Vol. 45, No. 2

Great expectations: Successful events take planning, communication

By Marilyn Cavicchia

Tracey DeMarea has an unusual analogy she likes to use when talking about event planning: Too often, she believes, events are like circus peanuts. How?

The orange, peanut-shaped candy tastes like … bananas. Its appearance sets a certain expectation, she explained, but then it delivers something else.

Few people like circus peanuts―as evidenced by the fact that no attendees at DeMarea’s session at the 2019 National Association of Bar Executives Communications Section Workshop took her up on her offer to sample them.

If you’re responsible for planning events, how do you make sure they don’t leave a bad taste in anyone’s mouth? DeMarea, who is executive director of the Johnson County (Kan.) Bar Association, shared practical ideas for how to set accurate expectations—for yourself, for attendees, and for everyone working on the event—and then deliver on them.

Plan to plan

Underlying everything, she said, is to be clear about this expectation: “Don’t underestimate the amount of planning.”

There should be a solid plan for the event itself, she said, and another for how to market it. Both start with a big-picture question: “Why are we having the event?” Is it meant to generate revenue, for example, or is it simply a social get-together? How will success be measured (e.g., dollars raised, number of attendees, positive evaluations), and what will your role be in managing it?

Marketing your event could be “a great opportunity to let your graphic designer loose,” DeMarea said—unless it’s a long-standing one (such as a golf outing) that the same people attend each year, in which case, a new look could be unsettling. But otherwise, she advised, give your designer the afternoon off, with the instruction to come back with six examples of borrow-worthy design ideas that could shake things up.

If you’ll be giving an award at the event, plan for it to be in your office two weeks before, in case it arrives cracked, dirty, or otherwise unsuitable. Allow another two weeks before that for the award to be printed or engraved, and factor in some time to make sure you have the recipient’s name exactly correct—which may not be as obvious as it seems. Perhaps a person who uses a nickname wants their full name on the award, or vice versa—or maybe they want their middle initial. From there, walk back another four weeks, DeMarea said, because it may be that this award required the board to consult the full membership. The bottom line? Awards take time.

Similarly, DeMarea said, if your event has a program, it needs to be in your office a week or two before the event, with all the details double-checked well in advance—but ideally, it should be ready five weeks before the event. As for materials, DeMarea is adamant about not printing them but instead making them available online in advance (see “Toward greener events: Ideas from the bar world and beyond,” also in this issue). If you do have printed materials, she said, make sure to allow enough time for those as well.

Food needs to be carefully considered, too; for a big-ticket event, DeMarea said, you should be able to do a tasting. Understand that for the event, each entrée will be plated two hours in advance—so, she said, if the chef offers you something so delicate that it would never withstand that amount of time, realize that they’re setting unrealistic expectations to try to impress you. Whatever you end up choosing, make sure that all foods are clearly labeled. “It takes five minutes,” DeMarea said, but can make all the difference for someone with dietary needs or even just strong likes and dislikes.

In total, DeMarea said, figure that it will take a full eight to nine months to plan a fairly large event, and definitely don’t save things until the very end. “Never think you’ll have the time,” she advised.

Who will do the work?

DeMarea loves event committees but said they should be used wisely: Don’t bring them in on every single decision, lest you get bogged down. Likewise, she said, volunteers for the event itself are great, but they and their roles should be chosen with care. Got a social butterfly? Don’t ask them to check people in, DeMarea advised—that’s asking for a traffic jam. Instead, perhaps ask them to stand by the bar to chat with people and then steer them toward the silent auction.

Likewise, think about which staff should do which jobs, DeMarea said; your “introverted AV guy” would be another bad choice for check-in, but for the opposite reason. Be mindful that in some cases, you’ll be paying overtime for your employees’ work at events, she added.

Whatever person you assign to whatever job, if you’re the one planning the event, never give yourself a specific task to do during the event itself, DeMarea advised—you’ll be far too busy making sure that everything goes smoothly.

Don’t be mysterious

No one likes to attend an event where they don’t know how to dress, what time things will occur, or whether they should plan on having dinner later, DeMarea said. It takes little additional space on an invitation, she added, to move from a vague statement like “mingle and network” to a more direct one that indicates, for example, that the event will be on the terrace (which will dictate choices of shoes and clothing) and that heavy appetizers will be served at a certain time.

At the venue itself, there should be signs everywhere, DeMarea said: You don’t want a hypothetical attendee who has had a full day of work and is in 4-inch heels and uncomfortable Spanx undergarments to have to walk an additional distance because it’s not clear where everything is. If you’ve been to this venue before, she advised, ask someone else to walk through it and indicate any place where a sign would be helpful.

Earlier in her career, DeMarea worked in management for musical acts, including The English Beat. Musicians are famous, or even notorious, for their obsessively detailed “riders” that spell out how they must be accommodated. But these riders serve a purpose, she added, in that they promote attention to detail, which can help ensure safety.

For event planners, she said, “Your [banquet event order] and your contract are your rider.” Make sure everything is spelled out that possibly can be, including what side of the stage the stairs will be on, and what type of microphones will be used. A word about microphones: Lapel mics are not a great choice for women, DeMarea said, because they might not always be wearing a jacket that has lapels.

Speaking of potential wardrobe malfunctions, it has become fashionable to seat panelists on tall stools. If you use those, DeMarea said, make sure to warn all speakers who may be wearing skirts or dresses that day, so they can plan their hemline length accordingly.

If that all sounds like a lot to manage and coordinate, it is—which led DeMarea to another analogy: She plans many events, and likened it to being an air traffic controller, where she’s always keeping one thing aloft while bringing in another for a landing. “I live in a holding pattern of planes,” she said.