Posts Categorized In Industry Insights:

The Glamorous Life: Warm Soda & 10 Seconds of Bliss

Posted June 2, 2010

The house lights have started to come up as the staff begins breaking down the room.  With the event officially over, it’s now safe to get a drink and toast a job well done.  You’re going to have to toast yourself or your event managers, though, because the client’s gone home, and she was too busy taking the bows in front of her boss to toast you anyway.  But no matter, you kicked butt, and you know it, and that’s what counts.

None of this matters to the bartenders, who refuse to serve you.  Fifteen minutes ago, you were the one who told them to close the bars in the first place, but they don’t seem to recognize you with the lights on.  You think about that, and the fact that you paid their wages and you paid for the booze, as you watch them box everything up.

If the catering manager were around, he’d order them to give you anything you wanted, but you have no idea where he is.  You try paging him on the walkie talkie, but there’s no response.  You see him on the balcony overseeing the breakdown of the VIP area, not wearing his headset.  Your well thought out communications system, which worked like a charm during the event, has now been reduced to something just below that of the carrier pigeon.  You make your way upstairs and he apologizes to you, and orders a nearby waiter to take care of you.  The guy brings over one of those midget bottles of Diet Coke.  Apparently there’s no clean ice and the unused glassware and liquor is already back on the truck.  You crack open the bottle and can’t believe how quickly these guys are breaking the room down.  Mmmmm.  Nothing like warm soda.

You sit down at a nearby cocktail table and put your feet up on a chair. The minute your butt hits the seat you feel the searing pain from your feet.  Your feet are killing you.  You realize you’ve probably been standing for eight hours straight.  Who would imagine your feet could get so sore from planning a party.  You may be physically and mentally shot, but you’re also strangely wired, and it’ll be at least 2:00 am before you finally fall asleep.

You check in with the few remaining vendors loading up their trucks, make arrangements with the venue’s night manager to pick up some boxes the next day, and then head outside to hail a cab.  While you’re waiting (the trendy loft in the middle of nowhere is starting to annoy you now) you realize you haven’t eaten anything all night, so you buy a five dollar pretzel and a bottle of water from a street vendor.  For the last three hours you were surrounded by an army of waiters peddling a vast array of delectable hors d’oeuvres, all of which you selected and paid for, and yet your nourishment for the evening is worse than prison rations.  Ah, the glamorous life of a party planner.

To take your mind off the culinary irony, you decide to go through the event’s gift bag.  You’re checking to see that the key inserts are there: the new pineapple-flavored vodka sampler (they sponsored the bar), the logo’d flip-flops, the charity flyer, etc.  But you’re also looking to see what random junk found its way into the bag at the eleventh hour.  You know it’s quality, not quantity, but your client has a hard time saying no to free shit.  A demo CD from some random artist you never heard of – garbage.  A $300 off coupon at Cartier – garbage (your client failed to catch the “$2,000 minimum purchase” clause on the back).  A sample magazine that bears no relation whatsoever to the host organization – people may read it, but it confuses the event’s message and undermines the other items.  A mini-pack of Crest White Strips – ok, this is a keeper.   Totally unrelated to anything, but everyone will use them.

You close your eyes and reflect back on the event, the planning for which began four months ago.  For the most part everything went smoothly.  You know how easy it is for all the planning to be derailed by the most unexpected glitch, and you acknowledge that this one will go down in the books as a success.

Every event has a “tipping point”, a critical moment after which everyone can shift to cruise control.  Sometimes it’s after the last award is presented, or after the product is launched, or after the CEO leaves the party.  But the moment is clearly tangible and you can feel the tension ease.  It happens in the blink of an eye, and then you’re over the hump.  It’s strangely anti-climactic, sort of like climbing a mountain.  After a huge amount of preparation and effort, you reach the top, look around at the view for a few minutes, and then head back down.

You’ve learned over the years to recognize the tipping point and savor the moment, however fleeting.  Teaching younger event managers to recognize the tipping point of an event may be the most valuable lesson you give them.  You see them busy grappling with a million details, carrying a production binder that could stop a bullet, and you gently point out that, at this moment, the event gods are smiling on them, that everything is in harmony and that they should take a deep breath and appreciate the fact that they made all this happen.  If they’re lucky that moment will last a whole ten seconds, but it’s among the coolest ten seconds of their careers.

This is the dark side of event planning, the part you just can’t quite explain to the hordes of people who want to change jobs and move into your industry.  The people who think your job is looking important with a walkie talkie on your head and checking Brad Pitt’s name off a guest list.  They don’t know about the warm soda during breakdown or the stale pretzels in the cab.  Even if you tell them, they don’t hear you.

Guilty Pleasures & The Hors D’Oeuvre that Wouldn’t Die

Posted May 21, 2010

Buying condoms, watching Real Housewives, & putting franks in a blanket on the menu.  Things we have to have, want to have, but are embarrassed if caught doing them.  Guilty pleasures indeed.

I know, none of you watch Housewives.  Bravo just rolls out a Housewives series for every zip code for kicks.  For me, though I admit to watching the NYC version from time to time, my true guilty pleasure is . . . Tabitha’s Salon Takeover.  Also on Bravo.

My guilty pleasure

Haven’t seen Tabitha?  She’s this tough-as-nails British chick who comes into a hair salon in disarray, whips the owner into shape, scares the crap out of the employees, and turns the place around.  Having run an event company for 20 years, I secretly would have loved to have her come in and show me and my staff some tough love.  (No jokes please.)  But alas, I digress.

Across the nation, every upscale caterer I spoke to says mini hot dogs simply refuse to bow to food trends.  Clients continue to ask for them, and the stylish ones who are too embarrassed blame it on someone else.  Like the caller on a radio advice show who says, “my friend has this problem.”

Paul Neuman, owner of Neuman’s Catering in NYC, confirmed, “Excuses range from, ’My father insists on them’, to ‘The kids have to have them’. Somehow it is always someone else besides the client who needs them.”

Joann Roth-Oseary, owner of Someone’s In The Kitchen, of Tarzana, CA agreed. “The truth is, no matter where you serve them or how many we send out on trays, those trays will come back empty. It’s so funny, sophistication out the window, gimme my dogs!”

That hasn’t stopped caterers from trying to jazz up these perennial favorites. Carl Dean Hedin, Director of Sales, Off-Premise, for Abigail Kirsch of NYC, has made lollipos out of them.  “Pigs in the blanket is the perennial guilty pleasure,” Carl said. “So many people want them but don’t want to ask. We solve this dilemma by reinventing our Pigs so that they appear contemporary, maybe unrecognizable, and then surprise people with the familiar flavor. They are always a favorite!”

Blanketed Frank Lollipos by Abigail Kirsch

Blanketed Frank Lollipos by Abigail Kirsch

Neuman’s has tried a retro twist by going back to the original hot dog nestled in a bun, only in miniature, “so it looks like a doll-house sized hot dog,” Paul said. “At least everyone knows we’re trying to do something creative with it.”

Doll House Sized Franks by Neumans

Doll House Sized Franks by Neumans

And for those food professionals who may moan that they didn’t go to culinary school to serve ball park food, remember, it’s all about the guests.

Sara McGregor of Capitol Catering

Sara McGregor, owner of Capitol Catering of Washington, DC tells this great story:  “Last week we did the Wine and Spirits Freedom Fest. It is 400 people and needless to say it is all about the “wine and spirits”.  The food is important because we want to make sure it is food that will soak up a lot of alcohol and will be universally liked. Well this year we did Pigs in the Blanket (as well as Shoestring Fries with different dipping sauces, and Miniature Sliders) and they were a huge hit.  Especially the men loved them!  One guest said to me, ‘This is heaven’ and he had a big martini glass in his hand and a plateful of Pigs in the Blanket!”

As for me, my best frank in a blanket story is about the one event I got yelled at for NOT serving them.  It was a major society charity gala that charged $1,000 a plate.  The gala chair was this hedge fund wife just dripping affluence and fashion.  When we reviewed the hors d’oeuvres list at the tasting she looked at me and said, “I don’t want to see any of those mini hot dogs, ok?”  The words, ‘you idiot’, were understood at the end of her sentence.

Fast forward to the event, when John Milton (OK, I’m changing his name, but this really happened), the 75 year old guest of honor, walks up to me.  “You the caterer?” he asks.

“I’m the event planner; I hired the caterer,” I respond.  I just made a distinction that people like Mr. Milton neither understand nor care about.  Several close relatives of mine fall into that category.

“Where’s the mini hot dogs?” he presses me.

“I’m sorry Mr. Milton, the gala chair chose a menu that did not include them.”  Almost on cue, a waiter rolls up with a tray of sushi, the one item he is 100% sure not to eat; Milton is old school. [And ‘on cue’ is exactly what it was too.  Because as soon as the event started I alerted the Maitre D’ who the two uber-VIPs were and he made sure they were always shadowed by a waiter.  Milton might as well have had one of those red laser marks on him like he’s being targeted by a sniper.]

Milton looks at the tray, snarls, then looks back at me.

“What does that sign say over there?” he says as he points behind him toward the Coat Check without looking.  That’s ok, I know what he meant, so I oblige.

“The John & Gloria Milton Wing,” I said.

“That’s right.  Now, you think I can get some food around here?  Real food?”  He turned around and walked over to the gala chairwoman, where he started what looked like a very animated discussion.  I can’t vouch for what he said, but based on his hand gesticulations, I’m pretty sure she’ll never keep pigs in a blanket off the menu again.

The Street Team From Hell

Posted May 5, 2010

You’re walking down a busy street to an appointment when you start to see them.  Five or six twenty-somethings in matching red t-shirts with some consumer product company logo on the front.  They’re handing out samples of . . . whatever.  Mini shots of a new energy drink.  A snazzy looking nail file branded with the logo of a new spa.  Or, my favorite, squeeze toys that look like SpongeBob bearing the slogan “squeeze me”, which is also on the t-shirts.  Maybe you stop, maybe you don’t, but you definitely learn about the product they’re hawking.

Street marketing, guerilla marketing; it goes by many names, but the concept is the same.  A young, hip, and super-friendly group of “brand ambassadors” hits the streets with a cute hook and a product to show off.  They’re smiling and engaging, and by deploying them at key areas marketers can blanket a city with buzz for relatively low cost.

In the beginning, when it was more novel, just about every brand ambassador you came across was a pleasure.  Many were actors who were naturally very outgoing and personable.

When I ran Paint The Town Red / Global Events, we did a number of these projects for clients as part of broader event marketing initiatives.  Every time we brought in specialists to manage and oversee the street teams.  (I highly recommend the Michael Alan Group, authors of Guerilla Marketing for Dummies, and Encore Nationwide).  But it seems so simple, that many event companies figure they can just wing it and pull their street teams together on their own when the need arises.

After all, how hard can it be?  Turns out it’s actually harder than it looks.

Last week I was walking through Times Square when I saw the street team from hell.  There were three of them on a corner wearing these turquoise t-shirts promoting a new type of hair care product (I’ll show mercy and not mention the brand by name).  One woman is leaning against a street lamp smoking a cigarette.  Another woman is so overweight her shirt can’t fit over her stomach, and you can see a roll of fat in the front and a dragon tattoo on her lower back.  Yum.

The third one, a guy, has earrings in his nose, lower lip and eyebrows.  I kid you not.  And he’s the good one!  He’s actually trying to hand out the product sample.  He’s not really talking to anyone, mind you, but he is extending his arm.  (Hey, if you happen to get close enough, he’ll actually give you the sample!)  This was, hands down, the scariest street team I’d ever seen.

Is it difficult to pull a street team together?  For the first couple of dozen brand ambassadors, maybe not.  But when your client hires you to hit ten cities, you need a very deep bench, and you can’t check on all of them out in the field.  The companies who are good at this stake their reputation on every single ambassador they send out.  The ones who are winging it, well, not so much.

What’s amazing is that some leading companies who so obsessively guard how their brands are shown to the public wouldn’t want to pay top dollar for street teams introducing their products to the world.  They can’t possibly monitor all of these ambassadors out in the field, so wouldn’t they want to have agencies with the best street team training and management protocols in place?

Postscript

Though this street campaign had nothing to do with me, the professional event planner in me simply couldn’t just walk by.  Hey, it was a black eye on our profession.  I was wearing a suit and dark sunglasses, so I stopped in front of them and said, “Excuse me.  I’m the VP of Marketing for (company who will remain nameless) and I am paying for this sampling campaign.  Is this really the best you can do?”  I couldn’t resist.

Smoker girl quickly stubbed out her cigarette on her heel, grabbed some product and walked toward pedestrians with a big smile. Jenny Craig immediately struggled to pull the shirt over her belly.  And the pierced kid said “no, sir” (OK, being called “sir” freaked me out).  He jumped up on the base of a street lamp and, PT Barnum style, began verbally teeing up takers from 20 yards away.

My work there was done.

Are There Too Many Event Planners Out There? If so, What Does it Mean for You?

Posted April 15, 2010

Is the Market Over-Saturated?

“Uggh.  Everyone’s an event planner now.” 20 year planner in Chicago.

“My event department got cut in half, and they’re giving some of my events to admins.  Can you believe it?  Admins!” 12 year corp. planner in NYC.

“Just lost a wedding client who’s hiring a friend (with no experience) to help her.  She wants to hire me for day-of only.” 7 year wedding planner in Dallas.

“They’re like mushrooms.  You go outside after it rains and it seems a dozen more planners have sprouted under a tree. They’re popping up everywhere.” 15 year event designer in LA.

Can we talk about this now?  Is it heresy to say there are too many event planners out there?  The quotes above were all given to me within the last month by frustrated, no, incredibly frustrated, event planners.  They are pulling their hair out.

What I want to know, however, is why anyone is surprised.  It seems like only yesterday when practically every planner I knew was complaining they were not getting enough recognition as professionals.  They wanted to be taken more seriously.  Well, they’re taken more seriously now.

Event planners appear, as professionals, in dozens of tv shows and movies.  The number of colleges offering courses in event management grows every year.  Trade organizations continue to develop best practices & industry standards.   New conferences and seminars are developed every year.  And, most importantly, it is now widely accepted that you need to have professionals manage social and corporate events.  In short, everyone’s wishes have been granted.

Is it no surprise then, that all this advancement and publicity have attracted gazillions of people to enter the industry?  This is the logical consequence of everything we all wanted, isn’t it?  What did we think, that the industry would take giant strides forward but that we’d keep it all to ourselves?

Welcome to a maturing industry, and get used to it.  Yes, our industry has grown, dramatically.  It’s not necessarily that are more events out there, but that more of the events are looking for dedicated event pros to handle them.  This is a good thing.

But we are also in an industry with no barriers to entry.  That means anyone can jump in and call themselves an event planner.  Get used to that too.  No licenses required (like having to pass the bar before you can practice law).  No equipment to buy.  Just some creativity, good organizational skills, and a client.

Years ago, the PR profession didn’t exist.  You had advertising, and that was it.  It’s only in the last 40 years or so that a dedicated profession developed to mange the media.  And now, it’s part of the landscape.  Well, the event industry has just gone through the same evolution.  And like PR, anyone can enter it, but not anyone can be good at it.

So complaining about all the planners “out there” is like trying to hold back the tide.  Hey, you want someone to have a cocktail with and commiserate about all the new competition, you’ll have a lot of company.  Count me in too, cause that’s a fun bitch-fest.  But when you wake up the next morning, it’s time to go to work on identifying what it is that separates you from the newbies.  (And by the way, we were all newbies once; let’s not get too full of ourselves.)  And if you’re a newbie, get ready to explain why you deserve a client’s business over a more experienced planner.   And it can’t just be that your price is lower, because there’s another newbie around the corner whose price will be lower than yours.

One of the smartest people in the NYC hospitality industry is Walter Rauscher, who was the Director of Catering at Tavern on the Green for many years (before moving on to Ark Restaurants).  He’s someone I look up to, who’s not afraid to speak his mind.  Many years ago when he was still at Tavern he said to me, “Back in the day I only had two competitors: the Plaza and the Waldorf.  It didn’t matter what kind of food we all served, if you had a big event you had to go to one of us, and we all made a ton of money.  Now, there’s a boatload of competition out there; libraries, museums, exclusive clubs; they’re all taking events.  Would I love to turn back the clock?  You bet.  Do I waste a single minute complaining about it?  No.  We roll up our sleeves and my team goes to work”