How to make the best of meetings and events gone awry

September 26, 2009

Meeting and event planners spend years poring over details for big functions, plotting minute-by-minute schedules, and brainstorming every possible contingency to stave off disaster.

Sometimes, though, even the best-laid plans go awry:

An emcee veers off-script and curses throughout his speech.

A wedding guest collapses from a heart attack, bringing the reception to a screeching halt.

Or, as Chris Bennett explains, a cocktail party for 700 Indiana bankers and finance types starts with no liquor.

While all meeting and event professionals can spout off at least a few horror stories, they say such wayward events can often provide important lessons.

Bennett, the vice president of meetings and events for the Indiana Bankers Association, for example, now pays close attention to local laws after that fateful cocktail party seven or eight years ago.

The association was hosting its annual spring Mega Conference, a multi-day educational and networking event, and the organization’s largest conference of the year.

A reception was slated to begin in the evening, but because it happened to fall on an election day, no alcohol could be served until after polling stations closed.

Bennett received a frantic call from a convention center official at 6 a.m. the morning of the party, alerting her to the news.

“I had to sit down,” she said. “I really was like, ‘Are you kidding?’”

She quickly notified the association’s president, who explained the situation to all the conference attendees in a lighthearted way during an afternoon session.

Then, for the cocktail party sans cocktails, Bennett came up with an alcohol-free fruit drink that could be served. It was a quick solution and, once the polls closed at 6 p.m., bartenders promptly began pouring booze.

To this day, though, she said people still joke with her, asking, “Chris, is it election day? Are we going to have liquor at this reception?”

Now, Bennett keeps a copy of the Indiana statute in her office, to ensure her events don’t coincide with elections.

She also has this advice for other planners: Brush up on local and state laws, even ones that may seem obscure.

Here are a few other tips for preventing problems, or at least recovering gracefully once they inevitably occur:

Don’t let them see you sweat

A few years ago, excessive rainfall threatened to throw a local outdoor wedding reception dramatically off course.

The elaborate, 500-person event included an outdoor concert, a picnic theme and a number of food stations. Crews needed five days to set up everything, but daily thunderstorms turned the backyard site into a mud pit.

Power generators slid down hills, the grass turned to a sloppy mush, and Anne Steinberg, a partner at event-planning firm Detail + Design, had to somehow figure out a way to keep hundreds of guests dry.

So, she quickly ordered 500 umbrellas, installed giant tents covering the driveway and outdoor areas, and covered the grass with an artificial turf.

While such a chain of events could have sent some into hysterics, Steinberg said it’s crucial that a planner remain calm and think of solutions.

“Panicking does you no good,” she said. “You have to maintain a level head; if you don’t maintain a level head, your client is going to lose all faith in the event itself.”

Indeed, remaining calm when issues arise is key to keeping an event on track, said Tina Mahern, president of the locally based Tina Mahern Events LLC.

She said planners also should constantly be thinking about a “plan B” to fend off problems.

Mahern helped plan a large-scale conference in Lexington, Ky., in March, when a speaker based in Toronto got caught in a web of airline delays, creating concern that she would miss her session.

Instead of fretting, though, Mahern kept thinking, “What’s the next option?”

She came up with a number of alternatives in case the speaker couldn’t make it. But the guest of honor eventually arrived—at 4 a.m.–-and made the morning event as scheduled.

Become a ‘jack of all trades’

Still, to pull off a successful event, planners also say it’s essential to do anything—even tasks some may consider beyond the call of duty.

Maribeth Smith, chairwoman and CEO of event-planning firm Maribeth Smith & Associates, helped coordinate the grand opening ceremony of West Baden Springs Hotel in the southern Indiana resort town of West Baden two years ago.

Smith’s firm, known for pulling off large-scale events like NCAA tournaments, is used to working with hotels.

But West Baden was so new that the property had no housekeeping staff on site.

“So we spent the night truly mopping floors, getting everything all cleaned up,” Smith said. “Maybe the perception out there is that it’s just a glamorous world, but it truly is a world of detail.”

Steinberg, of Detail + Design, said she’s had to plunge into unpleasant tasks, too, from cleaning up the vomit of drunken wedding guests—“It’s a little bit of a buzz kill when there’s someone hacking at your party,” she said—to cutting people off when they’ve had too much.

She’s even had to “play police” by preventing people from stealing items such as tablecloths and flower arrangements at the end of an evening.

“You’re kind of like, ‘You’re not taking my stuff,’” she said.

A planner must also be ready to quickly divert attention from problems, should they arise.

When an elderly man collapsed from a heart attack at a wedding Steinberg had planned, an ambulance quickly arrived and Steinberg worked to ensure that the crowd didn’t panic.

Sometimes, though, that’s a bit of struggle.

With such a crisis unfolding, she said she had to essentially coax people away from the scene with such phrases as, “Look, there’s something shiny!”

“We kind of led people in another direction,” she said. “‘Look there’s a new bar opening over here! … Listen, the music is going to start!’ You really want to avoid drawing attention to it.”

She also accompanied the heart attack victim (who was fine) to the hospital—and ended up spending the night in a hospital waiting room to relay updates to the family.

Out of your hands

Sometimes, though, no matter how much planning goes into an event, some situations are beyond planners’ control.

Steinberg learned that the hard way when planning a sports-related awards ceremony in Los Angeles a few years ago.

Comedian Dennis Miller served as the emcee for the event, but Steinberg said he refused to rehearse, criticized the script, and eventually threw out “F-bombs” throughout the ceremony.

“I was having an absolute heart attack,” Steinberg said. “You don’t know what to do, because you can’t yank him off the stage, but at the same time you’re like, ‘Whew, I’m going down in flames.’”

Miller could not be reached for comment.

Ordeals can come out of any event, big or small.

The key, said Anne-Marie Dezelan, owner of Annie-O’s Events, is how planners respond.

“It’s just how you handle yourself and handle other people,” she said.

And planners don’t get second chances.

“It’s a stressful business,” Dezelan said, “because you’ve got one time to do it and you can’t mess it up and you’ve got a million different factors going on."

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