2017 Chicago Defender Woman of Excellence and Entrepreneur Karen Dilligard is the founder and CEO of Exquisite Affaires Chicago. She leads the industry with her talents in Event Planning, Décor & Event Management, offering her clients creativity and expertise that leaves a lasting impression and beautiful memories.
In addition to running her own business, Karen has always found the time to give back to her community. Dilligard is the Chapter Organizer and Immediate Past President of the Will County Black Diamond Chapter of Top Ladies of Distinction, Inc. (TLOD). In addition, she continues to advocate for women and girls worldwide as a charter member of the Chicago Metropolitan Chapter of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women and an active member of the Chicago Central Section of the National Council of Negro Women and Professional Women’s Network, to name a few. Dilligard is a graduate of Whitney M. Young Magnet High School and Illinois State University, where she received a B.S. degree in Organizational Management minoring in Speech Communication.
Tammy Gibson: How did you get started in the event planning business?
Karen Dilligard: I realized that I had a gift at a young age. I could organize and lead. I loved to cook. I was good with my hands and could recreate things by looking at them. Things that I touched seemed to get bigger and better.
After graduating from college, I started making silk flower arrangements and mirror wall hangings for homes. I had been planning parties for myself, friends, and family for some time now. Friends were starting to get married and asked me to make their bridal bouquets and centerpieces for their weddings. I almost decided to be a caterer and follow my passion for cooking but later decided to turn my hobby of planning and decorating into a business.
Fast forward to August 2019, my corporate job of almost 30 years shut down. Companies were downsizing, restructuring, and changing direction. The day the company announced the closing of my office was the day I received the Woman of Excellence Award in 2017. It was confirmation for me. It was time to step out on faith. I was done with Corporate America. I think we have all learned or heard that God doesn’t close a door without opening a window for you. I felt it was time to live my passion and operate my purpose. I wanted only to do things that I enjoyed in the second half of my life, and that was event planning, decorating, traveling, and exploring my newfound love of wine.
I put the plans in motion. Exquisite Affaires Chicago relaunched in 2020 as an event planning, design, décor, and management company.
TG: How much is needed to invest in starting an event planning business?
KD: It depends where you want to start. I initially started in the silk flower business, not concentrating on the event planning portion. My financial outlet was more than an average event planner would have to invest because I had to buy inventory and incur additional overhead.
The best investment as an event planner is not necessarily monetary. It is having good communication and organizational skills. You have to be a people person to do this job. I don’t think it’s a lot of financial outlay. You can do many things with a pen, paper, and a computer. Other than that, it doesn’t take a lot of money.
TG: When the pandemic happened, weddings, graduations, and birthday parties were canceled. How were you able to stay inspired?
KD: The pandemic was a true eye-opener but also a blessing. God is so faithful. My clients kept me inspired. They wanted to figure out a way to keep celebrating milestones, birthdays, and achievements.
When the pandemic happened, all of my wedding and corporate events did cancel. At that point, God allowed my creative juices to flow. The pandemic shutdown allowed me to regroup and reorganize.
People still wanted to find ways to celebrate during the pandemic. Outdoor parties and drive-bys were being held, which was a blessing for me. We also incorporated yard card displays into our product line. Those things allowed us to sustain during the pandemic.
I also became an Independent Wine Consultant for WineShop at Home in February 2020, doing in-home wine tasting. My wine business soared during the pandemic. We quickly pivoted to provide virtual in-home wine tasting experiences.
TG: How does your creative process work when planning an event?
KD: My creative juices start flowing between 2:00-5:00 a.m. I wake up to some of the best ideas I’ve ever had. When I do an initial consultation with a client and listen to their vision, I start to think about their style, colors that fit their personality, and themes. Then, I meditate on the vision. I enjoy quiet time as I don’t watch television. Instead, I get inspiration from looking at pictures, researching, and window shopping.
TG: What do you do to relax and stay stress-free during and after planning an event?
KD: I love to travel. Working for myself is a blessing. I can work from anywhere. If I have a computer, I can travel. The planning process is not too stressful for me; it’s more therapeutic. What better place and better therapy than going to Mexico, Jamaica, Fort Lauderdale, Scottsdale, Dallas, and Tampa. I’ve been to all those places this year. It’s been great to be in a position where I can work and play simultaneously.
TG: How has your business changed and grown in the time since your business began?
KD: I started my business as a floral business and then added invitations, accessories, and travel services to make myself a one-stop-shop. When I mastered one thing, I was able to expand. I have been doing this for almost 25 years.
We have increased our corporate client base by providing event planning and management services for conferences, galas, and fundraisers. We’ve expanded our staff to assist with event execution and hired a part-time assistant. In addition, we recently acquired a CPS vendor license to offer planning and décor services for proms, graduations, teacher appreciations, and more.
TG: What makes Exquisite Affaires Chicago different from other wedding planning businesses?
KD: We try to stay current and relevant. I believe in continuing education and surround myself with like-minded people in the industry. I think you can always learn something from someone else. So I continue to take classes. I am a certified wedding planner with the Association of Bridal Consultants. In addition, I received my accreditation as an Event and Floral Designer with the Institute of Wedding and Event Design. My business partner, Lisa Cooper, has a wealth of knowledge in project management, leadership, public relations, and she’s bi-lingual. That allows us to service a diverse clientele.
TG: What has been the most exciting or memorable experience you’ve had as an event designer?
KD: Knowing that my clients were satisfied with the services we provided. To know that we brought their vision to fruition gives me that warm and fuzzy feeling that I have a satisfied customer.
TG: What advice would you give to someone that wants to get into the event planning business?
KD: Make sure being an event planner is something you want to do. Do your research. Event planning is not for the faint at heart. If you’re going to do it as a hobby, that’s fine. However, making it a career is serious.
Join some trade organizations, get a sound client management software system, accountant, tax consultant, and insurance agent.
TG: Where do you see Exquisite Affaires Chicago in the future?
KD: We are moving up and moving on. We are looking at opportunities to expand our brand in other cities. We hope to come out of this pandemic bigger and better while figuring out ways to operate safely in our new normal.
It is a blessing that we have been able to sustain, and so many doors continue to open for us. So I’m looking forward to continuing to create those magical moments for people.
To learn more about Karen Dilligard and Exquisite Affaires Chicago, go to https://www.exquisiteaffaireschicago.com.
Tammy Gibson is a writer, black history traveler, and author. Find her on social media @SankofaTravelHr and @sankofatravelher