I am originally from Texas where I started my career as the Executive Director of a Non Profit. This is where I cut my teeth in learning about how to throw a fabulous party. Being that it was a not for profit I also had to learn how to be creative on a shoestring budget. After moving to Florida sixteen years ago I decided to change my direction. I had a successful event company in Dallas but sold it when I moved here. That is when the economy had just tanked so I knew I needed to learn the South Florida Market while maintaining an income which is where I got my first job as catering manager of the Hyatt Regency Pier Sixty Six. I worked for ten years going from Hyatt to the One Hotel where I was appointed my first Director Of Catering Position and then for Ritz Carlton Bal Harbour. It was then I decided to go back into business for myself with my former knowledge as an event planner and now the inside information of how hotels work. This education really benefits my clients because I know how to integrate the most tricky of decor into the guidelines of all five-star hotels.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve ever faced while planning an event and how did you overcome it?
Dealing with families can be a challenge. With wedding planning there comes a level of stress for the bride and groom. Not only are they trying to make their own dreams come true but also trying to keep families and friends happy. But families come in all shapes and sizes and include lots of emotional entanglements. So imagine that we are in the middle of planning when one side of the family gets involved with a lawsuit and the monies that were originally available are now completely gone. This creates trauma in a multitude of ways – emotionally for the bride and groom that feel abandon, the logistics of having a budget slashed in half, and how does this look to the other side of the family.
The first thing I did was to have a family meeting. I had the parents of both sides of the family come together with the bride and groom. I took control of the conversation by stating that life is messy and we are not always privy to the things that come at us. That this situation should not have any emotional value to it. Here is the new circumstance and what can we do to fix it without placing blame. You should never worry about Shoulda Coulda Woulda. I negotiated with the current hotel to release us from the contract that we were in, withholding only one of the deposits. I found a new off-site venue that was a city-owned plantation-style location. Imagine huge gardens, a stunning white two-story house with a courtyard fit for a king. Because it was city-owned I was able to get a $750 rental and we were allowed to bring outside caterers. I found a caterer that would work within our budget and changed the florals to be more appropriate with the location. We even changed the invitations by finding a local print shop that could give us the exact same product for a fraction of the cost.
Of course, none of this would have been possible if I didn’t have knowledge of multiple opportunities or if I had thrown my hands in the air. The wedding was stunning!! And because we were able to work within the budget no one felt stressed about trying to borrow money. The best part is that the lawsuit was settled and the family was able to give the couple a down payment on their new house.
What are 2 trends in the event planning industry that you’re excited about?
The idea of bucking trends all together! Couples these days are really about what they enjoy. It could be an unusual location or getting rid of the typical timeline where they go from the wedding right into the party, forgetting about the cocktail reception, introduction, and even the cake cutting. I have a couple that is integrating pieces of favorite things into the event. The groom loves Knob Creek Bourbon and Cigars, so we have a cask of Knob Creek being delivered to the hotel. We will use this, not only for the bar but also integrate it into the meal and the favors for the end of the night including a bourbon-infused cotton candy for the late-night party.
Other cool pieces include a close hand magician who is going to come to the ceremony so he can look like a guest and then at the cocktail party do his magic in small groups as if this was a guest’s hobby. I’ve got a bolder piece like a fire eater that will entertain guests during the cocktail reception and a fusion band for the dinner, all in the backdrop of the Biltmore Hotel.
What are some tips for creating an elegant and memorable event on a tight budget?
Do things that you like to do. Don’t get caught in the idea of what you think a wedding should be like based on what you see in magazines. Remember that no one knows what you didn’t do, they only know what you did do. And finally, your guests are there because they want to join in the celebration.
So if you are worried about creating a memorable night then base it on one of your favorite nights out with your friends. What were you doing, what was the conversation, where were you? Then build from there.
The best events are not due to an over the top floral design or the most exclusive location. It’s based on laughter and joy. The things that we have in common is that we are human, we are fallible, and we are all trying to do our best in this world. Giving your friends and family an opportunity to let go and have some fun is everything, and this can be done in your backyard, a random venue, or a traditional hotel. And finally, NEVER apologize for not being able to do more. If you feel that you need to apologize for a wedding celebration then you need to invite different people.
If you had unlimited resources, what would your dream client and event look like?
This to me is a trick question. 🙂 My clients that have unlimited resources have much different worries so the stress is different. My clients are actually my dream clients and figuring out how to make their perfect day come true is everything to me. I didn’t get into this business because it was a way to make money or because it came with a status. I do this because I love everything that is involved with planning an event.
So unlimited resources … eh … Dream Client – anyone that is wanting to share their joy with their friends and family.
How important are your relationships with vendors and what are some ways that you successfully cultivate and ensure good rapport?
Having great partnerships are everything! The first thing I do is be upfront about everything. I don’t take kickbacks from my vendors so whatever price they give me is the price that I give my clients. Depending on the event there may be a 10% design charge but that is upfront and paid to me by the client who usually makes up for it from discounts that my vendors would typically give me.
I ensure great communication. This also means I don’t overshare. Being the planner it is my job to disseminate information that is appropriate for each vendor. Most likely the cake vendor does not need to know what the band or photographer is up to. I also keep my emails to the point. We are all busy so when my name pops up in the email box my vendor knows it’s going to be a quick read.
What advice would you give someone who needs to plan a fundraiser but isn’t sure where to start?
Being a previous Executive Director of a nonprofit I know this personally! Start with previous supporters and a blank slate. Some of my best events have come out of allowing myself to be open to possibilities. A perfect example is a recent fundraiser that I did at IKEA. I was watching the unconventional materials challenge of Project Runway and I thought how cool would that be if I were able to do that as a competition for event professionals. From there I thought about materials that would be needed for that type of event. The basics like tables and chairs but also florals, plates, fabrics, etc. Where could I find all of these things in one place? Malls, craft stores, decor companies. Once I came up with a list I started just talking about it with some of my friends who came up with even more options than I ever thought possible. Finally, it came down to just calling and asking. Remember the worst thing anyone can say is no but they can’t say anything until you ask.
What’s the most exciting thing on the horizon for you personally or professionally?
The next event! Actually my current business is about to head into its third official year. I decided to invest in a PR firm who hopefully will take over the website and social media. It’s a lot to try and handle all of the pieces and parts. I want to focus on my clients because almost all of my business comes from referrals.
What inspired you to launch your own company in the event industry? How long did it take from initially having the idea of setting up and starting to attract a client base?
I wanted to be able to do events in multiple places for multiple people. I could work for an event company, which I did at one point, but I still had to answer to someone. This latest concept started in 2010 where I wanted to provide full-service planning, Concept to Completion. Most people have never planned an event and most of the time people would come to me without any idea of how much things cost or what should be done next. Keith Willard Events would take the event starting with a conversation with the client. Who, what, when, where…. the basics and based on these simple elements start laying out three or four choices. Keep it simple and easy. With every decision from the client came a set of three or four more choices until finally a full event was created. When it came down to it, I created the company and started booking business within three months but it was my twenty years of contacts and relationships that allowed me to make the jump.
What’s the first event you can ever remember planning and how did it go?
I did an event called Welcome To The Wild Side, a gala/party. That was a huge learning curve because it was the first event that I had done that was on the larger side, at an offsite venue, where I needed to think about liquor and food issues while also thinking about traffic, security, and restrooms.
It was a hugely successful event but only because I had a dedicated group of committee members that were able to think quickly on their feet. You have no room for egos when planning an event
What are some things you wished you knew before starting your businesses?
Wow – – Marketing. You only can learn about what will work for you by trying. I did a whole series of ads for golf courses in the area that gave me zero return on investment. Some websites aren’t worth it for referrals but are worth it when it comes to coverage and social media.
Business Cards – This is your best piece of marketing and it needs to be fabulous. My first business card I thought was amazing until I saw someone else’s and realized I needed a change!
Ask for opinions and take your ego out of it. Getting constructive feedback is everything but if you worked endlessly on it and it’s not well received it could give you a sting. Suck it up and change!
What’s the most surprising or unusual request you have ever received from a client and were you able to fulfill it?
Hiring John Mellencamp for a fortieth birthday. This was twenty years ago and I was so new to the industry. No idea of how to do it but I said: “Of Course!” Luckily this client had the budget to go with such a request but when it came down to all the pieces – stage, sound, lighting, equipment, transportation, on and on and on. On top of that, comes the rider! The rider is the list of items that the celebrity insists on having as part of their contract… like oranges and bottled water. But it can get as crazy as a specific sized suite with very specific art/furniture. Luckily his was only a page but I have seen MUCH worse since then. 🙂
Anything else you’d like to comment on while we have you?
Be you. I say this all of the time – I am a great fit for a lot of people but not for everyone. The hardest thing to say in business is no because you want to please and you want the contract. But there are times when you know deep down that this is not going to be a good relationship. For these rare moments, it’s better to say that you are already booked and walk away.
Also, love what you do. I am lucky enough to have a group of event planners as friends who all still get very excited when we start brainstorming for an upcoming event. Be nice. There is so much business in South Florida that there is no reason to ever have to steal business from anyone else, and if someone is nasty to you then you should defend yourself but don’t fall into the trap of saying nasty things back. It’s an easy trap and one that I have fallen into but at the end of the day you both come out not looking so great so take the high road.