The relationships between a supplier and a brand-side eventprof is changing like it always does during economic upheaval. We’re all looking at our contracts, our resources, our responsibilities, and saying “we’re going to have to have some uncomfortable conversations”. Whole parts of our industry are being threatened as we wonder when this will be over and what it will look like when the dust settles.
As an events agency owner whose business sits at the crossroads of event planner and supplier, I wanted to share 21 things you can do to ensure you’re protecting yourself and your suppliers during these topsy turvy time. Let’s commit to coming out of this and having choices. Our supply chain can't exist in a robust way without all of us.
If you bring a supplier into your company or have the relationship, be transparent as possible about what is and isn’t really possible to all of your stakeholders as well as with us. Be transparent about who actually makes decisions, who is important and who isn't; what is important and what isn’t. If you’re going to be able to pay your invoices on time or not. What’s actually happening and what will never happen.
You don’t like to waste time? Us either. I know of more than a few suppliers who are thinking about the idea of asking brand-side for references just like you ask for supplier references. We all want guarantees that we’re working with the type of people we want to partner with.
Assume best intentions
When we tell you we will or we won’t, assume we have the best of intentions and will try as hard as we can within human reasonable bounds to deliver on what we told you.
Especially if something has gone wrong. In nearly 20 years of working in this industry, I’ve never seen a supplier deliberately sabotage a working relationship. However, I have seen a client-side company choose to behave in a way that has broken trust. I’m not saying that all suppliers wouldn’t intentionally do you wrong, but we depend on your companies for our livelihoods. The network we all operate in is small with only a few degrees of acquaintances separating us all. We’re pretty motivated to do it right.
Trust but verify
Assuming best intentions doesn’t mean don’t verify. This means ensuring there is a master list of things that need to be done, everyone agrees on the list, then trusting that folks will get it done in the time allotted. It doesn’t mean emailing or messaging nonstop or making additional changes during the period of time when they’re working on it, or taking it upon yourself to also do the thing, in contravention to what’s happening. Even if your boss pushes you because he or she is anxious and needs to provide updates to their boss. Wait until after the deadline has passed to verify that it's been done.
Be realistic about the fact that suppliers work for you AND other clients too
Unless your contract indicates that you have us 24/7, please know we aren’t ignoring you on purpose if we don’t answer immediately. Need to know exactly when and how we want to communicate, put a SLA (service level agreement) in the contract that specifically outlines your expectations.
Don’t take it personally when we tell you we’ll have to charge you more money when you need more or want custom services
This new normal has meant a distinct departure from the contracts and services many of us are used to. There are a lot of expenses clients are having to pay for that you’ve likely never thought of before. Some of the big ideas you and your company want to do for events don’t exist yet. Or they do, and we’re adapting them to fit the new reality. It takes both time and money to create and execute those big ideas well. And sometimes it takes more money and time than was additionally estimated.
Suppliers are not out to nickel and dime you. In fact, it terrifies many of us to ask you for more money because we don’t want you to panic or feel like we can’t do it. Suppliers and agencies are vulnerable to your perceptions. When we tell you it will cost more money, please be aware that we’ve likely discussed it ad nauseum internally and are only doing it because it’s a real need.
Be an ally
If we don’t have an ally in the company, the relationship between us is transactional. Which will ultimately be less effective for all of us.
We also get that your company is facing economic pressures. However, having you as an ally when we can’t be in the room with you and your CMO who doesn’t understand why we’re advising on something or helping us prepare for the meeting with the stakeholder who is suddenly overly involved in virtual/hybrid events because all of the tradeshows have been cancelled is immeasurable.
Play the long game
Eventually we’re going to get to meet face to face again and we’ll need to be able to do things that we aren’t able to do right now in a mostly virtual world. Clawing back money from your decor company, your convention center, your DMC partners for instance can be a death blow to that amazing boutique supplier you’ve worked with for years.
Cash flow is cash flow. We get it. But we have to be mindful of it too. If you don’t need to cut or clawback, don’t. Every supplier and agency I know thinks long term about working with brand partners. Please know that short and long term we’ll be the partners to you above and beyond another group who can survive the financial cuts, who might only be viewing through a dollar sign that needs to be made to make the investors or shareholders happy.
When you want to do something new or different, ask a lot of questions. Ask a lot of questions before you take the supplier meeting. When you come to us we don't expect you to have all the answers. But we do need to do the basics and expectations. You have access to all of those stakeholders internally who have questions that you need to understand if they’re not going to be a part of the contract negotiations and then your suppliers are suddenly faced with unknown expectations post contract signing.
We want to help. We want to make it happen in a timely fashion. We can’t do it as well if you don’t ask the internal questions to help set all of us up for success.
Even those of us with years of producing virtual and hybrid events are learning new and innovative ways to help our industry survive and our participant experience thrive. You being an active question partner means we are all acknowledging we are a team rowing in the same direction of success.
We swear when we ask about budget, authority, need, and timing we aren’t trying to be pushy or only focused on what’s in it for us. We need to know these things to be the most helpful to you so we can plan for the right amount of capacity and resources for your project. See number 1.
You need it by this time in this format. Then tell us. You want chat, Q&A, but it all needs to be moderated. Tell us. You want to only have attendees who register with their business emails. Tell us. Let’s put it all into the contract so we’re all held accountable. The more specific you are, the better we can all be.
Be straight about communication styles
Just like your office culture, suppliers and agencies have a culture too. Some are Apple companies and hate Microsoft; some rely solely on Slack, some don’t use the phone very often. Some love meetings, others don’t understand why it can’t just be an email.
We commit to meeting you in the middle on the communication thing but we can’t if we don’t all talk about it. You tell us what you need here. We’ll tell you what would help us. And then let’s figure out a way to make it work.
Be a partner in all the ways that matter. If we ask for your attention, no matter the communication channel, we’re doing so because we need you to do something, validate something, understand something, take action, or stop doing something. Just like we commit to listening to you, please give us the same courtesy and grace. We’re a partner as a supplier or agency. Whether we’re a single person freelancer or a multi-million dollar organization, we’re trying to build something with you, not just because it’ll make our portfolio look cool.
Focus on roles and responsibilities
Make sure you and your suppliers/agencies have clearly articulated who is doing what. Hiring someone just to have bodies on board can harm the team. Investing your time and money in partners who specialize in the roles your company needs has immense payoffs. Having people without a true understanding of what you and we are trying to do can completely derail and upset a project, especially if it’s new or there are a lot of eyeballs on it.
Be strategic about who is being part of what. And be strong when your boss or your boss’s boss starts making demands. We know internal politics are tough. Your suppliers would rather be an ally than a hindrance but we’re also likely to adhere to the contract we agreed on. This means if others start coming in and make demands and decisions, your scope is going to change and we’re going to have to start talking about how to make that happen from a finance and resource perspective.
Value who makes up your team
With each team member bringing something special to the table, treating each role as an essential part of your operation is also crucial. Each team member should feel like their job matters, without ever asking themselves, “Why am I even here?” A sense of purpose helps everyone’s performance and makes all of us, from supplier to brand side feel like they belong.
Be accountable to goals and commitments
If you were transparent about your goals from the get go, your supplier is holding themselves accountable to that. In fact, we’re relying on that from a monetary perspective. Let’s agree to meet our goals together and pay our bills on time. We can’t if you don't. It’s that simple.
And it should go without saying, if the goal changes internally and isn’t communicated to us, then we’re likely not going to help you be successful. Protect us and you by telling us the truth about what we’re trying to accomplish.
Celebrate successes and failures
Celebrating successes and milestones brings us together as a team together and allows everyone to see that when we work together, great things can happen. If someone does a great job at something, let’s commit to giving a shout out in front of the rest of the team (and internally at your company, we do it in ours too!) so that every effort is seen and appreciated. This also helps each of us to feel visible and that what we’re doing has an impact.
In contrast, if our team fails at something, let’s come together to redirect our efforts or turn it into something positive. Don’t throw anyone under the bus or turn a damage-control discussion into a blame game. This never helps anybody. Instead, let’s take equal responsibility as a team to put our heads together and figure out the next steps or pivots.
Be proactive about feedback
Feedback is the key to assuring any team is staying on track, but more importantly that it is improving each day. Feedback should be proactive and constant. If your supplier doesn’t hear about a problem occurring until the ish has really hit the fan internally on your end, we’re not going to be a good partner to help you. If it’s our fault, we need to know. And if it doesn't seem like we’re listening, then it’s cool to be a squeaky wheel. We’d do the same to you.
Don’t be afraid of change
This new normal means that for quite some time the things we love most about our world will not be happening. That doesn’t mean you can’t still bring an amazing meal, speaker, or idea to your attendees. It doesn’t mean you can’t fulfill the promises you’ve made to your sponsors and exhibitors. It will just LOOK and potentially FEEL different. Change is what has made our industry what it is today. Flip your assumptions, be okay with tweaks, get comfortable with failure (because it’s never going to work perfectly). Embrace change.
Use a contract and buy the insurance
Cocktail napkins and handshakes aren’t going to work as well. There’s too much happening for us to use some of the traditions we’ve established previously in our industry. We all need specific, smart contracts with clauses that help and support us all. Don’t be afraid to negotiate. Don’t take it personally when we tell you we can’t until we get it (the contract or the insurance).
Remember that we and you cannot control everything
It’s a no secret eventprofs have a control issue. Our backup plans have backup plans. We insist on running dress rehearsals. We want it all in writing. And we want it exactly that way (even though we have at least ten more ways lined up waiting just in case).
Let’s be real though: we’ve never, ever been able to ACTUALLY control everything. We simply had the appearance of control. However, if something goes awry in a virtual space, it feels so much more vulnerable. There’s more risk now because instead of having everyone under one roof, you’re relying on a disparate network. For what might be the first time in your life, you’re thinking fondly of the insurance paperwork on the fire eater or knife juggling act in lieu of the conversations you’re having with your now plethora of technology partners and producers who tell you, we’re as ready as we can be but we won’t guarantee it’ll be perfect.
Have faith. And remember this, and check your previous contracts if you don’t believe me, not a single supplier confirmed for you prior to 2020 that your event would be perfect. Instead, I’ll bet they all told you (and had contract clauses to support it), things can and would go wrong and they’d work with you to ensure that wouldn’t happen. And if it did, they’d do what they could to make it right but weren’t liable for the business outcomes as a result of what went wrong.
Be an advocate for other
Other ideas, other options, other people. Other can be scary. Other can be risky. Other can be unknown. Other can uncomfortable. You won’t have to stand out there on the limb by yourself though. Finding the right supplier partners means we’re always standing by to help you succeed even if your “other” is absolutely crazy. In fact, we like that about you.
Bringing it all together
Our industry and our commitment to our attendees includes many different activities, people, entities, information, and resources it takes to “DO” events. The relationships built between suppliers and brand side eventprofs remain one of the key reasons why events, in person, virtual, or hybrid, perform as well as they do. Thanks for being a key part of the team and ensuring we’re able to continue playing at the highest caliber.
Lindsay Martin-Bilbrey, CEO, Nifty Method Marketing & Events
Lindsay Martin-Bilbrey is an accomplished speaker (though she prefers to be backstage with a headset), #eventicons host, event prof, and marketer with work featured in the New York Times. Lindsay and her team have worked with brands including Ford Motor Company, American Bar Association, Harvard Business School, and many more.