in-person or the font of the invite for a virtual, you might just have to let go. Otherwise, you risk taking your eye off the prize. You have to define and get alignment from leadership on what the prize is, and in some cases that might mean exact colors or serifs. But in most cases, the main thing is keeping the main thing — the main thing

PLAN FOR SNOWPLOWS

What could snowplow your entire planning timeline? “Snowplow” means, push, postpone or delay, piling up things. 

For example, you may have your creative team draft up a logo and send it to your leader’s desk. If they don’t respond within 24hrs, every step downstream (RSVP design, any print, on-screen graphics) begins to pile up. Your vendors who had 72hrs to turn around their iterations of that logo now have 48hrs. Plan for these snowplows and set expectations with the highest urgency only where needed, or risk being the boy who cried wolf. Build trust with your leadership that you need certain things quickly, otherwise the snowplow alternative comes into play. 

WATCH FOR WRECKING BALLS

Snowplows you can plan for, wrecking balls you cannot. You can’t have a plan for everything but you need to keep an eye out. If you’re planning an in-person event and some national news shifts traveler’s ability to come and go, that’s a wrecking ball. Moments like these are when Hybrid Events are the best. Being able to flip between 90% in-person and 10% online to vice versa is really helpful for wrecking ball situations. The same goes for date changes and postponing. It’s much simpler to adjust travel coordination for a small group of in-person live studio audience members than it is for the entire meeting’s attendance registration list to get rebooked on flights. 

Make Sure you Set Stakeholder Expectations for Your Event

GET THE RIGHT PEOPLE TO THE TABLE

Decisions can’t be made without decision-makers. Battles can’t be won without troops. Even the wedding couple has bridesmaids and groomsmen. You need a squad! When your planning timeline gets compressed, assemble the team you need at your table. This is half made up of decision-makers, leaders, and internal teammates, but it’s also made up of vendors, expert consultants, and craftsmen. From the smallest role to the largest, get these people to the table so you can discuss everything listed above. Everyone may not get a chance to speak (or you’d be at that table/Zoom meeting all day) but everyone deserves a chance to be included in hearing the decisions. 

GET ON PEOPLE’S CALENDARS

What’s the first thing you ask when someone inquires about you planning an event for them? “What’s the date?” The best professionals in the world can’t help you if they’re not available. Get on people’s calendars, early, and often. Don’t allow yourself to spiral out of control with every meeting becoming a fire drill. Set an early, middle, and late overall meeting during your 3 days, 3 weeks, or 3 months of planning. Get that on their calendars. Establish now that you need to place holds on presenter calendars for the day before dress rehearsal, the week before offline rehearsal,  or the month before content reviews. Don’t be caught by surprise when you get declines the day before if you haven’t sent calendar invite planner requests further than the week before. 

COMMUNICATE

How will they know if someone doesn’t tell them? Don’t make the mistake of doing all this work behind the scenes only to realize that attendees have been left in the dark. Make sure you are communicating not just with your internal leadership stakeholders and external vendors, but most importantly, with the audience that you’re doing all of this work for in the first place. Do they know what to expect? Are you inspiring them by getting their wheels turning, thinking about the biggest day of the year? 

Planning ahead is the Key to Staying Calm

The event industry is full of incredible stories of crews overcoming the unfathomable in the name of, “the show must go on.” Friday afternoon last-minute phone calls for Monday overnight load-ins over a holiday weekend isn’t anything new. 

In our industry, there is a universal appreciation for those who can stay calm under pressure. “Slow is smooth, smooth is fast,” as the special ops forces say. 

Hopefully, these concepts have inspired more checklists for you. When time is ticking, nothing can be done to gain more of it, but strategizing and taking action on checklist items can help bring peace to your future self. Don’t wait until tomorrow to do what could be done today. 

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