Putting the Special in Special Events
Photo courtesy of Emerson Creek
Start Planning Early
It really is never too early to start planning an event or meeting. There are so many moving parts, and even simple things such as deciding on a date can be a challenge. Venues often fill up months in advance, and dialing in a specific day can be a problem if you wait too long to book a slot. The same is especially true for multi-day events like conferences.
If you’re able to be a little flexible, it can really pay off in terms of reserving space — and often it can cut costs as well. “When we receive requests and the date is not flexible, you lose options as well as flexibility with rates,”says Nathan Karsten, director of sales & marketing at Hilton Chicago/Oakbrook Hills Resort & Conference Center.
Having your mind set on one specific date can be problematic, and it isn’t always a legitimate concern. For example, Rowena Salas from Hotel Baker in St. Charles points out that many businesses tend to plan corporate parties on the weekend. “Wednesday and Thursday events are just as fun,” she says.
Early planners also have more time to find the right match up for their specific needs. “Start early, and do your vetting,” recommends John Benline, general manager at One Fifty One Kitchen & Bar in Elmhurst, adding, “You will know fairly quickly which venue will be attentive and wants your business.”
Benline also underscores the importance of finding a point person at the venue who you gel with and who is willing to go the extra mile to make your life easier and your event more successful.
Photo courtesy of Abbingdon Distinctive Banquets
Tackle the Tech
Technology is a wonderful thing, and it can really add to the atmosphere of an event, whether by facilitating music or for displaying a slideshow or video. For business gatherings it has become an absolute necessity to have solid wireless Internet and audiovisual equipment available and set up properly. Careful attention to this detail helps make sure this aspect of the meeting, conference, or event goes smoothly.
“We often see people cut corners on A/V,” says Molly Conklin, director of catering and convention services at Hotel Arista in Naperville, part of CityGate Hospitality. This can be seriously problematic if things go wrong — especially for conferences and business gatherings that rely on tech for the majority of their offerings.
“The investment in having techs on site can help avoid problems and keep the experience seamless,” says Conklin, adding that for most event organizers, it’s well worth the line item on the budget.
Karsten agrees that A/V is a very important part of almost any event, but also cautions that costs can spiral quickly if you aren’t careful. “Make sure you are aware of what you need to make your event successful and how much it is going to cost,” he says. That way A/V can be prioritized, rather than added as an afterthought when much of the budget is already allocated to other things. For many group events, it simply has to be a top consideration.
Get Good & Beverage Squared Away
People who work in the industry are in the unique position of seeing the mistakes that people make when it comes to organizing a meeting or event. Among the most frequently mentioned problems is inadequate menu planning.
First and foremost, “Make sure to order enough food,” says Lisa Landers, director of sales and marketing at The Herrington Inn & Spa in Geneva, adding, “This is still one area that many people don’t always plan well.” It is also one of the areas where experienced venue staff can help the most. Having hosted many similar events, they can help make sure you have ample food and drink for all.Aly Rennels, catering sales manager at Abbington Distinctive Banquets in Glen Ellyn, maintains that the flexibility to customize food packages should also be a critical factor in choosing a venue. “Ensuring that the facility is able to accommodate specific food and snack requests is very important,” she says.
Ultimately if a venue is unable to provide what you need for your gathering, it may be wise to move on in your search. Try to find a place that is willing to customize something just for your group. Communicate with staff “Think of your venue’s team as an extension of your reach to help you execute a successful meeting or event,” says Gina Kenyon, director of institutional conferencing at Northern Illinois University, which has conference centers in Naperville and Hoffman Estates, in addition to DeKalb and Rockford.
The more you try to do yourself, the more difficult managing an overall event becomes. While it may seem like you can save a lot of money with more of a DIY approach, entrusting at least some of the details to an experienced staff at the venue can help keep things running smoothly. “Event hosting can be stressful as you try to ensure every checkbox has been attended to,” says Benline of One Fifty One Kitchen & Bar. He suggests making a list of your priorities and then handing the information over to the professionals to take control.
Proactive venue staff can make an enormous difference, agrees Chris Demiduk, owner and proprietor at Emerson Creek in Oswego, which hosts a wide range of events in its historic barn and adjoining tent. She adds that once an event begins, time goes by very quickly, and it can be very difficult to keep everything running on schedule, so “having a timeline is really important.” Once you have things mapped out, share the timeline with the event coordinator or venue staff so they can help make sure things stay on track. “Events and meetings go smoothly when all individuals are communicating and in sync with the planning,” says Hotel Baker’s Salas.
The Abbington’s Rennels recommends sharing pictures of your ideas as a way to make sure everyone is on the same page with the overall look and vision for the occasion. “Regardless of where you host your event, it is important to communicate your personal ideas and inspirations with the venue of your choosing,” she says. Pictures provide a quick and easy way to highlight critical details and help to establish the atmosphere you are trying to achieve. They also provide a jumping-off point for discussion.
Be sure to ask plenty of questions, stresses Hiroki Ogawa, visitor services and rentals manager at DuPage Children’s Museum in Naperville. “Be an informed customer who understands the venue and what services are available to you,” says Ogawa. “Venue staff should be open to discussing and answering any questions you have in order to help plan a successful event.” The more both parties talk about wants, needs, and possibilities, the better!
Embrace New Trends
Trends come and go, but considering some of the latest ideas can be a really fun way to mark a special event, or add interest to a business gathering. For example, over the years the “photo booth” idea at weddings has become extremely popular.
If you’re bringing a bunch of family and friends together, be sure to talk with your venue representative about how to bring a fresh angle to the gathering — they are on top of all the latest offerings and can help you find something that fits perfectly. Conklin points out that experiential is big for businesses these days. “We’re seeing whole-house buyouts where the entire experience is at our CityGate campus, from guest rooms to meeting space; from dining to entertainment,” she says.
Corporate group experiences are increasingly moving outside of traditional venues, and this is especially true of team-building and networking events, which have become quite popular. These days you’re likely to see corporate team- building sessions at WhirlyBall, which has a new location in Naperville, or at Top Golf in Naperville, Wood Dale, or Schaumburg. “We’ve noticed more companies are shifting to social, activity-based events where employees can engage and have fun, which naturally leads to bonding and team building,” says Adam Elias, vice president of strategic planning at WhirlyBall.
He notes that it is important to find a venue that works for the entire office. Focusing in on the key factors involved in your meeting or event is one of the most important parts of the process. If you start your search early and keep these ideas in mind when you are planning, you’ll be setting your gathering up for success.
Tips for a Successful Holiday Party
f you are thinking about throwing a holiday party this year, try some of these savvy tips, provided by people who handle meetings and events every day for a living.
“Try to have as much self-service as you can for beverages,” says Debbie Williams, owner of Adelle’s Fine American Fare in Wheaton. “Set up a nice bar, have wine open and glasses set up ahead of time.”
Williams also suggests having a few nice, glass water dispensers available — and recommends adding a “winter water flavor” such as festive cranberry.“I see a lot of mini desserts,” says Lisa Landers, director of sales and marketing at The Herrington Inn & Spa in Geneva. “I think people like choices (and no big commitment), and with an array of mini items people can try a few different things. It also makes for a very attractive table!”
Nathan Karsten, director of sales and marketing at Hilton Chicago/Oak Brook Hills Resort & Conference Center, suggests keeping your party simple so you have plenty of time to spend with friends and family. “This is a very busy time of year and guests just want to have fun and be around people they enjoy,” he explains.
Buffet stations and limited seating help keep guests up and mingling, says Molly Conklin, director of catering and Convention Services at Hotel Arista in Naperville. “It can move guests out of their familiar comfort zones and lead to a lot more fun interaction.”
“Consider hiring a caterer,” says Chris Demiduk, owner at Emerson Creek in Oswego. Having someone else do the food leaves the host free to mingle, and cleanup is easier, too.“Go with finger foods and try to have some vegetarian and gluten-free items available for your guests,” adds Demiduk.
“The key to a successful holiday party is to start with a theme,” says John Benline, general manager at One Fifty One Kitchen & Bar in Elmhurst. He suggests checking out Pinterest for ideas, or choosing among popular favorites, such as a casual “ugly sweater” party, or a more formal black tie event. “Everyone loves a hot chocolate bar,” says Aly Rennels, catering sales manager at Abbington Distinctive Banquets in Glen Ellyn. Add tasty extras like whipped cream, mini-marshmallows, chocolate chips, and peppermint sticks to jazz things up.
“Something easy that I include every year on Christmas Eve is our Lobster Mac n’ Cheese,” says Anthony Gambino from Victory Meat & Seafood in Elmhurst, highlighting the fact that casserole dishes can be cooked ahead of time and then warmed and served quickly at mealtime. He also points out that deep casserole dishes stay hot for a long time, and can be kept warm in a chafing dish.
“If you want to add a new twist, hire a caricaturist,” suggests Gina Kenyon, director of institutional conferencing at Northern Illinois University. As an added benefit, it’s a great way to send people home with a keepsake from the event.With everyone having such a packed holiday schedule, Hiroki Ogawa, visitor services and rentals manager at DuPage Children’s Museum, suggests considering holding your party just after the holiday season. “It can help ensure more of your guests are able to come and celebrate.”Edit Module