How Expectations Management Can Break or Make Your Event

Working in corporate events can be a challenge, especially when the senior management team expects magic. Here are a few tips to help you set expectations early and look like a rock star.

Corporate event planners have their work cut out for them. Often the senior management team is concerned about budget but little else. Their lack of event knowledge leads to trouble for the event planner who is likely being assessed on their ability to deliver a wonderful event on budget.

This means the event planner must find their voice and set expectations early. Neither of these things is easy to do when the people you need to push back on have a say in your career. Still, these are the things you need to communicate early on and the tips on how you can do it professionally and effectively.

How Expectations Management Can Break or Make Your Event

Why Bother With Setting Expectations?

Setting expectations in a formal way is time-consuming. Let’s be honest. There’s no quick way to ensure everyone is on the same page on something as large and complicated as a corporate event.

While it’s important that everyone involved understand what’s going on with the event, the largest reason you want to set expectations is to avoid the expectation gap. If you don’t know how they define success, you may never meet it. Be clear on what everyone considers a successful event. This is at the crux of all of the other work you’ll be doing with setting expectations.

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What You Need to Tell Senior Management about the Event Planning Process

  1. The total budget shouldn’t be changed by anyone other than them but if it is, the return on investment ROI will change too or costs will have to change.  
  2. Budget line items can be manipulated and altered if need be but only if something else gives. For instance, if management decides they need to invite more people, and thus feed more people, something will need to be substituted or cut to cover the increased cost. Lay this out early on so they understand. Then if they ask you to do this just before the event, explain what will change, such as 5 more people means no flowers on the table. Let them make the decision but make them aware early on that like Newton’s Third Law, every additional cost has an equal and opposite cut.
  3. There are no built-in extra meals for people who just show up without an RSVP. If you do have a buffer, make sure they are clear about just how small that is.
  4. You could use their support. When you present the event plans, make sure you give senior management a small to-do list so they know what is expected of them. This could be live tweeting or taking photos during the event. Whatever it is, make sure they know it and agree to it. Getting them onboard, and reminding them of these roles often, will help you have a more successful event because people will emulate what management is doing.
  5. Communication. Setting expectations on communication early should keep them from asking when they’ll see the next attendees list. Lay it all out for them in writing before you even open registration. They need to know when to expect deliverables and maybe, just maybe, they’ll stop asking for them.
  6. Make sure they are clear on your role. You don’t want them angry the day of the event because they’re waiting for you to bring them refreshments. Make sure they are clear on who’s doing what at the event.
  7. Set realistic expectations. If you know from past history that a sell-out crowd is not likely, explain why that is. Make sure the goals they set are reasonable and measurable. It may be difficult to tell them their expectations or goals aren’t reasonable and walk through how they can be. But in the long run, it’s easier to do that than it is to agree to the goals knowing they’re impossible. Make sure if they aren’t reasonable, you suggest some that are.
  8. Technology use. If you’ll be working on an app and you want them to have access to your information, let them know that they can access it whenever they please using the technology you’re working in.
  9. How overflow will be handled by sharing what the protocol is. They are times during events that some areas have more urgent needs than others like everyone checking in at the same time. Let senior management know how you plan on handling these event hiccups and where you will pull help to accommodate overflow.
  10. Be clear about who you need on your team. If you need to pull someone to help with the planning or the administration, or there’s the potential that you might, advise senior management of this ahead of time and make sure you have their blessing. You don’t want to pull a marketing coordinator only to find out the CMO says the marketing department can’t spare them. There is no reason to get on the wrong side of management for something that is easy to get a sign-off on ahead of time.

There may be other things that are industry-specific that you need to make sure you set clear expectations with senior management in the beginning. Add these to your list. Make sure you go over everything with them by following these suggestions.

How to Manage Event Expectations with Senior Management

Make Sure You’re Clear First

Before placing anything in writing to senior management, you need to know the goals they had in mind for the event. Speak to them first and look to understand their professional and corporate goals. A corporate goal might be to increase revenue by 10% but their professional goal may be to get the board to notice their hard work. These unofficial goals are often more important to them and drive their concern more than the corporate ones. Understanding these will help you understand attitude and future angst as well as hot button topics such as fear of looking bad when being considered for another position.

Next, give solid thought as to what you need from them, other departments at your company, budgets, and other details and protocols. You want to be absolutely clear on the moving components of the event plan.

When you present your plan to senior management they will most likely need to clarify some piece of it. If they don’t, it’s likely they’re not paying attention. So ensure you know it inside and out before you present it to them. This also includes understanding the why behind what you’re asking for or stipulating. Be prepared for questions on the “why” as well as the “what” or “how.”

Understand Different Types of Expectations

There are multiple levels of expectations. There are corporate expectations for the event, department expectations, individual employee expectations, and day-to-day forward-facing expectations to stakeholders including customers, peers, managers and more. Be clear on the different levels so that you can cover all of them.

Place Everything in Writing

Even if you have a lot of expectations you need to enumerate, it’s important that you place all of this in writing to senior management. While they may not appreciate the War and Peace sized tome, it gives them a reference guide if they can’t remember the discussion you had about it, which brings us to….

Present the Details Face to Face

When you send your event expectations, budget, and details, you should also make some time to review the highlights with them in person. Don’t read every line to them. No one has time for that. Instead, summarize the main points, particularly the ones that involve them directly.

While this may feel like a presentation on your part, you should open it up as a discussion. You want them to:

  • Understand the process
  • Know why you’re asking for what you are
  • Understand what would happen if you did it another way
  • Know how their goals for the event are tracked and reflected

Adopt Changes

First, it’s important to be open to changes. Those who help create something are more apt to support it. If anyone has any changes to the document or refuses to do something that is asked, add that to your senior management event guide and reissue it to them.

Your guide should have the most up-to-date information so you may want to consider placing it on a cloud drive so that everyone has access to it. Just make sure you lock it down.

Get Commitment on Roles

As mentioned earlier, it’s important senior management understands what’s expected of them as well as people who report into them. Once you have agreement on these things, make sure you issue timelines and personalized lists of responsibilities. This way they needn’t read through the entire document to refresh their memories.

Also, don’t double assign individual tasks. It may be tempting to give the same assignment to each senior manager in the hopes that someone gets it done but when everyone is assigned the same task that should only be performed once, most managers will assume somebody else has got it under control and mark it off. If everyone does that, the task won’t get completed.

You must assemble the complete plan first so that you can assess what’s missing. Then break it up into the departments and ensure every senior team member gets a copy of what they and their group are responsible for. This is meant to be their reminder. You’ll want to reach out to their subordinates as required. Don’t rely on the senior manager to do so, unless they specifically ask for that task.

Under Promise and Over Deliver

Always under deliver and over promise. Scratch that. Reverse it. Seriously though, always agree to lesser goals than you believe you can manage. To challenge yourself personally is one thing but never feel uncomfortable with a goal for an event.

You should never be so stretched that you question your ability to achieve it. Because guess what? Things always get crazier than you predicted. If they don’t, you can deliver on more than they ever expected. If they do, you’ve still achieved the goal set for you and the event.

Communicate Changes

Communicate changes as they come up. In addition to your scheduled, periodic communications bring up anything that will affect the plan. For instance, if you’re relying on a large part of the marketing department to help out and then they decide they can no longer spare the time, you want to bring that up as soon as possible with executive management.

Of course, you’re bringing this up only as a courtesy FYI because you had a contingency plan for volunteers that gave you a second place to draw from. Senior management signed off on it during the original discussions so they should know your next steps.

Don’t Over-manage

Most people hate a micro manager. When managing expectations you want to communicate effectively and make sure everyone knows the goals and how you will meet them. But at the end of the day, that’s all you can do. They will still have their own expectations and while you can partially manage them through communication, you can’t entirely do so. People will still choose to think what they think.

In addition to communication, it’s important that you continue to establish the cause and effect principles at work. Many execs think event planners work magic by fitting in people at the last minute without a change to the budget. Just keep reiterating that with every change, something else happens. You don’t mind canceling flowers so additional people can eat but you can’t perform one without cutting something else. If they’re insistent, let them make the call about which is more important to them.

In Conclusion

It can be difficult to manage a corporate event when dealing with a team of senior execs who know little about event design and planning. But they are business people. If you take the time to explain basic expectations, they should understand how that affects the bottom line. The one thing you need to be sure on is that they understand what you’re doing and why.

Don’t leave them any surprises as you navigate the planning process. If you do, they’re likely to become obstacles in the future.  

Additional Resources About Corporate Event Planning

28 Tips for Planning a Corporate Retreat
6 Confessions of a Corporate Event Planner
5 Hottest Trends in Corporate Events (Video)
10 Trends in Corporate Events
How to Ensure Your Corporate Event Comes off Without a Hitch
Corporate Events Entertainment: A Short Guide

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Julius Solaris
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