January Issue 2006
The Ultimate Organisers
It is the day of the event manager. Gone are days when weddings, corporate launches or even a special dinner, were home-grown affairs. A phenomenon that has recently hit the Pakistani social and corporate scene, creative event management, has become a lucrative career choice. In the past, most corporations and organisations handled their own events, and to some extent provided the base and learning curve for most of the top event managers in Karachi today, inspiring them to branch out into a highly specialised field. And the difference is phenomenal.
Programmes organised by event managers today are, by and large, nothing short of spectacular. With specialisation being the buzz these days, the stress is on attention to a theme and exclusivity, no matter how small or big the event. And therein lies the difference.
However, while there are a number of event managers in the city, not all are geared for organising every kind of event that comes their way. Many have targeted niche markets — for instance, some only organise corporate conferences, workshops, launches et al, while others focus on parties and weddings. So specialised has the field become, that the few who do take on any and every event, also have their own area of expertise, and generally pool in resources with other event managers when it comes to organising mammoth events, to ensure perfection in every sphere.
Freiha Altaf is probably the most experienced hand in the field. She did her first project in 1989 in Karachi and is one of the few event managers that is willing to take on all kinds of challenges, although she admits that conferences are not her area of expertise. Known more for her glamorous events, “I came into the field when I didn’t even know it was called event management,” says Freiha. “I used to model at the time, and worked for an advertising company. Events were very poorly organised then, and we would wind up doing our own choreography in our fashion shows. I’d select the music, clothes, accessories, etc. Designer Maheen Khan and I became keen to do a proper event, so I took on her fashion show — from the invites down to overseeing the last detail. That went off so well, that I was asked to do a cultural show by an ad agency for their annual function. There was no looking back after that — I organised Amir Adnan’s tie exhibition and then Unilever more-or-less took me under its wing and nurtured me, giving me all kinds of projects to do, including their sales conferences. ”
Freiha claims that she was one of the first to be allowed to stage an event in a historical building. “The first fashion show to be organised in the Hindu Gymkhana was by me, way back in 1990, for Shamaeel. I had to literally clear the brambles from the premises.” Since then, she has done a myriad shows both locally and abroad and organised events for charities as well. She has also event-managed concerts and says, “I prefer to do exciting events rather than conferences, which I find boring. Although I do weddings, I prefer to do only big ones where I can give full rein to my creative instincts, as it becomes difficult dealing with the clients otherwise. I am happiest working for multi-nationals and corporations — they are more organised and professional.”
“Since I started out with my company, Catwalk, a lot of different people have joined the field and our paths cross occasionally, for I end up doing work for other event companies as a choreographer or a creative director,” says Freiha. I’ve done it for Shakeel Jaffer and Ruqhia Nazeer for example, and vice versa. I think we still don’t have an event company in our country that is big enough to handle every aspect of a mega-event. Perhaps, other than Catwalk, the Rafi Peer Theatre is the only company equipped to handle most angles of an event. An off-shoot of my work is Catalyst — a company I have formed which does a lot of PR work for my clients. I do image building for them, parties, balls, tournaments, launches and so on. Event management now has become a humongous field and there is so much you can do. Just in the last five years I can see how this field has grown — in this year alone, my work has tripled. And there is so much you can still do, especially from the angle of marketing events.”
Another pioneer in the field, who has been in this profession since the late eighties, is Anisa Rashid Khan, who started out with sports marketing and semi-managing events for the Pakistan Squash Federation. Working with them for 10 years, doing their fund-raising events, creating sets and hosting their annual dinners, she acquired experience and began to volunteer her services for fund-raising events for various charities including SIUT, Kidney Centre, MALC, Special Olympics, Shaukat Khanum and Patients Aid Foundation. She has also organised mega-events for the PGA (Pakistan Golf Association) for three years.
Says Anisa, “When the political situation changed after 9/11 and international events in Pakistan dwindled, and without quite consciously planning to, I began to take on other event management projects and established my own set-up, RAK Associates. Recently, I formed Capital Events with two partners and we do the Geo Motor Show every year. Personally, I prefer to do corporate events — although I do engagements and weddings as well — because they tend to be more organised with no last minute changes.”
When doing weddings, Anisa takes on entire wedding packages, but also takes on single events or even just the decor of the stage depending on the client, and if she has the time. She also organises concerts, variety programmes and fashion shows but admits, “My forte is corporate dinners and shows.”
Another person who established an event management company after gaining years of experience in spearheading multi-national projects, is Shakeel Jaffer. He worked with Unilever for 11 years before establishing his marketing consultancy company, RMC (Resource Marketing Consultancy). However, Jaffer prefers to do niche events rather than take on all kinds of projects. Their client, Shell, wanted to host the first ever sales conference in 1999, and with his previous experience of product launches and conferences, he was able to pull it off successfully. Since then Jaffer has begun to focus on providing clients, “meaningful conferences” in terms of the theme, agenda, ice-breakers, workshops and content. Says he “Within the sphere of corporate event management there are a multitude of events that we organise, such as foreign direct investment conferences, sales and marketing conferences. That is predominantly our work, and along with it come things like corporate evenings, gala nights, and so on. I normally don’t do one-off events like fashion shows or gala nights for people unless they are my clients to begin with.”
Since Jaffer’s forte is basically conferences, he admits that he pools in resources with other event managers who specialise in the more glamorous events if he is required to host programmes such as fashion shows for his corporate clients. Similarly, they draw on his expertise if they are asked to organise workshops, etc. He cites the example of the Shell Helix launch in which the client had briefed them that their international campaign was “of a spa or something refreshing” and they developed a concept and invited Nabila to join in, who in turn roped in Rizwan Beyg, and the memorable evening was a collaborative effort which ensured that the client’s objective was met. Jaffer opines that initially his clients were mostly multi-nationals, but now increasingly, local clients have also begun to see the wisdom of using professional event managers.
Corroborating this view is Ruqhia Nazeer, whose advertising background of 24 years has held her in good stead for running her turn-key event and marketing services company, R-Team, established in 2002. “We used to do projects, launches and campaigns at Lintas and it had become part and parcel of our work, but now clients are recognising the need for specialisation and exclusivity, and event management is gradually becoming a field of its own,” says Ruqhia. “If I compare notes today about events that I had done then, when I was in Lintas, I find that there is a lot of difference. It is more challenging now, and the client perception has changed too. They want more out of the events.”
R-Team has not limited its working to corporate events alone. Says Ruqhia, “We organise conferences, product launches, corporate dinners, direct contact marketing activities — the latter vary according to the objective of the client, whether it is brand-oriented, corporate-oriented or image-building oriented — but also one-off events for clients. An example is the A One Grand Prix launch that we organised. We’ve also done fashion shows, Levis being one example, in which they didn’t want to use regular models. Sometimes, the concept is provided to us by the client or their agency and we have to execute it, and sometimes we are asked to design concepts ourselves. Very often, we even make our own additions to the concept provided to us, in order to secure maximum benefit for the client. For instance, we turned a concept given to us by Miranda into an interesting activity instead of restricting it to just the promotion of sales of the soft drink.”
Among the events R-Team has organised, Ruqhia is particularly proud of Surf Excel Kids Own Bike Activity, which won their clients a bronze medal for the region for the concept and its execution. Another challenging project was Lipton’s re-launch in 2003. R-Team came up with the concept of Lipton Citea in Lahore, which was very well received by the client as well as the consumers.
Ruqhia feels that though event management has become a lucrative business, event managers need to take their job more seriously. “People organising concerts every now and then cannot classify themselves as event managers. In fact, that is hardly the job of event managers. Event management is actually an off-shoot of the advertising field — we are catering to the interest of the client. It is a tough job.”
Like Jaffer, Ruqhia admits that their team occasionally combines forces with other event managers. For instance at the recent Lux Style Awards, Frieha Altaf handled the creative aspect of the show, while Ruqhia took care of the management of the artists and the rehearsals.
And more and more people, once exposed to the creativity and hassle-free concept of event managers, are willing to pay the price for a perfectly orchestrated evening. Even personal events like parties and weddings are now being handled by event managers or wedding planners. Consequently, weddings are becoming bigger, better and more lavishly creative than ever before. Says Freiha “If there is a wedding in the family and the immediate family has to fret about everything from running after the decorators, to getting the mehndi wali, to dealing with the caterers, then where is the time to sit back and enjoy the wedding? No one has the time any more, in fact, time management has become a major problem for most people. This way they are secure in the knowledge that the event will be well taken care of and they can relax and look pretty for the big occasion. And they can ensure that the important day will be both beautiful and memorable. ”
One wedding planner who has been around for a long time is Yasmeen Asif Katchi, who claims she has been in the business, “for countless years.” She has received no formal training, but has an inborn love for flowers, which have become the focal point of her career. When Yasmeen, started doing flower arrangements professionally, she recalls that she would occasionally get a contract for a wedding stage as well, although the bulk of her work revolved around floral arrangements. Says Yasmeen, “I would do everything from scratch then. Now it has developed into an industry.” Nonetheless, Yasmeen claims she still does all her flower arrangements herself, continues to operate from her house and does not sub-contract to any other professional.
Though Yasmeen takes orders for just stages or flower arrangements, giveaways or ‘mehndi thaals,’ she also offers an entire wedding plan package as well. Prior to deciding anything, the wedding jora is discussed which becomes the basis of the theme of the wedding. From getting appointments for the bride with a dress designer, beauty salon and photographer to a ‘mehndiwali’and caterers, Yasmeen is involved in every aspect of a wedding if she is asked to plan the entire affair. She even does the decoration of the bridal room and car, if required. In fact, even if she doesn’t handle the entire wedding arrangements, she is more than willing to get appointments and proffer free advice to ensure that everything goes perfectly for the bride.
Once the theme for the ‘mehndi’ is decided — whether ‘ajrak’, ‘chundri’ or ‘jamavar’ — Yasmeen prepares the ‘mehndi thaals’; ‘mashals’ for girls and boys to hold, the bridal canopy, ‘doli’ if required, etc. The bride’s entrance is choreographed and rehearsed prior to the actual ceremony, and if needed, Yasmeen even provides the people to carry the ‘doli’ with the bride in it!
Relatively new on the scene but quick to make their mark are three friends who have teamed up and formed a partnership — aptly called, Grandeur. Meinu Baigmohamad, Aayesha Valika and Yumna Ali Khan launched themselves as wedding planners a little over four years ago. Both Baigmohamad and Ali Khan have done courses in flower arrangement, while Valika is an artist and has participated in a number of exhibitions. Initially, they used to help each other out with family weddings, before deciding to make a career out of it.
According to Meinu, when they accept the arrangements of the entire wedding, they virtually take on every responsibility. They even see to the arrangements inside the wedding household, so that the decoration of banisters, lighting, etc. is all taken care of. From designing exclusive wedding invitation cards, to suggesting where to sit, how to make an entry and which photographer to use, or even guiding the bride on her wedding ensemble, their involvement is totally hands-on.
Meinu admits that weddings have become very elaborate over the last few years. “More and more people are using the services of planners and want sit-down affairs, complete with tables and fancy linen. There is a lot of stress on stages, entrances, ‘takhts’ and marquees. Brides and grooms are involved in the decision-making and are keen to ensure that the stage does not clash with their clothes.”
So popular have wedding planners become these days that bookings are often made six months in advance and, even, then they are often handling two events on the same day.
Event management in Pakistan appears to have come into its own and has spawned a whole new secondary industry, providing new avenues of employment. With every new event, the bar for professionalism and creativity gets a notch higher. Hopefully, our event managers will soon be able to hold their own in the international arena as well.
The writer is a freelance journalist based in Karachi. She also works at Hum television.