WE ALL HAVE been at the event where you and 3,499 of your closest friends are herded like cattle into a lackluster environment, where you then stand in line for a sandwich and a glass of wine. To add insult to injury, you have probably paid a hefty entrance fee to try to “network” as the music slowly inches its way up to 92 decibels. With budgets tightening and expectations rising, here are some simple, cost-effective ways to make each guest feel valued and special.
“Welcome” sounds so easy, but is actually quite difficult to do well. Two of Key Events' most successful clients make it a standard policy that managers are to be at the event 30 minutes before doors open to get briefed and to be on hand to greet customers as they enter. That personal touch immediately makes all guests feel important and welcome at the event — the hosts cared that you came. When hosts cannot greet guests themselves, we engage staff to take on welcome duties. At a recent association event that Key Events produced, greeters distributed a map of the venue that also included the entertainment schedule. Guests were empowered with information and could head straight for what interested them most.
Another tactic to instantly spark a smile on your guests' faces is to tray-pass glasses of wine or water at the entries. This takes the burden off of the bars and gives everyone time to explore and enjoy without fighting to find a beverage.
In addition, advertise that the event starts at 7 p.m., but open the doors at 6:45 p.m. The early birds will feel that they got a jump on the event, and the initial crush when doors open will be dissipated. The coach ride is the first impression a guest will have of your event. Make sure that you have enough staff at each location where guests will be boarding transportation so that guests know which coach to board and that the coach is going to the correct location. Clear signage aids this process.
TIME FOR DINNER
Most guests arrive for an event ready for a meal. The selection doesn't have to be terribly diverse, nor does it have to be particularly sophisticated, but it does have to be delicious and easy to get to. Ensure ease of access by serving food in several different ways, such as tray-passed hors d'oeuvre, buffets and carving stations. Ideally, food should be acquired quickly and not require use of utensils. One local caterer serves salads in a paper cone — a great and inexpensive way to give guests healthy, good food quickly and without a mess. Another local caterer carves New York steak strips and puts them on baguette slices — again, simple yet delicious fast food.
Event planners now have to appeal to several different generations and socioeconomic strata within the same event. The highest level managing directors and the lowest level assistants are often at the same event networking and learning about their industry. Gone are the days when an event catered just to the 40-to-60-year-old male managers. Now we have to work to make certain that everyone at the event is entertained.
Keep in mind that the primary reason that associations and corporations have events is to provide environments for guests to network. Therefore, it's important to leave quality time and space to foster those connections. The first 90 minutes of a three-hour party can actually be a quiet time when guests bond with each other outside of the meeting rooms.
Think of the last time you went to a conference. What did you want most, and how can you give that to your guests? One pharmaceutical company provides postcards and gifts for employees to send to their families at home — a nice touch.
When using entertainers, using many smaller vignettes of diverse performers can reach guests in a more intimate setting while following the “something for everyone” rule. At a block party in the French Quarter in New Orleans, Key Events bought out all the businesses on the street. One bar put baseball's World Series on the television, and guests drank American beer till the game was over. A nightclub served high-end flavored martinis and hosted a Top 40 dance band, while the music store had a zydeco band and a two-step instructor. Every location was full, and all guests had an experience tailored to their personal taste. For the grand finale, guests could choose between two name entertainers: punk rockers Smash Mouth in the Music Hall and bluesy Dr. John in the open-air amphitheater.
But not all entertainment needs to be performance-based. At a recent event that Key Events produced for a financial institution, we placed vodka luges at each bar to please the under-35-year-olds. Doubling as decor, the luges also gave guests another option to traditional beer and wine while providing a fun experience.
The single most effective way to use decor dollars is in lighting. My mentor has a saying: “Feed the men and make the women look pretty.” (I've cleaned up his actual expression for publication purposes.) Hard props have their place, especially in a themed cocktail reception where a big dance band isn't an option. However, if you have to make a budget choice, spend your money on making your guests look and feel beautiful rather than on elements that don't continue to contribute throughout the party. Once guests have seen props, their usefulness as a surprise element is over. In short, when trying to make your guests feel at home, hire another person to make the experience personable. The guideline is: When faced with a choice, don't buy more things — buy more people.
In summary, it is possible to create an intimate experience for a cast of thousands by following some straight-forward guidelines: Make sure guests start the event off on the right foot with a smartly executed welcome; provide easy access to easy-to-consume food and beverage; foster networking through diverse entertainment vignettes; and spend decor dollars wisely by investing in lighting. Your guests won't feel lost in the crowd.
Heather Keenan, head of San Francisco-based Key Events, can be reached at 415/695-8000; www.keyevents.com.