A major event--where your company hosts guests, customers, and/or employees--can be a powerful marketing tool. Among other marketing goals, an event can:

  • convince employees they work for an exciting firm;
  • prove to customers you're an innovative company;
  • win positive PR for a newly launched product;
  • shock and awe your competition;
  • signal a shift in corporate culture.

However, there are few marketing expenditures that are more perilous because, let's face it, you'll be spending a lot of money you can't afford to waste. Here are some guidelines to ensure your major event is a major success: 

Hire a professional planner.

I have attended numerous events that were planned by internal marketing groups (usually with the help of hotel staff), and they've invariably been dull affairs.

Designing and implementing a major event involves juggling a plethora of logistical details and requires long experience to handle the inevitable challenges. It's not for amateurs.

Just as high-end weddings need a professional wedding planner, high-end corporate events need a professional event planner.

Have a specific goal in mind.

While there's probably value in celebrating for the sake of it, if you want bang for your buck, you need to know what kind of bang you want. Just as with anything in business, if you don't have a destination, you don't know if you're going in the right direction.

For example, one of the best corporate events I ever attended was a Star Wars-themed party thrown by the huge CPA firm KPMG at the Bonaventure hotel in Los Angeles. In addition to a huge poster ranging the entire length of the venue, it had real robots mingling with the guests, and two incredibly hot rock bands.

Why the event? KPMG wanted to signal to its employees and the press that, far from being all about green eye-shades, KPMG was tuned into pop culture--an important attribute in a city where much of the accounting work involves the entertainment industry. They had a goal, and they achieved it.

Pick the right venue.

Venue selection is usually the first, and easily the most important, decision that needs to be made. Almost everything else -- the food, the entertainment, the decorations, etc. -- can be changed. Once you're committed to a venue, though, you're pretty much stuck, because if you try to change late in the game, chances are the other appropriate venues will already be booked. Challenges here include:

  • Too much space. If your event is surrounded by empty space or your attendees don't fill the space you've got, an event looks and feels like a failure. I once attended a 500- person event at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston. It was the only event there that day and was sandwiched away in the far corner of a huge area.
  • Too little space. Conversely, if you don't have enough space, an event can feel cramped and claustrophobic. (See below, though, about inviting enough guests.)
  • Too far from transportation. If it's a huge hassle to get to the venue or difficult to find parking when you get there, a good portion of your attendees may either decide to pass or simply give up at the last minute.
  • Too little setup time. Venues that run events back-to-back might not allow you sufficient time to set up for your event.

Don't penny pinch.

Any event is better than no event, right? Wrong, wrong, wrong. As with most things in business, it takes money to do the job right. A poorly planned or executed event tells the world your company is bad at planning and lousy at execution. A cheap or boring event tells the world that you're running out of money or out of ideas.

I once worked in a huge computer company that decided to scale down their annual user event -- the "schmooze the customer" sort of thing -- because they'd had a bad year. The customers who came immediately sensed the air of cost-saving desperation, which definitely did not help the company pull out of its tailspin.

It would have been better to simply cancel the event (and come up with a plausible reason) than throw a lackluster event that confirmed everyone's suspicions.

Invite enough guests.

While an overcrowded event isn't a good thing, it's a heck of a lot better than a poorly attended one. The last thing you want is for your guests to think nobody cared enough to attend. Aim for "critical mass," where there are slightly more guests than the venue might comfortably hold.

Keep speeches to a minimum.

Events are conferences. They're all about entertaining and showing off; they're not about communicating information. If you must say something, make it short and sweet -- a maximum of three points.

Remember the KPMG event I told you about? Guess how many speeches there were. Nada. The message was imbedded in the event itself.

Do something different.

When it comes to events, people have a good memory. If you repeat what you did last year, it tells people you were too lazy and unimaginative to come up with something new. You want to surprise and exceed people's expectations.

This does not mean, however, that you need to keep spending more money. But it does mean that if you did a sci-fi theme last year, you should be thinking about, say, a Bollywood theme this year.

8. Have a WOW moment.

Event crowds are hard to impress. Unless you come up with a WOW moment, your event will be quickly forgotten. More importantly, science has shown that only events that have this "WOW factor" actually build brand equity.

Since I can count on two fingers the number of times I've been truly wowed at a corporate event, I asked for some examples from Javier Velarde, executive producer for Triton Productions, a company that plans and executes high-end events for high tech and media firms. (Full disclosure: he's a former client.) 

Here are his suggestions:

  • A surprise keynote speaker. We recently had the Navy Seal who fired the shots that killed Osama Bin Laden.
  • A surprise performer. We had the rapper Pitbull perform at the after-party for a Turner Broadcasting event.
  • A military stunt. We've had F16s perform a flyover for a tennis tournament finals event. While this is sometimes done at football events, it had never been done for a tennis event.
  • A high-tech stunt.  We had a 3-D hologram of a CEO appear on stage. Similarly, for a Turner event, we had the top executive enter the stage by flying and rappelling over the audience.

Enjoy yourself.

One of the main reasons for doing a thorough job of planning and having a team that can execute the plan is that, on the day of the event, you're free to enjoy the party.