4 Road-tested Tips for Special Events Planning from a Plunger-Wielding Pro

“I miss the adrenaline of special events,” my friend Emily’s email message read.  We had worked together at a North Georgia nonprofit organization a couple of years back and had worked side-by-side through many events. Earlier, I had sent her a message, mentioning that I had an upcoming event.     

About 5 minutes after I read Emily’s email, I got another email message from the Operations Manager of the venue I was using the next day.  With less than 24 hours until our guests arrived, the manager’s message read [paraphrasing],

“Dear Event Organizer:  We know your event is tomorrow, but we’re writing to tell you that we’ve changed all of our rules.  Here are our new rules, including the rules you must follow before your event.  If you don’t follow every single one of the rules, your event will be cancelled. By the way, surprise:  here is your new invoice.  We’ve changed that, too.” 

Note to self:  “must tell Emily not to write foreshadowing email messages.

Special events are full of surprises.  I have long said that the people who are best at working them are people who are flexible, who think well on their feet, and who are creative enough to invent plans B, C, and D in the blink of an eye.  Oh yeah, and special events people must be able to handle the occasional adrenaline rush.

There are some things associated with events over which you have no control such as the weather and the plumbing.  Once, at an event attended by about 350 people, we had to close every single one of the restrooms for women for about 30 minutes.  It was a very long 30 minutes.  Another time, at another gala, all 4 stalls in a women’s restroom became clogged, late in the evening, after too much wine, when guests had started using paper towels, instead of toilet paper, thinking the restrooms were out of toilet paper (which they weren’t).  Now on my resume:  Able to wield plunger in high heels and pearls.

But there are many, many things you can do to make events go more smoothly:

#1 – Punch List: 

Begin a Punch List as soon as you start planning your event.  Your punch list should have several parts including a (1) What you need to pack to take with you to the venue list, (2) What you need to do list, (3) and What you need at the facility/venue list (such as a/v, coat closet, 28 tables, 300 chairs, etc.).  You can go over and over this list with the people at the venue to confirm and re-confirm as you plan and coordinate things leading up to your event.

I add to my Punch list for months.  As soon as I think of something else that I need to take with me to a venue or as soon as a to-do is mentioned in a committee meeting, items get added to the Punch list.

It might sound silly to start a packing list six months (or more) in advance of an event, but if you wait until the week of an event, you’ll forget something. There will be so many details on your mind the week of the event!

#2 Event Directory: 

Make a directory, not only for yourself, but also for everyone else who will be helping with set-up, clean-up or who will be a key volunteer that day.  On the directory, I put the names and cell phone numbers of everyone who might be needed to trouble shoot any problem including me, the A/V rep on duty, the venue manager on duty, security, the caterer, the entertainment, rental equipment companies, florists, anyone else who might be delivering anything, and key volunteer leaders.  You can laminate these directories on cards or, more easily and inexpensively, print them out on colored paper.  Have many copies available (or give one to everyone involved in set-up, volunteering, and clean-up if you feel they need them).

Why not just put these directories in your cell phone?” you ask.  Great question.  It’s not that it’s a bad idea to put the contact information in your cell phone, it’s just that it isn’t enough to put them in your cell phone.  How do you delegate and share that information at the venue, the day of the event if it’s only in your cell phone? 

Imagine this scenario: you are trying to help the band understand that they cannot use the entire dance floor to set up their lights and instruments (there must be a little bit of room, after all, for your guests to dance), meanwhile, the venue manager on duty (who is not the person you have spoken to ten times) insists that there are only 50 chairs available on the site (when you’ve been promised 300), the table cloths have not been delivered, while all eight people on the silent auction committee are having an argument about where the golf tee’s need to go next to the golf auction package (By the way, I have no opinion about the golf tee’s unless absolutely forced to have one to keep things moving).  

You need help.  You need to be able to hand off telephone numbers and ask people to make calls for you. You can’t give everyone your cell phone (especially at the same time).  It can be really helpful to give your key staff and volunteers a directory (or point to a table and say “Hey, the florist’s number is on that red sheet of paper, would you please call and see what time we can expect delivery? They were supposed to be here 2 hours ago.”   

#3 – Develop a Special Events Toolbox: 

Think of all the office tools and supplies you have handy at your desk at work (stapler, tape dispenser, staple-pull, pens, scissors, paper clips, post-it notes).  You and your volunteers will be doing office-type, administrative work as you check your guests in or check them out from a silent auction. (Do you need calculators? Credit card readers? Laptops with excel?)   

Your events toolbox is also part handy-person toolbox.  Consider the basic tools that a repair person carries with him- or her-self.  These are incredibly useful at an event venue. You may be faced with things that are broken or things you have to more-or-less construct or create the day of the event.  There are also things like hanging signs and banners that usually require some simple tools (like rubber mallets or ropes) or things like the universal tool that fixes all: duct tape.  Your toolbox needs to include basic tools. 

#4 – Emergency Decorations: 

You can think of this as part of your toolkit or as something in-and-of-itself.  For me, this is event-specific.  I always pack a bunch of things that I’m not really planning to use, but it occurs to me that they might come in handy if during set-up there are holes in the decorations or they need enhancements.  The things in this category include pieces of fabric, ribbon, tulle, candles, baskets, glass containers, vases, flowers from my yard, small ornaments or home decorations, seasonal items (like pumpkins or mini Christmas trees), gift wrap, empty boxes (wrapped boxes make great risers to elevate auction items), tissue paper, coat hangers (again, can be bent for auction display assistance)—whatever I have on-hand that might be useful.  I always get to events with things I don’t need, but I never go to an event that I don’t use at least 2 or 3 things from this stash of “extra” things that I’ve packed.  These things are always useful.

These tips and strategies won’t keep your venue from changing the rules at the last minute.  They also won’t fix the plumbing problems.  But they’re a few road-tested strategies from a plunger-wielding veteran that will help your event succeed.

Miss the adrenaline.  Emily, bite your tongue!

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