by By Louise M. Felsher, CMP, CMM | June 01, 2009

In this economy, it is more important than ever to ensure your third-party event planning company is the perfect fit for your needs. Nobody can afford to compromise on strategic partnerships, and there is no margin of error.

Perhaps your agency has been running virtually all the elements of your conference for years, and its representatives have become seamless extensions of your corporate team. This is great if your event legitimately continues to evolve and grow. Unfortunately, though, all this "comfort" can create a barrier to innovation and distort the reality that your show might be tired and outdated. For many, reinvention is essential to survival now.

Instead of circulating your RFPs to the usual suspects, this should be the year you seriously re-evaluate your third-party needs and invite some new faces to the table. That means inviting agencies of differing size: the large  one-stop shops, as well as smaller boutique agencies. Following are the advantages each can offer.

Big Advantages Consider working with a large third-party agency for the following:

• Convenience. The large companies can handle most or all of your needs (registration, logistics, creative and more), making them invaluable if convenience is one of your major concerns. This can be especially helpful if you have lost staff.

• Variety. More third-party personnel means more experts to choose from and more skill sets. Should one account executive, sales or operations pro at the agency not work out, you can request an alternate from a larger team of options.   

• Volume. Many large agencies can leverage volume discounts with hotels, travel, registration and more. However, make sure you choose an agency with a "pass through" policy. This practice of passing along any discounts to clients is rapidly disappearing as agencies struggle to cover their costs. Make sure this is part of your selection and negotiation process.
Perks of Small Small, boutique agencies might be the better choice if the following are your main concerns.  

• Cost savings. If your company and budget are now smaller, it is likely you cannot afford a large agency anymore. You might be stretching to stay with the big partner, afraid that a smaller agency cannot handle your large events. However, many top boutique agencies have strategic partnerships with service providers that allow them to function like a one-stop shop, without the high prices. Many have their own proprietary technology systems, such as schedule tracking or data mining, that can be customized to each client event, saving your firm the cost of creating its own software. With the right skills and a solid network, a smaller provider should be able accommodate even an event that sees an unexpected growth in attendance numbers.

• Transparency. Smaller firms are more likely to offer transparent, line-item invoicing with their own mark-ups (if any) very clearly illuminated. (Larger third parties typically "bundle" pricing, quoting costs on a per-person or per-event basis.)

• Fresh eyes. A major company milestone (e.g., a merger or a new CEO) may spur a move to a small agency. The mass layoffs and blending of corporate cultures has created a branding identity pandemic worldwide. Big agencies specialize in registering thousands of attendees with ease, overseeing logistics and selling your expo hall, but can they design an unprecedented environment or tell a compelling, consistent new story? You might choose a boutique agency known for creativity when the company or event needs more of the latter.