by Louise M. Felsher, CMP, CMM | November 30, 2009

How short can lead times go? According to several national sales representatives for major hotel chains, planners are organizing conferences today in a fraction of the time they were just a few short years ago. Meetings for several thousand are being pulled off in less than three months; for smaller groups, three weeks is not unheard of. Can it be done? Yes. Can it be done well? Absolutely.

How can you plan events at a breakneck pace without losing your mind? The secret is a mixture of simplification, innovation and focus.

Keep It Simple Designing an elaborate event structure with multiple breaks and complex general sessions is extremely tricky, so don't even try. Keep schedules simple with minimal breaks. Attendance and content must take precedence when lead times are short.

Concentrate your sizzle in the quality of presenters and presentations rather than the environmental design. Get your content and messaging solid, so you can bring the people in and meet your event goals -- then worry about getting them fed and entertained.

You might need to forgo off-site events, as site visits and time spent vetting off-site options will be extremely difficult to pull off.

To save time, consider various turnkey options, where one supplier provides a number of different services. For example, consider choosing a venue that offers a complete meeting package (CMP). However, keep in mind that most meetings logistics are fairly easy to arrange with short lead times. Food and beverage, audiovisual and signage, for example, typically are addressed in the weeks leading up to the event, regardless of the lead time.

Post-event evaluations should be simple and quick. You might want to forgo paper surveys and use a web-based polling system such as Survey Monkey (surveymonkey.com) or Zoomerang (zoomerang.com).

Enlist Help While internal events have the advantage of a built-in audience, they still might require an executive mandate for attendance. [Note: You also might need assistance from top brass to override company travel policy for, say, booking an attendee's or executive's flight from Paris to San Francisco two weeks out.]

If you are planning a proprietary, for-profit event with paid admission, you have particularly difficult challenges. Most user conferences, for example, start their marketing campaigns up to a year in advance, with the full effort made about four to six months out. What to do if you only have two to three months? Attendee marketing experts advise mining the names and contacts in your database, followed by an inexpensive direct mail piece (a postcard), in conjunction with a polished, highly targeted telemarketing campaign. With this three-prong approach, you can reach the highest number of people for the lowest amount of money.

Keep Creative Shortened lead times don't mean creativity and innovation have to be curtailed. As soon as you get the assignment to plan the event, schedule a brainstorming session to come up with concepts you can realistically execute that will make the meeting memorable. For example, play upon the need for speed with shorter lead times by having "police officers" issue fake speeding tickets as invitations to an evening event.

Continue to carve out an hour a day to brainstorm on creative extras to impress your attendees. This might seem like an impossible sacrifice when you have such a daunting deadline, but time invested up front to tap your brainpower will ensure a creative, quality program that you will be proud to have planned.