Jennifer Berkemeier, catering and special events sales manager at Cobo Center, often encounters employed event planners who are considering striking out on their own. She always urges them to proceed with caution. “It’s all about support people and clients and connections,” she tells them. “It’s not as easy as you think it could be.”
For those intent on starting their own special events business, Berkemeier suggests they ask themselves if they’re willing to devote long hours, including nights and weekends; if they have the physical stamina to do the job; and if they have a good support system, especially if they have children.
Would Berkemeier, who’s been at Cobo more than two years and who handled special events at the The Fillmore Detroit for five years prior to that, ever consider setting up her own shop? “Oh my goodness, no,” she says with a laugh.
But many entrepreneurs do say yes to the idea, so MIM+E talked to five event business owners to get their take on what striking out on one’s own really means.
SCHOOLED BY THE IRS
Bill Hamilton, owner of Bill Hamilton Designs, started his floral design business four years ago.
Hamilton’s low-pressure approach to business has led to a comfortable living and an increase each year in the number of events he produces, he says. “I’d rather starve than force a client to do something she doesn’t want to do,” he says.
Still, though his approach is steadfastly low-key, he’s had to tighten up his practices from his early days in business. Brides often ask Hamilton to plan extra details for their big day. At first Hamilton, who has worked on special events for 20 years, complied but never charged extra. Eventually, though, Hamilton realized that needed to change. His clients now pay extra for additional flourishes that make their day even more memorable.
Indeed, while he’s naturally savvy with the people side of his business, Hamilton says the financial and recordkeeping side has been tougher. Earlier this year, the numbers side of his business caught up with him: He had to meet with an Internal Revenue Service auditor to answer questions about his 2011 and 2012 tax returns.
The IRS staffer set him straight on writing off part of a cruise with other industry professionals that had generated new clients: There must be a paper trail in advance of the trip laying out its business purpose, and there wasn’t. But Hamilton was able to persuade the auditor that two chairs delivered to his home were, indeed, for business purposes by showing pictures of them at events.
In the end, he owed the government less than $1,000 to settle his tax faux pas. “I looked at it as an education,” he says.
Hamilton’s advice for planners looking to start their own business? “Love, love, love what you do,” he says. “Things will go wrong and you’ll want to give up, but if you love it, you’ll stick it out. If you don’t have the passion to succeed, you won’t.”
Get Connected: Bill Hamilton Designs // 248.506.9970
A LITTLE HELP FROM MY FRIENDS
When Allison Beers established Events North six years ago in Traverse City, she relied on existing relationships to get the business off the ground. Her lawyer is a college friend, her accountant a longtime family friend and a girlfriend’s husband designed her logo and website. Her husband, a banker, became Events North’s de facto CFO.
“There are so many people I reached out to in those first years,” says Beers, whose projects have included special events for the Traverse City Film Festival and managing Pigstock TC, which teaches high-end chefs how to use every part of a swine, from snout to tail. Even now, Beers usually picks suppliers based on relationships. “Your friends aren’t going to let you down,” she says.
Beers seizes on opportunities to build new relationships via her civic connections, too. She’s the past president of the National Cherry Festival Foundation’s board of directors and the local Rotary Club and Rotary Charities, and is on the board of directors for the Downtown Traverse City Association. She’s also a founding member of the Traverse City Young Professionals and a member of the CEO Roundtable; both are programs of the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce.
The CEO Roundtable is comprised of leaders of growing companies such as Beers’. They meet once a month to learn and discuss topics like managing growth, hiring and firing, handling employee problems and more. “I wish I had joined earlier,” Beers says of the roundtable. “It’s been wonderful.”
Get Connected: Events North // 231.883.2708
EYES WIDE OPEN
Publicist Melissa Mengden Bunker and writer Frank Bunker may have had stars in their eyes for each other when they went into business together 19 years ago, but their feet were planted firmly on the ground.
After deciding on a name, MarketWrite, the couple wasted no time having an attorney make their business union a limited liability corporation, hiring an accountant and applying for a credit card in the business’ name.
MarketWrite often gets event work via its media relations service. But not always: Mengden Bunker says that the company got Music on the Plaza (a weekly summertime series in Grosse Pointe’s village shopping district) and VillageFest (the Downtown Development Authority’s yearly car show, stage performance and food celebration) by reading the local paper. There she read that the authority’s director needed someone to produce and publicize events.
Mengden Bunker promptly wrote the director a pitch letter. She was asked to respond to a request for a proposal, and got the job.
Mengden Bunker says that sort of outreach makes all the difference for event business owners. “If you are not out interacting face to face with clients and vendors, you might as well create your business card in pencil,” she says. “Because you will not be around long.”
Get Connected: MarketWrite // 313.886.9074
HARD WORK AND DEDICATION
David C. McKnight, owner of Emerald City Designs in Farmington Hills, says 2013 was the biggest year of his career so far, based on revenue and the number of events he produced. But 21 years ago, when he started his wedding and corporate events planning business, it was a very different story.
McKnight calls the start of Emerald City “hard work and countless hours of dedication.” He didn’t turn a profit for five years, and during that time had to finance his business by earning money cleaning houses, waiting tables and running a theater program. Even when Emerald City’s books started showing a profit, McKnight didn’t let up. He reinvested the money right back into the business, getting a dedicated phone line, buying a computer and building up his inventory.
He describes himself as one of those rare creative types who also has a head for business, and didn’t hire professional services until Emerald City was five years old. And it was another few years before he hired someone to do his books and prepare his taxes, finally freeing him to focus on what he truly love—devoting time to clients.
McKnight says his company averages about seven to 10 events per week, though he and his 50-plus employees are never too busy for new clients. “I’m always very conscious of client services and that the client comes first,” he says. “Truly listen to your clients and pay attention to your employees.”
Get Connected: Emerald City Designs // 248.474.7077
SHAKING THE BUSHES
Carol Galle, CMP, owner and CEO of Special D Events in Royal Oak, has learned to pay attention to her own business even while engaged in the all-consuming job of producing events for others. “When you get busy, marketing falls to the wayside,” Galle says. “But there needs to be somebody looking at that.”
She created a company website early on—the majority of Special D’s leads now come from it—and built a presence on Facebook and Twitter. “You never know who’s watching and who might become a client,” she says.
Galle made another strategic move in 2006: She created a wholly owned subsidiary of Special D called The Anniversary Company. Galle says she saw the recession coming, and wanted to diversify her business as a hedge against possible cuts in special events, meetings and trade shows due to the economic downturn. While some companies can downsize a meeting or event, she reasoned, companies with a milestone anniversary have a limited time to capitalize on it. Her newest venture gave them a way to do that.
In 2013 Galle hired someone to focus on new business development full-time. The new staffer, with experience in events planning and sales, has helped refine the business’ marketing plan and identified new business opportunities, Galle says.
Get Connected: Special D Events // 248.336.8600