Archive : May 2010

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 Power of “Sorry”

Posted May 10, 2010

The client’s not happy.

Four words that send a shiver down the spine of anyone in the event or hospitality business.  Of course “not happy” in our world is customer service code for “furiously angry”.  The event can be spectacular, but if the client’s not happy, we are dead in the water.   Likewise, the event can be a train wreck, but if your client looks at you from across the room with unbridled joy and appreciation as he raises a shot of Patron toward you, all is good in the world.

Whether you’re a vendor or agency servicing a paying client, or an in-house planner dealing with an internal client, none of us are paying for our own personal events; we’re all accountable to someone.  And unlike most other service businesses, if a screw-up occurs during an event, there’s no pause button; you’ve got to roll with it.  When the CEO comes to the podium and the sound craps out, it’s hide-under-the-table time.  There’s often very little you can do.

One thing you can do, however, is not make things worse by blaming someone else.  When your CEO walks backstage, he does not care that the audio tech missed his cue.  He wants someone to be sorry, and since you’re his point person, that means you.

sorry mouse

Too often our initial reaction is to deflect blame onto someone else, so we don’t look bad.  Or worse, we push back, reminding the client that he signed off on the script change he insists you butchered.  All this serves to inflame the client further.  For now the discussion is no longer about xyz problem; now it’s about his frustration that you are challenging his need to vent and be heard.  And the anger he may have over the event mistake is nowhere near how angry he’ll be if someone doesn’t step forward and take responsibility.

Nothing takes the air out of an angry client faster than a sincere apology.  Once you accept responsibility for a miscue, there’s simply nowhere for him to go in the argument.  By not providing  resistance, he has no one to argue with, and it’s only a matter of time before he gets it out of his system.  Show your empathy, say what you’ll do to fix the problem moving forward if possible, and move on.

Try practicing this in front of the mirror, That should not have happened, and I take full responsibility for it happening on my watch.  Let me get to the bottom of why this occurred and I’ll debrief with you when the event is over.” Doesn’t exactly flow off your tongue, does it?  But said with the right combination of understanding and resolve, it comes off as extremely professional after a major gaffe.

Now, if event screw ups keep happening, eventually you’ll be out of a job, whether you become the ultimate apologist or not, as well you should be.  Otherwise, never underestimate the power of an apology.   Unfortunately we live in a culture where people don’t apologize until it’s too late.

Look at Tiger Woods.  His episode was front page news until, and only until, he issued a formal mea culpa.  On the flip side, when the Yankees’ Andy Pettite was found to have used steroids last year, he immediately fessed up and profusely apologized, and was instantly accepted back into Yankee fans warm embraces.

Yes, we live in a culture where nobody thinks to apologize.  The great irony of this, of course, is that we are an incredibly forgiving people once we hear one.

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?


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.