Special Events

Getting a Smart Staff

A great employee is made, not born, and no one knows this better than employers in the special event industry. The productivity of employees largely reflects the level of effort their employers devote to cultivating their talent, say industry insiders. With proper training, a new employee quickly becomes valuable and a veteran employee becomes indispensable.

"A good employee truly is worth a bucket of gold to us," says Russell Clackner, catering director for Elegant Edibles in Stuart, Fla. "If I find people willing to learn, I will bend over backward to train them."

GETTING OFF TO A GOOD START

New employees at Elegant Edibles-and many other special event companies-generally "start at the bottom and work their way up," says Clackner. "There's a lot of training that goes on before they can work in a position of authority."

In catering, that means a new employee who has never worked an event before may work in the back of the house loading and unloading food, for example. When he or she becomes comfortable and proves capable, the employee will be taught new tasks with increasing levels of responsibility and visibility, Clackner says.

Constant feedback is essential when employees are learning on the job, says Stephen G. Miller, president of Miller Resource Group, a company in Grafton, Mass., that provides educational programs for the hospitality industry. "Sometimes we assume a trainee will know what a good job is," Miller says. "But how many of your employees have been customers in fine-dining situations or have been catered to at an event?"

New employees should have the opportunity to shadow an experienced worker while they learn the ropes, Miller says. "A structured training program will allow employees the opportunity to learn the skills they need before being put on their own."

The more organized and formalized a training process is-especially for part-time employees-the more likely employees will want to work in that environment, says Adam Block, a consultant to the foodservice industry based in Sausalito, Calif. Employers should also provide employees with clear job descriptions so they know what's expected of them, Block says.

TRAINING BY TEAM

On-the-job training is favored by other niches of the special event industry as well as catering, employers say. At Fastlane Productions, a full-service technical production company in Denver, several employees may be involved in teaching new workers the ropes, says general manager Dawnette Newman.

"When you take a young person who is not familiar with all the [technical] equipment out on a show, it will invariably take extra time and effort on the part of other employees to explain what they're doing as they go along," Newman says. "In the end, it's rewarding because the employee is not only learning the technical aspects of the business, but how your particular company operates."

At Tri-Rentals in Tempe, Ariz., much of the training revolves around safety, says tent manager Adrian Velazquez. New employees are taught how to open and close tables, how to transport chairs and stages, and how to install tents in a way that prevents injuries. In addition, new employees are shown how to install a 10-by-10-foot tent and what size pipes to use. There is enough space at Tri-Rentals to occasionally set up bigger tents solely for training purposes, Velazquez says. Employees are also trained how to protect the equipment so it stays in good shape, he says.

In addition to the training offered at Tri-Rentals by managers and crew leaders, a consultant from the company's insurance company visits once every few months to give safety seminars. "Safety is No. 1 in this company," he says. Such attention to employee safety can also pay off in fewer lost workdays, as well as lower workers' compensation insurance premiums.

CROSS-TRAINING COUNTS

Special event employers should give their employees-both rookies and veterans-ongoing opportunities to learn and grow, experts say. Employers should also conduct "maintenance training," Miller says. "The company will drift if you don't periodically define your strengths and weaknesses and then reinforce the strengths and try to compensate for the weaknesses."

At Fastlane Productions, employees are encouraged to learn more about all sides of the business, Newman says. "We're trying to put together a team of event professionals who may specialize in one area but are cross-trained in all areas," she says. For instance, one of Fastlane's lead audio engineers ran a spotlight at a recent event, Newman says, and she likewise encourages lighting specialists to learn audio skills. "What I see in the industry is that everyone draws lines around themselves," she says. Fastlane instead strives for the other extreme-flexibility and teamwork-so employees will be able to support one another across disciplines when necessary, Newman says.

"Cross-training is a must," agrees Manuel Canari, vice president of sales and operations for Glorious Events Catering in Atlanta. Canari himself "grew up in the back of the house" before transitioning to sales. "I can jump in to help anytime, anywhere," he says. Canari makes sure his salespeople know what goes on behind the scenes by requiring them to spend a month working in the kitchen and a month as on-site operations supervisors. "Once they do that they know what it takes to bring the product to the table," Canari says.

LIFELONG LEARNING

Employers say it's worth every penny to send dedicated longtime workers-especially managers and high-level employees-to conferences, shows or seminars that will increase their knowledge or expertise. In fact, the nature of the special event industry-where trends come and go quickly-necessitates attendance at such functions, employers say.

Employees return to work invigorated and full of ideas after the educational programs, according to employers. For example, the information that employees learn about food trends at industry gatherings may precipitate menu changes at Glorious Events, Canari says.

Elegant Edibles sends longtime employees to local wine-tasting classes and restaurant shows, Clackner says. He also occasionally takes employees with him on trips to the florist or nursery so they can pick up tips on attractive presentation.

John Daly Inc. International, a Santa Barbara, Calif.-based design and decor production company, regularly sends veteran employees to The Special Event and other conferences, says Bryan Chan, chief operations officer. "We want them to bring back the latest and greatest out there," he says.

The company's goal, Chan says, is to make ongoing training fun. For example, the company has planned a friendly tabletop design competition for 12 employees and regular free-lancers at an upcoming presentation. "It's not only a training tool, but an opportunity for our people to show their stuff," Chan says.

Fastlane Productions sends office staff to one- or two-day seminars on time management and effective communication skills, Newman says. The programs are organized by a local group of small-business owners who pull together to sponsor training applicable across industries, she says. "When employees come back, they get more done because of the fresh approach from the outside."

Remember that training goes both ways. As Velazquez says: "I learn from our employees too. I'm always open to hearing ideas about how to install tents faster, easier and safer. At our company, every day is a training session for all of us."

Training and education are becoming more important in the event planning profession, says Jane Feigenson, corporate event planner for The Clarks Companies in Newton, Mass.

Fifteen years ago, many event planners were secretaries who "came in through the back door and figured it out as they went along," Feigenson says. "It wasn't considered a profession."

Now there is a greater understanding of the scope of meeting and event planning, and it's starting to become a more credible profession, she says. The International Special Events Education Foundation was created for the sole purpose of educating those in the industry, she says. Bentley College in Boston and George Washington University in Washington, D.C., offer both meeting and event management certificates, Feigenson says. Currently, she notes, special event industry employees have widely varying levels of education and training.

According to Feigenson, there's still a long way to go. "A lot of people still think you just sort of wing it [in event planning]," she says. "That's not the case at all."

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