Nine Lessons I Learned at Thanksgiving

About eight years ago I hosted my first Thanksgiving dinner in my home. I was newly married, living across the country from the ones who had prepared all of my previous Thanksgiving meals. What I thought would be a smaller gathering of friends who lived too far to travel home ended up being a delightful time with 33 of our closest friends. Needless to say, I learned a lot that first Thanksgiving dinner I prepared. As Thanksgiving is nearing and I’m planning another meal with family and friends, I’m reminded of the lessons I learned, many of which can apply to a variety of event planning scenarios.

Here are nine lessons I learned while hosting my first Thanksgiving dinner:

  • It’s natural to be nervous before an event you plan. No matter how big or small, the feelings of “what if” can inundate your mind. While a level of nervousness can be expected, remember to allow yourself the opportunity to have fun. After all, this is your party, too.
  • Some people notice the details; others do not. Pay attention to the details. From tying a fall-colored ribbon around a candle holder to setting the table with care, take time to incorporate special touches when you can. This will make a big impact on those who share in your desire for perfection.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help or clarification. If you don’t understand something or aren’t sure it will work, ask someone. I think I called my mom no less than ten times while preparing that Thanksgiving meal.
  • Be smart in the choices you make. If you don’t own a dishwasher, paper products might be the best option unless you want to spend your afternoon washing dishes rather than fellowshipping with friends. Think ahead as you plan.
  • You can make a space work. I never thought we could fit 35 people around tables in my home, plus have space for food. You know what? It was cramped, but it was intimate and fun. While you won’t be able to fit 100 people into a room designed for 25, there are creative ways to utilize the space you have.
  • Don’t forget the kids! Will there be children at your event? Set up a kids table with kid-friendly activities. Spend a little extra on goodies the children can take home. Parents will appreciate the thoughtfulness.
  • Let people help. Often people want to help, but they don’t know what is needed. Sometimes simply asking a question such as, “Could you bring the ice?” allows people to feel included and valued. If others offer, let them help if it is conducive to your planning. The end result might not be the exact thing you had expected, but, including others will take the pressure off of you. If it’s something that is a “make or break” for you, consider asking someone you know will do it the way you want it done. For the other, less important things, ask for help.
  • Know your strengths and weaknesses. That first Thanksgiving in my home, I had a huge fear about preparing the turkey. There was a chef who lived two doors down coming to our meal. I asked him to do it, and he gladly agreed. What was weighing heavily on me was easily passed off to someone much more qualified. When it comes to events, utilize the strengths of others in places where you might fall a little short. For example, if you are completely afraid of speaking in public, ask someone who is comfortable in the spotlight.
  • There is always, always, always something to be thankful for. Don’t forget that. In the midst of the hustle and bustle of planning and making it happen, remember the purpose of the time—thanksgiving, family, friendship, fellowship. It might just change your perspective as you try to figure out how you’re going to cook five different dishes at five different temperatures and keep them warm enough to serve.

Happy Thanksgiving, from our team to yours. May your day be filled with lots of laughter, family, friendship, fellowship, good food, and most of all, gratitude.

 

 

Stores are Ready for Christmas: Are You?

The Halloween decorations are put away, and though Thanksgiving is the next holiday up for celebration, many stores have already hung their stockings, decorated their trees, and tied their red and green bows in preparation for Christmas. I saw the first Christmas decorations out at the beginning of October. That’s approximately 86 days before Christmas.

Even though Christmas is still weeks away, have you been tasked with planning your office, school, family, or small group’s Christmas party? If so, it might be a good idea to start thinking about activities and ideas for a memorable party. I polled my Facebook friends recently and asked for some of their favorite things to incorporate into a Christmas party. Here are some of the best ideas they had:

  • Pick Up Candy Canes: This is a version of Pick Up Sticks, only you place your hands behind your back and can only use your mouth to pick up candy canes scattered on a table. Whoever gets the most candy canes in a cup wins.
  • Saran Wrap Gift Ball: Wrap all types of gifts (can be serious or gag gifts) in Saran Wrap, creating a ball. Place the best gift in the middle and wrap. Place another present on top of that and wrap, followed by another gift then wrap. Continue until you have a large ball. One person begins unwrapping the ball and can keep any gift he/she unwraps. While the person is unwrapping, another person is rolling dice. As soon as they roll a certain number, it becomes their turn to unwrap. Continue until all gifts are unwrapped.
  • Fish Bowl: Everyone writes down Christmas words/movies/songs on slips of paper and places them in a bowl. Form two teams. In the first round, you can say anything to get your team to guess the word. After 30 seconds, switch teams. Play until all words are used. Place them back in the bowl for the second round, where you can only say one word to get your team to guess the word. For the third round, you can only act out the words on the papers to get your team to guess.
  • Guess the Song: Using kid-friendly instruments (think kazoo, triangle, recorder, tambourine, bicycle bell), play a Christmas song and have people guess what song is being played. For an added element of fun, wrap the various instruments. The person chosen to play the song must first choose and unwrap the instrument he/she will use.
  • Christmas Book Exchange: Instead of the typical ornament exchange, bring a wrapped Christmas book to exchange with others.
  • Gingerbread Houses: Decorate gingerbread houses with given supplies. Have awards including best house, most likely to fall in a snowstorm, most likely to withstand an avalanche, and so on.

Christmas parties don’t have to be stressful, and with a little pre-planning, you can ensure a fun, stress-free time. And, considering candy is half-price from Halloween, you could probably stock up on a few prizes and giveaways for your Christmas event!

 

The Pros and Cons of Virtual Meetings

I recently attended my first virtual meeting, a three-hour training session for an upcoming project. Here are my top two takeaways from that virtual experience. First, I can’t think of anything more awkward than looking at your own face next to the faces of others on a screen for an extended period of time. Second, I love the aspect of not having to travel a great distance to get to that training.

As with any meeting, whether onsite or online, there are both positives and negatives that go along with the setup. When looking at virtual meetings, specifically, here are a few advantages:

  • No travel costs. The virtual meeting I was a part of recently is typically an onsite meeting I attend involving extended car travel, hotel stays, and meals. What typically costs them thousands was “virtually” eliminated.
  • You can cover more information in a condensed time frame. It’s inevitable – when people are together, they talk. From casual conversation and personal dialogue to brainstorming sessions and extended discussion, the time frame of an onsite meeting will be longer than a virtual meeting. When people gather for a virtual meeting, the small talk is typically at a minimum, as attendees seem to be focused and ready to work.
  • It’s simple. Software companies such as GoToMeeting and Zoom have made virtual meetings an easy reality. Setting up an online meeting isn’t complicated, and companies such as these offer excellent support.
  • It’s comfortable. Virtual meetings can take place anywhere, anytime! From the comfort of your own home or office, you can attend a meeting in a familiar atmosphere.

In addition to these benefits, though, there are a few disadvantages:

  • Less personal connection. The one thing I missed about the virtual meeting I recently attended was the connections I made with other attendees in years past. While personal relationships aren’t always necessary between those attending meetings, for some types of groups, these greatly benefit the outcome.
  • Technology doesn’t always cooperate. Internet connections fail. Computers have glitches. It’s a risk you have to take when relying on technology to carry your meeting.

Some meetings can be handled virtually. Others cannot. I think a mixture of the two can be a great way to save money, increase efficiency, and place value on your attendee’s time.

From an event planner’s perspective, virtual meetings can be a great way to gather a team of leaders who may live throughout the country to regularly meet for progress updates. While an onsite, in-person planning session can be a great way to jumpstart planning for an event and build relationships among your team, follow up meetings can easily be arranged virtually.

 

How to Attend an Event as an Event Planner

Last week my family attended a local baseball game. Around the third inning of the game, the large, digital screen started acting strangely. I was quick to comment on this event failure to my husband, and we discussed what might be done to fix it. That’s the event planner in me. Anytime I see something go wrong at an event I’m attending, I try to figure out a way to fix it, or at least think of what I would do if I was in the planner’s shoes.

It’s hard to turn off the “event planner” inside you when you attend a function you haven’t planned. However, especially when it comes to spiritual retreats and training events, it’s important to sometimes simply attend and enjoy, without the pressure of planning and executing.

If you are attending an event rather than planning it, keep these tips in mind:

  • You need spiritual refreshment. While it is possible to worship and be spiritually renewed during your planned events, it is hard. Something always interferes. The room is too cold. The speaker is running late. The video doesn’t play on cue. Someone is complaining about something. If you have the joy of attending an event as a guest, soak in the time you have without the added stress. Allow your spirit to be renewed.
  • Be reminded that mistakes will happen, but they are often unnoticed by most attendees. They happen with events you plan. They will happen with events you attend. As an attendee, realize mistakes happen, and see how, in the grand scheme of things, they are often not as big of a deal as you make them when you are the event planner. You will notice some of the smaller mistakes easily, but try to focus on the bigger picture, realizing most people don’t notice the small mistakes.
  • Take notes. It’s okay to “borrow” good ideas from other people. One great thing about attending events outside your own is for a different perspective. You have great ideas, but others do too. Learn from them. There may be ideas you can incorporate into future events.
  • Enjoy yourself! It’s okay to have fun at someone else’s event! Meet new people, experience new things, and be willing to let loose a little. After all, you aren’t in charge, and no one is looking to you for the answers.
  • Make connections. Introduce yourself to the event planner. Perhaps you can build a relationship where you trade event registrations in the future. For example, you could comp the registration fee for the event planner at one of your events in exchange for comped registration at one of their events.

Earlier this year I had the privilege of attending a writer’s conference as an attendee rather than a planner. It was an amazing feeling walking into the auditorium, realizing I had no responsibilities for the evening except to enjoy myself, worship, and learn. And, though it was hard to turn off the event planner mindset at first, I quickly became engrossed in the conference as a participant. And, it was a blessing!

Back to School Shopping … for Events

Can I let you in on a little secret? Back to school shopping isn’t just for kids returning to school! It’s a great time for you, an event planner, to stock up on basic supplies and necessities you may need for upcoming events, especially if you are not part of a larger organization able to order in bulk from office supply companies.

In addition to great back to school prices on office supplies, many states offer tax-free weekends where you can save additional money on school necessities and computers.

Here is a list of items you can typically find discounted during back to school sale events that you may want to stock up on for future events:

  • Pocket folders
  • Binders
  • Pens
  • Pencils
  • File folders
  • Spiral notebooks
  • Sharpies
  • Binder clips
  • Copy paper
  • Dry erase markers
  • Staplers
  • Staples
  • Paper clips
  • Post-it notes
  • Highlighters
  • Markers
  • Index cards
  • Scissors
  • USB sticks
  • Tape
  • Office storage supplies

Even if your event isn’t for a while, stocking up early is a great way to save a little extra money. For some event planners, saving a hundred dollars here and there isn’t really a necessity. For others, it can be the difference between providing something extra for your attendees or not. I’ve programmed events where literally every penny mattered, so finding simple ways to save money was vital.

Back to school sales aren’t the only times to look for items you can find at discounted prices, however. Sales around Thanksgiving and Christmas (specifically Black Friday and Cyber Monday) typically offer excellent deals on things such as board games. This can be a great time to pick up extra items to have available for guests during afternoon free time or evenings sitting in hotel lobbies.

With a little forethought and a willingness to brave the sometimes crowded stores offering deals, you can save money in your planning process.

What about you? What do you like to stock up on before an event? Comment below!

Benefits of a Conference/Retreat Center

Determining a venue for an event is one of the foundational elements of event planning. Where will your event take place? What are your facility needs? Where will attendees travel from to attend your event? These are just a few of the questions you will have to answer as you begin to find an event location.

Some events are best suited for large cities with many hotel choices, easy airport access, diverse restaurants, and highly-anticipated tourist stops. Others are more suited for “off the beaten path” type venues. Regardless of your event type, knowing your planning team and guests’ expectations and your venue’s ability to fulfill those are both equal parts of the formula for a successful event. Have you considered a conference/retreat center to be your one stop shop for your next event?

Here are a few benefits of choosing a conference/retreat center:

  • Everything is in one location. Housing, food service, and conference spaces are all centrally located. Typically, all are in easy walking distance for guests. Attendees can return to their rooms without the hassle of needing a car (which inevitably leads to the dreaded finding your car, paying parking fees, and then searching for a parking space upon your return).
  • Conference centers foster community. With your guests in one location, there are enhanced opportunities for conversations to take place and relationships to form. Walking to and from various facilities, eating meals together, and conversing in common areas after evening sessions are just a few of the ways conference centers can provide outlets for community and networking.
  • Transportation is a little less complicated. This is a twofold benefit of a conference center. First, if guests or event staff are flying to the destination, they can be shuttled in groups to the conference center. Because transportation most likely won’t be needed while on property during the event, this will eliminate the need for rental cars, thus saving money. Second, once guests arrive, if they drove, they can leave their vehicles parked throughout the event, thus avoiding parking fees and the stress of trying to find parking spaces in crowded lots or streets.
  • Equipment is often readily available without a rental company. While this isn’t always the case with every need, conference centers will often include equipment in the price or at a discounted rate. For example, at Ridgecrest Conference Center, use of the large auditorium includes audiovisual equipment such a full range PA and sound board, lighting, and projection. What could cost you up to $10,000 per weekend from a rental company is included at no additional charge if your group meets requirements for this facility. Fees from rental companies do not include the labor to run it, and most conference centers have staff on hand to run these at minimal or no additional cost.
  • On-site recreation and other activities can enhance free-time. Many conference centers have recreational activities on site. These often include high ropes courses, team building elements, hiking trails, disc golf, and basketball/volleyball courts. In addition to recreation, conference centers often have gathering places like coffee shops and other purposed locations to get away, reflect, and relax.

Conference/retreat centers aren’t for every event, but they provide the perfect location for many. If you’re looking for a conference/retreat center, check out ccca.org or iacca.org.

 

Contracts 101

 

Event planning and contracts … the two go hand in hand. For seasoned event planners, contracts are often second nature. For new event planners, contracts can seem daunting with the legal jargon. This blog post is here to help.

What is a contract?
A contract is simply defined as an agreement between two or more parties. It is legally binding in a court of law. Contracts are in place to protect both parties.

Do I have to sign a contract?
Yes! If a company doesn’t offer you a contract, request one. This is your safety net when it comes to executing your event.

Who signs the contract?
This can be a little harder to clearly define since your church or organization might have rules set in place. Make sure to contact those in leadership positions within your organization prior to signing a contract. The person signing may be held financially responsible.

What should event contracts include?
It is not uncommon to have contracts with multiple entities. Depending on your event logistics, you may have contracts with a venue, hotel, guest speaker, worship band, rental companies, catering companies, etc.

Every contract should include dates and rates. Dates can include the actual event date plus any type of cancellation policies. For contracts with speakers or bands, clearly defined travel arrangements should be included. Contracts with musicians and some speakers also come with riders, documents explaining technical and hospitality needs. Rental and catering companies should include specific items requested and set-up/tear-down times, as well as dates to give a final guest guarantee. Housing contracts should include room types and dates pertaining to when and how room blocks can be adjusted (and any related financial impact).

In addition, all contracts should have an “Acts of God” or “force majeure” clause in the event a natural occurrence cancels or significantly alters an event.

What makes a contract binding?
In the past, verbal contracts were solidified by a handshake, or, if the parties really wanted to reach an agreement, the handshake might include spitting on the hand prior to the shake. Thankfully, spitting on hands isn’t a common practice today. Contracts are fully executed once signed by both parties. In some cases, a deposit might be required, as well.

What should I do before I sign a contract?
READ IT. All OF IT. And read it again. Know what you are committing yourself to before signing the agreement. Be detailed as you go through each section. Have another person read it, as well. As you work with contracts from different entities, cross reference them to make sure there are no discrepancies. For example, if your venue states you cannot bring in outside food, yet your worship band requires a certain type of food in their green room, you’ll need to make sure the catering company through the venue will be able to provide that and at what cost. Read it … and read it again!

What should I do after I sign a contract?
Keep a copy on file to refer to as needed. Also, go through each contract and note deadlines for various tasks. Schedule these on your calendar a week prior to when they are due in case you need to complete any additional work to meet that deadline. Deadlines could include room block adjustment dates, guarantees for catering, housing lists and room set-up forms turned in, and so on.

Event planners, don’t be afraid of contracts. Contracts are put in place to protect both you, your participants, and those you are working with. Realize they are legally binding, and you will be held to the terms of the agreement. Read them carefully. If you don’t understand something in the contract, ask prior to signing. Understand what you are committing to before you commit to it.

 

Ideas for Planning Unplanned Free Time

Free time can be both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, you want to give your participants time to rest and relax. On the other hand, downtime can lead some guests to ask, “What can I do now?”

Oftentimes, free time in an event schedule is intentional. This could take place in the afternoon after a morning of workshops or in the evening after the main session. As an event planner, it can be a challenge to know how much to plan or how much to “let happen” on its own.

Sometimes, however, downtime at a conference happens unexpectedly. Perhaps the hotel accommodations are not ready upon check-in. An activity may be rained out without an indoor alternative. Your main sessions may dismiss much sooner than expected.

A great option to have on hand for free time (both planned and unplanned) is an assortment of games to play. These can include board games or simply decks of cards. If you regularly host events, you might consider investing in a supply of games. Otherwise, you can ask some of your event team if they are willing to bring games from home or invite your guests to bring their favorites. If you are in need of ideas, here is a list of great group games that are easy to learn, easy to set-up, and easy to engage others:

  • Apples to Apples
  • 5 Second Rule
  • Bananagrams
  • Catch Phrase
  • Spot It
  • Decks of cards (Spoons, Hand and Foot, Crazy Eights, etc.)
  • Uno
  • Phase 10
  • Jenga
  • Blokus
  • Mexican Train Dominoes
  • Scattegories
  • Balderdash
  • A to Z
  • Rummikub

Some of your guests’ greatest memories may come from time spent around tables playing games after a day of teaching sessions. In the midst of the laughter and a little friendly competition, your guests can experience fellowship in a relaxed environment.

What are some of your favorite board games to play with a group of friends? Share them in the comment section below.

 

Ask the Expert: Creating an Event Website

I’m excited to share another installment of our “Ask the Expert” blog series. This week, we will dive into the world of website design. Jess Freeman is an Atlanta-based freelance graphic and web designer. She was named 2015 Gwinnett Chamber Young Entrepreneur of the Year. Jess is a great resource for designing event websites.

  1. I’m planning a retreat for the first time. I want to have a website to share with those who are interested. Where do I start?
    First, you’ll want to decide if you want to use Squarespace or WordPress for your website – there are other platforms, but these two are the most reputable and the easiest to use. Squarespace comes pre-loaded with themes you can choose; you would need to buy a WordPress theme. Then, you’ll need to choose a domain name. This should be no more than 15 characters long.

    The content of your website needs to be organized and flow in a way that makes sense. I always recommend having one to two buttons on each page that will direct the user to the next right step. The buttons will save users from having to scroll back to the top of the page and guide them through your content.

  1. I don’t have pictures from previous events, but I think pictures are important. Where can I find quality stock images at a moderate price?
    Images are indeed very important because they help convey emotion and connect with the viewers. One of the most popular stock photo websites is istockphoto.com, but you will have to do some searching to find photos that aren’t too cliché. CreativeMarket is also a popular resource with more affordable photos but less selection.

    Depending on the type of retreat, you may be able to use free stock photos. Now, to be clear, this does not mean going to Google Images and grabbing pictures – that could get you in a lot of legal trouble. However, there are royalty-free websites like Unsplash.com that have hundreds of great photos that are totally free to use.

    You could also try to work with a local photographer and do a little photo shoot for your website. It’s unlikely they would be able to (or want to) do it for free, but they may be up for a trade! For example, maybe you could list them as a sponsor and put their business card in a swag bag in exchange for some discounted services.

  1. What tips can you give when creating a website name?
    Names can be tricky because it can really set the tone for the event. It’s always best to keep it clear and simple rather than trying to be cute and clever. For example, my church has a “Walking Wisely Weekend” for middle school students. The alliteration makes it fun but still easy to remember. If they ever wanted to create a separate website, it would be easy to leave off “weekend” for a shorter domain.
  1. Is it possible for guests to register and pay online for the event? Any tips on how to do that?
    Thankfully, it is easy to have people register for events right on your website! For Squarespace users, you can set up a “product” as the event registration and get the names and emails of all customers. For WordPress, there are many plugins that can handle this – Event Registration, Event Espresso, Events Manager and many more.

    Another option is to use Eventbrite, a third-party platform. Some prefer Eventbrite because you can send “invitations” to people, you can enable specific seating at your event (like concert seats) and you can integrate it with Facebook. But, of course, they do take a percentage of your sales.

  1. How can I link Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and other social media to my page?
    Squarespace lets you connect your social media profiles and pages seamlessly. You’ll just need to “login” through Squarespace and an icon will appear on your website. For WordPress, it’s also very easy to integrate your social media with the help of plugins. Most of the time, however, your theme will have a spot for you to put links to your social media.

    I don’t recommend displaying social media feeds (like Facebook and Twitter) on your website. This was a popular thing to do many years ago, but it generally makes your site look cluttered and dated. Instagram is one exception, since it is pictures only – but this should be considered carefully, as you want to make sure the photos don’t clash with your website.

    Something I do recommend is having share buttons on your website. This enables people to share your site or your blog posts with just a click of a button. SumoMe and ShareThis are popular plugins that I use with most of my clients.

  1. What are some of your best tips when creating a website?
    One of my favorite tips to tell people is to limit yourself to three colors and three fonts. That doesn’t mean you have to use all three of either, but limit yourself! This will truly help your site feel more cohesive and look professional. Having fewer choices will also speed up the design process because you won’t feel as overwhelmed with options.

    As far as events and ministries go, it’s always important to make sure you’re not too insider-focused. Even if it’s a women’s retreat that you think only current members will want to come to, what if they decided to share it on Facebook and invite friends? The messaging is going to influence whether or not they feel welcome at the event.

A big thank you to Jess for sharing some great information about event website design. You can learn more about Jess and gain even more graphic design wisdom at jesscreatives.com.

Tips for a Memorable VIP Basket

Speakers, workshop presenters, worship leaders/bands and event leadership often go to great lengths to prepare for and attend an event. While this is the full-time occupation for some of them, many must take off work, travel and spend countless hours in preparation. Obviously, monetary compensation is expected for some of these, but others work out of the desire for the event to be the best possible.

Regardless of whether event VIPs are paid or volunteer, welcome baskets in their hotel rooms are a great extra touch to show how much you appreciate what they are doing. Here are a few tips when putting together a VIP basket:

  • Container: You don’t have to use a basket! In fact, if your special guests are traveling by plane, a basket is not conducive to travel. Consider using a gift bag or something easily collapsible instead. Also, choose a container that coincides with the size of items you are placing inside. A full basket, no matter how big or small, will speak volumes to the recipient.
  • Quantity: Be reasonable with what you place in the gift basket. If your event is one night, don’t include five pieces of fruit or enough snacks to last a week. Include one or two bottles of water, a few snacks, one or two pieces of fruit and a few extra items.
  • Contents: In addition to small food items, include a local product if possible. For example, find a local store that sells small jars of honey, locally roasted coffee beans, handmade soaps or homemade chocolates. If you offer to include a business card with the item, some local businesses may give you a discounted price.
  • Quality: Don’t buy cheap candy or snacks. Buy “the good stuff.” It may cost a little bit extra, but your basket recipients will appreciate the gesture. If you include fruit, make sure it is fresh and without bruises.
  • A Few Extra Tips:
    • If you know a person really loves a certain type of snack or drink, try to place that in his/her basket.
    • Think practical. Include gum and breath mints. You could also add a pack of Shout wipes, wrinkle spray or dental floss.
    • Include a hand-written thank you note.

These tips will help you create a memorable VIP basket. Make your baskets ahead of time with non-perishable products. On the day of your event, you can easily add any last-minute items and then deliver them to the hotel rooms or have the front desk hand them to the guests at check-in.