Interview with Jennifer Gilbert | Founder and CEO | Save the Date
Jennifer Gilbert is the Founder and Chief Visionary Officer of Save the Date®, an award-winning New York City based hospitality and special events company celebrating more than 25 years in business with over $35 million in annual revenue.
Save the Date® have planned events for Fortune 500 companies, celebrities and brides alike. They specialize in finding the perfect locale and delivering successful, cost effective events.
Jennifer revolutionised the event industry when she started Save the Date® by eliminating the traditional ‘pay for a planner’ model.
Save the Date® provides marketing, promotion and sales to venues and vendors while offering planners a free marketplace to secure the perfect location. This pioneering approach earned Jennifer the Ernst & Young’s “Entrepreneur of the Year,” award.
In our interview with Jennifer we explore her origin story entrepreneurial journey.
Hello Jennifer. Thank you for participating in this Q&A session. Please give us an overview of your origin story and background?
Jennifer: When I was 22, I was followed off a New York City Subway into my friend’s apartment building. I was attacked and stabbed 37 times with a screwdriver and left for dead.
It was a random act of violence. It was the day I lost my joy, or so I thought. After some months of healing I decided I was not going to let this man affect the choices I would make for the rest of my life.
That was when I learned an important lesson, that all we have is today... so make it count. From that tragedy on, I needed to spend the rest of my life around people celebrating, so I went into Event Planning.
What originally attracted you to entrepreneurship and how did this lead to you starting your company ‘Save the Date®’?
Jennifer: Nearly 30 years ago, event planning was not the profession it is now. Today, there are classes in college, continuing education and certificates given for specialized conferences, but when I started I had no idea who to go to and where to start my career. I ended up working for a very small company specializing in weddings and personal events, with the typical model of, pay us and we will plan it. I was hired to cultivate a corporate market and basically was given a phonebook on the first day I walked through the door, with a directive to 'start selling'.
After three years of cold calling and working with corporate and nonprofit clients, I realized the hardest part of my client’s day was sourcing the best locations. Conversely, every space and venue I knew wanted more events. My industry was extremely fragmented. The venues couldn’t find the clients and the clients couldn’t find places to hold their events, (this was before there was Google, AOL, or the Internet).
It was the 90's and the recession had just started. Potential corporate clients would say, “Boy do we need you. Our headcount was cut, and I can’t even leave my office to find a new space, but we can’t afford to hire you”.
It was nearly impossible to convince their managers to hire me because, well, that was their job. So, I thought well, the Corporate clients need spaces, but no time to research or do site inspections and couldn’t pay my fee. Conversely, all the venues need parties and had to lay off their salespeople to save money. I realized my industry was going about this the wrong way.
Instead of corporate planners and non-profits paying me to find them spaces, I flipped the traditional business model and found them the right space for free, and the Vendors supported me and paid me like an outsourced salesperson. While it seems like a simple solution now, back then, I had revolutionized my industry.
That was never the goal, I was just trying to solve a problem. What started as a way to save my soul, became a personal passion, which then quickly became a profitable business. Just three years after I started Save the date® I was awarded the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award. I was the youngest and the only woman in that category across the country.
Has your entrepreneurial journey been influenced by any past or present business leaders?
Jennifer: I think the greatest influencer of my life was my father. My Dad Stuart was an entrepreneur in the import business. He and my mother were always traveling to faraway lands where they met different people and brought back different products to resell them. I would watch him conduct business. Always on the phones negotiating or laughing, shaking people’s hands as a promise, and flying anywhere in the country to close a deal in person. His work ethic, his integrity combined with his tenacity were the only examples that I knew about work and being your own boss. I wanted to be like that too. What do you attribute your success to as a business leader?
Jennifer: I think what makes me successful as a leader is knowing what I can and cannot do. I learnt this early on as an owner of a Company.
I believed I needed to have my hand in everything so I was always spread too thin never getting enough accomplished. I realized that was stunting the growth of my own company. The C.E.O needs to see a vision and move towards that goal. Since that moment, my motto has been,
"Out Source Everything But Your Soul". Meaning, find the thing you are supremely great at, better than anyone else, and outsource everything else.
If you aren’t the best at it, then you probably won’t love it, and it will show.
So focus on your core business strengths and either hire people that compliment your strengths or find a company that does what you can’t (accounting, social media, etc).
I love sales and directing my business into new areas of growth, so I hired a COO to take care of the operations and the daily running of the business. So hire the best people and empower them to manage their employees or vendors, this way everyone is happy and aligned.
What would you say are the key challenges facing the event planning industry and how do you propose these are resolved?
Jennifer: Well, during COVID our industry was shut down completely. No events. Immediately, I understood nonprofits would lose crucial funding without their Galas. Time for us to rise and shine. We built a proprietary platform to host ‘virtual’ events with ZERO experience. A ‘virtual gala’ was unheard of when we produced one 6 weeks after lockdown. Word spread, proudly, our 40 nonprofits survived through lockdown. In hindsight, we did what we had to to survive and increased our skill set, which is now a necessity for events moving forward because people have realized they don’t all have to be in the same room to ‘attend’ an event, there will always be a type of ‘hybrid’ format. However, the need for community and in-person events is skyrocketing now that restrictions are lifted. There are so many parties that were canceled and moved to dates in 2021/2022 that the competition for upcoming dates is fierce, creating a scarcity model. That fact coupled with costs of labor and hard goods going up, has Increased the costs for hosting events, and venues can name their price for whatever dates remain.
The most obvious issue facing the events industry is the ever-changing COVID protocols, and vaccination forms which every venue has the responsibility of enforcing. We are now well informed of all COVID laws and ways to move guests into these spaces with ease, while providing a safe and healthy place for their guests.
How have you stayed ahead of your competitors since launching Save The Date® 28 years ago?
For 28 years Save The Date ® has disrupted the events industry. I flipped the traditional business model, won awards, and have helped 29,000 clients in 5 cities. We are resilient and persevered through the internet bubble bursting, 9/11, economic turns in 2008, and the COVID pandemic, prevailing as an industry leader.
How have we survived? I ask a lot of questions. I want to know how all my clients and venues feel or what they are experiencing, and that sparks new ideas. I have always relied on our clients for guidance and have been nimble to respond as needed.
My business model has always been recession-proof as I started my company when the country was in a recession.
We provided a free service which never existed before because our clients needed it. We then rolled out other offices because our clients asked for it. Always believing in an ‘outsourced model’, we created a one-stop full consulting service because it was missing in the marketplace.
We keep asking our clients, customers, and vendors for feedback. We can always be better, and when we have the opportunity to hear how to improve and then DO IT, we secure forever clients. People appreciate honesty and integrity.
Before we conclude this interview, please tell us what preparations have been made by Save the Date® ahead of the December festive holiday season?
Jennifer: After a long year of no events, everyone is ready to throw a party! With New York just requiring proof of vaccination for indoor events, it’s all coming back to life. So, yes! We are extremely busy and booked for the holiday season, needing to increase our staff to accommodate all of these new inquiries. We’ve also been seeing a trend that more and more companies are pushing their holiday parties to January and February. We’ve been preparing for a busy season like this since everything shut down and it feels good to get everyone back to having a festive holiday season! Thank you Jennifer for participating in this Q&A session, we wish you all the best.
Jennifer: Thank you.