The mood is lifting among special event professionals, with 47 percent predicting they will stage more events this year than they did in 2011. The findings come from a survey conducted annually by Penton Media, parent company of Special Events.

The entire study is available online for a nominal fee; visit specialevents.com/research.

Thirty-two percent expect to stage the same number of events this year as they did last, and 8 percent say it's likely they will stage fewer events in 2012.

While these figures are roughly on par with predictions from last year, they are a marked improvement from three years ago, when fully 21 percent of respondents said they expected to stage fewer events in the New Year, and only 28 percent expected to stage more.

SAME OLD STRUGGLES

While the rosier outlook is welcome, some of the same old headaches for event professionals linger on.

Special Events polls members of its Advisory Board annually for their take on what the New Year will bring. And Paul Neuman, president of New York-based caterer Neuman's, foresees continued pressure to deliver plenty — but at a low price.

“What was once an accommodation is now an expectation,” Neuman says. “Clients have become accustomed to have us provide more and more service at the same price.”

DEBT DRAMA

The roller-coaster ride of economies around the world is making the job of event pros tougher.

“The ongoing instability in the euro zone is the main challenge for us as it spreads anxiety and fear across the corporate and association world,” explains Padraic Gilligan, managing director of global DMC Ovation DMC, headquartered in Dublin. “Clients are finding it hard to commit budget to medium- or long-term plans. There are two outcomes here: Clients do nothing, or they do things at the very last moment. While a gig is always better than no gig, the last-minute nature of the process is not ideal, and it doesn't optimize creativity, resource planning, budgeting, etc.”

POLISH THE PROCESS

To cope with these challenges, several board members note they are examining and improving their own internal processes.

At Neuman's, for example, this has meant migrating to a new software program.

“We have spent the last year putting a software program in place that will drive our ability to manage multiple, simultaneous events more easily,” Neuman explains. “This will drive efficiency and productivity and should allow us to continue to drive down expenses and do more with less.”

In the old days, special event pros often could succeed thanks to a simple mix of creativity and energy. But ever-shorter lead times and ever-more-demanding clients are changing the nature of the business, requiring a more structured approach to operations.

Last year, Sally Webb, CSEP, head of The Special Event Company of Durham, N.C., brought in a consultant to help her and her team analyze and systematize every step of her company's processes, from initial client call to post-event review. The overhaul was necessary, she says, to ensure her company can service such sophisticated clients as big pharmaceutical firms. (See an interview with Webb on page 54.)

Gilligan thinks this approach can pay off big. “For agencies or companies with great technology and processes in place, the ‘lastminute.com’ scenarios become real competitive opportunities,” Gilligan says. “If we can live within this new business paradigm, then we can actually prosper. Event agencies will need to offer more than creativity and logistical expertise — we'll need to be business-savvy and process-orientated.”

WHERE THE WORK IS Despite the power of economic uncertainty to drag down the event business, board members see opportunities in some exciting new arenas.

Chicago-based wedding expert Frank Andonoplas, MBC, sees a return to fancier weddings — “back to traditional, large and detailed to the nth degree,” he says. And because his state sanctioned civil unions last year, “Bring on the gays!” he says. “I have seen a huge increase in the gay wedding market.”

Thanks to her operations in both Canada and China, Debra Lykkemark, president and CEO of Vancouver, British Columbia-based Culinary Capers Catering, has an international perspective on growth this year.

Although the sluggish economy is putting a damper on Vancouver tourism — a vital resource in the area — “Our biggest opportunity is a breathtaking new convention center located on the ocean,” she says, “which is attracting conference business despite the weak economy.”

In contrast, strong growth in the Chinese economy means “we will just need to ride the wave!” Lykkemark says. Her Beijing-based catering company has begun catering for schools and will add a party rental business this year.

Nancy Shaffer, founder and president of Bravo! Events by Design in Washington, sees the need to communicate the value of an event professional not as problem, but as an opportunity.

Although clients may assume they are simply hiring party planners, “We want to create events that provoke intrigue and thought, provide a platform for a call to action, and produce a long-term impact on the audience,” Shaffer explains. Her opportunity in 2012: “To continue to define our industry as a powerful, professional and important service industry.”

RESOURCES

BRAVO! EVENTS BY DESIGN
www.aboutbravo.com

CULINARY CAPERS CATERING
www.culinarycapers.com

FRANK EVENT DESIGN
www.frankeventdesign.com

NEUMAN'S
www.caterernyc.com

OVATION GLOBAL DMC
www.ovationdmc.com

THE SPECIAL EVENT COMPANY
www.specialeventco.com