This transcript is from Episode 32 of The Savvy Event Planner Podcast
To listen to this podcast, please visit: http://SavvyEventPodcast.com/32
Transcript consists of guest interview only.
Tom: Folks, I'm on the line today with Emily Chalk. Emily, I'd like to start by saying thank you so much for talking to me, and welcome to the show.
Emily: Thank you very much, Tom. It's great to be here.
Tom: Now Emily, you are the founder of East of Ellie, which is an event planning company that's known for creating legendary events. I was looking at your website. I was very impressed, thrilled to have you here. Could you share with our listeners a little bit about your background, and how you became involved in the event industry?
Emily: Well, that's actually a funny story. I went to school for marketing and thought that I was supposed to be some big advertising executive, and then decided that I was going to be an event planner very early on. Besides just that, I realized I was supposed to go and get my corporate job and do the nine-to-five. So I did that for six and a half years as Global Brand Manager of Westin Resorts where we tested experiences and different types of concepts inside the hotel. I always felt like a little part of me was missing and that's where East of Ellie was born.
Tom: Before we start talking about East of Ellie, I've got a question for you. What did your job as a Global Brand Manager for Westin entail?
Emily: Well, we came up with ideas. So it was really a marketing-based job. But the greatest part about it was we were able to come up with ideas that, and this really resonates back to what we do with events now, is that we were looking for things that our consumers were wanting to experience inside the hotel. So it was all about delivering the best experience for them while they were with us, and so whether it was a better shower experience, a better bed experience.
One of the last things I did before I left Starwood was work on the RunWestin program. So it allowed companies and different people to come to the hotel and actually rent shoes and apparel that they could have delivered to their guestrooms so they could work out while they were onsite, and then just leave them and go home without any messy clothes in their bags. So it was really about delivering on the experience that we promised as part of our brand.
Tom: So with that kind of background in marketing, does that change your perspective when you're approaching an event?
Emily: Oh, absolutely. Every event is a person, is an identity, is an experience. So when we look at any type of event, the first thing I ask any of our clients are, “What is your objectives?” We can understand, one, what they're looking to achieve as part of their event strategy, but two, also understand what that experience is so we can help them replicate that.
Tom: So being focused on the event strategy and the experience, do you believe that all corporate events have a marketing component to them?
Emily: Marketing, not necessarily. I would say branding, yes. So if you look at being a small business owner, or even looking at any type of new concept that you're looking to develop, whether it be events or other related, you have to think of, who is my brand? What do they want? What car do they drive? What kind of coffee do they order at Starbucks? Or, do they go to Dunkin Donuts? You want to know what that person is. And so when you look at that event, it's saying, “Okay, is the perfect attendee to come to my event, whether it be not-for-profit, an internal sales meeting, or something corporate, what is that person? What car do they drive?” Like I said, “What coffee do they drink?” And then you can take those elements and ensure that you're incorporating them into the overall experience.
Tom: Let's talk about incorporating these elements into the experience, because on East of Ellie's website, you have a phrase that is extremely powerful.
Emily: Thank you.
Tom: It reads, “EOE plans legendary custom-branded events that show the world why you are among the leaders in your industry. By specializing in strategic marketing-based events, we supply your organization with a competitive edge that other agencies…”
I can't even read my own writing here. That's horrible.
Emily: Fall short on
Tom: Yes, “fall short on”. I'm sorry about that.
Emily: I've read it once or twice, so don't worry. I'm well versed.
Tom: I want to know who was your copywriter. That's an amazing statement.
Emily: Her name is Cindy and you can't have her.
Tom: Is she on staff?
Emily: She absolutely is.
Tom: Excellent. Well, let's talk about that. If the other agencies are falling short, what kind of recommendations would you give them to help bring branding into an event?
Emily: It's understand what your brand is about, or understanding what your event is about because ultimately, I see a brand and an event as the same exact thing. Even if you're looking at a social event…think about brides. They give you vision boards for their weddings, whether there's a color palette, there's a theme, there's a concept. It's the same thing for any type of corporate event because at the end of the day, you want to be true to whatever that event experience is.
I can give you an example. We are starting to work with a client who was celebrating a 50th anniversary, and they produced all of these crazy HVAC, power-washing type of gear, so there's nothing pretty or fun about that. But take an HVAC system and throw a glass top on it and all of a sudden, you got a cocktail table that's true to their brand. Or if their golden anniversary or their 50th anniversary has a gold tone to it, how are we incorporating that into the color palette? If there's a corporate message that they're celebrating for their 50th anniversary or something for the employees, why aren't we giving the employees a 20-year badge for being with the company for 20 years? So it's thinking about, what's that holistic concept and how do you break that down into working parts? So that's what that's all about.
Tom: You've worked with Fortune 500 companies, you've worked with celebrities, you've worked with royalty. Can you share with us what you felt was one of your most amazing events? And talk to us a little bit about how you planned that event.
Emily: Amazing how? Amazing experience-wise? Amazing client-wise? It's really hard to pick a favorite child but I'd be happy to do it.
Tom: I'm interested because you've done so many different types of events with so many big names…people, everybody else would go, “Wow.” Was there one that just really stood out to you? Let's say a person that you worked with, somebody that you really said, “Wow, this is great.” And how did you take their ideas and morph them into a really cool event?
Emily: Well, the first person that would come to mind, of course, is Prince Harry. We didn't have direct access to him but we did have, to his staff and personnel, who were the gatekeepers for him. And the greatest thing about doing something that has that type of cache against it is that there's no need to sell the event. Everyone's going to come just for the sheer fact that Prince Harry is there, and there's really nothing else you needed to do in that scenario. But, we did it anyways, because we knew that there's a level of sophistication for the clientele that was coming, along with the fact that it was just going to be a great event, that we were able to do that.
So it was a corporate company celebrating and supporting a not-for-profit in the United States and it was a great event because…Sentebale is the not-for-profit organization Prince Harry was coming to raise money for, and their flower was the forget-me-not, and so we figured out a way to incorporate forget-me-nots into all the floral arrangements and all of the design that we did throughout the space that we were leveraging. There were little tags…I feel like I have one in my office here somewhere because I keep it kind of close to my heart…but there were these little tags that we put on top of cocktail stirrers that had their company logo on them. So, although people would have come even if we put out hotdogs and pigs in a blanket, we still were able to give them a premium experience with, obviously, one of the best showcasing gentlemen in the country right now.
Tom: So that gives us an idea of what you did with a celebrity. What about for one of your other events. Let's talk maybe about a Fortune 500 company that you've worked with, and just give us an idea of what's maybe one of the most challenging events you created for them.
Emily: The challenge usually comes into the changes, and I think that's probably true in any event. The CEO of Nestle Waters was retiring in 2013 and they brought us on to be part of the celebration. So we basically tented his entire house in Greenwich, Connecticut, which is a very affluent area, where we were trying to create something that was…he wanted a retirement party but he wasn't crazy about it. He's one of those guys who was, “Don't focus on me,” but at the same time, everybody wanted to honor him. So by doing it at his home, we were able to give him that comfort level, but still be able to give the sendoff that Nestle Waters wanted to give him.
But, for us, going into somebody's home and creating an event for 300 people is never easy. So we had to set up tents, bring in offsite catering, basically do everything the week before. So we had tents in their backyard for over a week in order to set up this event, but the challenge usually comes into the dynamics that are challenging for any event. I wouldn't say that that's anything specific for any corporate America. I think that one thing I would say about dealing with corporate clients is communication, and I would say that actually about anybody.
One of the things that I preach in my office, and anyone who's worked with me or for me can tell you, is that communication is king. And for us, it's about how we speak with people and how we interact and ensuring that our clients are getting the information when they need it and how they need it. And as for us, as long as we're able to deliver on that, everything else is just really event-related and falls into place.
Tom: Now, I'm sure that every event you do comes off without a hitch.
Emily: Well, our clients think that.
Tom: That's extremely important. Every event planner has a horror story, and I always like to ask my guests, has there ever been something that happens to you, you're ready to tear your hair out, you can't believe this is coming down, and I'm curious as to what you did to solve the problem, and what you learned about yourself and that situation that you now make sure you don't repeat in future events.
Emily: So, I'll actually give you two examples. One was before the event, so actually the Prince Harry event, although it sounds like kittens and butterflies now. We had six weeks to plan it and it was not kittens and butterflies. The client who had brought us in to organize it was actually going to host it at his private home, and found out that the renovation schedule that their house was under wasn't going to allow us to do that. So while Prince Harry's secret staff, or what do they call it, their Secret Service equivalent, I guess you would call it, was in town for 48 hours to approve the spaces that he was going to be in, and we had to find a completely different venue before they left. So that I would say was a stressful challenge, but I was able to…I guess one of the things I would say to you is keep your friends close, and your contacts closer, because I was able to call on somebody who I'd gone to college with, whose husband was running Greenwich Country Club and was able to make it happen. That may have been a bit more luck than I think maybe experience, but we'll chalk that one up to being a fun experience at the very least.
The second one, which is, will go down in infamy as my least favorite experience in the events world is the NDG [SP] Awards. So we did an event in New York City at the Waldorf Astoria, which was the most beautiful venue I think I'd ever seen in my professional career at that time. And the…one of the jobs that we had been enlisted to help with was onsite registration. The problem with this event, or potentially, opportunity if you want to go down that road, was they had and extensive guest list of the people from the United Nations. So we're talking about the President of Zimbabwe, the President of…we invited the President of the United States, but he didn't join us…the President of Bahrain was there. There were a lot of dignitaries and social staff, and it was a big political puzzle that you had to put together. So certain people couldn't be near others because their countries were in war. It was a dynamic that I'd never experienced.
So long story short, we were actually up until 5:00 in the morning the night before the event coming up with seating assignments to ensure that we weren't hurting anybody's feelings for 800 people. And the day of the registration, I had gone to the venue with my team to actually do physical day of setup, and left the client back at their office. As we were gone, they decided to continue that effort and completely reshuffle all of the people. So when they got onsite for our registration, everything was wrong. So people were showing up to come and register for this event and they didn't have seating assignments. Some of them weren't even registered or had been deleted from the system by accident. There was just a whole host of issues.
So we ended up having to take tables, set them up mid-event, and make additional seating for people that were actually at the event, that either weren't invited or were invited, and didn't make it on the list. On top of that, in the middle of all that happening, the Secret Service from the United States actually came up to me because they weren't happy with the seating arrangements between the President of Bahrain and the President of Zimbabwe. They tried actually to take over 30 seats, three round tables of ten, to have additional space in-between those two spaces so that they felt the comfort level, that there wasn't going to be any chaos when I already didn't have enough seating for a hundred people that were waiting to sit down.
Emily: Yeah. So that will go down in infamy of being the worst experience, but the learning process that I had from that was I never leave any stone unturned. I double check everything, and I ensure that when I or anyone from my team leaves an experience or leaves a meeting or any type of [inaudible 00:14:21] that it gets reviewed and approved in advance. We were on a tight timeframe and obviously, clients can do whatever they want, but it's our job as the event professionals to ensure that it was done correctly so that we could probably…I mean if it was a couple people, sure, but we're talking about hundreds and it was a mess.
Tom: Wow, that sounds like one. That can be scary. I imagine you saw your life flash in front of, or your career flashing in front of your eyes at that point.
Emily: Yeah, that actually was it. And it was funny because we were in the program booklet as the event professionals who produced the event, and I was like, “Can we just go through and strike that,” because if anybody associates us with that registration process, we're dead in the water.
Tom: Geez, that had to be scary. That would probably make a lot of people want to give up event planning. Emily, as an event professional, I'm sure you attend a lot of events, not just your own but events that other people have planned. And a lot of event planners tell me that they draw inspiration from other people's events. So I'm going to ask if you've ever experienced something that you said, “Wow, I have to incorporate that into my one events.” And if so, could you tell us what it was, and what you did?
Emily: Yeah, as people say to you in the past and as I will say to you now, is that it's always inspiring, even not being physically at events, but just seeing events online. We were doing some research on one of our new clients and found another event they produced recently and saw the company that they used, and the company doesn't even have a website because they don't need to, they're that high end, they're that remarkable that they don't even need to show themselves in marketing.
You always draw inspiration from different things, but I think that the one thing that I try to do always is look at different ways that people bring in branding. It's been done before. People, obviously, with their company, they're going to bring in their logo, their color palette, those are easy hits. But it's figuring out those different ways that people bring to life, the brand and things that are so unexpected that really inspire me and make me think about different ways to do things.
And going back to the example I used earlier, taking an HVAC system or a barrel and turning it into a table, that came from something where…At Nestle, we actually looked at and this came from another event that I had seen previously. We were looking at taking this clear plastic, these Lucite tables, and putting a Perrier bottle in the middle of it just to showcase the branding. It's so cool how you can continue to see things like that, but always find a new and different way to do it.
Tom: Where are you looking most of the time when you're going out to get ideas to incorporate that branding? Is there like a website or someplace you go to look for inspiration?
Emily: We call it creeping actually, in my office, which is kinda a funny thing. We even send each other the little emoticon eyes when we look at different things. There's all kinds of industry and trade magazines, whether it be Collaborate magazine…we go on BizBash. Every single event magazine, we've tapped into and probably talked to about finding out how to get involved…but they have a wealth of resources online. Probably, the first place to go and see is BizBash and look at what they've published because they always have great and relevant content there on top of…whatever is going on in the industry.
Another great thing that we use, that I hate to say out loud but is awesome, is Pinterest. We can type anything into Pinterest and find anything. So we actually create secret boards for our clients so that they can see some of the branding ideas we have in advance. It can be a really helpful tool. Anything really visual is helpful for our clients but certainly, those websites are great.
One of the other things I would recommend too, in regards to finding inspiration, is different types of events that feature event planners. So there's [inaudible 00:18:24] all over the country. I went to one in Orlando in June. I was fortunate enough to win the 40 Under 40 Award. But this place was filled with probably 3,000 event planners from all over the world, and it was a fantastic way for people to come in and showcase different products and services, and certainly was able to see what is going on in the industry. So those are also great resources as well, not just online or in print, but also in person, which is the good old-fashioned way, right? Us, event planners, going to events.
Tom: Most certainly. You left out one very good resource that I want to definitely share with our listeners, and that is your blog.
Emily: Oh, thank you.
Tom: I was looking over that before we got on the call today, and I was just impressed with the quality of the articles and the information you have on there.
Emily: Well, thank you very much. We are really very passionate about writing and being a resource. One of the things that I'll say when I first started the company was that I kind of cherry-picked information and tried to figure out my way through. If somebody would've given me a “How to Start an Event Planning Agency 101,” I would have been very thankful. But along the way, we realized all the things out there that aren't available to other event planners, or even the people just looking to host events, so we decided to become a resource and actively publish in that market. So, thank you, for that accolade.
Tom: I was very impressed with it, and I'll include a link to that on our podcast show notes so that people can head over there.
Now, Emily, there are congratulations in order. You are getting married this year.
Emily: I am. Thank you very much. I can't believe it's this year. It feels like it would just happen but…
Tom: Tell us a little bit about…tell me you're not planning your own wedding.
Emily: I'm not. Well, I'm trying not to. One of the first requests…Actually, I received two requests from my fiancé, but the very first thing that came out of his mouth after we got engaged was asking me not to plan our wedding, and rightfully so. His concern is I'll be up at the altar in a headset, and quite honestly I can't say that I won't be. I'm very fortunate to have a great team, and so they've actually taken on the experience of helping me. I think that they know what I would probably do to any other wedding planner that I would outsource and so they've taken on the task. It's actually quite fun planning your own event.
We're not a social event company, we do corporate and not-for-profit, but it's a nice change, and it's certainly a joyous experience. I think, maybe now, I understand a little bit more from my clients' perspective about the passion that they have about their own events. Obviously, we're passionate about the planning process because we just love what we do, but to be the owner of that event, I think it definitely gives you a new perspective on how special that is.
Tom: Definitely a good takeaway there. And I trust that your wedding is going to be amazing, and again, I wish you the best with it. Emily, I'm going to backtrack here a second and I apologize for this, but I'm looking at your blog and an article just jumped out at me, “You Know You're an Event Planner When”. That's pretty funny. It almost reminds me of Jeff Foxworthy's “You May Be a Redneck If.” Would you mind sharing a couple of those with our audience?
Emily: That was so true. And it's actually funny because we have a really nice pool of interns that come in every year, and I joke with Cindy and my team who manages our intern retention program, and it's let the mud pit begin…our summer internship program is really very competitive. And when we interview people, you almost know immediately whether or not you're talking to a future event planner or you're talking to somebody who's just interested in events. And it's what I like to call, “A Very Special Kind of Crazy,” and I mean that in the most complimentary way possible. The way of being an event planner is a way of life. I mentioned at the beginning of our conversation how I started out in corporate America and just couldn't…although I loved my job and I loved the experience, and I'm very thankful for all of the things that I learned, it was never me. And when you're an event planner, you're an event planner and you just can't shake it.
We had one girl that was with us this summer, Karen, who when she left to go back to school, her review was saying, “You can go down the road and try to get a different job, but you're going to be an event planner so just save yourself some heartache and come back.” And a lot of those comments actually came and inspired this blog post. So one of the things that you'll always notice about event planners is that we're always wearing black. If you saw the amount of black laundry that I did on a weekly basis, it would be alarming. But that's only one way to tell.
We are the type of people who don't know how to say, “No.” It was funny. We were joking. I had a corporate client, who we're supposed to meet with today actually, asked to have some off-hour conversation. And the first time I ever turned her down was this weekend because I'm going wedding dress shopping. And that's the only time I think I have a real excuse in my mind to say no to rescheduling a client meeting, or being available for a client if they need something.
One of the biggest learnings that I've had in my 30s was that understanding that your to-do list is going to follow you no matter where you go. So I have a to-do list for a grocery store. I have a to-do list for work every day. But it's one of those things that helps you thrive as a person, and it helps you be able to manage your own life. And you always feel out of sorts if you're not in that kind of world.
One of the last things that I'll say, and I think people really resonate with, is that if you're not having nightmares about your event, you're doing something wrong. I had a dream two nights about an event we're working in Nashville, where the catering was horrible and we didn't have enough lentils. I was driving around Nashville trying to find an 8-foot table.
Tom: I love that.
Emily: That's real life.
Tom: No doubt, no doubt. Emily, are there any last thoughts you'd like to share with our listeners today as they approach their next event?
Emily: I think the one thing that I would say is that…one thing I think is also a huge takeaway, which I'll put together five tips on branding any event as a takeaway for the audience. But I would really go back to the point that I made earlier about looking at your event as a person, the perfect attendee to come to your event, and thinking about their life in this life, and really modifying your event to fit that person. Because at the end of the day, you want to have the most compelling and best event ever, whether it be social or corporate. And you always want people walking away from that experience saying, “Wow.” And being able to identify the key tools to get you to that wow are really important, and it will make any event special.
Tom: Emily, a lot of our listeners are in the corporate market. They are either executive assistants, or HR, or marketing personnel who are tasked with planning their company events. If they're interested in learning more about your services, how can they reach out to you?
Emily: Well, they can always join us at EastofEllie.com. Obviously, that's a great resource there. And [inaudible 00:25:16] contact us, we have a page. I also manage my own blog because I have enough time on my hands, I guess, to do this. So EmilyChalkTalk.com is available also. Give us a call, send us an e-mail, we'd love to be part of any experience that you want to make perfect.
Tom: Absolutely fantastic.
Emily: Or legendary, I should say.
Tom: I like that even better. Emily, thank you so very much for taking your time to talk to me today.
Emily: Thank you, Tom. It's been a blast.
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