Make Your Next Event Extraordinary
Whether you are planning an intimate dinner for 10 friends, a shower or a family reunion for 50 guests, a business meeting or fundraising gala for 200 or more people, or a wedding celebration for your entire social circle, a special event is all about creating a memorable experience for everyone in attendance. Area experts share their insights into what makes an event of any kind extra special.
Focusing on the Experience
If there’s a trend in event planning, it is the emphasis on the experience. “When people walk into an event, all of the senses should be intrigued, with uplifting décor, the aroma of the food, and what you are seeing, tasting and touching,” says Bonnie Buckley, senior catering manager for the Hilton Lisle/Naperville in Lisle.
She and her team have created elaborate themed parties for the executive administrators who are some of the hotel’s best clients. One year, an Alice in Wonderland theme took guests on a trip to Wonderland, from the teacup place cards at registration to an over-the-top tea party in the ballroom, presided over by Alice and the Mad Hatter, otherwise known as the hotel’s general manager. At another event, the Wizard of Oz theme was reflected in the ballroom’s decorations of Munchkin Land, the haunted forest and the Wicked Witch melting on table centerpieces with flying monkeys overhead.
“We give ourselves a day to put it together, but we spend months on it. Theme parties are always fun,” Buckley says. She acknowledges that most hosts of private parties have neither the time nor the budget to create such extravagant set-ups, but themes can be conveyed in less expensive ways, such as the use of a color scheme or a special backdrop.
According to Rowena Felix Salas, general manager of the Hotel Baker in St. Charles, the vintage atmosphere of the hotel’s 1928 architecture lends itself to Great Gatsby and other period themes, including weddings where the bridesmaids’ attire reflects the Roaring 20s. At one Halloween wedding, even the guests came in costume. “It was fun. It was wild,” she recalls. Even without a theme, special touches can make memories. Salas observes that Millennials like to offer a specialty cocktail at their events, while others offer special attractions, such as an artist creating a painting during a fundraising event, which will be auctioned off for charity at the end of the evening.
Jenna Sayers, event sales manager at St. Andrews Golf and Country Club in West Chicago, notes that the days of DJs and recorded music are fading. “A lot of people are going to live music,” she says. A 50th anniversary celebration at the club featured a harpist, while Sayers is seeing more three-piece ensembles for wedding ceremonies.
At the Westin Chicago Northwest in Itasca, the hotel’s recently renovated spaces — to the tune of $14 million — are being used in creative ways for special events. Diane Howard, director of sales and marketing, notes that the wide-open atrium area is a good spot for silent auctions for fundraisers or as a unique environment for entertaining. “We’ve seen our atrium re-created into a Paris street scene, with backdrops, lighting, color and sound,” she says.
Outdoor spaces are also popular for special events. The Westin offers a year-round outdoor tent overlooking Hamilton Lakes, which can be used for formal events, such as cocktails and hors d’oeuvres at a black-tie party, or casual cookouts held in conjunction with 5K races.
Mixing Business with Pleasure
While business meetings are not usually associated with having fun, now the most serious meetings are making the experience more enjoyable and interactive. According to Tamara Roberts, manager of meetings for the American College of Surgeons, “Even though it is a scientific, educational meeting, we are creating elements of fun.”
The 120 events that the association holds each year range from small committee meetings to the annual Clinical Congress, where as many as 15,000 people attend. To encourage attendee interaction, meeting planners are employing social media and creating gathering spaces “where people can really have more face-to-face time.” For example, they may feature a keynote speaker in a coffee-break area, where people can ask questions and the interaction can be streamed live to devices and screens throughout the convention center. “It’s an opportunity for attendees to feel like they are part of the meeting,” Roberts says. The also has added an evening reception with a Taste of the City theme, which celebrates the location of the event each year. In Washington, D.C., attendees could get their photos taken at a replica of the Lincoln Memorial, take flamenco dancing lessons in the Embassy Row section, or sign the College of Surgeon’s Pledge of Membership.
At west suburban hotels, business meetings are often combined with fundraising efforts for the community, team-building programs and activities like golf or fitness events. The Hilton chain has rolled out a “Meet with Purpose” initiative that encourages business clients to hold meetings that are mindful of the environment, offer healthier food choices, and provide breaks with time to regroup.
Developing Custom Menus
Perhaps the most important element of a successful event is the food. While venues offer a set menu for banquets and weddings, they also are willing to customize the menu to meet the needs of the guests and the party hosts.
“A really big trend right now is managing food allergies,” Sayers observes. When people ask for gluten free foods, she wants to know whether a person is dealing with celiac disease or if they are just watching their carbohydrates. In order to accommodate all guests, the catering manager needs to know of such concerns ahead of time, especially when it comes to peanut allergies, which require special sanitation measures. At St. Andrews, she says, “Everything is customizable. We have a scratch kitchen. It doesn’t hurt to ask” for exactly what you want, adds Sayers.
Local venues such as the Hotel Baker are seeing a move toward events that feature heavy hors d’oeuvres rather than plated dinners. Although the food costs are similar, Salas notes that a “grazing environment” allows people to mingle and makes room for more people in the venue, since the set-up usually involves fewer tables and chairs.
At the Westin in Itasca, Howard is seeing more interest in holding social events in restaurant settings, rather than conference rooms. Their sports bar and fine dining restaurant both have private dining rooms that can seat up to 20 people, and the entire restaurants can also be rented out for the evening.
Taking Tips from the Pros
The real secret to a successful event is advance planning. Venue managers suggest planning your event several months or more ahead of the date. Nailing down a date and a venue is especially important at busy times, such as the holidays or during wedding season.
Roberts advises, “Be flexible with the date. You may be able to be placed in a hole in the hotel’s schedule,” which can save considerably on costs. “Be sure to ask a lot of questions upfront, such as, ‘Are there exclusive vendors?’” Understanding the venue’s policies from the outset can avoid surprises down the road.
When negotiating with a catering manager on a special event at a hotel or restaurant, it is important to come prepared with both a budget and a list of must-haves for the event. “If people have a vision, it really helps,” Buckley says. “You really have to be open. Some people think that sales people are in it to sell, sell, sell. But their budget is their budget.” She says they can work with people whether they want to spend a little or a lot on the meal. For example, a regular house salad can be served instead of a seasonal salad to save money that can be used on something more important to the host, such as a special dessert.
Of course, fundraising event planners have to manage the budget so that donations can be maximized. “Committee members who are volunteering for an annual gala want it to be big and fabulous, but we know there is a budget,” says Howard. “Catering works closely with novice planners on their price point and what the chef can do.”
At the Hotel Baker and other venues, the catering staff helps with the overall event planning. “We become the event coordinators,” Salas says. “We make sure everything is detailed out.” She notes that some hosts hire independent event planners, particularly for weddings, to coordinate both the venue and the vendors involved. For those who prefer to plan the event themselves, the Hotel Baker and other venues can provide a list of local, preferred vendors who are familiar with the venue.
Sayers advises event hosts to look for attention to detail, and “#1 is customer service, how they are being treated,” before choosing a venue.
Above all, says Buckley, “Rely on a professional to be your trusted advisor. Establish a relationship so you become partners in the success of your event. Whether it is large or small, you care about your event, and so do we.”Edit Module