How to Plan a Successful Business Event

How to Plan a Successful Business Event

Ten event veterans share tips for planning a business meeting, conference, or celebration.

The impending holiday season signals a wave of company parties and year-end receptions. It’s a good time to think about what businesses should do if they want to host a memorable, fun, or distinctive business event.

In every month of the year, businesses want to make a good impression on their customers and employees, but they often don’t have the in-house expertise that’s needed to pull off a great event.

Twin Cities Business consulted with event experts to get their insights about what goes into creating a successful business event. We asked them to suggest factors that affect the planning for a holiday party, a business reception, a corporate retreat, and a company celebration.

We sought the advice of event planners who can take care of multiple aspects of an event. We also asked experts within different fields to share their knowledge about audio-visual services,

entertainment, floral décor, table linens and chair covers, and trade show and exhibit services. Comments from the 10 event veterans have been edited for length and clarity. The experts shared some of their photos, which illustrate their best advice.

AV Services

EMI Audio, Robbinsdale
James Ehlenz, event coordinator

Best Advice: The first priority for any vendor is lead time. There are logistics involved that might surprise you, so connect as early as you can—preferably at least a month before the event. For AV specifically, I always prefer that if it’s a more involved setup (full audio, video, lighting) that the client hires our team to put everything together and also to be present at the event to control all of it as well as troubleshoot. Other duties pile up fast. It’s a lot less stressful for everyone if we are there. Don’t take AV for granted. It can make or break an event instantly.

Pitfalls to Avoid: Failure to prepare is preparing to fail. Allow sufficient lead time. Last-minute calls are stressful for everyone because we may not have staff availability or product inventory. Then one has to engage in a lot of back-and-forth discussions to try and compromise and make substitutions that still enable the event to be successful. We need to know who, what, when, where, why, and how before we can really be helpful. I also see many planners that have high expectations on a low budget. If you don’t have much of a budget, just be open about that fact. I’m happy to provide realistic options. If you do have a decent budget, then remember to prioritize. Many people need to consider: “Do I want to hear what the presenters are saying, or do I want 1,000 balloons?”

Business Celebration

Amy Zaroff Events + Design, Minneapolis
Amy Zaroff, creative director

Best Advice: Create an experience that aligns with your brand and company mission. Whether it be an internal event for your employees or a customer facing event, it should communicate the core values of your organization in a memorable and meaningful way. Understanding your audience is key to knowing what will work and not work for your guests. Sometimes the biggest bells and whistles have the least impact on a crowd. Dig deeper into the “why” of the event and then plan for that.

Pitfalls to Avoid: Avoid sending guests home intoxicated. Have options for transportation if guests have a little too much fun. Ride share companies have programs that allow businesses to pay for a portion of a ride to ensure that guests make it home safely. Avoid having to put the event garbage in your car. If hosting at a venue that does not regularly hold events, think about the plan for garbage. You may need to order an additional pickup or have it taken off-site. Avoid having to go on a scavenger hunt for important phone numbers the day of the event. Make sure to have the cell phone number of each vendor you are working with in one place. This will save valuable time hunting through emails if there are any issues that need to be resolved immediately.

Business Event Design

BeEvents, Minneapolis
Ryan Hanson, chief creative producer and designer

Best Advice: Start early and leverage experts, because events are deadline-driven activities. Often there are many stakeholders who want to give an opinion. We advise all of our clients to start early and be proactive. Establish a timing and action plan for getting decisions made and then make those decisions. Late decisions will be expensive.

It’s also important to share your budget with events staff. Some clients seem fearful to share their budgets. Often this is interpreted as: “If I share the budget with you, you’ll spend it all.” That is the opposite way to think about planning a business event. There is nothing worse than burning time and spending resources to contrive ideas for a client that they know they can’t afford. Likewise, it’s problematic to undershoot what is possible because the client convinced us their budget was smaller than it really is. The best way to set up your agency or vendor partners for success—which ultimately sets you and your event up for success—is to be honest with them. Share budget expectations or limitations so we can work our creative juices on effective and amazing solutions that fit your situation.

Pitfalls to Avoid: Know your “why,” because creating experiences comes with a lot of work. Know why you are doing a particular business event. Planners often will accept a theme that seems cool but is incongruent with the reason for the meeting or misaligned with what attendees or stakeholders want. A theme for theme’s sake isn’t enough. Knowing, understanding, and sharing why you’re holding the event enables your creative team to make meaningful experiences and memorable moments that guests will actually care about.

Regarding event logistics, let your partners be partners. There is power in being the planner. You are at the heart of the planning process and the person everyone is counting on to know what is happening. But being in this position can also choke the flow of information and prevent collaboration among the team and vendors tasked with executing the event. Great planners are really great managers. They communicate the objectives and, having set some boundaries, let their team of professionals do their job. They understand that they need to let their teams and their vendors do their jobs and, rather than put themselves at the center of the information, they bring the players to the table to collaborate together. For us, we take a 360-degree perspective on activating our events, even when we are not in charge of all parts and pieces. Knowing how all the players interact enables us to better make each of the pieces fit together into a smooth, consistent experience.

Business Reception

Event Lab, Eden Prairie
Becky Harris, vice president

Best Advice: When a company decides to host a business reception, there is an intention for the event. The first step is to determine the goals and expectations of the client, followed by setting a realistic budget for the size of group, location, food/beverage, entertainment, activities, and other event elements. Identify if there are stakeholder opinions that need to be considered and the best way to acknowledge their contributions. Using the budget wisely and creating value is always of foremost importance to a business client. Second to that is creating an atmosphere that promotes networking, appreciation, and building relationships.

Be creative with recognition through logo branding on furniture and bar fronts, use gobo lighting that creates distinctive shapes, and make unique verbal announcements. It is important to create a guest experience and not just another bland networking reception. Securing a great talent act, interactive stations, or eye-catching and unique room décor, such as comfortable furniture, is a great way to make a memorable experience for guests. Takeaway gifts—for example, a photo printout—are always fun.

Pitfalls to Avoid: One major pitfall in planning a business reception is spreading the budget too thinly. Focus on what is important and put the money there. If businesses do not entertain often, they may get hit with sticker shock. We are often asked to give them all our ideas and they will pick and choose from a menu of options. This is not only time-consuming, inefficient, and costly to the event professional, but it is also unrealistic for the professional to give away their creativity. Narrowing the goals and investment for an event helps achieve a successful, rewarding event.

Corporate Retreat

Grand View Lodge Resort, Nisswa
Cindy Baysinger, director of sales

Best Advice: A change of environment can offer a change in perspective, invite new ideas, and allow for the exploration of creativity. Retreats are investments in employees, who in turn will come away refreshed and feeling appreciated. To host a successful retreat, the planner needs to be intentional. What is the desired outcome of the event? Will it be formal, education-packed, or a casual brainstorming session? Will there be time for recreational activities that can bring a team closer together? Remember to allow some downtime away from the meeting room. It’s important and beneficial to give employees time to connect with others in the group.

Pitfalls to Avoid: The biggest pitfall we often see is an agenda packed so full the attendees have no time on their own and the meetings run consistently behind schedule. While it’s necessary to be productive and cover scheduled content, it’s also necessary to provide a refreshing and energizing retreat. The point of stepping out of the office is to actually step out of the office. Take advantage of amenities and activities, step outside one’s comfort zone, and plan something that a team will never forget.


G.L. Berg Entertainment, Minneapolis
Gary Berg, CEO and founder

Best Advice: The very best advice I can give to a business that is planning a major event is to keep it simple. Too often programs are over-produced and too long and don’t work nearly as well as ones that have a simple format that is virtually guaranteed to work. Keep things moving, up-tempo, and on schedule. Know your audience, your desired result of the event (hopefully to have fun), and your basic budget—and then contract entertainment that works for all three.

Pitfalls to Avoid: The biggest pitfalls that should be avoided in selecting entertainment include such things as pushing a “theme” into the entertainment too much. Most guests don’t really care what the theme is nearly as much as how enjoyable and comfortable the event is for them. In almost all cases, people will remember and judge their experience more on the caliber of the entertainment than anything else, including food, decorations, flowers, invitations, and other aspects of the event. Don’t have the entertainment be an afterthought. Always make sure it is professional, non-offensive, and really special and fun for your specific group.

Floral Decor

Bachman’s, Minneapolis
Caty Smits, special events designer

Best Advice: Flowers have seasons. Mother Nature, while amazing, grants Minnesota a whole lot of snow, and most blooms don’t enjoy living here in the cold. Choosing out-of-season florals easily means a budget increase across the board. Those blooms have to touch many, many hands and fly from the earth’s farthest reaches to arrive at a business event in Minnesota. Choosing seasonal florals that are available will help control costs, and that choice often leads to more spectacular blooms. When planning a business event, timing is everything. Early planning and communication among all vendors is key to throwing an event without a hitch. The earlier you book a venue, confirm linens, and create a menu, the earlier you can place an order for flowers.

Pitfalls to Avoid: Lighting matters. You can have the most beautiful event design in the world, but if you choose not to light it well, it can fall flat of fabulous. Lighting is key for the ambience of your event. It sets a mood, highlights a gorgeous design and major elements—a podium, cake, or performers—and adds a wow factor to a celebration.

Holiday Party

Saint Paul Hotel, St. Paul
Pete Zellmer, director of sales and marketing

Best Advice: First and foremost, do a questionnaire to see what people would like to see as the theme of the party. That advice would be followed by offering an option of holiday party dates and then go with the most frequently selected date. Pre- or post-holiday parties vary in attendance. Post-holiday parties on average have better attendance. Make sure there is enough food. Employees have the notion that this is a dinner, unless stated differently.

Pitfalls to Avoid: If you are going with a station or buffet, make sure there is enough food for the number of attendees. If it is plated, make sure you receive the individual selections well in advance. The best advice would be to go with a duet menu option—along with a vegetarian choice. Consumption of alcohol should be monitored, and decisions should be made well in advance about who will do the monitoring. Friday or Saturday is the best day to hold a holiday party.

Table Linens and Chair Covers

Linen Effects, Minneapolis
Don Jensen, president and owner

Best Advice: Table linens and chair covers, or the popular Chiavari chairs, are the most affordable and best way to transition an event space. You can quickly create a color story for branding or create a neutral canvas to work upon that will pop all the other décor ideas. Even the most glamorous place settings and gorgeous flowers or centerpieces can be overshadowed by the texture of a venue’s bulky chairs or busy carpets. We show clients how to quietly and gracefully overtake a space and make it their own.

Pitfalls to Avoid: A major pitfall for event planners is understanding the space and how to use it. For example, we get inquiries almost daily for ceiling drape. Often these requests are made for venues with ceilings that are too low. Ceiling drape is designed to make large spaces intimate, not to make already intimate spaces claustrophobic. In this type of case, we would recommend using a taller centerpiece to bring the tabletop up and to create a cozy event environment. Understanding the void space between a tabletop and ceiling is crucial in design.

Trade Show and Exhibit Services

CenterPoint Marketing, Woodbury
Heidi Clear, owner and chief marketing and strategy officer

Best Advice: It is important to begin and end experience design with the audience in mind. What is the context and mission of the meeting? Clearly defined goals can keep experience design and spending in line with the business purpose. For example, if one of the goals is to educate the audience about a new product or service, make sure human ambassadors actively solicit and reward learning. Displays can be utilities, but they don’t on their own motivate engagement. Make it fun and social.

Pitfalls to Avoid: There are many pitfalls, but they are defined by spending that does not achieve essential business objectives. Naturally clients will need smooth project management that reduces friction and waste, but good design against clear objectives can be clean and efficient. Too much “display” and too many messages waste money and distract an audience. Keep objectives simple and the solution will follow.