Amy Merriman is the founder and Group Managing Director of three “creative communications businesses”. Caught up in the hoopla of pre Christmas party planning, we sat down to chat about her event planning business and get a few tips on how to ensure your next party is a success.
Event Planet, the first business in the Jupiter Management Group, was established in 2001. It is an event management agency specialising in corporate and Government events – conferences, forums, product launches, fashion shows, corporate hospitality and public events.
Event Planet, for example, works with clients as diverse as the prestige Champagne house Veuve Clicquot on its Polo and Alpine events, as well as being the preferred event management partner for the Federal Government in its roll out of the national electronic health records scheme.
Events, says Amy, are physical, they require you to roll up your sleeves and get into it and they’re not for the faint hearted: “If something’s going to go wrong it will. But there are ways of mitigating your risk. If you’re going to have an outdoor evening event do it on a full moon it never rains. If you’re going to use an elephant as a prop, which we did once many years ago, calculate how long it will take the elephant to get to its destination, a stage perhaps, bow and then leave the room. You will then know how long you have to pray for nothing to go wrong.”
A somewhat simpler arm of the business is the A LIST Guide, launched in 2006. It is an award winning national guide for event management in Australia, featuring venues, suppliers and activity operators around the country. The publication and its website form a link between event managers and the suppliers, people and products they might need to produce an event.
Food Wine Sleep, a content aggregation website and iPhone App, began in 2009 and has been designed to help consumers locate restaurants, bars and hotels nationally if they’re after something to do or they’re travelling in Australia.
Since 2001, Amy’s business has grown from sole operator to a team of 15+ professionals, and from 1 to 3 businesses, with more possibilities in the pipeline. Amy, at 23, backed a winner. In fact horses, including a life-size orange fiberglass model that sits in the entrance to Jupiter Management’s offices – “Veuve Clicquot has him ‘out on agistment’ here between its Polo events” – factor prominently in her life and career.
“I travelled to Europe with friends after University. I was in France at the Grand Prix de Deauville meeting a friend who worked in the racing industry and randomly began speaking with a woman who’d worked for the British corporate event company, TEAM. She asked me what I was interested in and I said events. She gave me TEAM’s number and so I met with the owners to discuss possible work – 15 minutes later, having discovered I was Australian, had just backpacked around Africa for three months and could snow ski, they offered me a job,” explains Amy of her equestrian-event sparked luck.
“My first job was to take the top 10 employees from Compaq – it was the Nineties, the dotcom boom era,” Amy continues, “on a reward, incentive event skiing in Switzerland.”
After two incredible years, and a lot of jetting backwards and forwards across Europe, she decided to return home to Australia and, with the blessing of her former employers, who then helped finance the business, began Event Planet out of her spare room at home.
Amy’s foray into publishing with her A LIST Guide resource flowed from there.
Realising the business to business potential of putting supplier networks in touch with the niche market they wished to reach, event planners, she began A LIST, which, in 2011, was awarded the Best Product and Service in the Australian Event Industry at the Australian Event Awards.
“I think expectations are a bit dangerous, so I try not to place them on things, which by default means I don’t experience the unexpected,” says Amy.
She goes on to explain that the A LIST Guide is “a lesson in how small actions and ideas can shift and change to become something amazing. It’s confirmation that final outcomes happen because of 1000s of small decisions and sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t. In the case of the A LIST, here was this little idea from my head, put on a page, converted into a commercial business and 5 years later recognised with a coveted national award.
“I get seriously excited about new ideas and projects. They are what motivate me to work. Planning is important to me and I like structure, although I don’t think agency life is very plannable – you have to be nimble and flexible and on the look out for the next thing.
“However, I do believe the process around developing strategies and plans for marrying the skills and expertise you have with the content and objectives of a client is limitless. The business has adopted and adapted and evolved over time, but it’s always maintained its core philosophy: our clients and their requirements are paramount.”
From the moment she took on her first employee, Amy acknowledges she really felt the difference a 100-per-cent increase can make on a business and on the person founding it. Managing between 2 and 5 staff, she goes on to explain, she found relatively easy, but the jump from 5 to 10 had real growing pains associated with it – not the least of which were thoughts and actions around structure, education, policy, procedures, systems.
The move from 10 to 15 staff and above has been simpler, calling on her to incrementally ramp up what already exists: “I don’t handle clients any more. I’m not in operations now but involved on the strategy level. It’s meant dividing up the roles more clearly, which is quite difficult in events. Event planning is by its very nature autonomous. You can’t have three people working on the same stuff it leaves the margin for human error, which is one of our largest challenges, too wide.”
Event management requires “malignant optimism” as a personality trait but not at the expense of responsibility and rigorous risk management strategies, combined with an obsession with detail, structure and planning. It’s why Amy believes – no matter what your event and its size – there are general principles that must be applied to whatever you’re doing and that the devil is in the detail: so plan, plan, plan and ensure you have as much information as possible at your fingertips about the event your planning whether it is your own for friends and family, or a work, etc event.
Event Planet’s top tips include:
Know the brief and the brand (This is as important for your own private event as much as it is for a corporate or large event. For example, who is being invited and why? How many guests and how are they being invited and kept interested to ensure they turn u? If you’re planning for a client is it in line with who the client is in the marketplace and how they view themselves, does the event style and theme suit who is being invited?)
Understand the event’s and the client’s objectives and budget (If it’s a private event, this means knowing your own needs and wants: for example, when do you want your party to finish and how are you going to engineer that end without rattling the milk bottles and shoving people out the door. What’s the spend and do you and the client understand how many hidden costs there can be?)
Have enough food – Your event will be remembered for the food quantity and quality. Use experts to do what they do best. For example, canapes require lots of bench space to prepare and plate-up – more than usually exist in a boardroom or office kitchen or at home – and even more fridge space for storage, so hire a caterer.
Have enough drinks, including water. Your event will be remembered for its drinks or lack of… Responsible service of alcohol and the fact that we are all much more aware and aligned with behaving appropriately and professionally at work or public events has made a difference to alcohol consumption. However, if you’re asking people to stand around for four hours at a cocktail or evening party then you need to have something for them to do and having a drink helps.
Involving animals, children and or boats in your event escalates the event’s risk profile.
Lighting, sound, theme, ambience, venue, facilitating guest introductions and conversations are all important and feed into making an event a success or not. If you can’t see because the lighting is poor or you’ve taken a gamble on an outdoor event and not factored in a rain contingency, for example, then you could have very disgruntled guests on your hands, and no amount of great food and alcohol will soothe them.