Event planning advice is widely available online. But how often do you hear it directly from someone with over 30 years of experience?
It’s hard to think of a more fast-paced, exciting industry than event planning. Whether you’re planning your twentieth wedding of the summer or working a corporate gig, the adrenaline is flowing. You’re in the zone. You’re working flat out to deliver an unforgettable experience to your client. And while it’s amazing to see so many young, fresh-faced planners pop up in the industry, it’s beneficial to network with experienced event planners. There is much to learn from their years of insight and experience.
Kimberly Hicks, who hails from Southern Oregon, is the President and Owner of RSVP Event Group, a full-service event production company specializing in large-scale events and weddings. She’s been in the industry for over 30 years and kindly agreed to share her event planning advice with me. Kimberly shared her experience and the changes she’s seen in the industry in those three decades.
In the above image is Cari Powell, VP & Director of Events, on the left; Kimberly Hicks, President & Owner in the center, and Courtney Butterfield, Special Events Coordinator, on the right.
Starting Young As An Event Planner
Kimberly says that she had a very unusual introduction to the event planning world, starting when she was in high school. “I was 16-years-old at the time and on a cheerleading team with eight other girls. We planned all the events for our high school – the pep assemblies, the dances, the proms, even the graduations. I worked with local hotels, caterers, and DJs. It was a total blast for me. It was just so fun, and it became a way of life for me, even at that young age.”
Kimberly went on to study at Arizona State University, where she got her Bachelor’s degree in Organizational Communication. And where she was part of an active sorority that planned a lot of events. “After that, as friends started getting married, I started planning all of their weddings. For years, everyone told me that I should really be a wedding planner, but I thought it sounded horrible! I had this negative idea in my head about working with difficult brides and their demanding mothers. I just couldn’t imagine it would be very enjoyable,” she remembers. “So when I first graduated college, I ended up getting a very serious corporate job which was very lucrative. I enjoyed the people I worked with, but in the end, I felt completely unsatisfied and very bored.”
This boredom and lack of satisfaction in her professional life led Kimberly to start planning events in her spare time. “Then, when I met my husband, he told me I really needed to start my own business and be an event planner. So with his encouragement, I went into business for myself, and it just took off!”
Planning Large Scale Events
Though Kimberly tells me she absolutely loves planning weddings and working with brides and their families, contrary to her initial reluctance to do so. But wedding planning has actually become secondary to what her team usually does. “What we ended up enjoying most was working large-scale, multi-day events where we’re on-site for a week or two. Most of our work comes from hospitals, universities, shopping malls, chambers of commerce – big, corporate events where they’re raising millions of dollars and have thousands of people attending.”
The best part about working such huge events, according to Kimberly, is getting to transform a space day after day to make it fresh and exciting for the duration of the event.
“We’re staging 24 hours a day. The event will be running during the day and into the evening. Then overnight, we will transform the whole space into a completely different event for the next day. For example, one day, we might do an awards show, then tear it all down, and the next day have wineries come in and have a wine tasting. That night we’ll tear that down and then the next day have a seated dinner with a live auction.”
“You get so many different experiences all in one week, and it’s entirely exhausting, but those are the things that I love to do. Every day, people will come back and have an entirely different experience. When we ask people what their favorite event was, they just can’t decide because they’re all really cool experiences.”
Reflect On What Needs To Change
Many of the events Kimberly plans every year are ones that she does on an annual basis. “The longest-running event we did was 18 years, and it was very large-scale. We had about 20,000 people that would attend every year. It was a Christmas event, and we’d decorate these really elaborate Christmas trees and auction them off. It was all for charity, for the local hospital.”
“That event was really fun because there were a lot of different things happening and so much variety. It was nice because we could look back and see what went right with marketing and what we needed to change for decor, for the sound, to make the auction better and improve upon those things,” she explains. “I like being able to repeat things. Unlike with a wedding, where you have just one day and you’d better get it right, with a corporate event, you can improve upon it each year.”
“You can reflect on what you need to change, so we improve over the years and grow the event. Then it becomes really fun because you see what is working out. That’s what we’ve really enjoyed. Often it’s fine-tuning the timelines to make the event run more smoothly from year to year.”
Always Have Contingency Plans
Kimberly told me that the bigger and more complex an event is, the more the small details actually matter. “It’s what refines your event. It’s what makes all the difference. There are always things you can’t control. One year we had an eclipse, and we were bringing in luxury restrooms from Canada. The driver took 18 hours to arrive, and he got stuck in traffic because of the eclipse. After that, we built our own. We decided we weren’t renting those anymore,” Kimberly remembers.
“There’s a lot of things you can’t control, and so the more we can fine-tune things, the better. But you must plan as well as you can and have contingency plans ready to roll out as situations arise.”
Build Trust With Your Clients
One of the things that has been integral to Kimberly’s success is the level of trust she has with her clients. “We let the client deal with the money and the RSVPs. We let them deal with sending out all the tax letters and doing all of the follow-ups. I want to be able to tell them that the information they give me is confidential, and I won’t share it with anyone else. I tell them to keep all of that in their computers, and we’ll do the planning, the spreadsheets, develop the schematics, and the managing of the vendors on our computers,” she tells me. “The clients don’t want us sharing their confidential donor information with a competitor, so we set up systems to protect that.”
Delegate To The Right People
Another hugely important aspect of running a successful event planning company is communication with clients and co-workers. Kimberly says it’s something that can seem overwhelming at times, It’s a problem she deals with through delegation.
“We’ll assign different planners to oversee different components of the event. For the charity events, we’ll have a volunteer coordinator, or two or three, and they’ll work specifically with the hundreds of volunteers. We have checklists of tasks that need to be done, detailed spreadsheets of the volunteer positions, what needs to be done, and the heavy lifting involved.”
“We try to make sure the volunteer jobs are simple and enjoyable for people. Then we bring in the hired labor to do the heavy lifting, and we pay for that because we don’t want our volunteers breaking their backs. We want the volunteers to have a good time and then return again next year. We’ll have people specifically communicating with the volunteers. Then I’ll have someone else that deals specifically with the culinary team. Sometimes I’ll have up to 30 chefs in one evening for one event.”
Split Up Responsibilities And Trust The Experts
Kimberly’s Director of Events oversees all of the heavy lifting and labor. Simultaneously, Kimberly deals with the vendors, going out of her way to make their jobs as easy as possible without micromanaging them. And her event planning advice is to trust the people you work with.
“When I bring in a vendor, I’ll tell them what we want, what our budget is, and what my ideas are, but then I’ll ask them what they suggest we do. I try to collaborate with them as much as possible and rely on their expertise, not tell them the way I want it done,” Kimberly notes.
“I tell them the end goal, but then I’m happy for them to do it however they want to do it in a way that works for them. I try to let them have as much autonomy and creative control over their area as possible. I feel like if you’re going to hire a vendor, you need to realize that they’re the expert on the specific task that you’ve hired them to do.”
Use Hacks To Be More Efficient
Kimberley also had some interesting hacks that sound like they’d also be a lot of fun to work with. “During the event, we have radio headsets that we use. I’ll have several people on those. We also use Segways during the event. That’s the best part of our job. You’ve got to have fun because it’s stinking hard work!”
“So if we’re in the ballroom, we can’t have a segway inside, but when we’re out on a field and our tent is over 30,000 square feet, and we need to move fast, we rip around on our Segways while we’re setting up. Then once the event starts, we go park them around back, put on our high heels, and get started.”
Excellence In Communication
While discussing ways to make events run smoothly, Kimberly is quick to credit her VP & Director of Events, Cari Lynn Powell, whose Master’s degree in Applied Psychology helps her be an excellent communicator.
“Cari is extremely organized, and she communicates really well with people. When we first started working together, she told me it would be perfect because we could do the ‘good cop, bad cop’ routine. She said, ‘You’re always so nice to people,’ but she pointed out to me that I can actually say ‘no’ with grace. She is very direct with people when it comes to telling them to redo something if it’s not up to our standards, and she’s also very good with time management. She gives clear and concise directions to others and keeps people accountable and on time with deadlines.”
“We have different roles, so it allows me to go deal with the big overarching planning directly with the client and collaboration with the vendors. We make a good team.”
Event Planning Advice On Handling Curveballs and Stress
With such high-profile, multi-faceted events to plan, I was curious to find out how Kimberly deals with unforeseen circumstances. After preparing and planning as much as she can, she says it’s all about the attitude.
“Cari always says that we don’t know how to fail. And we don’t. Failure is not an option. We’ll just figure out whatever needs to be figured out. Last year we did a big wine event for a client, which was 12 days long, and we had to change it so that it was 45 events in seven days. We had to do it virtually this year, so our tent went from 30,000 square feet to 100 square feet. It was just this beautifully decorated, small tent where cars would pull up, and we’d hand them wine and elaborate gift baskets to take home. Then they drove home and watched everything online.”
Advice On Muddling Through COVID As An Event Professional
Kimberly says the COVID-19 pandemic has produced unique – but not insurmountable – challenges for event planners. “The pandemic has been very challenging for pivoting and shifting. Like my husband says, we’re building the plane as we’re flying it. We just have to muddle through it and do the best we can.”
And Don’t Forget About Self-Care
Kimberly also says that the secret to her successfully dealing with COVID-19 changes and other upheaval is to take time to take care of herself. Working up to 19 hours a day for two weeks straight, doing 45 events in seven days, can take a lot out of even a person as energetic as Kimberly.
“I need to have a daily quiet time. Every morning when I wake up between 4 and 5 a.m., no one else in my household is around and awake, so it’s my quiet time where I can pray and meditate and just get my act together. I think through things. I look at my calendar, at my work and family responsibilities. I’m a wife and mother, and I have aging parents in their 80s, so there’s a lot to juggle currently.”
“My husband has a very public job, so I have the responsibility to accompany him to events, meetings, conferences and work travel, and I need to also be a support for him. I just need a little bit of time to myself in the morning to sit down with a cup of tea and just be quiet for a little bit. That helps a lot if I start my day that way,” Kimberly confides.
“And then the other thing is exercise, because that just helps the process the stress in a healthy way. I think through situations a lot when I’m exercising. I go out and run in the morning, usually before the sun comes up, and that helps me just burn off the cortisol that’s coursing through my veins and process what is next on my plate.”
Keep Purpose In Mind
But the most important event planning advice to avoid being burnt out, Kimberly says, is to keep in mind her purpose.
“Every morning, when I wake up, I know exactly what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. I absolutely love planning events. I love planning parties, but I also consider it an honor to be invited by a family to help plan a wedding and be part of someone’s most special moment in their life.”
“I can go in and remove the stress and worry from them. Let’s say I’ve got a corporate client and they have all their normal job responsibilities. Then they’re told they also need to raise a million dollars this year. Those are vastly different skill sets, so they call us and ask me if we can pull it off, and we tell them that of course, we can, and we’ll even make it fun, and take the stress out of it,” she enthuses.
“I gain a lot of satisfaction out of being able to provide that service to my clients, so they can relax and focus on their job while we make their event happen. We try to come in with fresh energy and have fun while we’re working and have a great time with the client and pull off a successful event.”
Event Planning Advice For The Next Generation Of Event Planners
I asked Kimberly if she had any advice to share with young event planners. She advises them to follow her motto: have integrity in your work and how you run your business and always do what’s best for your client.
“I always tell my brides that my job is not to get them to spend more money because that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll have a better time. My job is to get them the best deals. I’ll go to a vendor, and I’ll tell them to stop nickel and diming my client. I’m an advocate for them, and I try to get them the best deals I can. I’ll look for where I can cut money here and there while keeping the integrity of the event. I can find less expensive ways of doing the same thing. I pass those cost-savings along to my clients, and I feel like I’ve gained a lot of trust with people over the years. They know that I’m not going to gouge them.”
Kimberly also advises event planners to be honest and accountable with their clients. “Do what you say you’re going to do. Return phone calls, show up. Decisions are made by people that show up. Under-promise but over-deliver. Have excellence in what you do. And if all you do is return people’s phone calls and emails and respond to people and do what you say you’re going to do, that goes a long way.”
As far as event planning advice to people just starting out in the industry, Kimberly says it’s essential to get as much experience in your field as you can.
“I feel a business degree is the most practical background to have because a lot of times you’re running your own business anyway. Having accounting, marketing, or advertising knowledge is also extremely useful. We often find ourselves writing press releases, developing advertising campaigns, or designing ads with graphic artists, and having knowledge in those areas is helpful.”
“Build a network, get involved in your local business community. And while you’re in school, try to get hired on a banquet staff with a caterer or at a hotel or resort. It’s super helpful to have that in your background because then you can understand the timing of things and what is possible and what is not. When you’re trying to stage an event and feed 350 people and get a seven-course meal out in time, it’s really helpful to know how food plays into that. And if you can gain work experience in event or floral design, that’s very helpful as well. You could even work for a DJ, doing lighting or sound.”
Take On Some Charity Work
Kimberly’s event planning advice is work with a charity to gain even more valuable event planning experience. “Something that I did in college was get involved, through my sorority, with volunteering for different organizations like the Make-a-Wish Foundation. They’d set up these gorgeous ballrooms with elaborate displays and silent auctions, and my sorority would come in and help them decorate and put it all together. I got to see the scope of these big events and found it inspiring. I never really dreamed that I’d go into that and do that as a career, but it gave me exposure to how these things work,” she reminisces.
“I recommend that people find an organization that they’re passionate about and find out if they have a fundraiser during the year that you can go and volunteer on. That way, you’re networking with people in your community, meeting other business leaders, meeting people that will have things in common with you. You’ll be raising money for something you care about and learning how an event gets put together.”
Whether you’re just starting out in the industry or you’ve been in it as long as Kimberly, I’m confident that hearing event planning advice from such a seasoned professional with an exceptional standard of excellence will help event planners to be the best they can be. That’s a legacy Kimberly and her team can be proud of.