By Jamie Vollmer
Event and meeting planning is one of a few fields where a lack of perfection or a simple mistake can wreak havoc and turn hundreds of people against you in a single moment. It is the fear of these mishaps that leaves many planners tossing and turning through the night, contemplating every element of their events so no detail is overlooked.
While numerous meeting and event pitfalls are possible, here are the 10 we found to be the most common:
1. Forgetting that vendors are allies
Planners and vendors must work hand-in-hand. However, planners can have a tendency to forget the importance of this relationship and set a tone that leaves vendors feeling like mere hired staff.
“Vendors should be considered a part of the planning team,” recommended Patti Gaughan, independent planner, Meeting Management & Consulting.
This means planners should consult with vendors throughout the planning process and respect the expertise they offer.
Scott Graham, president of Excellent Meetings, likes to create a friendly tone with vendors well before the meeting. “If I have made a mistake, my “friends” (vendors) are more likely to help me quickly make the best of a bad situation. If I am demanding and hardheaded, the staff can easily make my little mistake into a bad day,” said Graham.
2. Not Understanding the Event
Every meeting has its own history, goals and purpose. Scott Graham advises planners to know the history of the event. When he plans a meeting, he is sure to examine the meeting’s performance in previous years. “Look at things like room blocks, pick up, food and beverage guarantees. It is uncanny how often, year after year, the data are similar. Knowing your meeting’s history will help you prevent overpurchasing or getting caught with not enough,” suggested Graham.
Jerry Shackette, associate professor and the Walter L. Green chair of Hotel & Restaurant Management at the The Keeter Center at the College of the Ozarks, recommended going a step further. “For me it’s all about the research. You have already failed if you plan a meeting or event based on ‘common wisdom’.”
Shackette likes to asks questions, survey members or potential attendees and perform a SWOT analysis of the event.
3. VIP Wannabes
Every event has them – VIP wannabes– those certain people who think they are entitled to special treatment or a little something extra.
Kara Leodler, manager of conference and travel for Kansas City Life Insurance Company, has experienced VIP wannabes in the form of hired speakers. “I am paying the speaker to speak. Speakers are not the clients. My group is the client. Too many speakers are being paid to be there and demanding too much,” she said.
Gaughan has seen the same issues with some attendees of incentive meetings. “They feel they can ask for more than what’s being offered and have no qualms doing so,” she said. Managing VIP wannabees can be a challenge. “We, as planners, are wired to want to make our clients, guests and stakeholders feel welcome and create a memorable experience,” commented Jenny Besser, director of meetings for MAC Meetings & Events. “But at some point we have to be realistic and set some limitations, whether it’s because of budget, physical limitations or sheer capabilities.”
4. Registration – Poor First Impressions
Registration is one of the first impressions a guest has of a meeting or event.
“Very often the staff at conference registration seems distracted, overworked,unconcerned,” warned Shackette. “This lack of engagement at the very moment when attendees are forming their impressions of the event can certainly color their experience. We need warm welcomes, eye
contact, empathy, and a genuine desire to be of service at that first point of contact.”
Shackette encourages planners to pay special attention to who is chosen to work at registration and be sure to train them well.
5. Attendees With No Clue Where to Park
Making guests feel welcome can start even before the registration table. There are few things that can set an attendee’s perspective on a downward spiral like a struggle to find parking.
“My favorite approach to parking issues is to make arrangements in advance for guests,” said Shackette. “Be sure to send guests instructions along with a hangtag, pre-paid voucher or discount ahead of time. It may be more work, but your attendees will love you.”
If sending these items ahead of time is not an option, be sure to share directions for parking prior to onsite registration. Include easy-to-read maps, and information about charges or validation. If the cost is high, consider offering a few alternatives in the area.
6. Communication Breakdown
Effective meetings and events require that everyone is on the same page. Planners need to be sure to communicate with venues, vendors and team members about timelines and goals.
“Don’t just assign tasks to interns,” advised Gaughan. “Make sure they understand why the task is important to the entire process and event.”
Gaughan also recommended keeping key players updated through the event with information that could impact their performance. For example, be sure to let the hotel know about attendee arrival and departure times so they can be ready for the rush.
Sharing information and keeping communication open is everyone’s responsibility. Leodler has seen numerous instances where information that has been requested and shared with vendors or planners wasn’t read, studied or passed on to other key people involved the process.
7. Forgetting to Check, Double Check and Check Again
Susan Gray, president of MAC Meetings & Events, shares a story about being at an event where the caterer set up buffet tables complete with linens, dinnerware and serving dishes. Then as the final large centerpiece was placed on the buffet, the tables collapsed because someone had forgotten to double check that the table legs were locked.
Gray’s experience at that event only served to reinforce her belief in the old saying, “The devil is in the details.” She advised planners, “When you are planning a meeting or an event, the smallest detail left undone can derail its success.”
8. Making Assumptions
We all know the saying about assumptions, but the ramifications of making them are rarely as clear as they are with events. Shackette shared a cautionary tale of his own. “I have made the mistake of engaging a speaker based solely on a résumé – big mistake! He certainly knew his subject, but he put us all to sleep.”
While this assumption made for a lackluster session, it’s even more important not to make assumptions related to contracts.
“Read everything,” advised Graham. “Understand everything and its ramifications. Get it in writing to clear up any questions or concerns.”
9. Not enough food and beverage
Few things can turn a crowd into a mob quicker than running out of food or drink.
Gray encouraged planners to “know your group and the amount of food and beverage required. For example, if you have a group of large eaters, make sure that your vendor understands that your group does not fall under the normal amount of three appetizers per person, but may be more like six per person. This may be a lesson learned unless you are at a facility that can prepare additional food quickly.”
If a planner is successful in understanding the event and its history, knowing the food and beverage needs of the group will be much easier.
10. Inadequate A/V and technical difficulties
Technology is the nemesis of numerous meetings and events. From microphones that won’t work to videos that fail to load, most planners have an audio-visual horror story to share. These stories can be related to vendors who underestimate the meeting’s needs, speakers who fail to share the full range of their technical requirements, equipment that
malfunctions and more.
Besser offered a few words of advice related to audio-visual needs: “A planner needs to convey the level of technical support required for the meeting. We talk through the little things that could pop up to be sure the vendor has enough equipment to help manage these additional requests.”
Technology is not an area to skimp on in supplies or expertise. As Shackette thoughtfully cautioned, “Either become an expert with the technology you are using, or spend the money to have the technical staff available on-site. There is no middle ground.”
The bottom line is that mishaps will happen. As Gray so expertly surmised, “Everyone, sometime in their career, will have an ‘oops’ moment. The important thing is to learn from it, not repeat the experience, and set procedures in place to prevent a repeat performance. The onsite
remedy to these situations is to keep a cool head. It’s surprising how many of the ‘oops’ moments can be rectified if you take a deep breath and implement some quick thinking.” MM&E
(Jamie Vollmer is a contributor from St. Louis, Mo.)