Starting an Event Planning Firm

Interview with Greg Jenkins, Founder of Bravo Productions

Greg Jenkins and his partner Thom Neighbors started their own event planning firm after working together on the Rose Bowl Parade. Today, they have a full-service events firm located in Long Beach, California.

You may think that being an event planner is all fun and parties. It is a business like any other. Greg Jenkins shares valuable business insight that is useful for any entrepreneur.

Greg, tell us a little bit about Bravo Productions.

Bravo Productions is a Long Beach, California-based award-winning, full-service event planning, design and production company specializing in staging corporate, association, government and non-profit functions nationwide to support clients' strategic marketing campaigns. More recently, Bravo Productions has penetrated the social market as well.

When did you start Bravo Productions?

Thom Neighbors and I co-founded and launched Bravo Productions in 1987, where our focus was solely designing and producing floats for the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena. Most of our clients represented some of the top names in corporate America. As our company grew, these clients sought us out to create their events, props for promotional displays, etc. In addition, throughout the years, we begin receiving more inquiries to create events, props and theatrical scenery for clients outside of the Rose Parade, commercial production companies and television studios. In 1994, we re-engineered our company based on market demand, and we begin solely planning and coordinating events for corporate clientele. It expanded into government agencies such as the United States Army, tourist attractions such as the grand opening events for the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach and product launches such as Cable On Demand.

What were you doing before you started up Bravo Productions?

Before starting Bravo Productions, both Thom Neighbors and I worked for Festival Artists, a company that produced floats for the Rose Parade. Neighbors served as the art director and I was the public relations director. I supervised their clients' Rose Parade publicity, promotions, special events and community relations activities. Prior to that, I formerly worked at a Los Angeles-based public relations firm. Prior to relocating to Southern California, I previously served in a marketing position with the Detroit Convention & Visitors Bureau. I was assigned to most of the city's grand-scale special events such as the Jazz Festival, Thanksgiving Day Parade, now-defunct post season Cherry Bowl game, etc.

What was your big break in the special events industry?

I knew the type of profession I wanted to pursue as a child. I was always fascinated with the behind-the-scenes of theater and special events. After graduating from Michigan State University with a bachelors in advertising and a master's degree in organizational communications, I did an extensive amount of volunteer work to get into the event profession. My big break came when I served as a gopher on Super Bowl XVI. I basically delivered promotional items for a 'Pub Crawl.' I was in heaven. That hardwork and assertiviness was noticed by the Executive Director of the Super Bowl Host Committee. She recommended me for a job at the Convention Bureau, and the rest is history.

Where did you get the startup money for Bravo Productions?

Neighbors and I used our savings to start the company. Each of us contributed $10,000. By today's standards, it doesn't appear to be a lot of money to invest in one's own business, however, at the time it seemed like a 'big chunk of change' and risk. We actually worked on developing a business and marketing plan 1-year out from officially starting the company. It was even scarier knowing that the Rose Parade has a limited number of float participants each year, and many of those sponsors had established relationships with other float companies.

Who are your main competitors? How do you compete against them?

We break down our competitors in several groups:

Direct Competitors (this are companies in the greater Los Angeles area, who we often compete with for the same type of clients.)

Indirect Competitors (those event companies that are in the industry -- whether established or new ones that pop up each day. They may not be of the same caliber as our firm, but they certainly compete for industry business.) And due to the economy and layoffs, more and more individuals are starting their own event planning businesses. We all have to compete for the work in the marketplace.

How has your experience in running the business been different from what you expected?

We try not to have expectations other than to produce quality work for our clients, and let the work and learn through the process speak for itself.

Is there anything you wish you had done differently?

Yes. We learned a lot earlier on. For example, we would never produce four-color mailers that are sent to mass prospective clients. We've learned that face-to-face interaction and building the business relationship is key. We certainly would have jumped on the Internet and developing a website much sooner. It's an amazing tool to get your message out to the world. We try to make it much easier for clients to find us rather than we search for a 'needle in a haystack' seeking out clients.

What have you done that has been very effective in helping to grow the business?

Investing in technology, successful marketing, networking and communicating the passion that we have about our business and clients projects.

Expanding our message beyond the walls of the events industry. We often find that some of our clients have found us through reading an article in a consumer-related magazine in which we were quoted or showcased. An example is Men's Health, "How a Guy Can Throw a Simple Party.'

Projecting our company as a leader in the industry and not follower. It's easy to copy someone else's project; it's always challenging to be original. It's the originality and creativity that inspires our team.

Putting together a terrific team of suppliers and staff, who are reliable and feel just as passionate about the work they produce on your behalf.

And lastly, learn from our mistakes and don't fix something that is not broken.

What advice would you give to somebody else who wanted to start a similar business?

My advice is as follows:

1) Before jumping into the industry, do some volunteer work and learn about the various components of a special event -- from catering, logistics and management to budget planning, lighting and show direction.

2) Research and clearly identify the market you would like to tap into. Is it corporate, association, social (baby showers, anniversaries, bar mitvahs), weddings, etc. And is there room for more competition in your area? Some areas may already be overly saturated with similar services.

3) Operate with good ethics and integrity. You might be the most creative person on the planet, but if you'rr unethical, it will certainly catch up with you.

4) If you don't have the expertise relating to a particular event aspect, hire someone who does. It could be a freelance person. And delegate!

5) Two mottos that we have on our wall: A) A lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part. B) When you sacrifice quality, you lose everything.

Those are great ideas, Greg. Do you have anything else you would like to share with our readers?

Yes, I'd like to share a list of my key business learning lessons. They are as follows:

1) Treat each customer as they were your only client. When the times get tough -- like they are in this slagging economy, they will continue to conduct business with you, but perhaps on a smaller budget. When the times are great, they will want to take you along for the successful ride.

2) Separate yourself from your competitors by participating in your industry conferences and events. Become the 'rock star' of your industry through speaking engagements, lectures, volunteering and serving on boards.

3) Act in a manner that demonstrates you are a true professional. As an entrepreneur in the special events industry, we're often viewed as just an industry that creates 'fun.' It's a profession like any other industry. We approach our clients if we were a doctor, lawyer or business manager. We advise appropriately -- perhaps give them advice they may not want to here, however we provide our professional expertise and honest assessment to every situation as an obligation to our clients.

That is great advice that I think applies to any industry. Thank you so much for your time, Greg.

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