What is it like to get paid to discover destinations? Special occasions are special for a reason. That is probably why event planning is one of today’s most in-demand services. In this episode, Catherine Kontos gets an insider’s view of what it’s like to be in the party planning business from none other than the owner of Montreal Event Planner, Daniela Caputo. Listen in as Daniela sits with Catherine to talk about how to make memorable moments matter and how event planning allows her to discover amazing destinations while getting paid.
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Get Paid To Discover Destinations With Daniela Caputo
In this episode of RetreatBoss, we have Daniela Caputo who is a meeting and event planner based in Montreal, Canada. She is experienced in everything from client services and project management to marketing events, execution, negotiations and sourcing. Her expertise is regularly recognized by her peers with nominations including planner of the year, industry builder and mentor. Her insights on best practices and upcoming trends has been featured in numerous magazine articles. Hopefully, we’ll get all that insight here. Welcome, Daniela, to the show.
Thank you, Catherine. Thanks for having me. It’s an honor.
Daniela because we live locally together in this area, I know how well-recognized you are here. You teach many others. You have students on event planning and everything that you do. When we’ve spoken before, I thought when I met you and we spoke even more, I said, “She would be a great expert to bring onto the show,” to tell us a little bit about your strategies and techniques on how to create a space where people will feel even more enhanced into the events and have much greater experiences and memories because of it. First, tell me a bit about your story, how you got started in the industry and what you’ve done up until now like a little brief recap of your career.
I’m going to make it as short as possible. It was a total accident that I became an event planner or a meeting planner. Before that, for 25 years, I was in the corporate world. I worked in customer relations, front line, sales service or sales coordinator, marketing, PR and all that. I was almost in the service industry or a service area of the corporate world. The recession happened many years ago. I lost my job. I was working in marketing at the time. They started looking for a job. I fell into a program from UQAM, Québec, to encourage women to open up their own businesses. Even though I didn’t want to open it up but I figured, “I have nothing to do. Let me learn something,” because I’m a learner. I hate exams but I love to learn.
I did that while I was looking for a job and ended up opening up my own event planning company. I didn’t have experience as an event planner but in many years of servicing and working in the service, I was the one that organized the sales meeting, the Christmas party, the business meetings, the workshops and all that, wherever I worked in the company. That wasn’t my title as an event planner but I was like a coordinator but she organized this or marketing but she organizes that and stuff like that. I’m a very organized person, even personally. I love hosting people and I am a people pleaser. That’s the first thing. For me, as a planner, you have to be a people pleaser. Besides all the other stuff, creativity and everything else but you got to be that.
Another five years into my business, when I started, I got an offer to teach. I taught South College and to teach event management courses. I figured, “No problem.” I thought it was going to be a one-semester gig and a few years later, I’m still teaching. I found another passion, which I love prepaying it forward. My motto is, I aspire to inspire. That goes across for our clients, students, whoever I meet. It’s one thing led to another and here I am now. I got nominated a few times, which is like, “Wow. People remember me?” I’m not a huge company. I am a one-person operation although I do hire people when I do need the staff on-call but I am a networker. I am a hustler. I am in every which way to get a contract or get a work or what have you. I learned it from my many years of experience in the corporate world.
What do you think is the key factor in making an event a wow factor?
Clients walk wow factors all the time but the thing is, Catherine, what’s a walk for you or apply mean? It may not be the same while for me. The key to my trick or my secret recipe or whatever is I listen to the client. I don’t only hear them but I listen. I also listen to what I call between the lines. They’re telling me this but what do they want? They’re saying this. I try to dig in subtly and discreetly. I try to understand what they want. It wasn’t easy at first because at first, you’re eager and stuff but with time, you start seeing the patterns. Sometimes clients or people think they told you everything but haven’t been as a rate is still in there and they haven’t verbalized it.
You have to find or figure out a way to pull it up without them knowing because there’s a lot of information that you need. I based it on their past events because I always ask about their past events. I ask what they like and don’t like, what are deal-breakers, what are good, all those questions. I tell the client, I go, “I know you think I’m probably like a junior by asking you these questions but it’s important to me because then I get the whole picture. I don’t get part of it and the other part, I fill it in.”
A lot of times, I’m asked by the clients. They say, “You’re the expert, you tell me.” Other planners are different but in my way of working, I do not tell the client what I think because it’s not important. What’s important is what do they want and I’ll make it happen. I call it the Dreamweaver. I’ll make your dream come true. Whatever it is. Reasonably, because sometimes the dreams are wild.
When you create an event, something about transforming the room makes a huge difference.
Like in a retreat as well is assess your client properly and with expertise. You’re correct. You start learning to read between the lines as well as to what they want because there’s a certain pattern of behavior or ideas that come up with it. Also, clients don’t know what they don’t know.
They think they know, they don’t know or they think they told you everything but no. There has a lot to do with body language even the surroundings. Sometimes I’d like to meet them at their office, look around and I get the vibe of the place too. It’s important. I spend time with them, sit down, have a coffee. We chit-chat a lot about personal things but I get the vibe. In the meantime, it’s a way of me getting all of the entire pictures.
That’s a great idea for people that can because sometimes, with retreats, you can’t necessarily be in the same room with the person if you do have the opportunity to be able to go into their space and get a feel of their character.
You can. Nowadays, people don’t bring it to their office anymore. They bring it to the boardroom.
Especially now. The event industry was hit hard like the food industry, the travel industry, anything else that has to do with people. How have you dealt with all that? Did you do something differently? Are you waiting it out and going with the flow?
I did start trying to do something different but I decided to wait for it. I have done some online events, which we hated because it’s impersonal. People are people. We like the face-to-face. We like to hug each other, hello, how are you or shake the hand and everything. I know it can be done now. I did try to pivot. I didn’t find it sat well with me as a planner. The reason for it, I felt like I was becoming a TV producer. I felt like I was becoming an executive producer. Like I was planning a TV Show. It wasn’t an event. In the traditional sense of being an event planner or being a planner. There’s nothing wrong with that but I don’t want to do that. That’s not what I signed up for. That’s not what my company is all about.
I find it makes it. No matter what, online is online. When you create an event, there’s something about transforming the room that makes a huge difference. You could be in a factory with four walls and it looks like nothing special.
It looks spectacular. You could transform it into something super spectacular.
I’d like to get your ideas on when people go away in a group retreat where they’re trying to create transformation. Depending on what transformation they want to create makes a huge difference. Do you feel that there is something that they could do in their location wherever they are that can enhance that experience? Are there any tricks or anything that they could tweak without having them cost them a lot of money? What could they do?
It’s tricky because it’s up to the individual. Let me explain what I need. You have to be open to that, the idea of a retreat. Sometimes you’ll go to a retreat and expect it to come to you. If you’re not open-minded, open-spirited, open-hearted, open arms, whatever, it’s hard to get to your goal for the retreat. I’ll give you a simple example. I go to a lot of different places. I travel and this one place was in Mexico. I’m a beach person but this place was not a beach place. It was in the center of Mexico and it was considered a very high-end retreat for people that want spirituality. When I’m on a trip for business, my mind is business-oriented. Does my client like it? I walk in.
I don’t look from Daniela Caputo’s point of view. I look from the point of view of my client. “Do they like this?” I’m very mechanical. I went to this place and there was a retreat place. When I arrived, the street was super busy because you know Mexico, it’s congested and everything. The gates were opened. We drove in. The gates are closed. Believe it or not, no more noise. I don’t even know how that’s possible because we were outside but no more noise. You get further in and they gave me my room. It was a hacienda.
I walk into that hacienda. It was beautiful. It was authentic, very Mexican style with the stucco walls. Everything you could think of but all of a sudden, I felt realigned and straightened out spiritually. I couldn’t understand because I was thinking, “I don’t need realignment. I’m not here for the retreat. I’m here to see if it’s a good fit for my client but I’m not here for me.” That place grabbed me, spiritually speaking. It realigned me and I didn’t know I needed it. I went in there with an open mind for my client. Not even for myself. Being open-spirited, open-minded, helped so much because you know what they say. You can bring the horse to the water but you can’t make it drink. You can take the head and put it in the water. It doesn’t mean it’s going to drink. It’s what the individual in mind too. That’s the hardest part but the easiest part, depending on how it goes.
When you’re scouting for venues and I know that you do, it’s very important to understand that the environment that they’re in will make a huge difference. If there’s something that they could do to tweak it, I always advise people to speak to the venue owners. If there’s something that they could do that’ll make it even more aligned to what you want as a goal then go for it. You have to ask. All they can say is no and if not, if you can figure out a way to tweak it to make it more environmentally enhancing for the client because you’re not the first one that says that to me. It’s happened to me too where you get this feeling.
When you walk in somewhere, it’s an energy that will either turn you off or will turn you on in a good way, where you feel completely aligned and centered and at home and peaceful. Other places you could go and you could feel agitated and stressed. Maybe it has nothing to do with the house or the venue. Maybe it has to do with the energy of the people that have gone in there or the homeowners, the venue owners. It’s a great point to bring up. When you scout venues, which you came back from what you told me pre-interview, correct?
Yes, that’s right. Costa Rica.
Tell me what you do when you’re scouting venues. Do you look at activities? Do you look at the destination? What could they do as an excursion? What is your day look like? Give me the day of Daniela in Costa Rica. Give me one day.
The idea is this. I don’t come up with the definitions myself. I could but I’m in a meeting with my clients. When it comes to the incentive part were, “This year or next year or in two years, where are we going to go? We’ve been to Europe, we’ve been here. We’ve been there.” Everybody talks about the destinations. I have a list of a lot because even though I have 3 or 4 clients but within that clientele, I have seventeen groups. I have to bring them to different places. Not seventeen different places. I do a rotation but I do know the profile of my group. The group was the IT software people, all between 35 and 60 years old. Mostly men. There are women, very competitive people.
What do they want to do? Do they want to go to Costa Rica because they want to do explore the jungles? Costa Rica is known for the eco-awareness of the country. It’s lush and rainforest. It’s not known for its beaches. I brought the group already for the jungle and the city because they wanted to see it. They wanted to see the different animals in the rainforest and all that stuff. They did that. They loved it. Now, there’s a side of Costa Rica that’s the ocean or beach. It’s not the beaches of Mexico, the beaches of Jamaica or the Dominican Republic but it does have a beachside in its wilder. Meaning not that it’s dangerous wild. It’s not developed like me and you and most of us know what the Caribbean is developed like.
Where I went was a hotel with villas. The little house is with a room or two. It’s a little house. It’s not even a 3 or 4 or 7 story, high building with hotel rooms. It’s the less. You open the doors. The beach is right there. The ocean is right there. It’s a Villa so it’s to the ground and authentic to Costa Rica. I knew that my seller, my clientele wanted to experience that. It’s not for everybody because there are bugs, lizards, iguanas. We’re basically on their turf. Every day, I would see an iguana or lizard or something or some bird or something there.
They don’t disturb you if you don’t disturb that but it’s not for everyone. When I got there, I looked at that. I look at the room. Do they like it? Is the bed okay? Is it clean? Is it modern? Is there air conditioning because it’s hot there. What is it looking out to? Does it look out to the gardens or the ocean? The food, how was it? Is it good? Is it to my client’s standard? Not my standard but my client’s standard because I know them very well by now. Is the service good? Especially now with COVID, are they conscious of COVID? Are they aware? Are they careful? What activities do they have? They have snorkeling, hiking, zip-lining. They have all kinds of activities. That’s what I look for and I gather all this information.
When I do go to these destinations, the people are aware that I’m coming. Meaning the sales managers or the marketing directors of the hotel know that I’m coming. They’ll make information available to me to or they’ll ask me, “Would you like to try this? Would you like to try that?” I’m testing it up there for my clients and their potential clients.
If you’re not open-minded, open-spirited, or open-hearted, it will be hard for you to get to your goal.
Is it a venue that they chose? Do your clients tell you, “I want you to go scout these three venues or check them out?” Is it something that you suggest and you reach out to the venue?
Pricing is something that is a huge pain point for planners. Do you get this sponsored? Do you get the client to pay for it both?
It depends because a lot of times, what happens is when I’m invited to these things, first of all, I’m not the only one. It’s always in groups of twenty or maybe sometimes bigger but with COVID, we were ten because of the group size. It’s called a fam tour or familiarization tour. That’s usually organized by the Costa Rica tourism office or what they’re called DMCs, which is Destination Management Companies. They’re basically planners that are from the destination and they’re experts of the destination. They will pick you up at the airport. They will organize stuff. They’re my best friends. That’s what I’m trying to say because I reach out to the tourism office. The tourism office has a membership.
They have members and they can tell you, “Daniela, if you want to do this and this, I suggest these guys. If you have 4 or 5-star hotels that your clients want, this is the group of hotels you should look at. We’ll help you reach out to the organizers there and marketing people or the sales managers or directors and stuff.” It gets all coordinated. When I reach out to the tourism office, the tourism office and I have a conversation. This doesn’t happen within a week. Sometimes it’s a year ahead, two years ahead. It takes time. Sometimes the trip is paid for. Sometimes it’s not.
Sometimes the hotels are paid for. Most of the time the hotels will pay for it but sometimes it’s not. Certain food like meals are paid for and sometimes not. Activities, it depends. If you go to certain hotels, for instance. I went to New Zealand, for example. Quite a few years ago, I went to New Zealand. I got the trip, the flight, the hotels, the meals. Everything was included. I did not spend one penny. We were about 30 people.
Who pays for this?
The flight was New Zealand Air. The hotel was where we stayed at. We stayed at several of them because it’s not something that I’m there for a week and I’m at my leisure. No, that’s the other thing. I go to these places but it’s not on my schedule because I’m being hosted or a guest of theirs. They’re going to show me around so my schedule is full. Sometimes, I have no time for myself. At 7:00, it starts, there’s a presentation of the destination. There’s a visit to the hotel then there’s breakfast. We go into the car or the minibus and they bring us to another destination and another visit of a hotel. We have lunch at the hotel. We come back, we change, take a quick shower, change, go to a cocktail at another hotel or another special event venue.
The day after, we may be doing zip lining or hiking but it’s constant. We’re always busy. The trips are about four nights, average. If you want to add an extra night then it’s at your cost. If it’s all-inclusive then you don’t pay but if it’s not, you pay your own. Sometimes the flights are not included but the rest is. It depends on the budgets of the suppliers because they’re called suppliers for us. I’m considered a buyer so because I’m a buyer and I have buying power, I get invited to these destinations. I don’t get invited because I’m Daniela Caputo. I got invited because I have a reputation. I have done a lot of business with other people or related hotels.
For instance, the Ritz Carlton, Montreal. There are other Ritz Carltons all over the world. My name is in the database of Ritz Carlton worldwide. When they see my name and who this is, they’re going to go look me up. There are notes on my name and stuff. It’s something that’s built with time, age, experience and everything else. It’s not something that’s very easy that we’ve done. You have to do business also. You have to prove to them that you are worth the trip because they’re paying a lot of money for you, technically, to be there.
Someone who’s starting off, what steps would they take to do what you do as far as getting your trips sponsored?
What it is, basically, in our industry, we have an association. They have chapters all over the world. You have to be a member of that association. It’s for meeting professionals. With that, you should mingle and network a lot. Once you get there, there are conferences that are held there. There’s the World Education Conference that happens every year but it happens in the US and it moves around. It goes everywhere in the US. Every year, it’s a different destination. You have to pay for the trip, the conference, the food, the beverage. There’s an expense to it.
Once you get there then it’s like a trade show. You have all destinations, all kiosks. Like when you go to a car show or a home show, you have all displays of homes, contracting companies and stuff. In our industry, it’s destinations, suppliers of all kinds, audiovisual, tourism offices and stuff. You have to take the time to go there, introduce yourself, exchange business cards, have conversations like we’re having now. They’re going to ask you, “What events do you do? How many events do you do a year? Who are your clients?” They ask you questions because they don’t just decide on anybody. You got to have buying power and you got to prove it to them somehow.
By proving it to them, it’s not by saying, “This is what I do.” They’ll see it because people talk to each other in the industry. If you go to a Fairmont, let’s say. You meet at Fairmont in Maldives, let’s say. Those people come to the Fairmont, Montreal or talk to the Fairmont in Quebec City but they’re connected. They have their meetings and they talk. Maybe they go through names of people or planners and stuff. Maybe they exchange. I don’t know. I’m not there. I’m not on that site but from what I gather is that your name and reputation get shared. That helps but that takes time and it takes a lot of dedication. That’s what I meant before when I said I’m a hustler. You have to hustle. You have to go.
I know one of my clients want to go to Australia. I’ve been after Australian tourism for many years now. I haven’t been successful in reaching out. They know who I am. They’ve heard my story. I’ve met them in person but they’re not convinced. Maybe because they see my little company and me. I’m from Montreal. I’m small but they don’t realize that I have big budgets that I manage.
My clients go into million-dollar budgets when they do these things. It’s not Mickey Mouse stuff. Either they’re not too convinced or I don’t know what the holdup is. It could be many other things. It could be because there are a lot more planners ahead of me that are much more powerful at providing. They’re much higher ranked than I am. That’s all. It could be as simple as that.
You’re giving so much value to my audience. This is incredible information. This is gold.
Thank you. Sorry if I’m talking too much but it is. It’s that way. I know it looks glamorous on the surface. If you follow me, you see all my adventures and stuff. “Wow. That’s fun.” It is fun but it’s a lot of work.
Someone was planning an event like planning a retreat, it takes time. You’re looking at a year in advance, at least. This is what I always say to people who are looking into retreat planning. They’re thinking now. Don’t think of it now. The Global Wellness Institute predicts 2022 at this time, the wellness industry, travel, retreats and all of that are going to skyrocket to multiple figures. Numbers that we’ve never seen before. For whoever’s in the event industry, retreat industry, wellness industry and wants to do something at a destination, they need to train themselves now. They need to prepare now, for next year, for the year after. It’s not that’s happening now.
Do you know why it’s going to be skyrocketing?
When you have to do business, you have to prove to the clients that you are really worth the trip.
Go ahead and tell me. I want to hear what you have to say.
It has to do with mental health. People have suffered from this pandemic. They suffered quietly, whatever. It’s important. Now people are going to say, “I don’t care. I’m going. I’m doing something. I’m taking care of myself.”
People are doing that now. People don’t realize that the people who are leading retreats now are making so much money, are busy because a lot of retreat planners said, “I’m not doing it now. It’s not the time.” The ones that are taking advantage of the opportunity because there are people that are saying, “I don’t care. I need to connect with others. I need to take care of what’s going on with me and here and my soul and my spirit. I need to go now.” As long as the retreat leader makes sure that they make the client feel secure about everything and the protocols and how the cancellations and all that. People are going like this. They’re booking their retreats within a couple of weeks. All I see is booked sold out and it’s because nobody else is doing it. The ones that aren’t doing it, everybody’s flocking to them.
They’re afraid because the pandemic is still happening. A lot of times, the deal for me to do an event locally or even anywhere else, I will do it if it’s 200 people. I’m talking about a regular event. I won’t do it because it’s too risky, first of all. Secondly, the venue should not allow that. I’m saying it like this because I’ll get in trouble with my colleagues because there are venues that are allowing you. They’re putting the onus on the client and it shouldn’t be on the client. They’re saying, “We could do it but you take care of the passport.” That’s not right. It’s not the client’s place. It’s the supplier’s place.
You have to be responsible too for your planning because in the end, it is your event. It’s your name and reputation. You don’t want anything happening. If you do it in a secure, safe way, which is whatever you’re comfortable with too. It’s okay if people aren’t doing retreats or events. If they’re not feeling comfortable doing it then don’t. I’m saying the ones that are, are profiting from it now.
They are. Good for them. God forbid something happens. You have to understand there are rules and regulations that the government put in. As long as they don’t get caught, they’re going to be making money. When you get caught, it gets expensive. I know of quite a few restaurants that have the license but they got caught. Why? First of all, they were over capacitated. Secondly, the guests were not wearing their masks. Thirdly, the guests were dancing.
You’re speaking about more locally here in Montreal.
I’m not going to name names but yes. What happened is somebody outside hears the music, pops their head in, sees dancing. All they have to do is call the cops. They come and everybody gets fined after. Everybody, guests, owners, suppliers.
The important message here that you’re trying to convey is, “It’s not worth it. Follow the rules. Whatever you’re doing, follow the rules,” because in the end, it’s not worth it. It’s about safety. That’s what you need to do when you’re planning during a time like this whether it’s local events or destination events. You got to go with the groove and be ready when it’s open. When it’s closed, it’s closed. Take the time to recover, reassess and whatever. As you’ve seen the past years, it’s open, it’s closed, semi-closed. It’s predictable.
Let’s get back to even planning as the last little final thing. Tell me when a company hires you to go scout. How do you price them? How do you price that? How do you price your events? What is the breakdown of how you do it? Is it an expense then you mark up after the expense with a profit? Do you do it differently?
The way I do it is I have my flat fee. I know there are other planners who go by percentage. I don’t believe in that. I’m not saying it’s wrong or right. I’m saying I don’t believe in back because in the end, 90% of the time, we’re the ones who lose money when it’s a percentage. In other words, if they give you a budget. I’m giving you any number. A budget of, let’s say, $30,000 and you’re working with that. When you reconcile the budget, it’s a $50,000 budget. That $20,000 that you didn’t get the percentage of because you quoted the price. I’m going to take 10% or 5% of $30,000. Now there’s $20,000 more to this budget. How are you going to get the percentage from the $20,000?
The client will tell you, “That’s not my problem. You didn’t calculate right.” You started off with $30,000 but when you reconcile everything, it’s $50,000. You lost money technically because you worked for $20,000 extra like you’re not getting paid for it. For me, it’s a flat fee. They tell me, “It’s a three-day, four days, whatever.” I calculate my time. I know now. I have a system. Also because I’m not at every single destination, I don’t go with the group. I used to go but not anymore. I hire people at the destination, which is the destination management companies. They gave me a percentage because I gave them clients.
It’s a commission, but it’s the way they pay me. It’s the way it works in the other places in the world because I know the productive commissions or tip box does not look very nicely here in Canada or Quebec, I should say. It’s a normal thing everywhere. Everywhere in the industry, not only our industry but they call it a commission. I sent them a bill and they paid me what we agreed on for me giving them the business, for me choosing them as my supplier. They get paid their stuff but then they give me because we already negotiated and we already worked out the details and I get paid. I get paid for my clients because I go and source and do. I also get an amount from the destination management company.
That’s a good way. With the percentage, they would have to rate it on contract if it goes over budget then the percentage goes with the budget.
Good luck with that especially in Montreal, they don’t fly.
They’re like, “That’s not happening.”
What you have to understand is if you’re doing 4 or 5, 10, 15, 20 events at a time, you have to remember all that. You have to have a system but you got to, “Where am I at? How much are they?” For me, the way I work, I don’t like it. I don’t do it but other people do it. They swear by it and that’s their thing. Good for them if they swear by it.
Daniela, you have given us so much information. My audience is going to eat away at it and probably read it a few times. I thank you for that.
Thank you for having me. It’s my pleasure.
- Daniela Caputo
- The Global Wellness Institute
About Daniela Caputo
With one of the most established careers in the event planning industry, Daniela has built a unique reputation based on professionalism and versatility. Experienced in everything from client services and project management to marketing, event execution, negotiations, and sourcing, she is known for her keen eye on details, impeccable networking skills, and resourcefulness. Daniela is passionate about providing her clients a level of service that is second to none, and won’t settle for anything but the best. Her list of event successes include conferences, corporate incentive programs, and weddings, just to name a few.
Daniela’s expertise is regularly recognized by her peers, with nominations including Planner of the Year – Industry Builder and Mentor. She is a sought-after figure in the meetings/events industry, and her insight on best practices and upcoming trends have been featured in numerous magazine articles. She strongly believes in paying it forward on an education platform (her teaching motto is “Aspire to Inspire!”), and is an in-demand teacher at Lasalle College‘s Event Planning Program and certifies future Wedding Planners at WPIC (Wedding Planners Institute of Canada).
Some of Daniela’s other professional roles include:
- Board member for Meeting Professionals International’s (MPI) local chapter, having served as Strategic Alliance Director, Special Events Director, and Public Relations Director
- Chair/Judge for the RISE Awards as part of MPI’s annual World Education Conference (WEC)
- Speaker for the Board of Trade of Metropolitan Montreal’s Operation Back to School, encouraging youth to stay in school
- Wedding BootCamp weekend workshop style at WPIC (in French)
- Co-founder of the Association of Montreal Professional Wedding Designers