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.

Five Spring Centerpiece Ideas

Spring is in the air for many of us. Though the calendar marks the first day of spring this year as March 20, the daffodils are on display, the tulips are peeking through and the trees are in bloom here in North Carolina.

Spring provides a plethora of ideas for event decorating. Whether you are hosting a women’s retreat, a fundraising dinner or an adult conference, here are five ideas for centerpieces that can work well for banquets, round table event seating or registration/information tables.

  • Flowers, flowers, flowers: Embrace the season’s colorful offerings and liven up your tables with mixed arrangements including tulips, irises, hyacinths and daffodils, to name a few. Instead of typical vases, consider using objects reminiscent of spring, such as rain boots, metal watering cans or ornamental bird cages.
  • Butterflies, Bees and Ladybugs: While bugs aren’t the first choice for a centerpiece, highlighting some of the more charming insects and creatures of spring can be a fun, colorful way to decorate a table. (For the good of your event, please avoid mosquitos, stinkbugs, crickets and spiders.)
  • Gardening: Use items such as pots, small gardening tools, seed packets, watering cans, wide-brimmed hats and gardening gloves to create festive centerpieces. (You could also use these as door prizes at the conclusion of the event.)
  • Outdoor Activities: When you think of spring, getting outdoors is something that quickly comes to mind. Highlight springtime activities in your décor, including kite flying, riding bicycles, hiking, camping and even yard work. While you won’t be able to put a bike or lawnmower on the table, look for smaller replicas or items that relate to these.
  • Easter: If your event falls before or near the Easter holiday, utilize baskets, dyed eggs, green grass, tulips and colored ribbon to create themed centerpieces.

Once you settle on a specific theme for your tables, scour the internet for ideas on how to incorporate that into a centerpiece. The pictures you find will, hopefully, spark the perfect idea for your event.

If you can’t decide on just one idea for a table centerpiece, choose different themes for each table. No one said every table must be the same! In order to avoid a “hodgepodge” of centerpieces, however, stick to a similar color scheme throughout your room. This will bring everything together and create a spring-filled atmosphere!

What have you used for springtime centerpieces? Share in the comments section below.

 

Four Things to Consider When You Make a Mistake

 

If you watched The Academy Awards this year, in the midst of candy and donuts parachuting down to guests and a tour bus bringing unsuspecting sightseers right in front of the star-studded crowd, your viewing experience came to an abrupt halt as La La Land directors were interrupted during their acceptance speeches for “Best Picture.” The reason? They weren’t the actual winners. The wrong movie had been announced. It was a mistake of epic proportions, as the crew from La La Land handed over the award they mistakenly received to the actual winners.

Mistakes happen. They are inevitable. Some are, unfortunately, a bit more visible to the world, such as the Oscar mix-up. Other mistakes are ones that can easily be hidden. Regardless of the situation or the error, here are four takeaways from how the Oscars handled their embarrassing mistake:

  1. Own your mistake. As soon as you realize you have made an error, let others know. A natural response is to try to hide it. Don’t try to cover it up. This will only lead to greater problems down the road. The sooner you own your mistake, the quicker a correction can be made.
  2. Correct your mistake. After you confess your error, do what you can to make it right. While this initially may cause a bit of confusion or questioning, making the situation right is, for lack of a better phrase, the right thing to do.
  3. Investigate your mistake. There may be an explanation for the mistake that was made, one you might not immediately see. Social media was quick to blame the presenters for reading the wrong name at the Oscars when in actuality, they were given the wrong envelope. Make sure you know the entire story before placing blame on a particular person or side.
  4. Learn from your mistake. It goes without saying, when you make a mistake once, you should learn from that mistake and not make it again. After a mistake has been made and corrected, gather those involved and figure out the what, why and how of the error. Put parameters in place so it does not become a repeat situation.

While a simple check of an envelope could have spared many people a lot of unnecessary emotions at The Academy Awards, the fact is, a mistake was made. There are consequences for mistakes, but there are also great learning experiences that can come from them. Next time you make an error, whether in your personal or professional life, consider these four takeaways listed above. Your mistakes do not define you; your response to them will.