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Caryl Lyons: How to Start a Successful Event Planning Company

This is our fourth interview from the Entrepreneurial Women who Inspire series. You can find the first 3 interviews here. Today we’re interviewing an amazing woman, with 26 years of experience in event planning, a business owner, an educator and a mother – Caryl Lyons.

Interview #4: Caryl Lyons

www.roarevents.com | Custom Design by Flothemes

Caryl is the founder of ROAR events, a company that has brought to life tons of events, from large high-tech conferences to exclusive and intimate soirees. She also launched her educational platform for those who want to enter or improve their corporate events planning game – called ROAR Playbook. And, if you’re an event planner always looking for the perfect space for a meeting, a banquet or a party – her app called Capacity will help you discover new venues and meeting spaces, as well as calculate their maximum capacity with ease. Every planner needs to read this!

Let’s find out what this incredible and hardworking woman is all about:

Tell us a bit about yourself. How did you get started with event planning?

I’ve always been around events & hotels. My mom was an events planner and and my dad owned a mechanical contracting business in Hawaii and basically built the skyline of Waikiki. Attending hotel openings was a common occurrence in our home as was a lot of traveling. My first events job happened when I was a junior in high school. My headmaster said “Hey, I think that you’d be a great junior chair person for our annual Children’s Fair..” and that’s how it all started. It’s funny because I didn’t really think about events as a career. When I went off to college, I had no idea what I wanted to be. I thought maybe I’ll be an archaeologist, or go into marketing..

I went to University of Kansas, but didn’t graduate. I left because I didn’t know what I wanted to do. So I came back home, worked in my dad’s mechanical engineering office for a while, basically working on hotels but from the structural side of things. Then I thought “Okay, this is awesome but not really something I want to do.” So I got into advertising, which then led to publishing. My first real-world soirée into events was at PC Computing Magazine, this was when the internet was just being born. I still wanted to do something a little bit different, so I went into the corporate side, managing worldwide events, seminars and trade shows for various corporations. When my son was born, that was the catalyst for me. I wanted more flexibility and decided to dip my toe into consulting. Later that turned into ROAR events. It’s turning 13 years this coming February.

Do you think that growing up with parents who worked in the industry has had an impact on the way you do business?

Yes, I think so. I’ve always been around hotels and I feel passionate about the way they work from a customer’s standpoint – when the flow is right and everything makes sense. It’s something I’ve always enjoyed, and for the most it doesn’t really feel like work because of the people we work with. Our clients are like an extension of our family. It’s funny, because so many people say that I need to set boundaries, that I should have my office hours posted and automatic email responders for days when I’m off. But, that’s not what I want my business to be and look like. We don’t have clients that take advantage of our openness & approach. If they text me at 9pm or I message them late at night, there’s a good reason for that, especially if we’re in crunch mode for an event. For us it’s all about collaborating and partnering, versus them hiring us to do a task. It also implies a certain line of personal respect towards the person you work with.

How does one go from working solo to starting their own company and managing a big team?

Honestly it’s the people that you surround yourself with. You may think there’s many of us, but we’re actually a small and mighty team. My husband is part of the team, he joined 9 years ago. We also have another planner working with us a lot as well. It’s really about the strategic partnerships that we have with different vendors that we’ve worked with over the years. We have a sign person who produces all of our signage, a graphic designer, a production company that we’ve worked with for around 10 years. So they’re all part of ROAR in a way, though they all have their own businesses. Keeping ROAR small was a conscious decision. The one thing that I didn’t like from the corporate side when working with an agency was the fact that I was just a number. The person that I was working with, would only do one facet of what the job entails. I had to deal with so many people, and I didn’t like that. I also didn’t like how they nickel & dimed and charged me for every little thing – it drove me nuts. So I knew I don’t want to do business that way. 

Hence, with my clients there’s only one person who is their main point of contact. That’s who they interact with on a daily basis. We bring in other people only when needed, so there’s no turnover. Meaning, if you worked with someone on planning the whole thing, they don’t just turn it over to operations afterwards.

Do you think that having been on the other side of the table, as a client, is your competitive advantage?

Oh, absolutely! There are certain types of programs that we want to work on. I would never do an Oracle OpenWorld or a Dream Force conference. I wouldn’t do it because I like to have that personal touch, add things that people are going to remember. When events are so large, it’s difficult to make that personal connection. Some agency’s are perfect for those larger events, it’s not where we make the most impact.

We did an event, it was the final party for a conference. So everyone has been drinking, eating and having fun all night. At the end we decided to give them a sweet treat when they left. We got donuts individually boxed up, and as the CEO was walking out of the party, he said “You know, this XYZ company. They just think of everything.” And to me this is what success looks like. We were able to impact this person, and they are going to remember this event.  They will remember how thoughtful the company was and this will correlate with their customer experience with the company. It’s all connected. With large events, it’s hard to get these moments. So, if someone reaches out and they want a large event (5000+ attendees), we may not necessarily take it, because we know how we work most effectively with a company.

Why did you start offering educational resources for other event planners?

One of our little sweet spots that we’ve found ourselves in – is working with companies that have little to no experience of organizing a sales or user conference. We would also be hired by some companies to go and do mentoring for their events team and junior planners. Since we’ve worked with them for so long, we know their process, and they trust us with mentorship for their new employees. 

Also, I have a lots of friends who are wedding planners and want to diversify their work and get into corporate events. So they had all these questions on how to price things, how to write a proposal for a certain type of event, etc. You can’t wing any type of event, be it a wedding or a corporate event. You need to understand how to do it. So I figured, given the fact that I have all this knowledge and 26 years of experience in doing events – why not start something educational. And that’s how it all came about, the Roar playbook. I also love teaching and helping, so it was a win/win.

How are people receiving it?

It’s been received really well. We currently have a waitlist for version 2.0 that we’ll be re-launching this April. I get super excited because the planners that purchased it are 100% in corporate events or they’re super selective on the weddings that they produce and they’re saying “Oh my gosh, I’m so excited that I went to corporate versus staying in weddings!”

What are the biggest rewards of running ROAR events?

I personally love the event branding side of it, adding all of those different touches and then seeing the event come to life and how people react to it. That’s one of the most rewarding moments for me. 

On a personal side, one of the main reasons why I left corporate was because I wanted to be able to spend time with my son. I was working in Cupertino, I was living in Livermore, and that could be up to 2 hour commute on a bad traffic day. So, I didn’t want to spend all this time in the car, in traffic. I wanted to be able to be with my son, see him grow up versus dropping him off at daycare. So I left my corporate job, started consulting and then founded ROAR.

I didn’t want something that was going to make me miss those important moments with my son. I’ve been really fortunate that I’ve only missed one first day of school, that was last year when my mom was really ill. I keep telling my son that he hasn’t had the normal child rearing in California, because everyone is so busy here. Being able to spend time with my family was really important to me. I knew that if I start a company, this is one of those core values that I needed to make sure I stuck to. And yes, I travel a bunch. This January I was in California for only 12 days. But usually the job allowed us to take him with us when he was younger. He learned to alphabetize by reading name badges (laughs). 

Also, being able to have my clients shine and see how successful they have become. I love seeing them get promoted partially because of the successful events they have under their belt, and we helped them with that. It’s amazing!

You wrote a post about being addicted to busy. Are breaks important? How often do you take time off to recharge?

Honestly this is something that I’ve been working on and continue to. You can’t just flip a switch but I make a conscious effort to schedule in time with friends or my workout. It’s literally scheduled as a standing appointment on my calendar. Doing that has helped so much, because it’s an appointment that I’ve made with myself.

It’s all about self care and being ok with not being busy all the time.  It’s also about being more mindful and thinking “Okay, you know what the world is not crashing down because I don’t have 50 tasks that I have to do. Let’s go and enjoy ourselves.”

Lastly, if you are working with a client and they aren’t aligned with your values – get rid of them. We have fired a couple of clients because we were literally pulling our hair out.

How do you keep yourself productive?

I schedule everything in my calendar and also use Asana for time management. I try to work in 20 minute increments. I also have a top 3 things I need to get done each day in order to consider it a success. That really helps.

Who is a woman you admire? 

I really admire and would love to meet some day – Brene Brown. To me – she is just a real person who works hard but who also lives and enjoys life.

Any advice for women looking to start their own business?

  1. They need to identify what is most important to them and stick with that. Again – for me, it was all about my son. I never wanted to miss an event, or a first day of school, or a birthday.
  2. Identify the types of companies that you like. It’s going to be really hard to produce an event for someone when you 1) don’t understand what they do or 2) don’t like what they do.

What does success looks like to you?

My definition of success is not having to get in that commuter traffic, it’s working with clients that fill me up and are my friends. It’s enjoying family time, scheduling my workouts and sticking with them. It’s traveling when we want to.

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We hope you enjoyed this interview with Caryl Lyons from ROAR Events. Remember, the key to building a successful company is not only working your butt off, but also making sure that you are a healthy and happy human being. It’s all about finding balance in life and reaching the moment in your career when you can confidently say No to a client who is not a good fit for you, and work only with those who bring you joy and growth.

P.S. Though we promised you only 4 interviews within our Entrepreneurial Women who Inspire series, we have a 5th one as a bonus planned. This time you’ll have an opportunity to read a lovely and honest chat with Lelia Scarfiotti, a talented and inspiring Italian photographer and also the organizer of Cosmos Gathering. Stay tuned!

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