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08 Apr 2011
So you want to be a party planner...
The event planner has to direct everyone|sophie-world.com

“I should be a party planner! I love planning parties!”

I hear this all the time.

It’s sort of like being an actor -- especially with all of this “reality” TV that’s out there nowadays. Most people look at acting and think it’s all about glamour, fashion, and adoring fans. They don’t see the long, grueling hours, the memorization, the research, the endless rehearsals, the nerves before performing... They just think it happens naturally and easily. Of course, that’s the sign of a good actor: they make it look effortless.

It’s the same thing with party planners. If we make an event happen seamlessly and seemingly without effort, then we’ve done our job well. So when I hear that statement, the one I opened with... Well, I just smile, because in essence it’s the best compliment I can receive.

My sister Freda finds it offensive, and cringes every time she hears one of our clients say that. But the issue is this: the nature of a party planner puts us in the service industry, and when one is in the service industry, one has to accept a few important facts. The biggest one is that pretty much everyone can, in fact, plan and execute a party. It’s true! The thing they might not realize is that it takes countless hours of preparation and detailed work to make even the simplest of parties come off without a hitch. But because it isn’t recognized as a practiced skill, such as juggling or magic, folks are going to be a bit more demanding when it comes to paying for a service they themselves could manage. Unlike being a dentist or lawyer, the service industry revolves around providing people something that they could readily do themselves if they had the time and inclination... And therein lies the bane of our existences.

So, if you want to be a party planner, let me give you a bit of advice. You can take it or leave it, but here it is...

If you are going to work in the service industry, you are going to have to get used to five things:

1. Criticism: clients often don’t know what they want. However, they won’t know what they don’t want until they see it. And in that case they’ll say, “Oh... I don’t want that.” Usually they don’t have any suggestion other than that, and yes, they’ll pretty much just say it like that. There seems to be this unwritten law that if you’re paying someone, you can be blunt with them, so develop a thick skin or you’ll end up weeping in your car after a site inspection! Basically, this means you have to mind-read a bit. Really good planners will get inside their clients’ heads and figure out what makes them tick, then hone in on those elements and celebrate them.

2. Constant changes: this goes hand in hand with number 1 -- you will need to make many changes before you find the right mix. You can handle this a few ways: you either change as many times as is necessary to make the client happy and just accept it (and don’t become negative because of it), or you limit your client (which can often cause them to get irritable with you), or you somehow manage to finesse your ideas into their ideas (making them think they came up with it, and hence - brilliant). Clients will make changes at the drop of a hat without realizing what it takes to make that change. If they go to someone else’s party and see something they like or dislike, get ready for a phone call the next day! I can’t tell you the number of vendors I’ve had to switch out right before an event because the kid went to so-and-so’s bat mitzvah and they had this really cool item that totally made the party... so now the client needs it, too. Ooor you’ve had the hottest airbrush artist booked for a year, and then the kid decides that airbrush is passé three weeks before his mitzvah -- trust me, been there, dealt with the angry vendors.

3. Being beat up on price: this will happen in everything you do in the private sector. Believe me when I say this; it happens to us with even the best of clients. You either stay firm on your price, or you say, “I’m trying to build a client list so I’ll do this for less to get my name out there.” But then you can’t become bitter when you feel abused; if you decide to do something for less, than it’s on you, the party planner, not the client. Of course the client is going to want it for less! Don’t you personally like it when you buy something on sale? Doesn’t that make you want to buy it more? This is why I say you’ve always got to put a little cushion somewhere. Maybe it’s the rentals, or a certain vendor... You always need something that you know you can give up or shift so that you can make ends meet but still give your client a discount. We don’t mark stuff up too much in my personal business, but we’re different from most planners, I think. We also are very upfront about our labor fees, and this is the one place we won’t budge on price. If someone asks me to lower my fees, that’s a sign of disrespect for what I do, and as far as I’m concerned they’re no longer a client. Those rare individuals go on a Black List. And guess what? Even if they try to book two years in advance, change dates, or just beg, they will find that the entire month of their event is magically booked up. Sorry -- after sixteen years in the biz you don’t disrespect me or my staff.

4. Spending way more time than expected: this is a given, especially if you are working outside your comfort area. But that’s the nature of the beast, especially if you are taking on something new for a client’s event. However, you can’t charge the client for your own learning curve. For example, if I design a prop that requires me to use an airbrush, and I don’t know how to airbrush but I’ve always wanted to learn to use one, I can’t charge the client for all of the messed-up pieces or the materials I’ve wasted. And I can’t charge them for all the time I spend learning how to use the tool. If I am slow at something, I have to eat those costs. But in the long run, I learn a new skill that I’ll be able to get better at and use in the future. And that’s also why we have professionals to hire if needed!

5. Feeling under-appreciated: if you want to work in the service industry, you have to get used to this. No one knows how long it takes you to do something... and they don’t care. Sorry if that seems harsh, but it’s true. I’ve spent many an unpaid hour creating something, and never gotten any feedback. It’s just how it goes. I have one client in particular -- every party we throw for them, we spend hours researching and developing a plan, finding locations, activities, transportation... and they never even acknowledge our emails until we force ‘em to respond by telling them that venues are going to start going away. The only emails that are responded to start with “I hate to push, but...” in the subject line.

If you are meant to work in the service industry, you find ways of accepting these things and making them work for you. And for the most part, clients are wonderful, beloved, and easy to work with. It’s usually the ones you haven’t worked with before, or who don’t really know you well who push the boundaries. But in the end, they usually become beloved clients.

Being a kids party planner is one of the most rewarding jobs I’ve ever hard. It’s taken me into some of the most beautiful homes in the Bay Area, and introduced me to some incredible people. I love what I do. I love meeting with people, planning with them, and (especially on larger events) building a real relationship with them. In some ways, on these big events, you almost become part of the family. You work intensely for a period of time with someone, and of course you are going to create a relationship. It’s what makes it all worthwhile. When you can see your client at their event having the time of their life, it makes your heart sing.

I had one of my clients tell me that her son said this to her as she kissed him goodnight after his bar mitzvah: “Mom,” he said, “You know how when you dream of something, and it actually comes true? This was better than that.”

Seriously... who can ask for anything more?