Q&A WITH COLIN COWIE, EVENT-PLANNING LEGEND

To Make a Meeting Memorable, Make It Personal—Here’s How

Colin Cowie is known as the party planner to the stars. But he also focuses on how to make every meeting and event an experience as a partner of JW Marriott luxury hotels. Cowie, who regularly appears on the TODAY show and the Home Shopping Network, adds his magic touch to everything from intimate dinners to iconic weddings and corporate bashes. Cowie shares some of his secrets with Meetings Imagined

Q: What’s your secret for taking a public space and turning it into an amazing experience for an event or meeting?

I have a very simple approach: Engage all five senses. It’s like what Maya Angelou said: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel."

Do something that’s a bit of what I call a ‘JDM’—a jaw-dropping moment.

Q: How do you make attendees feel like royalty?

You make people feel special by making things personalized—make sure there’s someone there to greet them, offer each of them something to drink, something to eat, something to listen to.

It’s having a fabulous canvas bag with their name embroidered when they arrive so they know their arrival has been anticipated, or a notepad with their name on the first page.

Today, you can print or create anything with hardly a moment’s notice. There’s no reason not to do this personalization. Time is what we’re all running out of, so if you take the time to do something personal, that really touches people.

Q: What are some ideas that don’t usually occur to meeting planners—unique things that can really impact an event?

I was recently at a conference representing some of the biggest luxury providers in the world. The welcoming dinner had white tablecloths; there was no music, no candles, and the menu looked like it was printed on a photocopy machine. I was shocked. I didn’t feel loved. I want to feel like I’m in your home, not in a hotel.

There’s a lot you can do to add excitement. If there’s a corporate color, you can have runners down the tables, slipcovers on the chairs, M&Ms in the company’s colors.

If the meeting is three days, you might want to make sure there's different candy every day. Or, change the tables from round to square, or inside to outside. Many of the corporate events we see today are simply too generic. They don’t stand out from one another.

Q: How do you use food and drink to jazz up an event?

Maybe you have 15 items on small plates rather than the proverbial all-you-can-eat buffet. You can do a charcuterie station with dried meats and fabulous cheeses and wine, then do other stations with different types of food and appropriate beverages. Each has only three or four items, but it’s much more interesting.

Q: What are some tricks you use to engage guests, whether it’s an intimate 12-person business dinner or a corporate reception for hundreds?

The whole point of meetings is making sure people talk. It kills me when guests are at such a huge table that they can’t talk. A round table should never be any larger than 60 or 66 inches, to keep it intimate. And if the tables are farther than a yard apart from each other, you will lose the energy in the room.

It's also always important to do something that’s a bit of what I call a “JDM”—a jaw-dropping moment. But impressive doesn't have to be expensive; it has to do with attention to detail.

It’s all about curation—ruthless editing.

For an intimate business dinner, instead of bottles of wine, you bring out magnums, maybe even a Methuselah—that people will remember.

You can even have sandwiches and still make it look spectacular through presentation. When there are spectacular touches, people start talking among themselves about how wonderful it is.

A fabulous event makes people engage.