• Be Inspired To Start Your Own Planning Business by 3 Successful Self-Starters

    FROM THE Fall 2015 ISSUE

Matt Woodburn

Matt Woodburn has been a fixture in the Chicago events industry since 1999. He’s worked for multiple prestigious production companies, presenting a variety of cultural programs across the city. Many insiders know him for his work as an audio-visual expert at Sound Investment, where he led new projects for more than six years. Now, after almost 20 years in the field, he has a place of his own. In the fall of 2013, Woodburn opened a multifaceted venue in Wicker Park called The Chop Shop & 1st Ward Events. The 15,000-square-foot rehab of a 1913 auto body garage combines his passions for hospitality, food and beverage and entertainment—all under one roof. In his free time, he works at his other company, Pro-Ject, producing a series of networking events.

ILM+E: Where did you grow up?
MW: I was born in Las Vegas, grew up in LA, attended high school in Louisville and then went to college in Chicago, where I’ve been ever since.

ILM+E: That’s a lot of moving. Which college and program did you pursue?
MW: Columbia College’s Film School.

ILM+E: How did you then get into the events industry?
MW: Even though I went to film school, I ended up opening a recording studio when I was 21. Then, as I approached graduation, I really sunk my teeth into film production. Years later, around 9/11 when the commercial video market started to dry up, I was asked to help plan an experiential marketing event. I loved it and found the production skillset I had ended up translating quite well to lifestyle programming.

ILM+E: What other types of events did you end up getting into?
MW: Over the course of my career, it’s been mostly corporate functions (launches, meetings and seminars), followed by social and nonprofit galas and forums, and then the last sliver would be consumer entertainment events.

ILM+E: Why did you make the decision to step out on your own and start your own business?
MW: I’ve always had the gift, or maybe curse, of the entrepreneurial gene, so it is just an inherent model for my career. I always felt an event space is the natural extension of event planning, and opening a place of my own [Chop Shop] is something I developed an interest in as I moved through various venues over the years. The event planning followed.

ILM+E: What was your objective when you started?
MW: The goal has always been to impact the overall guest experience by weaving planning, execution and environment into a complete and unique event.

ILM+E: What’s your competitive advantage?
MW: I have both a diverse and extensive background in multiple areas of the industry. When tied together, it gives me a good perspective when grasping the overall event design and execution at large.

ILM+E: How did you acquire and build your client list?
MW: I just do it. I’ve always loved to network and be in the mix where conversations are being had. Conversations turn into opportunities. I’m out late and up early.

ILM+E: As an independent firm, what is the best way to secure sponsorships and partnerships?
MW: Partners in my line of business are typically vendors. In bigger firms, these relationships are based on volume. In my case, I just try to be nice, pay my bills, cross my “t”s, dot my “i”s and be as low maintenance as I can be.

ILM+E: How do you generate buzz for your business?
MW: I actually don’t. It’s really all about my clients. I’ve been conditioned to be a behind-thescenes person who’s putting clients up front and making them look good.

ILM+E: How long did it take to become profitable?
MW: With all of the businesses I’ve been part of growing, it’s typically a three-year track.

ILM+E: What’s the toughest part of going out on your own?
MW: In my current business, it’s been managing people. We have a 40-plus-person staff at the venue and it’s a lot of personalities to manage!

ILM+E: What are some of the biggest administrative challenges?
MW: Time management.

ILM+E: How about the greatest advantages to having your own company?
MW: Flexibility with time.

ILM+E: What advice would you give to other planners looking to start their own company?
MW: It’s important to identify a piece or a thread that really inspires you—and then just own it.


Marcy Manley

Marcy Manley's vigor and spirit can be described as infectious. After shaping the events department at Grainger, then serving as president and executive producer at the PR and production powerhouse XA for more than nine years, she opened her own company in March 2007. With an office in Arlington Heights and a team of three core producers, WPI Event Partners (short for WOW Productions Inc.), has been creating, designing and producing events in the corporate arena ever since. Her clients include Fortune 100 and 500 companies, from pharmaceutical to luxury and financial brands and more. She takes great joy in shaping corporate events but says the best blend includes business, life and family.

ILM+E: Where did you grow up?
MM: Northwest Side of Chicago.

ILM+E: Did you attend college in the city, too?
MM: I did, at DePaul University with a major in marketing communications.

ILM+E: What led you to the events industry?
MM: I started working for W.W. Grainger while finishing my degree and worked in their then Audio Visual Department, which is now Marketing Communications. I was part of a team that produced marketing communication program modules and videos. I quickly realized that the company needed someone who understood not only multimedia and audio-visual specs, but load-in times, accessibility to venues, venue management and overall production of live events. I actually created a meeting planner position for myself within Grainger, which started me on this journey.

ILM+E: Why did you make the decision to step out on your own and start your own planning business?
MM: I have always loved what I do, but the time came where I just didn’t love who I was working for anymore. I was always told by my clients, “We are not sure where we would be without you.” Client focus has always been and always will be my priority. The love of the creative process, coupled with the confidence from my clients, propelled me to venture out on my own. Having the ability to choose projects and clients and deliver quality programs is priceless and very rewarding.

ILM+E: Are you still focused on corporate events?
MM: I am. About 90 percent of the events we produce are B2B.

ILM+E: What was your vision and mission for your company?
MM: The vision of the company has always been to provide our clients with superior, creative and comprehensive options in meeting their program objectives—whatever they might be. Our mission is to deliver on that promise with clear, concise communications and top-notch services no matter the size or scope of the project.

ILM+E: How does having your own planning business compare to your experience working for other companies?
MM: I think having your own business is a much greater responsibility. You are only as good as your last event.

ILM+E: What distinguishes your business from the other planning businesses?
MM: There are many amazing companies in our arena. I think our client and creative focus has always set us apart from the rest. We are small and have never taken on something that is not in our wheelhouse. Compromising quality is never an option.

ILM+E: How did you acquire and build your client list?
MM: WPI clients have been clients for five to ten-plus years. We pride ourselves on repeat business. Most of our business is referral-based. This speaks volume in our community. It’s all about finding the right partners and making the right alliances.

ILM+E: How do you generate buzz for your business?
MM: Most of our marketing and buzz is still grass-roots driven. Referrals from business partners, clients and, most importantly, vendors (whom we partner with) have been our primary source for securing new business.

ILM+E: How long did it take for your business to become profitable?
MM: We were very fortunate. We started in 2007 and have been growing ever since. With the right client base, the business was profitable in its first year and has been growing strong ever since.

ILM+E: What was the biggest obstacle that you have faced in your business thus far?
MM: The biggest challenge has been to control growth without compromising quality.

ILM+E: Do you have any big administrative challenges?
MM: Not enough hours in a day [laughs].

ILM+E: What are the greatest advantages to having your own company?
MM: The best advantage of being a business owner is that you can simply say “no” to something or someone that you don’t believe is a good fit. At WPI we pride ourselves to always under promise and over deliver.

ILM+E: Is decision-making your favorite part?
MM: No, my favorite part is seeing my client’s faces when the event is over and the boxes of objectives have all been checked.

ILM+E: What advice would you give to other planners looking to start their own company?
MM: Start small, understand your competition and always outline clear goals and objectives for yourself and your team. Stick to what you know. Walk the walk and stay true to yourself. Mentor when you can and always plan on learning something from someone.


Ray Nelson

Ray Nealon, CMP, is a mobile production powerhouse. He got his start in the industry producing nonprofit events for the Archdiocese of Chicago before shifting into sales and accounts at Agency EA (formerly Event Architects). After six years at the production agency, he started his own company, Greencastle Productions, in October 2006. His small office is based in Chicago, where he utilizes a tight network of freelancers and suppliers to bring big meetings, incentives trips and events to life. Though many of his events are Chicago-based, he also travels the world (bringing his office along with him) as he hosts large groups from destination to destination.

ILM+E: Where did you grow up?
RN: I was born in Mobile, Alabama, and spent my early childhood in Huntsville before moving to Greencastle, Indiana (the inspiration for my company name).

ILM+E: Where did you go to school and what did you study?
RN: I attended DePauw University, a liberal arts school in Greencastle, where I majored in communications and minored in history.

ILM+E: Did you always know you wanted to do events? What were some of your previous jobs?
RN: I initially wanted to work in television and did two internships in the marketing department at WTHR Indianapolis (NBC). Then, I worked for a public relations and marketing agency in Denver before exploring the nonprofit sector. When I moved to Chicago, I worked as the director of development and communications for the first Catholic school to open in 20 years, Frances Xavier Warde School. Part of my job was to raise money through annual events such as galas, golf outings and scholarship dinners. It was my first opportunity to plan events and work with vendors in the industry. Managing the events at FXW became my favorite part of the job.

ILM+E: Why did you make the decision to step out on your own and start your own planning business?
RN: After working at Frances Xavier Warde School for six years, I accepted a position at a start-up event agency. I worked there for six years as both a sales and account manager. After successfully managing Oprah Winfrey’s 20th Anniversary trip to Maui with 1,300 guests, I left the agency in the fall of 2006 to start my own company. It was that program that gave me the confidence to go off on my own. Perhaps I heard Oprah subconsciously whispering “live your best life,” and I decided to take the risk.

ILM+E: What has been your vision and mission for your company?
RN: I envisioned a boutique firm that would be more than just a one-time vendor to clients, but rather a true partner they can trust. A company that has integrity, is responsive, innovative, transparent and truly listens to clients so their vision is executed on target and within the budget.

ILM+E: What’s your top priority?
RN: Building relationships has always been important to me. Exceeding expectations and giving the best customer service isn’t just lip service. I get to know my clients—and in many cases, they feel like family. I often know their birthdates, names of spouses, kids and significant others. And, like family, sometimes we disagree or challenge each other—but we always respect each other.

ILM+E: How does having your own planning business compare to your experience working for other companies?
RN: I sometimes miss the office environment of a larger firm and the collaboration with colleagues. But I have a great network of freelancers and vendors that provide valuable information and resources to support my client’s programs.

ILM+E: What gives you a competitive edge?
RN: I can provide “big-firm” ideas, experience and execution at a fraction of the cost.

ILM+E: How did you acquire and build your client list?
RN: A few clients and vendors encouraged me to start my own company. In my first year in business, they supported me with a few key [clients] that helped get my company off in the right direction. From that point, it’s mostly been through word-ofmouth and networking.

ILM+E: How long did it take your business to become profitable?
RN: Thanks to minimal overhead and capital expenditures, I was actually profitable in my first year and feel fortunate to start my 10th year in business this fall.

ILM+E: What was the biggest obstacle that you have faced in your business thus far?
RN: For a small planning business, I think it’s cash flow. The biggest obstacle for me has been financing a large event, meeting or trip upfront if the client is delayed on deposits/payment terms.

ILM+E: What would you say are some of the biggest administrative challenges?
RN: Carving out time to dedicate to administrative tasks.

ILM+E: What are the greatest advantages to having your own company?
RN: The buck truly stops with me, and I enjoy being ultimately responsible for all of the decisions: the good, bad and the risky. Plus, it’s a perk to have some flexibility with your schedule. When my dad was sick with cancer, I didn’t have to ask my boss/ employer for time off to help my mom and spend time with him. I made it happen, and I know I can still service my clients and projects from anywhere in the world.

ILM+E: What advice would you give to other planners looking to start their own company?
RN: Have a specific vision and plan that will differentiate yourself from the other small businesses and firms. Be brave and have confidence in yourself and professional experience. And don’t be afraid to get counsel from other small business owners.

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