Special Events

Guest Room: Mixing Special Events in the Melting Pot

Suzetta Parks discusses the impact of diversity on special events The world is growing smaller, and special events are feeling the effects. Today, few languages, cuisines or customs seem exotic.

To help special event planners treat different cultures with sensitivity, we interviewed Suzetta Parks, who spoke on diver-sity at The Special Event 2000. She is president of Kansas City, Mo.-based Parks & Pennington, which specializes in event production, human resources training and promotion.

Special Events Magazine: As American culture grows more diverse, what special events from minority cultures are becoming more mainstream?

Suzetta Parks: Mainstream America is paying more attention to events that have been celebrated all along.

Q: Can you give an example?

A: I have observed with the growing Hispanic population, celebrations such as Cinco de Mayo are becoming universal now. It's a specific holiday celebrated by a particular culture, but also more widely by people outside of that culture. It's being used as a marketing tool.

I'm also noticing that more and more civic groups, neighborhood organizations and municipalities are paying attention to the composition and demographics of their communities. Out of respect for and recognition of those cultures, they are incorporating aspects [of those cultures] into some feature of their events, either through the decor or the invitation or the food selection.

Q: What mistakes do event planners make when working on events outside of their own culture?

A: The number one mistake is to assume that you know all you need to know about another culture. As event producers, we have an obligation to seek out people who are familiar with the culture to help us avoid making mistakes.

Q: How can we find these experts?

A: Find a caterer who knows that cuisine. Universities and schools are excellent resources that are often untapped. Another resource is hotels, especially large ones, because they tend to work with a lot of international customers.

Let's say your client is the Urban League. You may assume, oh, this is an African-American group, so that means this and that for menu and decor. Instead, find out what kind of theme, decor, entertainment and activity that the group would appreciate.

Q: How does an event planner handle customs he or she finds difficult? For example, some cultures have cash bars at weddings while others disdain them.

A: We have to be open to other ways of doing things. Of course we want our events to run smoothly and be the height of elegance, but we need to distinguish between our own frame of reference about what is appropriate and our client's. If we can go along and it's not an ethical issue for us, we need to accommodate our client's cultural tradition and values.

Q: If the planner suspects that some guests will be unfamiliar with the cultural customs at an event, what can the planner do to make the guests more comfortable?

A: Make some information available ahead of time. Use the invitation to give information about dress, for example. At the event, the caterer can put out cards with the name of the dishes or describing the content. Caterers are doing more and more of that anyway. The planner may also need additional staff on hand to explain the food. People will be learning about a culture as they celebrate an event.

Q: Do you have tips for event planners on sourcing products from different cultures?

A: Farmers markets are great for contacts. Also import/export stores, museums, libraries and educational institutions, along with prop shops.

As event producers, we can help our clients reap the fullest potential of their event by helping them appeal to their customer base and employee base by helping them recognize the variety of cultures inherent in those groups.

Suzetta Parks can be reached at 816/531-4421 or via e-mail at [email protected]

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