How to create a realistic event planning timeline

Event planning is a subset of project planning that requires organization, business knowledge, people skills, and a strong sense of mission. Every successful event — whether hosting a speaker at a business luncheon or staging a multiday trade show — begins with a realistic event planning timeline that works backward from the date of the event.

Simply put, the longer the timeline for planning your event, the more realistic it is. The organizers of the largest annual trade shows begin planning for the next year shortly after the current year’s show concludes, if not before. 

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Whatever the size and complexity of the event you’re planning, get started as soon as you confirm the date of the event. Solidifying the event date often coincides with confirming the availability of your desired venue. 

There is no magic formula for how long you should allot for your event planning timeline, but it’s appropriate to dedicate a month or more for the smallest gatherings, three to six months for an offsite staff retreat, and six months to a year to prepare for a top national trade show.

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Determine your budget and assemble your team

Any event requires a budget for the venue, event staffing, technical help with audiovisual equipment, and whatever amenities are necessary for the event to be a success. Will you provide attendees with meals or snacks? That might require a caterer or an improvised food court, depending on the event, but however you meet the challenge, you’ll have to negotiate terms and pay deposits.

Event planning is a team sport. This is especially true for low-budget events that rely on volunteers to set up the chairs and put them away when the event concludes. Larger events require a team to assist with vendors, guest processing, marketing, sponsorships, and logistics. Successful event management is a matter of making countless separate but interlocking decisions that require delegating authority skillfully.

Before finalizing the fundamentals of the event, like the venue, allow time for key stakeholders — such as upper management and sponsors — to review the plan. Getting their approval is well worth the time and effort.

Structure your timeline around nonnegotiable deadlines

Be grateful if you already know that you need to meet with your biggest sponsor a month before the gates open or attend a mandatory walkthrough with the venue managers a week prior. If you think of the time between now and the event as terrain you must cross, these nonnegotiable deadlines are essential landmarks.

You can’t control nonnegotiable deadlines, and sometimes for contractual or licensing reasons, they are beyond any one person’s control. It’s basically up to you to set a deadline for when to choose a caterer, but it’s up to the caterer to stipulate when they want your deposit and final payment. The same is true for your keynote speaker, the band or DJ, and logistics services — such as special lighting, tents, or a portable stage.

Event planning is stressful, but an effective antidote for stress is to deal with what you can’t change directly. One way to do that is to acknowledge that your nonnegotiable deadlines are probably set for good reasons, and meeting those deadlines is the best stress reducer of them all.

Allow for “buffer time”

Just as there are deadlines you have to meet but have no control over setting, there will be many deadlines that slip — and you may not have control over the reasons for the delays. Events are all about coordinating human beings, and if that were easy, nobody would expect a raise if they were promoted to manager.

A realistic event manager knows that no matter how diligent they are, many important things will take longer to accomplish than expected. Building in buffer time will keep your stress manageable — or at least less acute — than if you schedule on the strict presumption that you’ll meet every deadline in the plan.

Attendees at business events often leave with a gift, souvenir, or memento bearing a marketing message or logo. Kate Page, CEO of Mynx Merch, which provides customized marketing merchandise for brands, advises beginning your search for the ideal gift early in your event planning timeline. She cautions that designing the item and reviewing samples are time-consuming tasks, and since items you select may come from overseas, delivery can take longer than you might anticipate.

Reassess at the halfway point

Regardless of how long or short your event planning timeline is, the right time for a reality check is when you’ve reached the halfway point between the start of your timeline and the date of the event. Have you met every nonnegotiable deadline to date? Are you on track to meet those that lie ahead? 

Assess your budget now that you’ve secured your venue and primary vendors to determine how much leeway you have when hiring a videographer, florist, or a live band versus a DJ. Whatever the size or type of event, certain amenities might make it more memorable for the people who attend, so work hard to get the best value for your budgeted dollars.

A reassessment at the halfway point might reveal you’ve been stressing more than the situation warrants. Organizing an event means there’s a lot to worry about and many details to track, so it’s reassuring to know if you’re hitting your milestones. And if you aren’t, you can reassure yourself that you still have half of the timeline to get caught up.

Create a “day-of” timeline

You need a separate plan for when the big day finally arrives and an avalanche of last-minute snags and logistics crashes on you. In the latter stages of your event planning timeline — when you’re confident you’ve assembled all the parts you need for the event — it’s important to begin envisioning and planning for the day of the event.

Perhaps you’re organizing a presentation to a large sales team. You should be the first person at the venue. Who will unlock the room? Who will set up tables and chairs? Doubtless you’ve arranged for all that, but you want your plan to unfold smoothly — or at least be present to untangle anything that goes wrong. Detail where you need to be and what must happen so that you aren’t just “winging it” when your attention is needed most.

Every business event is an opportunity to strengthen bonds, meet new people, and present your business in the best possible light — one that you have orchestrated. If you don’t rush the planning process, your event will succeed.

Peter Page is a professional writer whose career began in print. He has worked with hundreds of entrepreneurs and business leaders as an editor at and Green Entrepreneur. He is now editor for contributed content at Grit Daily News.

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