Sometimes You’re Lucky Enough to Start at the Top

Sally-Webb-The-Special-Event-CompanyMaking amazing events happen is Sally Webb’s job. She is the CEO of The Special Event Company, a strategic event and meeting management company founded in London in 1986. The company has been operating in the U.S. since 1999 and in recent years has moved its headquarters to the Research Triangle Park in order to be closer to several important clients.

The Special Event Company is a “one-stop shop” for event management, meeting services, production, lighting, catering, décor and marketing.  The company has won or been nominated for over thirty international awards, including ten awards for events specifically in the RTP region.

Webb started her company twenty-five years ago, leading one of the first event management companies in England. From the beginning, The Special Event Company received some lucky breaks. Webb recalls her first event management job as being the 450th Anniversary of the Knights of London.

“I started with the Chairman of Knights in London, and then he became the new Mayor of London the following year, and he employed me to do all the fund-raising events for his mayoral year, so I got to know all of these big captains of industry.  So I started at a ridiculously high level.”

After about a decade working in the U.K., Webb started to see high demand for her field in the U.S. and she began traveling here regularly.

“What happened was in the mid-nineties I realized that the U.S. way of producing events was probably about five years ahead of where we were in the U.K,” explains Webb. “So I started to come to the U.S. to the trade shows and things to kind of take those ideas back to the U.K. and about that same time, event management suddenly became the sexy industry that everybody wanted to be in.”

Webb recounts that event management courses started to pop up at universities in the U.S., but because it was such an embryonic industry, there were not enough knowledgeable teachers.  Due to her international event management experience, Webb was invited by Duke University to be a guest speaker, as well as to design their study programs for Europe and Asia.  In addition, ten years ago, The Special Event Company worked to develop the Coach K Leadership Conference, which it continues to run today.

Four years ago, Webb moved to Raleigh full-time. Before that, it was a juggling act between her company’s different offices.

“I had a small office in Los Angeles, because we had some other business on the West Coast, and then in 2005 I thought, ‘I have to have an office in Raleigh.’  I was doing two weeks here and two weeks in the U.K. and it was just killing me.  So we opened an office here, and then I moved.”

Webb says Raleigh is The Special Event Company’s most active office, with prestigious clients such as Duke, SAS, and First Citizens keeping them busy. In addition, the company has offices in London, Los Angeles and Sydney.

Attaining high-level clients and events were always Webb’s goals.

“I knew very much the kind of business I wanted here,” she says. “There were a lot of small, wedding planner plus event producers in this region, but I wanted to be in that high-level, strategic, marketing-focus program arena, and I took my time.  I turned down more work than I took on because I didn’t want to be a cocktail party, wedding planner.”

Taking her time and doing things right has paid off. Webb has earned numerous accolades for her performance, from American International Event Producer of the Year to a Lifetime Achievement Award for services to the event industry.

The Special Event Company employs around sixteen people, all spread around its world offices.  Webb says these employees have to have a very special mix of right and left brain skills that enables them to balance creativity with organization, structure and long hours.

“This is the kind of business 98 percent of people think they can work in and 2 percent of people actually can, because it takes this real dichotomy of skill sets.”

Webb explains that her company is unique because clients usually can find either meeting planners or event management companies, but not a company that can handle it all.

“We have our own production here, so we have our own creative director and our own production manager.  We have a graphic designer.  There are very few companies that can manage the meeting logistics, create the special event, do the marketing materials for it, put some marketing strategy into it and do it here and do it in France.  So we’ve got a lot of skill sets.”

The Special Event Company masters not only handling all aspects of an event’s execution, but most importantly, crafting the right message.

“I always say no matter what kind of event or meeting you’re doing, it’s always the same thing.  You’re creating an environment to deliver a message.  It doesn’t matter whether it’s a party, an anniversary event, a trade show, a product launch, or a meeting event.  You have a message that you want to deliver, and you decide what the most conducive environment for people to receive that message is.”

Sometimes delivering the right message involves some risk.  Webb gives an example of her recent client, Duke Children’s Hospital and its tenth anniversary celebration. The hospital had suggested the Washington Duke Inn for the venue, but Webb felt strongly that holding the event at the actual hospital would deliver more emotional punch.  Accomplishing this goal involved a lot of logistical challenges but the payoff was well worth not taking the easier way out.

Webb says she could not have chosen a better area to build her business than Raleigh. While initially her contemporaries questioned her for not settling down in a larger city, Webb explains that being a big fish in a small pond has definite advantages.

“We keep our overheads low,” she explains. “I don’t need a ton of money to exist.  I’m not in big, great, flashy offices because nobody ever comes here.  What does it matter?  This region, to me, is so exciting because there is so much growth and there is so much need for the kind of programs that we do.”

The Special Event Company stands out from local competition with its high-level, all- inclusive services, and thus has the upper hand on obtaining big clients.

“I am so happy and grateful that I stayed because my business has grown, even during these last years when every one of my friends in New York and D.C. are struggling to get the business. We haven’t had that at all.”

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