November marked the 20th anniversary of planitomaha (now planitinc.-updated in 2020) a big milestone for any company but perhaps even more meaningful for a woman-owned small business. The company that began with the efforts of just two people, co-founders and principals Renee Black and Lesley Brandt, now creates more than 400 events and meetings per year for clients from coast to coast.
"That’s an average of 1.1 events per day," Brandt said. "We started with an idea. No manual, no license agreement, no board of directors; planitomaha was built from an idea and a lot of grit."
"We are still, to this day—and it’s very important that we are still, to this day—an all-female team of 15 event producers," Black said. "Lesley and I have been through thick and thin for 20 years."
Today’s planitomaha is a full-service meeting and event logistics planning agency with the capacity to serve a broad clientele. More than 40 percent of its business is performed outside of Omaha.
"While we work with anyone from Fortune 500 to small businesses and corporations that have less than 50 employees, we do tend to specialize in companies and organizations in the financial and banking industries," Black said. "From our research with vendors and partnerships, through what we know of this entire Midwest corridor—from Minneapolis to Kansas City and from Des Moines to Denver—we know that our staff is one of largest of just people who are event coordinators and managers; we’re a firm of 15 people who simply do event and meeting logistics. That makes us one of the largest firms of our kind in the Midwest. That’s what we do, that’s what we are."
In addition to Black and Brandt, the company’s executive team includes Alycia Zabrocki, Caitlin Gruis and Katie Sullivan. Most of the event planners for planitomaha are millennials, many who are in their first career or entered the organization as interns, and the company enjoys a higher-than-average retention rate for young professionals.
"Probably for 90 percent, this is their first career," Black said. "A really big thing that both Lesley and I believe in is that every single female who works for us is empowered to become a better leader. Not just at planitomaha, but in her community and in her overall life. So we do a lot of things to empower the people that work for us."
The women who work for planitomaha master an array of skills valuable to any organization, from time management and budgeting to interpersonal communications and negotiating, Brandt said, and they gain not only confidence, but independence with experience.
"Everyone on our team has their own book of business," she said. "Our people are very fun, we’re ‘type-A,’ we’re outgoing, we’re get-it-done kind of people. There’s a certain personality that thrives in this environment. We hire for personality and train for skill."
The experience of working for planitomaha is rewarding for young professionals, Black said, and not just from a vocational perspective. Mentoring is a natural function of the team structure.
"We like the energy of the young professional and the ability to shape someone’s career for the first time…Their skill set, their depth and their breadth of who they are as a person is something we hope they take great pride in because we’re trying to empower them in their professional life as they work for us," she said. "A lot of them travel coast to coast and get to experience things they would have never dreamed they’d experience."
Logistics and details
planitomaha’s robust internship program provides college students with a unique opportunity to see the event and meeting planning industry from the inside. Interns are exposed to the challenges as much as they are to the fun side of things, Black said.
"Our internship program shows to anyone who comes in to intern with us really what we do. We’re very active with Creighton University, UNO (University of Nebraska-Omaha) and UNL (University of Nebraska-Lincoln)," Black said. "We believe that internship works both ways: if they think they want to go into event planning and meeting logistics a lot of times they find out by doing an internship with us that this is exactly the career path they want…or no, it’s exactly not what they want."
The work is as demanding as it is fulfilling, Black explained. "We’re the first ones there and the last ones to leave."
"The glamorous event planner portrayed on television is not at all what the job is. It’s about logistics and details, and you might say you like logistics and details, but when you get into a job at planitomaha we take details to the extreme," she said. "The event doesn’t happen without the event meeting planners. You might have a 5 a.m. call time and you might not be done that day until that last reception or that last meeting gets out. They’re long days; it’s hard work. You have to be on your game, you have to know how to work with a client and you have to work with vendors. There’s a lot to it."
Trust and pride
Those high expectations and vigorous attention to detail are why planitomaha has built a reputation for excellence over the years, or as Brandt and Black have coined it, they’re known as "the WOW experts."
"Our customer service is second to none. We are all about the client and doing whatever it takes," Black said. "The WOW doesn’t necessarily mean something expensive and big on time; WOW can simply mean on time, on budget, on point. We put great pride in being good stewards of corporate dollars for our clients, and our clients recognize that."
"I would put us against any seasoned, veteran nationwide firm," Brandt said. "Our clients have to trust us to be a good partner and act in their best interest. And you won’t outwork us. Our clients need an army they can trust and we’re that army."
The planitomaha professionals pride themselves on looking beyond just a single event for any given client, she added, whether it’s securing an in-demand venue several years in advance for an annual event, or keeping clients abreast of new presentation technology.
"It’s definitely a long-term focus we have; it’s not just about what’s right in front of us," Brandt explained. "We can use our team’s experience and the breadth and depth of the nationwide and international experience that we have and bring that to every client. So a lot of ideas we bring to our clients are either new or cutting-edge and/or we’ve experienced them with other clients. We help them build out their event strategies."
The team also stays in touch with industry trends through involvement in top professional groups including Meeting Planners International Heartland Chapter, National Association of Catering Executives, American Marketing Association and Public Relations Society of America.
Supporting the community
planitomaha supports the community by promoting Omaha resources, even bringing some outside business to Omaha, and through its work with area nonprofit clients, Black said.
"We know some the nonprofits we work with don’t have the budgets and dollars to spend like a lot of our other clients do," she said. "We’ve put a nonprofit pricing model together. We offer the same exact services at a discounted rate if they meet certain criteria."
Perfectly executed details and new ideas help make those fundraisers successful, Brandt added. "We have a skill that nonprofits need."
Many of the fundamental elements of successful events and meetings—like good food and refreshments and an inviting atmosphere—are essentially the same as when planitomaha started in 1998. Presentation technology, however, has evolved extensively.
"Even for a simple meeting, 20 years ago it was about making a room beautiful through floral and linen and layout," Black said. "Nowadays everything is so advanced, it’s about what you’re putting on the screen and what does the production look like ; everything is about the show and what people are doing to engage attendees. Where we were 20 years ago is completely different than where we are today; it’s very much about how the information is displayed: Was it done in a high- tech fashion? And was everything on the stage well-lit, well-done and well-run? And was my time appreciated? It’s a completely different game today."
Even printed invitations and programs, and fax or phone registration have mostly given way to digital counterparts. "Everything moves a lot faster," Black said.
But the planitomaha team isn’t content to just keep up. In collaboration with multiple technology partners, they strive to stay on the leading edge.
"We want to be the market leader for event planners in regard to event technology, so we are working nonstop with our entire team on how to get ahead of what’s happening and how what’s happening in the tech world can be implemented into the meeting and event industry," she said. "Everyone has seen it done seamlessly and beautifully but also when it’s gone wrong. We’re working with tech vendors to make it better and stronger."
And after 20 years in the business, planitomaha leadership continues to look ahead. "We still think that we’re in a growth mode," Black said. "planitomaha is a DBA and everyone knows us as planitomaha, but our actual name is Planit, Inc. We have the ability to potentially enter into other markets."
No matter what the next planitcity might be, the team-building principles that have made planitomaha a success will be carried forward, Brandt added.
"We maintain excellent customer service and excellent relationships but we’ve listened to our people and invested in them," she said. "Our people are our biggest strength."
ORDER A COPY OF OUR PRINTED EDITION and learn more about this important initiative in our community.
"You want to help parents whose shoes you’d never want to walk in. We might call programs by different names today, but our history shows a consistent level of compassion in the caring for children and families."Every single female who works for us is empowered to become a better leader. Not just at planitomaha, but in her community and in her overall life."
~ Renee Black, Co-founder and Principal, planitomaha