As part of my series about the “5 Things You Need To Know To Create a Successful Service Business,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Valerie Bihet.
Valerie Bihet has more than 20 years of experience in the management, design and production of special events that communicate and achieve her client’s objectives. In 2004 Bihet founded VIBE, an event design and destination management company, in Miami. Since then, she has grown the company to nine employees, more than $7 million in revenue in 2019 and produced more than 1,100 events throughout the United States, Europe, Mexico, East Asia and South America.
Valerie travels the US and internationally planning company trainings, incentive trips, launch parties, sales conferences, and other corporate events. Her clients include Hermes, Dior, Estee Lauder, BlackBerry and more. She and VIBE have received various recognitions by industry publications including a 2018 Planner of the Year by SmartMeetings magazine, Top 50 Special Events Company by Special Events magazine, and 2007 Event Planner of the Year by BizBash, among others.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Originally from Paris, France, I got my start in events working as the Public Relations and Special Events Manager at Disneyland Paris and Public Relations Director at Club Med Paris. In those roles I produced and managed the events teams for many of the two companies largest events including Disney’s 5th Anniversary Celebration, Club Med’s 50th Anniversary and The Race, and the world renowned Tour de France.
While at Club Med, the opportunity in the North American offices presented itself and I jumped at it. I transferred to the Miami office in 2000 as the Communication, Public Relation and Partnership Director. During my four years in that role, I produced events and managed large production teams for the brand’s high profile events as well as being responsible for all marketing and press events.
Then in 2004, VIBE came to be!
What was the “Aha Moment” that led you to think of the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
I didn’t have the typical “American Dream” when I started VIBE. I actually had a disagreement with a friend when the Club Med position became available and I was considering moving to the US. He said “ Are you sure you’re going to be able to do it?” That question made me all the more determined to prove I could. In fact, I ended up doing so well in the role that they called and asked me to move back to France to run the Paris office’s events. I wasn’t ready to leave yet though so that’s when I left Club Med.
I didn’t really have a plan of what to do next but a friend asked me to help plan his 35th birthday party so I did. It turned out all of the guests worked for luxury brands like Chanel and Guerlain. They loved what I did and one of them asked me to lunch for my opinion on one of their upcoming events. Turns out that person was from LVMH. I gave them my ideas and they hired me.
So I ended up creating a business backwards. I got the client first, then created a business to service them. Now we hit the $7 million revenue mark in 2019.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
You always need to have a good Plan B that your client agrees and approves. Even if they don’t want to have it, you must get it. Case and point: A luxury watch manufacturer hires me to plan the 100 anniversary of the brand and we are supposed to do it at Vizcaya Museum & Gardens here in Miami, an entirely outdoor venue.
The only Plan B option is to put up a tent in case it rains since there are no indoor rooms that can be used. So we can either do a white tent, which hides the gardens that are the point of being at Vizcaya, or you use clear and still be able to see the property and all the lighting.
I tried to sell to my client on the clear tent and they told me no. They didn’t want that. For two weeks before the event it had been pouring in Miami — constantly, and I knew this was needed but they didn’t want it.
To build a tent, the venue needed three weeks notice, but even as that window came and went the client still said no. They told me “I count on your good luck Valerie. It won’t rain.”
The day we set up the event it was beautiful weather. The party happened and it was gorgeous — with no tent. Then in the breakdown, it started pouring and stayed that wet for another two weeks. Go figure!
So yes it turns out we were insanely lucky, BUT we shouldn’t have been. You cannot count on luck so the lesson is to always push harder for the Plan B approval.
Thank you for that. Let’s now pivot to the main focus of our interview. Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
When I started I had no vision and no purpose. I had an idea and someone bought it so I built a company around it. Then after I sold the ideas I had to catch up. This is not the way to do it HA!
You need a business plan and a vision to truly make it grow, so I sat down and started doing that by building a website and outlining my marketing strategy. Thankfully word of mouth at the time really started having people hear about me.
Then as I started to grow, word of mouth was not enough so I started doing more PR. As a company grows you really need to have a social media strategy, CRM system setup and other programs in place so you are able to take on more work but also still provide the same level of service to your clients that got you to that point to begin with. The way you approach your clients and how well you understand their pain points is what really conveys your “purpose” to them.
Today especially I think you need to be very data driven to understand what people are looking for so you can master design your event or your solution for them.
What do you do to articulate or demonstrate your company’s values to your employees and to your customers?
On the employee side I try to empower them. I believe a leader is responsible to your team, but not for your team. I focus on giving them the tools and a working environment that fosters independence and empowers them to avoid knocking on my door every five minutes with a question or seeking approval.
How do you do this? First you need a good tracking system on everything they are working on. (See why I mentioned that CRM before?) You need to give the vision and clear objective of what you expect from them.
Then in all of your staff meetings you have to ask them the question: what are your roadblocks to reach your goal? That way you can steer them in the right direction but they can do it on their own. I tell them that before they come to see me they need to be able to answer the question “What alternatives did you consider before you came here?” As a leader, you are not their babysitter, you are either guide. They need to be solution-driven just like I am with my clients.
In regard to customers, the best way to articulate your value is by knowing what their pain points are and being able to convey those back. You need to have qualifying questions to identify their issues so you will be able to show them where and how you can bring value to them.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
“Let’s do it.” It’s really that simple. Emotions don’t have a place in business. We need to address where the issue is and continue to find new solutions. It’s about constantly evolving and solving problems, not dwelling on them.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
Because I started with no company strategy or vision, what was really hard was I was more in a reactive mode than proactive. It was very easy to get overloaded with everything and then after a year it was almost burned out. That’s when I took a step back and started to reevaluate how I wanted to build it.
Then in 2008 with the recession and again in 2020 with the pandemic, I employed these same tactics to take a step back, look at what I wanted to do with the business, and come up with a new way to service my clients ever-evolving pain points.
So, how are things going today? How did your values lead to your eventual success?
We are all about reinvention. I was lucky to have a very strong beginning of the year with nearly 20 events to make it able for us to survive for now as we regrouped and found a new way to still help our clients do their meeting, but in a new way.
This pandemic has been unique though. Usually a crisis lasts for maybe six months or so then the economy and our businesses can rebound. We just don’t know with this one though. It’ll be unknown for my industry (events) for a while and harder for some smaller entrepreneurs to succeed.
Because I’ve always been focused on addressing my clients pain points, which right now is doing business without being in-person, I’ve been able to pivot my style of event planning successfully.
One of the things we’ve come up with is to produce full virtual experiences for clients. We put the same amount of planning and preparation into these online events that would normally do for in-person. We have the A/V all setup for a live broadcast with a full studio as needed, entertainment breaks are planned, team building activities and even delivering items to the attendees pre-event so they have what they would normally get at the venue. (Branded items, game material, etc)
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a founder or CEO should know in order to create a very successful service based business? Please share a story or an example for each.
TIP 1: Need to be a good financial person or hire one.
This is so crucial to get things right. Without the money in order you cannot have the company and grow. I learned this early on as I looked to expand my team. The money has to be there before you spend it. Also, you don’t spend more than 10% of your gross margin as your marketing budget. This type of approach has led me to be able to grow from one employee (myself) to nine and survive during a pandemic that has decimated my industry.
TIP 2: Start right away with a good CRM program.
Again this feeds into the growth of your company because you need to be able to accurately track the sales in your pipeline and who on your sales team is reaching and/or meeting goals. I also believe in full transparency with them. We all are on the same page about the company goals, numbers, objectives and where we’re going as a team. Each of them knows the company goals and their individual goals.
TIP 3: Have a unique selling proposition.
Thinking through the client pain points. Because I plan events, I had to think about whatI wanted my clients to experience, which is being a guest at their own event, then find a way to outline how you will reach them. The more we understand their pain points, the better we can design an event that is custom to those and our sales proposition (aka the value we bring to them) comes across much smoother.
TIP 4: Marketing that includes PR and brand awareness.
I have been investing in marketing and PR from the very beginning with my company. First I think public relations can help you to convey your vision, the reasons you are doing a certain initiative and put your brand up on the market. When you have a good brand, you can inspire loyalty, trust in your employees, which is important to grow your business.
Public Relations is one aspect of the marketing tools that in my opinion is more important than others because it’s more trusted than advertising. Advertising you have to buy. You cannot buy good PR, you have to earn it. And that also attracts quality clients and talent.
TIP 5: Focus on developing your company culture.
These are the people that will be serving your clients so surround yourself with the right ones you can trust and help them grow. The more they grow, the more you can give them additional responsibilities. This enables you, as the owner, to focus on other tasks knowing that your brand is safe and clients are getting the best from your team the way they would from you.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
We all need someone to turn to and being a CEO is no difference. I have great friends who are very good in their different industries and I respect them for that. So I turn to various people in that network when I need an outside perspective on business but from someone who understands business, even if they aren’t in the events industry.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I want to inspire people to build their own business. I want to give back to the community with all that I have learned from starting and growing my own brand and company. If I had someone when I started my business to offer me that, I would have jumped at the chance. It would have helped me avoid some of the roadblocks I hit along the way so my movement would be my way of paying it forward to the industry that served me so well.
How can our readers follow you on social media?