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Sally Webb, CSEP is CEO of The Special Event Company (TSEC). Sally founded the company in 1986 from a background in sports PR and marketing as one of the first dedicated event management companies in the UK.
The Special Event Company is a strategic event and meeting management company based in the heart of North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park. Founded in 1986 in London, England, and operating in the United States since 1999, the company opened its U.S. headquarters in the Triangle in 2005 and Charlotte in 2011.
TSEC has won or been nominated for more than 30 international awards, including 16 for Triangle-based events. The company maintains a prestigious local client base, and is a one-stop shop for all aspects of event production, logistics management, and marketing through its group of companies.
MO: As a veteran in the event planning industry what’s been the greatest lesson you’ve learned during the course of your career?
Sally: I love working in an industry that is so dynamic – I always have opportunities to learn new practices and strategies, and I constantly get to interact with talented individuals. As I have worked in this industry, I have learned three lessons that stand out as the most important. The first is that every member of our team is as important as the next. Every individual makes a significant contribution to our company and to the events that we plan. In event planning, what might seem to be the minutest of jobs can be a crucial part of the jigsaw puzzle. So much of our work is “behind the scenes” preparation before the actual event takes place, and all of the work that goes into those preparations is crucial. It is easy to solely give credit to the people who are seen at the event, but the truth is that each event would not be possible without the contributions of all team members. No job is more important than another in our line of work. Second, never burn bridges. Our business is built on strong relationships. It is so important for us to remember that although our primary focus is planning events, we must also work hard to develop relationships through all of our different projects and with all of our clients. Part of being a strong entrepreneur and business owner is looking beyond the scope of the task at hand and always being forward thinking. Because you never know who will be your next internal client contact or a useful vendor in a different position, it is always helpful to business owners to be building and nurturing working relationships. Finally, who you know is as much a part of success as what you know. It is critical that as a business leader, I am constantly networking and fostering good relationships among friends, fellow business leaders, community members and even people that might not initially strike you as good network connections – like we said, you never know who you might work with next. Having a strong network opens doors that no amount of education can. People like to help their friends, so having more friends means having more connections, which usually means more business. A network can also serve as a branding mechanism, meaning that the circles you run in tell other people something about you. The choices you make early on in your career regarding with whom you are going to associate are choices that will likely influence your business for a very long time.
MO: What influenced your decision to open your first USA office in California back in 2000?
Sally: As a company, we wanted to provide our excellent services for as many clients as we could, worldwide. We really loved planning events in the US and saw great potential for growth in this market, but managing events in Europe for US based companies was tricky. We decided that opening an office in California would be a great way in which we could make it easier for us to serve as the manager and easier for our clients to communicate, plan and execute events. We believed that this would really help our company grow, because rather than completely uprooting and moving from the UK, we were expanding and opening an additional office in the US. This allowed us to continue our growth as a truly worldwide brand. From a financial standpoint, we realized that it would be advantageous to us as a company to be able to pay in US dollars upon moving to the US, rather than paying as an overseas entity. As a business owner and entrepreneur, it is always important to consider these types of details. The company needs to be taken care of and it is really my responsibility, as it is every CEO’s responsibility, to be constantly monitoring and measuring its financial health.
MO: What are the key components to creating a special and memorable event on a tight budget?
Sally: The secret is actually in the lighting. Many people are concerned with having phenomenal décor, linens, staging or entertainment, and all of these things certainly contribute to creating a memorable event. However, none of those aspects on their own will change an event in the same way great lighting will. Frankly, without great lighting, those other wonderful things become much less wonderful. When a budget gets tight, it may be tempting to make lighting one of the first budget cuts, but the reality is that lighting should always be a priority in any and every event. If there is ever a question about paying for lighting at the exclusion of something else, pay for the lighting.
MO: What’s the most unusual or challenging request you’ve ever had from a client?
Sally: We are a company that offers a wide range of services, so many client requests that might be unusual by some standards, do not surprise us. However, one experience stands out in my mind as both unusual and challenging, and that is when we were asked to deliver a global sales conference both in English and in Mandarin. Two added challenges were the need for simultaneous translation and the need for speaker support, both of which require time and preparation. We were only given five days for this project, from the time of our initial client meeting to the delivery of the service. While that may not seem like a time crunch to many, a huge part of our job is laying a good foundation and making strong preparations behind the scenes so that the overall event runs smoothly. Although challenging, this was a great experience for our company because it allowed us to test our limits and proved that we are able to plan great events in a very limited amount of time, even if they require unique or unusual services.
MO: You have secured numerous national and international awards and nominations over the years, which one has been the most meaningful to receive?
Sally: My first Award, the ISES Esprit, which I received in 1999 in Washington DC for creating a media fundraiser, The Press Ball, was incredibly meaningful for me. For that award, we were directly competing with Christopher Reeves’ inaugural event for his spinal charity. Going up against such a big name is intimidating and I did not think we had a hope of winning. When we did win, it felt so wonderful because it was such a great surprise. We felt especially honored because we had such outstanding competition. It meant a lot to not only be considered among those people, but to actually win was such an unbelievable feeling.
MO: What’s the most exciting thing on the horizon for you personally or professionally?
Sally: We are excited to have been selected to produce the flagship event for the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte in September. This is an incredible opportunity for us to be involved in on a national level and we are anxiously anticipating this incredible event in the coming months. Additionally, our company has achieved incredible growth over the past two years, a great reflection of how we have remained true to our mission of delivering marketing-focused events with defined goals and return on investment. In 2010 we started a pharmaceutical meetings division, IMP, which has some great international contracts and is also experiencing tremendous growth.