Cindy Lo is the founder, owner, and Chief Event Strategist of Red Velvet Events, an international award-winning full service creative events agency. She’s also the author of Behind the Red Velvet Curtain.
In this episode, you’ll learn how event planning can be an exciting, rewarding, and incredibly fun career… But, it takes more than just knowing how to throw a great party if you want to make it work.
You’ll be getting:
- The best advice for professional event planning greatness.
- Some of the most amazing stories about celebrities she’s worked.
- High-end events that she’s planned along the road.
How Cindy Lo Got Her Start in Event Planning
Cindy Lo: I started in high-tech coming right off college, and I love the job. It treated me well, but something was missing and I didn’t quite know what. Unfortunately, 9/11 happened and that kind of fast-forwarded my job track, because at that time I was working for a client actually in New Jersey and New York.
They said, “Don’t come back. We need to take a pause, because we’re trying to rebuild our city.”
I faced what you would call furlough, essentially, and I was given an opportunity to take time off. I was like, “Oh my gosh! I’ve never had this. What am I going to do?”
My natural tendency was to go and apply for jobs, but no one wanted to touch me because of the fact that I had zero hotel experience, and no planning experience. I even offered to do it for free, because I didn’t need the money and I wanted to show them that I was a fast learner. But no one believed me.
With my business degree, I was going to create, basically, the experience that they kept saying I was missing.
“But I was only going to do it for one year, because after all, I did not want to be my own boss.”
So I did it for a year, and I was having too much fun. It just was natural. I didn’t dread waking up in the morning. The feeling was like, “Wow! I am at my element.” That’s when I knew that I had to continue on with Red Velvet Events.
Charlie Hoehn: When did you first feel that “This is so much fun, it doesn’t even feel like work” feeling?
Cindy Lo: About 6 months in. But I was still like, “Oh my gosh! I’ve got to make money. I’ve got to figure this out.” Also, probably even at six months in, I was still telling myself, “I need to make sure my resume looks good so that when I reapply for these jobs, they’ll hire me.” So I wasn’t even thinking about carrying on at that point.
Enjoying What You Do
Charlie Hoehn: What’s first fun event that you remember?
Cindy Lo: The first one that I realized that this was me was actually a corporate event. I got it because they knew me from college. So the people hosting the event knew me from college—and they only knew me from college.
They didn’t know me in the professional world. So when they gave me this opportunity, it was almost bigger than life.
“I probably underestimated how much work it was going to be.”
I went about the course and just trying to figure everything out, how to negotiate with the hotels, how to do registration, how to do all these things, and I would basically present myself as if I knew more and I had more clients than I really did to other people. But it was during those moments I realized, “Gosh! I really like this and I like the challenges. I like figuring things, putting together a plan and checking things off my list .”
Charlie Hoehn: Do you still have fun doing it?
Cindy Lo: We’re going into our 16th year. A lot of people ask me that, especially because I pivoted my role since I’m more now on the business side. It is definitely something you have to think about, because when you start the business and it’s just Me, myself and I—I mean, I control everything.
“I’m the only one that I have to worry about if I drop the ball.”
As we were growing our team, I realized that I had to think more about the business, not just about the events. That has actually kind of been the fun part about this journey. I really enjoyed a lot.
Charlie Hoehn: What are some of the highlights that you’ve had in your career?
Cindy Lo: If you’d told me 16 years ago that I was going to be doing events that involved President Obama or even the first lady…
I did two separate events. One was for President Obama and the other one was for former first lady, Michelle Obama.
I would have told you, “No way!”
Or if you had told me, “Hey! You’re going to be planning a private concert with Lionel Richie,” I would have also said, “No way.”
Things like that have definitely been amazing.
Logistics of Event Planning
Charlie: How was the experience with the Obamas?
Cindy: When you get brought in for a highly coveted event or secret event, you have to plan everything without revealing what’s going on, but you’ve still got to think through all the logistics.
You have to think through the safety measures, all that. Of course, our client, making sure that they were good.
Charlie Hoehn: What are some of the things that the average person wouldn’t even think of?
Cindy Lo: Things that I actually also learned myself, because, mind you, this was my first time doing it, was that Secret Service takes their job very seriously. You’ve got to think through everything.
It’s not just about the party, like the location and the time and the set up.
It really is down to, “Okay. How are you going to screen everyone that’s coming into the building? How are you going to make sure that you actually know who all is attending?” Even down to who’s speaking and how it relates to his agenda.
Charlie Hoehn: How about your experience with Lionel Richie?
Cindy Lo: Several years ago, ACL turned to two weekends. ACL stands for Austin City Limits Music Festival, and that was the first year it turned into a two weekend in a row concert. Lionel Richie was the headliner.
C3 creates and produces this event. That is completely theirs, and I go as a guest. Well, the second weekend, unfortunately, we had really bad torrential rain, so bad that C3 had to make the final decision to cancel day two.
Basically, they had to cancel all of the lineup, and that included Lionel Richie. Well, they made the announcement public that morning around, I want to say, 9 a.m., and then by 10:00 a.m. my client texted me.
“She’s like, ‘Hey, I assume you saw the news, I want Lionel Richie in my living room for a private concert tonight.'”
I’m like, “Okay. First and foremost, you understand that he does not have to stay in Austin. He has a contract, but he can leave. He can go back to California and he doesn’t have to stay.”
She goes, “Just make it happen.”
Charlie Hoehn: What’s an average corporate event that you handle?
Cindy Lo: Our favorite type of corporate event is usually multiple days. The client has engaged us as project managers so that we can help them not only with branding, but everything in between.
From registration, the website that actually talks about the event, maybe even their help desk so that if people have trouble registering—they’ll call us instead of them.
Then when you move forward on to the actual day of the event, we’re actually doing everything from the stage set up, the production call sheet, entertainment, hotel or venue management, the party at night, transportation, if there needs to be some transportation between the venues and the hotels, hotel room block, gift bags…Everything. The nuts and bolts.
Behind the Red Velvet Curtain
Charlie Hoehn: Why did you write the book, Behind The Red Velvet Curtain?
Cindy Lo: I was meeting people as I was growing the business, and a lot of them were very surprised at how I grew the business from knowing nothing to where I am today.
“I wanted to share, openly and candidly with everyone, that I had my fair share of struggles.”
In fact, we still have a lot of ups and downs right now even though we’ve been doing it for 16 years. All of these things are thrown in here, kind of like my autobiography. Sharing what lessons we took away, and hopefully someone else can use it and fast track themselves to success faster than we did.
Charlie Hoehn: What do you want people to remember and take away from the book?
Cindy Lo: I hope the one big takeaway is if they are an event planner just starting out and they’re thinking, “My gosh! This is all sucking. It’s not working out the way I thought it was.” I think they should give themselves a realistic—whether it’d be a year-long, a six-month goal—and really try and focus on that goal before they call it quits.
Because this is a fun, fun industry, but it definitely takes a lot of hard work and a lot of focus and determination to make it work.
Knowing What to Charge
Charlie Hoehn: How do you know what you’re worth?
Cindy Lo: You need to first start off experimenting with the market, because it is all over the map. We have people that charge dirt cheap rates all the way up to the highest of the highest luxury rates.
“You will find what you’re worth based on how many repeat clients will come back and pay your rate.”
It’s also based on the feedback too. It’s not to say we haven’t lost business when someone has told us we’re too expensive, but we’ve won plenty of business too and have won them coming back over and over again as well.
We know we’re in a sweet spot right now for those that value a professional team at this rate. That’s how we know that this rate is reasonable. For the longest time, I was undercharging, and I realized it was attracting also the wrong clients.
Charlie Hoehn: How did you realize that you were undercharging clients?
Cindy Lo: My husband basically said, “Look, Cindy. You’re never going to break out of this rut if you don’t charge a higher rate.”
Of course I didn’t believe him. I was like, “You don’t know events. I know events.”
“He’s like, ‘I am just telling you. You’re going to continue in this cycle if you don’t change.'”
Finally, like that, “Hey, I’ll do this for one year and reapply for jobs,” I did the same thing with the pricing. I said, “Let me change the rates for one year and see.”
Oh, my gosh! It was a huge—then it made me realize that we were undercharging rampantly prior.
Good and Bad Event Experiences
Charlie Hoehn: What’s the worst client experience you had because you were charging too little?
Cindy Lo: I do actually kind of talk about it in the book, but no names of course. It’s unfortunate, because they assumed we were very disposable.
That meant a lot of disrespect. Again, you can be what I call affordable, but still treat someone with respect. Because he thought of us as really disposable partners, he would berate our team, yell at the team for little minor infractions.
“We take feedback very well.”
We always tell people, “If you don’t like something we suggested, please share with us. We’re not going to get our feelings hurt.”
In fact we’ll be more upset if we did the event and then tell us later, “I never really liked that theme. I thought it was lame.” Tell us at the beginning so that we can redesign it.
So that’s what we tended to see when people were abusing us.
The good news is that when we raised our prices, we were able to eliminate a lot of those kind of clients that were not treating us with respect.
Charlie Hoehn: What type of client do you really love to work with?
Cindy Low: Definitely ones that allow us to be as creative as possible, especially the ones that have used us for multiple years.
They understand that we don’t like to do the same thing twice. So if we did an event that was X, Y, Z theme this year, then next year we’re going to change it up and make it better.
“We’re not going to go backwards for them. We want to constantly improve.”
Charlie Hoehn: What can you say about your work-life balance?
Cindy Low: I know it sounds so cliché, but I do not think of my work as work. I think of it as like, “Oh my gosh! What exciting events are we going to design or sell today? Or that we’re going to meet people today?”
I love it.
The times that are stressful are when we have no cash, okay? That’s always stressful, or when a client doesn’t want to pay.
This is a fun industry. You should be having a lot of fun.
Cindy Lo’s Favorite Events
Charlie Hoehn: Was the Lionel Richie experience the best you’ve ever had as an event planner?
Cindy Lo: There are actually quite a few now, but that one definitely sticks out my mind just because it was such a difficult challenge and, honestly, deep down I did not think we were going to pull it off. I was still trying until 4:00 when he finally confirmed.
This is actually a personal one, because being an owner of an events company you would think that my kids get birthday parties all the time, and they don’t. They are born in February, and that is actually one of our busier months. So they oftentimes get neglected.
Well, one time I just did something really small, and my child was like, “Oh my gosh! That was the best birthday ever.” Again, it would have never, again, pass my bar of best birthday ever. To them, it meant a lot because they finally got a birthday party. So I guess in my world, it’s more like that.
“It’s the touching moments.”
I will say this one—and it has nothing to do with price or anything. But I noticed a couple of years ago, we were always doing everything for our clients, and we never did something for our own team.
So we started to plan a reward trip and a real holiday party instead of just going to a restaurant and buying the restaurant out, that kind of stuff. The team really, really appreciated that, because we are always planning for other people and we never planned for ourselves. They got to attend as a guest.
How to Invest in an Event Organizer
Charlie Hoehn: What’s a challenge you can throw to the listeners this week?
Cindy Lo: I would challenge them to make sure they think about who their audience is. A lot of times people get so distracted by the who, what, when, where and seeing all the pretty stuff that they forget who their audience is. It may not even appeal to them.
So picking things that work with your audience is so important.
I think a lot of times people see stuff on social media and they’re immediately like, “I’ve got to do that,” because it got a lot of likes or comments.
“No. You have to know your audience best. If you don’t know your audience, it’s going to fail.”
You’re spending a lot of money. Let’s spend it right.
That’s probably my biggest feedback.
Charlie Hoehn: What do you say to people who think getting an event organizer is expensive?
Cindy Lo: It’s very common. We got two this morning.
I said, “Here’s the thing, I understand that. I respect budgets, and we’ll let you go about do it yourself.”
But I always have to ask: what is the price that you’re going to pay if it does all go wrong?
So if to them it was like, “Oh! Nothing.” Then great. Go for it.
But if a promotion is on the line or your sales numbers are on the line or anything business related, I personally wouldn’t take that chance. I would rather you reduce your budget to be more reasonable instead of trying to throw everything in.
“As long as you did vet them out, they should have insurance, they should have years of experience, and they should have also your trust.”
I always tell our team that is actually number one thing we’re trying to earn, is their trust. They need to trust that we are going to learn what their business is about so that we can produce this event as though we were an extension of their team in-house.
Charlie Hoehn: How many years do you think they need?
Cindy Lo: This is tricky, because it depends on what scale of an event it is. Obviously if they have been doing this and then they just started their business fresh…But if they’ve been doing it for ten years, I think that’s usually a pretty good amount of experience. They’ve seen a lot.
“I also tell people, ‘Give someone new a chance.'”
But I probably wouldn’t give them the Emmy’s or the Grammy’s. I would probably give them like a smaller scale corporate events.
So give them a chance, because there is always going to be someone out there that is really meant to do this job and they just didn’t know it, and you get it at a cheaper rate.
Connect with Cindy Lo
Charlie Hoehn: What do customers need to know before they reach out to you, and then how do they reach out?
Cindy Lo: First we need to figure out if we are a good fit culturally and we’re a good match. Definitely meet with us in person, face to face, because you’ll learn so much more about the team that way.
Ask to meet who is going to be my program manager so you can actually get to know their personality and see if y’all are going to mesh. Because it is like a marriage. Or you’re dating for a while until the event is over. So it’s very important that your personalities match up.
We are active on all the social media platforms. Red Velvet Events is our handle everywhere, YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter. So it’s very, very easy to reach us, and our website is the same as well.
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