(This post is part of a 5-part series. Check out the overview if it’s your first time here.)
FACT: You cannot throw a party without a place to throw it in.
The venue is the first thing people see when they get to your event, the space they will spend the event in, and the infrastructure for all the fun stuff you might want to do. Like a karaoke foam battle or motorcycle bullfight. Or maybe just a DJ. Whatever.
My friend Kelsey Recht, the CEO of Instevent, knows how important venue selection is to a successful event. She says that you want a place that’s going to be the right size and an interesting destination, so that people will want to show up and then feel like they are in the right spot. The vibe, acoustics, staff and all have to be right for your crowd and your brand.
Long time event planner and my friend Gina Jagtiani, CEO of Eventive World, points out that the venue is running a business. The venue wants to sure that they’ll make money — Venues will often negotiate different type of contracts depending on the type of crowd you will be bringing in. They may do a happy hour and sponsor it partially or fully themselves. There’s many options that can be negotiated for them as long as they would be making more money on that night if you weren’t throwing an event there.
This means, while you have lots of goals: create a fun experience, build your brand, protect your reputation, create value for sponsors, and maybe more that can join forces to make you feel conflicted — the venue has just one: money.
Your negotiation with the venue will be your first major challenge.
You’re seated at the negotiation table, which is probably the bar at the venue, or maybe their office. You’re a novice (or else probably wouldn’t be reading this) and they’re the pro. You’re starry eyed because you really like the space, but for them its another day, another dollar.
You want the space, and will have to pay for it somehow. This is usually split into a one or more pieces – each of which is a lever you an push or pull to get the deal you want:
Rent – I’ve found that most people assume that renting the venue must be the biggest cost. Not true. A wink and a smile are usually enough to squeeze down or even totally eliminate the rental costs of the spot. The venue doesn’t care. They make a lot more money on
Food / Drinks / Staff – In most cases, the venue will not let you bring your own food, drink, or basic staff (servers, etc). You have to use their kitchen or their caterer, their bar with their vendors, and all their stuff. This is where an innocent per-person fee explodes into thousands of dollars. But you’re no rube. Ditch their structure and offer a simpler setup like a
Guarantee – Promise a flat dollar amount that you’re going to hit. Any less, and you’re on the hook. Any more, and its gravy for the venue. Everybody likes gravy. In fact, every single time i’ve dealt with a venue (disclaimer: usually bars for smaller events) they are so risk averse that they will take a guarantee that works out to 1-2 drinks per person.
And if you’re really worried? Instead of basing your guarantee on the full number of people you expect, sandbag it a little bit. Pro tip from Kelsey of Instevent – Always guarantee a lower number than you anticipate. You can add people to the event easily, but you can’t take them out without a contentious discussion.
Tickets/Cover-split – if you’re a total boss or dealing with a small venue, you might be able to get the venue with no risk. No rent up front, no guarantee on the back – just a split of revenue on ticket sales or door fees. #midwid
Value – Really squishy and not always applicable, if you can sell the dream to the venue, they might accept that parts of your event are good enough for them to pull some costs off of the table. For example, if you’re going to generate a lot of good press for them, or bring in high-value VIPs.
Side Notes: Stuff to ask for – in case you’re selling the dream and they are buying it. Ask for the world. Ask them to sponsor your event (why not?!), get drink specials, VIP tables, EVERYTHING. Take it all! Bonus points if you take specials that you can turn around and offer to your own VIPs like guest bartending or DJing spots.
The esteemed Judy Allen, event planning guru and prolific author of 10+ books on the topic including the new and all-inclusive Event Planning The Ultimate Guide shares a telling story:
I was once putting together an event for a top financial company who wanted to bring international VIPs to a private evening event and their goal was to create an event that would spark interest and keep their guests there for the night interacting with their staff instead of having them go off to attend their competitors events. The venue chosen – a cutting edge high tech entertainment complex – had just opened weeks ago and that had great appeal as aside from opening night festivities no other private events had been held there as yet. The first virtual Olympics was designed for the event and that held interest as well. Guests came and never left and the evening was a tremendous success and the company hosting the event was the talk of the industry function the next day for introducing something so innovative and fresh. Normally event planners would not use a venue for that intricate an event that close to the opening of the venue but I had also created the opening night gala and knew the capabilities of the venue, its staff and my team.
Location / Capacity – A tiny spot is great for a small number of people and more intimate, uh, networking. A cavernous place creates a more ethereal atmosphere but will need to have more people and will be much more expensive. In addition, people have to get there, so try to make that easy.
When Rebecca Zhou was planning Raise Cache, she knew that the event could be bigger than NYC if she let it — so they set up free buses for friends in Boston and Philadelphia to make their way to the event in NYC. People loved it! Obvious, but only in retrospect.
Setup / Floorplan – Nothing sucks more than a party that has a gigantic pillar blocking your view of the stage, or a room-to-bar ratio that pretty much guarantees you will never get served. If you get sponsors and they want to set up a booth, you can bet they won’t be happy if the booth is in a useless or invisible spot
Vibe / Brand – There’s a huge difference between Whiskey Blue in Midtown East and The Ainsworth in Flatiron. Actually, maybe not.
(Note: This post is part of a 5-part series on events and party planning. Jump directly into a subtopic here)
- Its all about the CUSTOMERS, baby. Venue selection & the Deal.
- This is more INTERESTING than whatever else you’re doing.
- Pound the PAVEMENT. Sell your heart out.
- More MONEY, less problems. Keep your event ROI-positive
- Event as a startup. TEAM matters.
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My many thanks for the superstars who helped me pull this together:
- Judy Allen – event guru and author of 10+ books, including Event Planning The Ultimate Guide
- Rebecca Zhou – Hackstar, UI/UX designer and self-taught event planner extraodinare behind Raise Cache
- Kelsey Recht – Founder and CEO of Instevent – making event planning easier through expertise and technology
- Gina Jagtiani – Veteran event planner in NYC and New Orleans, Founder and CEO of eventiveworld.com, and social media empresaria