Lynn Edwards, owner & founder of Proper Planning based in Seattle, Washington, is a sought-after public speaker and a leader in the event planning industry. As the founder of Proper Planning, Lynn has built a team of motivated event professionals, and together they produce nearly 100 events a year worldwide. Her dedication to innovative guest experiences as well as her team's ability to execute a flawless event has allowed them to grow their client base to include blue-chip clients like Microsoft and Amazon.
After 30 years in the events business, Lynn created Toolkit to bring together planners to share innovative ideas, proven strategies, and best practices. She began her career in the hotel business, then moved to convention centers and eventually convention bureaus, where she sold to event planners. Twenty years ago she decided to move to the other side of the fence and become a professional event planner. We spoke to Lynn to find out more about her journey, and what the future holds for the events space.
“I took some classes at the University of Oregon in the leisure studies program, which had a hospitality component to it, and then I got connected to the hotel business. I got the hospitality bug early and I'm still very passionate about it after all these years. I started as a supplier working for big hotels, small hotels, and then on to owning my own company as an entrepreneur that has been quite the journey of building your client base and bringing on team members to scale. I think what's unique about this industry - there's so many different paths and it continues to be challenging and presents unique opportunities to make it fresh and fun.”
The passion for the event planning industry is evident in everything that Lynn Edwards says and does. In a rapidly changing world, a career for life is uncommon, but Edwards claims to have ‘found her calling’ and was keen to tell us how she enjoys the day-to-day of running her own event planning business.
“My day to day involves meeting with my team members, talking through their event clients, where we're at on their planning process, advising, getting involved creatively and strategically, offering them ideas. One thing that's really important is after many years in an industry is to stay high level - I want to stay strategic. I've done a lot of floor plans and a lot of spreadsheets, and I’ve moved a lot of ballroom chairs in my day!”
Being able to combine the hands-on creativity of the role with a strategic vision for the company and exercising her business acumen, Edwards says that there’s ‘never a dull moment.’ Much of the work behind the success of Proper Planning is reputation management - making sure that people who attend their events have such a great experience that they share it with others.
“Rarely do you just hire a meeting or event company just out of the blue, it's usually through word of mouth from people who've had well-executed events and they want to know who did that. If you're going to trust someone with a $10million event budget, you want to know they have produced great, great shows. As we got more mature as a business, we had the opportunity to really be selective with who we worked with. That's a day to day thing that I'm involved with. Do we want to engage in a partnership with this particular organization or company? And then once we do, I'm managing the people who are leading the planning process.”
The power to be able to know when to ‘fire your clients’ is something that Edwards and Proper Planning have had to learn the hard way. They created their own client evaluation system to deal with enquiries and flag up certain criteria that were important to the business. The value of working for and with the right people is something that Edwards says has been ‘empowering’. With a proven track record of delivering successful events for blue-chip companies, we asked Lynn for an insight into the world of high pressure event planning.
“We put together an event for Amazon and it was a small startup that they had acquired that wanted to produce an event. We planned that in 45 days and it was about 3,500 people. So it was a huge, heavy lift of brand creation and event branding. It was a huge success. They wanted about 2000 people there and we delivered about 3,500. I tell my team all the time, just because I can land a plane on a 40 foot runway doesn't mean I should. So it's not something I would advise, but it’s great to know that we have done that.”
The transition to online events that has been forced on the world in recent months has been particularly challenging for Edwards and her team. In a world where all gatherings of people were banned overnight, countless events were cancelled or postponed. Proper Planning rose to the challenge.
‘We had an event for a thousand HR managers that was scheduled to go live and we turned it from live to virtual in three days. Our team did not sleep. We won't be stopped, whatever it takes. We're just a team of solution seekers and so you just go hard to figure those things out. I think - and I always say in this business – that the two important skills are to be creative and resourceful.”
While the Proper Planning team works tirelessly behind the scenes, Edwards also speaks proudly of the ‘deep bench of suppliers and vendors’ that they work with to provide the tools and services they need for events. These tools have had to change as events moved online, as Edwards says: ‘we're in the gathering business and the gathering business got canceled first’.
“What we've learned in the short three months is you can create connection, engagement and community using a digital platform. It's not been easy. Imagine doing your job for 30 years and someone shows up and says, ‘you have to do your job in Japanese’. You don't know that language. You're being forced to learn a brand new language, but to do the same stuff that you've done in a new way with new tools.”
Edwards is convinced that live events will return in force, though. She describes the online, digital event offerings that open up local events for attendees around the world as a ‘silver lining’ that can also serve to save money and travel time. The two are likely to live together as people have embraced attending virtual meetings, but Lynn says it’s not a replacement for the real thing.
“I think that you cannot replace live events. People have a real thirst for live connection, whether it's big concerts or conferences, live events aren't going to go away. When video conferencing came everyone thought, ‘oh no, we'll never have another in-person gathering’. It's just not true. Not everything transfers to digital well, but I don't think we will let go of digital when we go back into the live space. I think there will be these hybrid models where there's always a chance for event owners to now offer a digital option and a live option. Once people learn how to use the wheel, you're not going to uninvent the wheel.”
With restrictions on movement easing in North America, the issue of when and how to return to live events is one that Edwards and her team are learning to deal with. Her understanding of people and experience in the industry gives her a unique perspective on what issues will be key to making sure the time is right to organize a traditional meeting.
“It doesn't matter if you've done all this infrastructure work to create a safe environment. I can check the box that venues test temperatures and you have pushed the seating away but venues don’t talk about consumer confidence. It will be different, there'll be prepackaged food and we'll be forced to do business a little bit different, but we're very adaptable in this industry.”
As event planners have had to adapt, so have businesses around the globe. We asked Lynn what advice she has for online event novices that have been forced to move their team meetings, webinars, and other events into the online space.
“It starts with the goals and objectives of the meeting. Don't race in to try to figure out which platform you're going to use just like you would decide which venue you're going to use. Evaluate every piece of your event, not all of them transfer, but some may transfer even more efficiently and you might have more success. So there's all these great silver linings. You've got unlimited seats in the virtual setting. I had a client that sold more tickets after her event than she did up to the event. The event has this lifespan that's longer than it ever was. Be curious, be very curious about the opportunities that exist inside of a virtual event that did not exist in a live event.”
Having seemingly found her dream career early on, we asked Edwards why she thought it was such a perfect fit, and if there was ever a time when she questioned her career path. As any entrepreneur would attest, Edwards says that learning from failures and taking the advice of mentors has been crucial in her journey so far.
“Both my parents had entrepreneurial spirits. I saw them take risks and start businesses and have wins and have failures. I learned to fail fast and be okay with failure, and extract the learnings and keep moving. Even now during this challenging time, my nature is to be optimistic and positive for me, my team, my clients. I remember sitting in a staff meeting with one of my big mentors and I watched her run a meeting and she was amazing at it. I learned a really fundamental skill about how to have a good meeting, how to be productive, how to run an agenda, how to moderate.”
The path to success is often laid with setbacks and disappointments. A key part of any entrepreneur’s toolkit is to be able to learn from these challenges and respond constructively. We asked Edwards for any stories she could share with us about finding inspiration from those difficult times. Sometimes the biggest problems we face teach us the most, as she says.
“I was working on a Microsoft project that was an entire annual salary. That's the only thing I did and it was a contract, but it was a big one. And they basically took their ball and went home. They said ‘we're going to centralize this work and we're going to automate it out of somewhere in North Dakota.’ I was in a bit of a flat spin about what to do, because all my work had been with them or for over three years. My tech mentor said to me; ‘how many hours do you spend a week on this contract?’ I said, ‘oh gosh, probably 60, 70 hours a week.’ And he said; ‘what could you do if you spent 60, 70 hours a week on your own business?’ Within one month I had three times the compensation.”
Taking the time to step back and gain perspective on your business and the amount of effort involved was a big turning point for Edwards. Being brave enough to step back and rethink how she worked freed her time to focus on new business rather than providing services. Bringing people together for events and managing those relationships between staff and their clients is all important for everything to run smoothly.
“It's about being clear about what works for you and what are your deal breakers. When we're in a new relationship with a new client we're going to find out some things, the honeymoon's going to be over. What's a pressure point when it starts getting stressful. What is their default? And does that help you? I just think that that's an analogy some of those young entrepreneurs can get their head around. You have to figure out what you'd like in a client relationship and what works, what doesn't and what your deal breakers are.”
Breakups in business can be difficult and stressful, but having the strength to realise when it is the best thing for your company is vital. As Edwards says: ‘change equals opportunity’. She points out that the worst that can happen by trying something new is that you are in the same place, ready to go again. It is a tried and tested process that Edwards has employed throughout her career with Proper Planning, and their new event thought-leadership venture - Toolkit.
With that experience in mind we asked Lynn if she could go back in time and tell her 21 year old self three things, what would they be?
- I wish I would have believed what people said about me earlier. Letting that sink in and accepting that earlier so that you stand in your power knowing I'm really good at this.
- Don't be afraid of failure. It's going to teach you a lot.
- Find great people to build things with, to learn with, to fail with.
Looking to the wider Cascadia Innovation Corridor, Edwards is a passionate advocate for the area and the diversity of talent you can find. The opportunity to bring together a wide range of people with different backgrounds and experiences enriches the community as a whole.
“We're really fortunate to live in this part of the world. I did several events that were Cascadia conferences up in Vancouver, BC and there were all the scientists of the Cascadia Corridor. We have a highly educated workforce. We are rooted in innovation and pioneering thought leadership. We're not afraid to take risks. It's a very rich environment to start a business, to grow a business. I also think the spirit of collaboration is so strong out here. I've lived in other parts of the country, the South and the Northeast, and sometimes it's a real competitive environment. And I feel like the Cascadia Corridor has a really collaborative approach. I can't imagine running this business anywhere else because of those fundamental things that are really important to me.”
In the spirit of collaboration Edwards is excited to work with companies from the length and breadth of the Cascadia Innovation Corridor and provide help and assistance to businesses adapting to the ‘new normal’ in the events space.
You can find out more about Lynn Edwards and Proper Planning here: https://www.properplanningteam.com/