Articles - 31st May 2019

Freelance Party and Event Planning

Words by Katie Byrne
Illustration by Jon McCormack

Events freelancing can be tough… but so are you.

Working in events gets a tough rap. In the movies and TV shows of our tween-age years event workers – the go-to for realistic depictions of glossy-glossy aspirational jobs – are depicted as either ditsy with a twist of incompetence or neurotic, verging on aggressive. Think J. Lo in The Wedding Planner or Charlotte in Sex and the City or Emily Blunt in The Devil Wears Prada. They were either almost knocking over the cake (endearingly, of course) or manically barking orders into a headset – never able to manage entirely, yet somehow things would always turn out okay.

Fast-forward to your actual adult existence and chances are you will have dipped your toe into the events remit in one form or another. In our current side-hustle economy, the reality is that we are increasingly dabbling with ‘stuff’ – social media, marketing, content creation – adding even more strings to our bows in the process. Events are a natural extension of a creatively leaning career, meaning if you haven’t already worked on one, you might at some point. It might happen organically, or it might be something you find yourself tasked with against your will; it could be a solo mission to sink your teeth in to or a collaborative project where your specific skill set can shine.  

If you’re doing it as a freelance gig, it could be your own event: a social media panel discussion you’ve been planning for months, an artistic workshop you and a couple of friends have been thinking about for years, a charity fundraiser for a cause close to your heart… Equally, it could be something you’ve been roped into doing through your full-time job, or, events could be your full-time job: you could work for a venue, or a location, or you could voyage from freelance role to freelance role, turning your hand to occasions both personal (weddings, parties and so on) and commercial (launches, conferences, etc).

Whatever the scenario, there’s no denying it: events are exciting. Stressful, difficult and offering countless potential for 3 am cold-sweat wake-up calls, yes… But no less, exciting. It’s vibrant, fast-moving and liable to allow you to get creative. Of course, that free-reign creativity can depend on who you’re doing it for (yourself? Your boss? A client?). You might resent having to have ideas approved and signed off; equally, if you’re doing it solo you might ache for someone to discuss things with when you’re at a decision-making crossroads. There are pros and cons to both types of working; after all, the grass is always greener, isn’t it?

Working in events on a freelance basis has the potential to inspire you to explore other avenues, too: marketing, public speaking, design… Creativity inspires creativity, after all, and whether through your own imagination or via the network you’ve built up, developing concepts you can actually breathe into reality is an exhilarating process. The reality of doing it on your own though is exactly that; there’s no line manager to quiz when you get stuck, no in-house legal pro to have your back if something goes wrong, no accounts team to chase outstanding payments. It’s all on you.

This might all sound like earnest waxing-lyrical but please note, I say this from experience. Having planned conferences, awards ceremonies and panel discussions, my most heart-lurching moment came when organising two different events for work on two concurrent Fridays, on top of my full-time role. One was an awards ceremony that required a celebrity host; somehow, I got the dates mixed up and gave the host’s agent the date for the other event. What followed was the cold, sick realisation at 11 pm one night, three weeks before the first event, that I had Properly Messed Up. I lay awake for hours wondering how I would find a replacement host in time and trying to imagine what my boss might say. The next morning I realised I had posted the star’s agent an official invite with the correct date on it, and she had pieced it together herself. Despite possibly shaving years of my life, the stupidity of my mistake was actually a valuable lesson, albeit of the most basic variety: namely, always double-check dates.

If you’re a freelancer, another element you will be au fait with is securing work in the first place, whether through personal recommendation, your own initiative or by responding to an advert or call-out. Either way, you’ve got to be ready to back yourself 100%: after all, you might be trying to convince someone you’re the best person to bring their idea to life, or you might be trying to launch your very own event, completely off your own back, sourcing sponsors and selling tickets.

That was the scenario Freddie Cocker found himself in when he decided to launch a regular music night as an events extension of Vent, a platform he launched in September 2017 that encourages men to talk about their mental health. “It had always been a dream as I love going to gigs but I never imagined it would actually happen,” he says. “The concept for the event developed organically: I had become friends with a wonderful band called Patawawa, who I had seen perform several times. I got chatting to the lead singer, Sam, after one particular gig. He had seen the work I do and said he’d love to perform for Vent. From there, I just ran with it.”

When Luna Lounge, a venue in East London, agreed to host the night, Freddie found himself with an event to plan – and a lot to do. As well as the logistics of setting up the event, he was hands-on with ‘any detail you can think of to make sure the night was a success’. It took off and the music night is now a biannual occasion, which acts as a night he uses to thank the people who support and write for Vent, as well as the donors who allow him to grow the platform. “I had no prior contacts in the music industry,” Freddie says, “so to have people who I now consider my friends supporting what I’m doing is incredible and surreal.”

Of course, the buzz of freelancing on an event is just as great when you’re doing it as part of a defined team, too. Adam Hunt is art director and designer for boutique visual arts festival KALLIDA, which is hosted annually in the grounds of a stately home in Somerset and about to head into its third edition. A pro at juggling projects and commissions, he’s also recently started a full-time role at the Stockholm HQ of online bank, Klarna.

“KALLIDA competes in a market where ticket sales are declining year-on-year but the number of events taking place is increasing,” he says. Most of his challenges with the event – “unlike the founders, Dan and Reuben, who have invested both money and huge swathes of time” – have come from balancing work for the festival with other projects. It’s a pleasing problem to have. “I’ve learnt a lot about this over the last three years,” he explains, “and the only answer is to start working on a project as soon as you can and to always expect the unexpected…”

Even working as part of a team, where everyone has their own expertise, duties and skill sets, it can be tough: namely, no matter how hard you work and how excellent you consider the end result to be, there’s no guaranteeing that potential guest-list will clock you on their timelines or hear about you from a friend.

“I believe our product is brilliant,” says Adam. “We’ve had feedback it’s brilliant, too. So with word-of-mouth, improved ad spend and social strategy, a highly performant website and ever-growing brand recognition, tickets will be flying out the door, right?” Yep, that’s the biggest lesson to remember when working in events: the hustle is never quite over, whether it’s geeing up final sales or working out what you can do better next time. “You just have to keep grinding,” Hunt concludes.

Manning an events gig can be tough when balanced with other commitments, whether due to an assortment of other freelance projects, a full-time role or, quite simply, life. An event’s time-sensitive nature and reliance on other people – speakers, vendors, guests – means things move, fast; once you’ve got a date in the diary, it’s full-steam ahead. But if you want to make it work, you’ll always find a way. “For me, this is a passion project and the closest I can get to a blank canvas for self-expression in terms of design,” Adam explains. “So I make it work just by caring about it. It’s a creative outlet for me – if I wasn’t doing this, I’d have to find that outlet elsewhere.”

Juggling aside, it can also be a baptism of fire in terms of logistics. Whether it’s pulling together a panel event or planning a wedding, the wide range of occasions that falls into the event remit means there’s all manner of things that could crop up along the way; financial strains, disgruntled feedback, last-minute drop-outs… Even if you’re you’re working as part of a team, you’re not protected from things going wrong: the only difference is you have other people to share the strain with rather than shouldering it alone. If you’re doing it solo, failure or mistakes can be daunting prospects – but also learning curves.

“Doing it on your own can be scary,” says Meena Chander, freelance event consultant and planner. “You’ve left the comfort of having colleagues and a manager who you can turn to in case of queries, as well as your wider team of business support units. You’re now the line manager, the CEO and the colleagues combined…”

Naturally, someone as brilliant as you – yes, you, reading this right now – isn’t going to let that put you off. As Meena puts it: “How exciting to have the opportunity to create and develop a brand identity of your own, with the flexibility to seek opportunities you may not have been exposed to before and most of all, having the autonomy of making your own business decisions…” She adds: “Best of all? This is your chance to prove you can do it, whatever obstacles might face you.”

Three ways to begin planning that event you’ve always thought about

Work out your idea.

What kind of event do you want to plan? Is it a launch party, a panel discussion, a workshop? Who is your target audience and how will you reach them? What similar events are already taking place out there, and how are they being held? (For example: are they ticketed? Do they include food and drink? Do guests take anything tangible away? What materials are they provided with? And soon.) Write it all down, step away for 24 hours and then tweak it.

Get the logistics lined up.

What’s your budget? When do you want to hold it, and what kind of venue would work best? How many people do you want to invite? Some of these points will be chicken and egg: budget, venue and guest-list size will all influence each other, for example, so start with the most important (at this stage, budget) and work it out from there.

Scan your network.

If you can split the load, there’s no point in shouldering it alone. Consider your network and the different skills your friends and acquaintances offer: you might have a friend who’s amazing at social media promotion or an old colleague who is brilliant at keeping on top of accounts without breaking a sweat. Once you’ve got a rough idea of what you’re working towards, approach them about getting involved.

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