Pre-Event Communication: More Than Just an Email

One of my favorite things to do each day is to check the mail. There is always a glimmer of hope that someone might have taken the time to write me a quick note. Typically, it’s just bills. Every once in a while, though, I get that sweet handwritten surprise. My husband doesn’t see the point in sending a letter when you could just as easily type an email. On the other hand, I will spend ten minutes looking for an email address to avoid calling someone, while my husband would just as soon make the call immediately. Bottom line: we all like to communicate in different ways.

This difference should find its way into our event planning. Because different people communicate in different ways, you should incorporate various means of correspondence with event attendees prior to an event. Here are a few ways you can utilize these types of communication. I would recommend using a minimum of three, but realize it would be great to try your hand at all of them.

  • Email is one of the simplest communication tools. You can easily send mass emails through programs such as MailChimp. Consider sending an email each month prior to your event with important information, event updates, and highlights of keynote speakers, worship leaders, and breakout sessions.
  • Phone calls. In an age of smartphones at our fingertips, we are often never more than a phone call away. Depending on the size of your conference, it may not be feasible to personally call each attendee, but if you can, consider calling and letting your attendees know you are excited they are coming and ask if they have any questions.
  • Text messages. In your registration process, ask for permission to send text messages pertaining to the conference. If a guest agrees, place his/her number on a mass texting list to use to send pertinent event information or last-minute updates. Mass texting services are available through a variety of companies at different price points. Do your research to find the one best for you.
  • Handwritten notes. Simple, handwritten notes letting your attendees know you are excited they are coming to the event adds a very personal touch to your event communication. Even a formal note or card with a handwritten line at the bottom carries a certain level of intimacy rather than just a form letter with a stamped signature. If you don’t have time to write a personal message, consider having the retreat leadership team personally sign each note.
  • Social media. Regardless of the size of your event, you need to be on social media. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are all great tools to communicate event details to your attendees, as well as create buzz for others considering attending your event. This is a simple way to begin networking, allow event attendees to correspond with each other, and incorporate special extras like contests and giveaways.

Communication with your event attendees will take time. Engage a team of volunteers to help with this task. Recruit volunteers who love to make phone calls (yes, they do exist) or write notes to aide you in your event correspondence.

How you communicate prior to your event has the potential to move your event from good to great. There is a thin line between over-communication and under-communication. Too much and your attendees will get annoyed. Too little and your event may lose momentum. Work diligently to find the right balance; your attendees will appreciate the ways you reach out to keep them updated and excited about the upcoming event.

 

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.

 

Cost Saving Tips

This week we are exploring ways to cut costs when planning an event. Cost-saving measures are often necessary, and there are plenty of ways you can reduce your costs without sacrificing the quality of your program. Here are a few:

Food:

  1. Cater a continental breakfast rather than a full breakfast meal. Not everyone eats breakfast, so providing something like this can save money, especially for those who will not eat.
  2. Is there a fee for bringing in outside food? If you can bring your own snacks, this could be a cost-saving measure. Not every venue will allow outside food, so make sure you know the policies before you plan.
  3. Instead of a plated and served meal, can your guests go through a buffet line? This is a way to cut costs yet keep the quality of food the same.

A/V and Conference Set-Up:

  1. Does your venue allow you to bring in your own sound technician? If you have a qualified person on hand, this could provide a big cost savings.
  2. Does your venue have items you can use for stage design? Props, lighting, and furniture can add to your stage set-up, and they might be included in your venue price.
  3. Rent vs buy: Can you simply rent a piece of equipment you might need rather than buy it? On the other hand, if it is something you will need repeatedly for other events, investing in it initially may save you money in the end.

Housing Accommodations:

  1. If you have a large conference staff you will be covering the costs for, consider asking them to room with another person rather than each person having their own individual room. If they do not wish to do this, ask them to cover the additional cost for an individual room.
  2. Can your event conclude after an afternoon session rather than an evening session? Many times the only thing the final morning of an event is breakfast, so if that is the case, is there a way you can shorten your event to avoid an additional night of housing?
  3. Save your nicest rooms for your platform speakers and VIP guests. In addition, if you have a room block consisting of deluxe or standard rooms, place your event staff in standard rooms. They typically cost less.

Program:

  1. Consider putting all the material you would typically print in a digital format for your attendees. Create an app to showcase all of this information including handouts, schedules, venue maps, and other details.
  2. Platform speakers and worship bands can be expensive, depending on their levels of familiarity with your audience. Look at the schedules of those you are interested in and see when they might be close to your event venue. You could possibly share the costs with another event to lessen travel expenses.
  3. Is there someone you know in your church or local area that could serve as a speaker or worship leader? Don’t discount the fact there are qualified people right in your backyard!

What cost-saving measures do you take when planning an event? Comment below!

 

 

Questions to Ask When the Numbers are Low

Sometimes event registration doesn’t go quite as well as we hope. The number of attendees we plan to have are not as high as we need them to be. In fact, the event might be on the brink of cancellation due to low attendance. (How do you know when to cancel? We’ll discuss that in another blog post soon!)

When the guest numbers are lower than expected, here are questions you can ask to gain a better understanding of why you may be in this situation:

  • Have you marketed the event well? Whether through social media, mailouts, personal invites, emails, flyers, radio or other marketing means, do people know about your event?
  • Is this an event people want to attend? Does the theme entice people to come? Do people want to hear from the platform speakers? Would you want to attend your event if you were a paying guest?
  • Is the event location convenient? Do people have to travel too far? If flying, are there clear instructions on how to best get to the event location from the airport?
  • Is the price reasonable? Too high, and you’ll limit your number of guests because people can’t afford it. Too low, and you might run into people thinking the event isn’t high quality.
  • What is the weather typically like during the time of your event? If it is a snowy season, guests may be hesitant to book travel.
  • Is the time of your event conducive to the guests to which you are marketing? For example, a senior adult retreat can more easily occur during the week than a marriage conference where couples may have to secure childcare or take off of work.
  • Are there competing events during the same time? In addition to other conferences, are there events that might affect a majority of your guests? These could include graduations, sporting events, holidays, etc. If attendees are coming from the same area, and your event is planned for the weekend of the high school state football tournament, this might be a reason numbers are low. If you are planning a men’s event, have you looked to see when the next major sporting event near your date is?

At the end of the day, sometimes we can’t explain why event registration numbers aren’t what we had hoped, expected, or budgeted. It’s natural to be disappointed, but, if you ask yourselves the above questions, perhaps you can get a better understanding of the whys to your low numbers. If it’s not too late, you can act on these, as well. For example, market your event if there is still time. Change the date if it is a possibility. Adjust the pricing structure if it fits within your budget. You can’t plan for every situation, and you can’t please everyone with the date your event falls. However, with a little pre-planning research, you can hopefully avoid a low attendance.

 

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.

 

Event Planning 101: Budgeting

Budgeting is an integral part of the event planning process. In fact, creating a budget is one of the foundational steps to developing your event logistics. While there can be an element of “guesswork” in budgeting, it is vital to your event’s success. If creating a budget seems a bit daunting, consider this basic premise: don’t spend more than you have! Here are a few helpful hints as you begin your event budgeting process:

  1. Know what you need. Make a list of everything you need for your event. Marketing, speakers, worship leaders, audiovisual rentals, travel, printing, venue, caterings, office supplies—be thorough as you brainstorm. As you develop your list, include subcategories for broader items. For example, “office supplies” might encompass everything from name tags and Sharpies to large post-it pads and dry-erase markers. While you don’t have to list basic supplies such as paper clips and staples, be on the lookout for more “out of the ordinary” items that you don’t have on hand and will have to purchase. In addition, create an “emergency” category for all of the unexpected expenses that will undoubtedly arise (and often break your budget).
  2. Know what it will cost. Once you have your list of items, determine cost estimates for each of them. This will take time, but meticulous research will only benefit you in the long run. Separate expenses into two categories: fixed and variable. Fixed items are those that will be the same price regardless of how many attendees you have. These include costs such as speaker fees, audiovisual rentals, venue expenses, and pre-event marketing. Variable costs are those that fluctuate based on the number of guests attending and can include catering, housing, printing costs, event supplies, etc. As you record costs, err on the side of higher amounts. This will give you a greater financial cushion.
  3. Know your bottom line. Consider these two factors when determining your bottom line: will your organization be supplementing any costs and what will your program fee be? In order to determine a program fee, it’s important to know your financial purpose. Are you just trying to break even for your event, or are you trying to make money? In order to budget for a break-even event, determine a realistic number of guests you expect to attend. Be conservative! Divide your expenses (determined in step 2) by the number of attendees expected. This will give you an estimated program fee. If your organization will be supplementing any costs, factor this amount into your expenses prior to developing your program fee. As you analyze this fee, think about what your attendees can realistically pay. You can create a great event, but if the fee is too high, your attendance will be limited. If you hope to make money, set your program fee at a higher rate than needed to simply break even.

Budgeting is a tedious process, but careful planning can allow you to create the best “bang for your buck.” Budgeting conservatively can also give you the freedom to have a few extras if your event registration comes in at higher numbers than originally planned.

 

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.