Interview with Debi Lilly, Corporate Event Planner

Debi Lilly, CEO and founder of A Perfect Event; Image used with permission from Empower Public Relations.

As CEO and founder of Chicago's A Perfect Event, corporate event planner Debi Lilly has created memorable moments for companies as diverse as McDonalds and Tiffany's. Also working in the celebrity world, perhaps her most famous client is Oprah Winfrey. Debi's party planning excellence has been featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show for seven years, including Oprah's televised 50th birthday party. She is also a contributing editor to several style and bridal magazines.

Debi talked to LoveToKnow recently and shared her tips for making any event a success, while also revealing a little more about the business of a corporate event planner.

Party Planning Tips for Any Occasion

LoveToKnow (LTK): If a company or a celebrity decided today, "I want to host a big event," what would be the first step you suggest the client take?

Debi Lilly (DL): Well, definitely the first step would be talking about the purpose or the occasion. Obviously, details vary from one party to the next whether it's a baby shower or a summer picnic for a corporate client, and you have to consider the timing and the budget. I would say the first step would be talking about the type of event that the client is going to have. That way we make sure that every event is unique and special based on whatever the client wants to celebrate or honor.

LTK: Are there any things that can help guarantee the success of an event?

DL: I would say that you would want to make sure that you are thinking through all the various pieces. Meaning for any given event:

  • Do you have an occasion?
  • Do you have a guest of honor?
  • Do you have a location?
  • Do you have a venue?
  • Do you have some type of entertainment?
  • Do you have some type of décor?

Look through all the different pieces that comprise any successful event, and then you can translate those to your own party. Next, follow the steps needed to make sure that you aren't going to forget any special details or be stuck the day of the event scrambling around trying to get something completed.

LTK: What are the most important things to remember on the day of the event?

DL: On the day of the party, I would say that you want to make sure that you have, first and foremost, given yourself enough time to do whichever task are going to fall to you. This means that if you're doing the food or the flowers yourself, you really want to make sure that you give yourself a nice long window of time to complete the work. There's nothing worse, as I'm sure you know, than underestimating the time it takes to finish a task, and then end up not being able to relax, get dressed and be fresh and ready to receive all of your guests. So I think it's really important to give yourself ample time.

We always try to have as much as possible completed the day before the event like having the tables set and the furniture arranged, so that on the day of the event, we're really only focused on things that have to be done last-minute, like the food and the ice.

After that I think it's always important to figure out the flow of your event and of your guests. This means that you want to think through, "They're arriving here. Where should I set up the bar? Where should I set up the food?" You want to make sure that people really are moving through the venue, whether it be your home or a backyard or a restaurant, so you really have to think that through and set it up so it works really well.

I think it's always important to keep the weather in mind. Let's say you're planning a big outdoor party. It's always important to make sure that you have a backup plan just in case of foul weather. Being in Chicago, we have a 50/50 chance of good weather. Obviously, that may not as important in other climates, but it's very, very important here in our market.

The Business of a Corporate Event Planner

LTK: If someone else were interested in becoming a corporate event planner, what steps would you recommend he or she take to get started?

DL: Find a great company in your local market, and start working for them on at least a part-time basis. You just need to get your feet wet and get a foot hold in the industry, and there are so many positions available, whether it be just project-by-project or on weekends or on evenings. It seems like a lot of people have gotten into event planning almost by chance because they're just looking for something part-time on the side or some extra money. Others already know they love it and wonder how they can get into this line of work. Either way, that would be the first suggestion that I would make.

LTK: Do you ever get to attend a party and just enjoy it, or are you always thinking about it from a planner's perspective?

DL: Yes, I do get to attend parties for the fun of it. Over the holidays, I attended many parties for which I had no responsibility. It's funny, though; you can't really break out of your mold. Even though I was just another guest, I still caught myself saying things like, "Can I get you something to drink?" "Can I take your coat for you?" Everyone was laughing at me and saying, "Deb…stop, stop." So I guess it is kind of difficult to turn it off, but I definitely do get to go to functions here and there. I wouldn't say often because 99% of the time it's something that's business-related. However, it's really fun when I do, but it's also difficult sometimes to sit back and just be a guest.

LTK: Looking at your website, I'm intrigued by the idea of your Event Library. Is it exactly what it sounds like, one-stop shopping for event planning?

DL: It is. It's both on our website and also an actual library or physical part of our boutique. What we've tried to do is list the best of the best of Chicago's vendors; it's definitely a local resource. We found that it makes planning easier for people, no matter which kind of party they're throwing, because they're hiring pre-qualified vendors like great caterers with a great reputation, bands, photographers, etc.

LTK: Is this unique among event planners?

DL: It's really unique. Some people try to hold those recommended vendors kind of close in their pocket. We just thought it seemed like a really fun way to showcase our preferred partners, who we know do such a great job and are so professional, and help them build their business while we also help make it easier for people to plan their events.

Learn More About Event Planning

LoveToKnow would like to thank Debi Lilly for participating in this interview. If you would like to learn more about event planning, visit A Perfect Event for more information.

Interview with Debi Lilly, Corporate Event Planner