I’m an “outgoing introvert”. I may be ok with not being around or talking to people, but my long list of interests and hobbies make me attend a lot of events. And no, these aren’t your usual concerts or sporting events that are linked to extroverted people; they’re such a crazy mix of events that the term “event” is the only word I could use to properly classify them — meetups (sports/discussion/etc), conferences, exhibits, showings, seminars, volunteer drives… the list goes on.
I’ve spent over a decade in participating in these events, and I’ve taken up all of the roles (attendee, volunteer, guest, organizer, sponsor, etc). I can tell the chances of the event succeeding or failing within a few minutes of wandering around the venue.
And this brings us to the point of this post. I’ve noticed that event organizers tend to make the following mistakes that bring down the overall quality of their events. If it’s your first few events, it’s understandable, but I’ve seen some organizers still make the same mistakes on their 5th and later ones. (And that makes me sad.)
At the top of my list are organizers who can’t decide their role in the event.
Organizers have two options when holding an event: (a) they can handle everything on their own, calling on external volunteers to help with the event, or (b) they can choose to hire an event planner and let them handle all of the dirty work. The problem arises when they choose the former (because it’s cheaper) while acting like they’re going with the latter.
In short, those events where the “organizers” are just mingling with the guests and attendees while the volunteers are running around like headless chickens.
We’ll get into the implications of this mistake further down this post. But first, let’s talk about the mistakes done before the event itself.
The biggest mistake that you could make in the conceptual portion of the event is not knowing your ultimate goal for the event. And no, you can’t just make an event “just for the heck of it”.
Are you in it for the money? Then focus on getting more ticket sales and sponsors while lowering your overhead.
Are you in it for the publicity? Then focus on making the event news-worthy and something that would be talked about weeks before and after the event.
There are many other reasons why you should hold an event, but unfortunately many events feel like the organizer didn’t even take an hour or two to decide what to prioritize in the event. In the best case, the event merely feels off, with sub-events and booths that seem out of place in the event hall; in the worst case, you cancel the event due to lack of funds or public interest in it.
Another obvious mistake is not having a lead time for advertising and building up hype.
The lead time for marketing can depend on your event. Sure you can go with zero lead time with events like “Invite-only Fireside Chat with Bill Gates/Mark Zuckerberg/Elon Musk/Jeff Bezos”, but for the vast majority of events you need at least a month for marketing with at least a couple of weeks non-marketing prep before that.
Also, choose the proper medium for publicizing your event. For example, in-campus posters are adequate for school events. If the target audience includes other schools, send invites to the appropriate club or department in those schools. As an extreme example, advertising on the radio and on TV would be inappropriate for simple school events.
One quick note about marketing: Facebook Pages (i.e. “like us on FB”) are iffy nowadays due to the constant changes done to it. Before it was the standard until they limited how page posts show up on individual feeds. As I write this, they’re making some other changes that may or may not make your page more visible. Long story short, it’s ok to use FB pages, but don’t make it your sole marketing tool.
This one looks obvious and yet it’s a lot more common that it should be: not knowing what to expect in the event.
One extreme case is failing to visit the event venue beforehand and perform an ocular inspection. Does the venue have enough space for the event? How big is the stage? Are there accessible power outlets for the booths? Where should we put the registration table? If you don’t actually visit the place or even just get a copy of the floor plan, how can you expect the venue setup to flow smoothly?
Similarly, take note of the attendees and the event itself. An inter-club martial arts sports meet will not need wifi and electrical outlets (except maybe for the electric fans), while not having both in a programming workshop can be disastrous.
On to the actual event itself, the most obvious mistake is the first one the attendees see: an inefficient registration booth.
A good registration booth is one that you don’t notice. You show up, show your ticket, sign a piece of paper, get your swag, and then go inside the venue, all done in less than 30 seconds.
A problematic (but acceptable) registration booth is one that does all of that in the same span of time but has a long line. A bad one not only has a long line, but also takes a lot more time (and steps) just to process your registration.
First impressions last. Having an inefficient registration booth will affect how many of your attendees perceive your event. Hope that none of them go to their social networks and complain about it, and plead to whatever deity that you process almost all of the attendees before the event starts.
Fortunately, there are a lot of ways to make registration easier. Sites like Eventbrite allow your attendees to register and pay in advance. Splitting the line alphabetically (e.g. line 1 A-C, line 2 D-F, etc) and having separate print-outs / workstations containing the registration list will speed things up. Moving the freebie station away from the main registration booth can also unclog the latter, though having more than one freebie station (e.g. 1 for t-shirts, 1 for stickers, etc) may slow things down rather than the opposite.
Beyond the registration, not taking care of everyone involved is the next most common pitfall done by novice organizers.
And no, I don’t mean you should try to please every attendee, as that is impossible. What I mean here is that some organizers forget that an event is more than just themselves and attendees – there are sponsors, guests, booths handlers, volunteers, and so on. Not paying attention to the needs of these other participants can lead to problems down the line. You obviously don’t want to piss off sponsors, but things like getting a bad reputation from the volunteers shouldn’t be ignored.
As I’ve mentioned in the first point above, this tends to happen when the organizers are the “mingling” and “networking” type. If as an organizer you can’t hire an event planner but want to spend most of the time talking to people, at least make an effort to take some time to go around, give out compliments to the hard working staff, and ask people if they need anything.
In line with the previous point, there’s also the mistake where no food is served when there should be.
This one depends on the context. For example, I’ve seen unreasonable attendees complain about the lack of food in a free 2-3 hour event. On the other hand, I’ve been on day-long events that charged a lot but served only sub-par food.
Anyway, the point here is that food is like registration efficiency. If you do it right, the attendees won’t notice it. If you screw up, it’s going to make your event look worse than it really is. (If you do it well, they might forgive you for some mistakes.)
IMO, feeding the staff (organizing team, volunteers, speakers) is more important than feeding the attendees. No one wants to work on an empty stomach.
As the event goes on, two related mistakes will be apparent to the participants.
One is unclear hierarchy or to put it simply no one knows who’s in charge of what.
It is a given that things will go wrong in the event. But what would you rather see: problems quickly escalated to the proper individuals and dealt with accordingly, or problems left unsolved because the staff doesn’t know who can handle it, and the person supposedly in charge of everything is busy chatting up guests.
The second mistake is not having enough self-motivated staff.
Putting all of the burden on a few people is a recipe for disaster. In organizing an event, one should look for people with initiative to put on the staff. In addition to their original roles, these self-motivated individuals will make sure that all problems are handled or escalated, take steps to prevent possible problems from showing up, and inspire others to do the same.
If you see the staff lounging around doing nothing while it’s obvious that a lot of stuff still needs to be done, rest assured one of the two mistakes above is the culprit (if not both).
The last mistake is after the event ends: not taking criticism professionally.
People will complain, and they will complain louder if you make the mistakes listed above. But it is much better to acknowledge the events flaws and vow to do better in the future than do any of the possible unprofessional responses to the situation e.g. feign ignorance, attack the critics, and my personal favorite, ask for pity.
In closing, I’d like to point out that if it’s your first time to organize an event, you might not have the experience and skill to deal with all of these problems. That’s ok – treat it as a learning experience. When worst comes to worst, just keep in mind the last point above.