Lilian Opara is the Chief Executive Officer/Creative Director of Lopara Events Company in Port Harcourt, Rivers State. In this interview with KATELEMI CLAUDE, the Environmental Biology graduate of the University of Port Harcourt discusses her enterprise and how she copes with the COVID-19 crisis
Why did you choose to go into this line of business?
I have always liked the event decoration business. I never thought of going into the business myself until after college. But in every instance, the decision came easily. When I was asked what I wanted to do, I knew what it was. Three years on, I’m still enjoying it.
How much was your start-up capital?
I didn’t start with a huge amount of money. I was fortunate to have known a thing or two about the lean start-up principle before the launch of my business. Whatever I could get from family and friends, I invested.
What was your experience during the Coronavirus Disease-induced lockdown in terms of profit and loss?
COVID-19 has made 2020 a bad year for the event decoration business. We got so many cancellations that it felt like the world was coming to an end. We usually prepare for events in advance. Imagine doing so for 10 clients, before the start of the year, only to get calls from them asking for outright cancellation in the heat of the pandemic. They all wanted their money back. Monies that had long gone into materials. This year, the event decoration business has been a money-losing one.
What is your core duty as the CEO of this event company?
I work in the creative department. I walk clients through various themes and styles to help me understand what their dream wedding looks like. Based on that, I make some suggestions until a decision is made on the theme. I then synthesise each of their picks in the preliminary design stage. And voila, we have a plan set to ship.
The other part of my duty is management. I try to run the company in a simple and efficient manner based on sound culture.
What is the level of patronage post-lockdown?
We are beginning to get calls from clients, but far lower orders than this time last year.
In the league of event planners all over Nigeria, what is your Unique Selling Point?
Of course, I would like to say that we think outside the box and try to be unique in our designs. But everybody does that too. There are a lot of talented decorators out there and they are all competing very high on those keywords. However, we offer a unique twist in the event decoration business.
It is in the way we work with our clients to find what they want, the way we try to go the extra mile to add that extra hue, and the way we make ourselves available to talk even after the event. Many decorators are not like that – especially in those critical hours to the event. I make sure that I am present at every venue, not just sending my staff, ready to take your calls and answer your questions.
We also try to keep our designs stylish and simple. Less is more.
What government policy affects your business most?
The policy on gatherings of a certain size and over-kill social distancing rules, among others, affect the business right now. It is a death knell. But as long as they help to reduce the number of COVID-19 cases, we can survive.
Event companies usually have lots of apprentices. How good are your apprentices in the job?
Event decoration work could be very stressful. That is what people don’t know about this business. So, to be successful as an apprentice, you must have some love for the job. We made that an entry requirement and we are happy we have apprentices who are good at what they do.
Apart from event planning, what other business do you think you can do perfectly?
I have always been asked that question. Interior decoration: there are a lot of similarities and inter-operability between both fields of work.
Have you ever gone for refresher course?
Unfortunately, no. I wish I had attended every one of them. Everyone benefits from those courses irrespective of their level of expertise.
How do you cope with the clientele?
The customer is king. I know that sounds as a cliché, but that is the first commandment in our company. We simply try to reach an understanding when there is a misunderstanding.
What other thing would you have us know?
Business reception has been encouraging and it does help that I grew up in this city (Port Harcourt). Ok, scratch that, I come from here. So a deep understanding of the culture and social factors played a good role in keeping the company relevant in a highly competitive space.
I’ve been told that women from my ethnic group don’t usually follow this path –entrepreneuring; that we love to play it safe – look for a job, put your gall and guile into it and retire, the classic way. There is truth to that, but things are changing. Today, talented young men and women from Port Harcourt are founding companies and making things happen.
Many of that is spurred by the condition of the labour market, but a huge chunk of that has got to do with an organic desire to forge a different path that’s different from our parents’.