10 Insider Tips for Choosing the Right Caterer

Tips for Choosing a Caterer

When it comes to the things that can make or break an event, few are as important as the quality, flavor and appearance of the food and beverages you serve. A lot is riding on your decision of which caterer to hire, and if you think this decision really isn’t that important, look at it this way … amazing catering can rescue an event that’s on the rocks, but bad catering will almost always send guests to the doors (or, in your nightmare scenario, to the restrooms).

In addition, because catering is often the #1 or #2 line-item cost for most events, the caterer you choose is also a significant budgetary decision and can influence how much money you have left over to spend on other areas depending on food costs and quantities.

Add in the fact that caterers can vary dramatically in their pricing and the types of meals and services they offer, and the process of selecting a caterer can figuratively and literally feel like you are comparing apples to oranges (pun fully intended).

So we talked to a dozen veteran caterers and event managers about the criteria they recommend in selecting a caterer. And based on their recommendations…

Here are the 10 top criteria event you should consider when hiring a caterer.

#1 – Responsiveness and Personal Interest in Your Needs

Of all the event and catering professionals we spoke with, this came up over and over and over again, mainly because how responsive and interested a caterer is during your initial conversations is indicative of how they will perform during the length of their contract with you (and more on contracts later).

“Many caterers will claim to have the best-tasting food made with the freshest ingredients at the most competitive price, but it is a rare quality for one to be both quick to return calls and emails and open to critiques and new ideas,” says Cheryl Lynn Foster-Gerton, an event designer and owner of An Essential Event in Denver. “While these may seem like somewhat insignificant factors when compared with overall taste and cost, they actually mean that the caterer is truly concerned with meeting the customers’ needs and ensuring that they are pleased with both the product and the service.”

A prospective caterer should be learning as much as they can about you in your first few conversations with them, so you should expect them to be talking and asking questions about 20% of the time and you providing answers and outlining your needs about 80% of the time. “If the caterer is not asking questions about the event they may see you as simply ‘the next client’,” says Lyndsey Bunn, Catering and Conference Services Manager at Silver Legacy Resort Casino . “They should be interested in learning about your event. They should be asking about your theme, the purpose, budget and goals.”

#2 – Ability to Handle Your Specific Type of Event

Not every caterer is perfect or every type of event, and many caterers themselves openly admit this.

“All of us do a broad range of events, but we are built to service different markets more effectively than others so it’s important to ask enough questions to determine if a caterer has the right kind of experience for you,” says Arthur Bassani, owner of In Thyme Catered Events in Secaucus, NJ . “Each caterer has areas they specialize in so even a caterer with a great reputation may not be the best fit for you. For example, some are more ’boutique’ and specialize in smaller intimate-type social events. Others specialize in serving large corporate and non-profit [clients], like us.”

So when interviewing your caterers (and you should speak with at least 3 caterers for any event with a reasonable budget), you need to be specific about the type of event you are planning and the type of food and/or presentation you are expecting. Otherwise, you may end up selecting a caterer who simply isn’t a good fit for the type or style of your event.

“Some caterers excel with barbecues that are great for company picnics, some with exceptional Latin-fusion for that themed event, and others shine with elegance that work well for that black-tie gala,” says Greg Jenkins, Partner at Bravo Productions. “You should select the caterer that works for that specific function, not just because you’ve used them previously for a company meeting or employee holiday party.”

#3 – Flexibility Regarding Menu Options

Practically every caterer has a standard menu or menus to choose from, and many do provide some level of built-in flexibility to adapt these menus to your specific needs by substituting specific items and/or customizing others. “Any caterer who has been in the industry and knows what they are doing should have a few different menu options that are constantly being updated and changing to keep up with current trends,” says Rene Wunderlich, Corporate Account Manager at the Inn at New Hyde Park.

However, the standout caterers will go beyond standardized menu options and be willing to create amazing fare that matches even more specific theme and dietary needs.

“If a caterer isn’t willing to adapt its menu or challenge its staff to work with and celebrate your custom theme, that’s a red flag,” says Christine Courtney-Myers of the C3 Agency . “We revise menu proposals and attend tastings to finalize each dish’s flavors and perfect the portions and presentation to compliment or amplify our event design and our client’s theme.”

An ideal caterer should also be willing to handle (or at least consider) special requests. “Ask the caterer if they are willing to include a family recipe you provide,” says Lyndsey Bunn. “Or will they work with items of special significance to the style or theme of your event? Or can they prepare vegetarian, vegan, kosher, or children’s, meals for your guests?”

All of these are important questions to ask upfront to see how far each caterer you interview is able and willing to accommodate you.

#4 – Willingness to Provide Tastings

How will you ever know what a caterer can do unless you sample their goods? And more specifically, how will you know what the menu items you are considering will taste like unless you specifically try them?

Some people shy away from asking to sample the specific items they want for their event because it seems like a hassle for the caterer, but it is standard to ask for a sampling of what you are intending to order before you sign on the dotted line.

“Attend at least 3 tastings with separate caterers and make sure you can taste what you want,” recommends Danielle Rothweiler of Rothweiler Event Design . “Never settle for a caterer that will just give you a generic sample; you need to know what the food on your menu will taste like. Be prepared to pay for these tastings if necessary.”

In addition, you can request wine parings for these tastings if they are appropriate for your event (again, be prepared to pay a fee … it’s a small price to pay to ensure you choose the right caterer). And when you are sampling the food, also attend to how it is presented, as any caterer who takes the time to properly display a sample will probably be more likely to make that kind of effort on your event day.


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#5 – Familiarity With the Venue

You may be in for a surprise if you hire a BBQ take-out joint to cater a formal ballroom fundraiser. Or if you choose a high-end corporate event caterer to serve a barn wedding. Why? Because these caterers may not be accustomed to preparing and serving food in such a setting.

This can get even more specific depending on restrictions of the venue itself, like in the case of museums and historical sites. “You want to be sure you choose a caterer who has worked at that venue before and knows all the rules that are typical of sites like this,” says Teresa Davenport, Associate Director of Development and Communications at Morven Park, a historical site in Northern Virginia. “For example, no red wine or live flowers are allowed inside our historic house museum.”

Even more traditional venues can also have restrictions that caterers must follow – like certain setup standards or disposal restrictions for waste food and water – so having a caterer that is familiar with a venue’s rules can potentially save you lots of hassle on event day.

#6 – Complete Explanation of Services/Goods Promised in the Contract

The caterer’s contract should clearly spell out exactly what food, beverages and services the caterer will be providing on the designated day(s). Moreover, it should protect you from non-performance as much as it protects the caterer from non-payment/default, so you may want to consider having an attorney look at it before you sign it.

Every detail should be included in the contract, included selected menus, number of servings and/or people to be served, beverage/bar service details (if applicable) and all pricing and additional services.

“An important thing to inquire about is what comes standard in their contracts and what is an upgrade,” says Heidi Hiller, Owner of Innovative Party Planners . “For example, do they quote paper and plastic plates while you are expecting fine china? That is important as the rental of these can add up. Also inquire about the number of staff [the caterer] intends to bring to service your event. The minimum ratio we suggest is 1:12, which not only includes the servers, but also encompasses the chef and his/her staff, the crew loading and unloading the truck, the dishwasher, the bartenders and the banquet captain.”

Even what seem to be small details or no-brainers should be included in the contract. “Even get everything in writing with clear terms for setup/cleanup and left overs,” says Anastasia Stevenson, Owner of Coastal Creative Events . “Most [caterers] will take leftover food away unless agreed upon beforehand and a liability release is given.”

#7 – A Well-Defined Cancellation Plan

No caterer with a shred of dignity and scruples enters into a contract with plans to bail at the last minute, but you need to make sure there is a cancellation clause in your contract just in case your caterer has to cancel.

“Get detailed information on how they handle cancellations and make sure it’s included in the contract,” advises Julia Pavlovski of Wedding Wise. “You should find out if your deposit is fully refundable and what the next steps are. And will they refer you to other caterers or help make some calls to see who is available?”

You don’t want to be left without recourse with only days or hours before your event, so just make sure cancellation procedures and penalties are in place so you do have a backup plan.

#8 – References You Can Call and Talk To

Of course you will need to check up on the caterers you are considering, and it’s always good to start online and check out sites like Yelp, Wedding Wire and Angie’s List for their reviews and ratings.

However, don’t stop there, as online reviews are not always reliable (or even authentic); for example, a good caterer may have had a few nightmare/hater clients who skew their ratings, while a truly mediocre caterer may have padded their online reviews. So see if you can track down some past clients of the caterers you are considering and reach out to them.

“People are often more forthcoming in private conversations about any disappointments in regards to the food or overall experience with the caterer than they are in written reviews online,” says Julia Pavlovski.

“It’s wise to check references, make calls and conduct one’s own due diligence,” adds Greg Jenkins. Translation: Don’t just rely on what the caterer tells you, or what their handpicked references tell you, or what the Interwebs say … do some extra legwork to ensure you are getting the straight story.

#9 – Insurance

Every caterer we talked to called insurance coverage “a given” for caterers, and you certainly don’t want to legally be on the hook for some oversight or accident that was the fault of your caterer.

“Any reputable catering company is going to have liability insurance,” says Julia Pavlovski. “If they don’t, this is definitely a red flag. This type of insurance protects them and keeps you from having to deal with any recourse if something were to happen and they weren’t properly insured.”

#10 – An Experienced Chef and Kitchen Staff

Surprisingly, how long a catering company has been in business may not be as critical in selecting a great caterer as you may think.

“Length of time in the catering industry doesn’t necessarily translate into great and tasty cuisine,” says Greg Jenkins. “The chef’s background and experience can be more important than the owner of the company who has awards on their shelf. It’s the chef, sous chef and kitchen staff that often seals the deal.”

So make sure to ask about the chef’s bona fides and CV because he/she will probably be the one most responsible for the outcome of the meal and whether your guests enjoy it or not.

And when do you know you have picked the right caterer? As Christine Courtney-Myers succinctly puts it, “When a caterer is willing and able to elegantly and expertly surprise and delight your guests by delivering beautiful, tasty and adventurous food with great service that compliments your event theme, you have nailed the catering aspect of your event.”

5 Lessons Event Professionals Can Learn From Startups

Lessons for Event Planners from Startups

Since launching Planning Pod as a beta version in 2012, we have had the pleasure to speak with thousands of event professionals and learn about their challenges in managing events and – for event planners, venues and caterers in particular – in growing their businesses.

Over that time, as we have grown from dozens to hundreds of users, we have found lots of parallels between best practices we have developed to grow our event tech startup and best practices that successful event planners use to run their events and businesses.

When you think about it, startups and event professionals often face similar scenarios. Much of the time we must build something from scratch and create something from nothing (be it an app or an event). We have to juggle and manage many balls in the air at once. We must be adept at using both our left brain (practical/rational/organized) and our right brain (creative). We often must perform miracles on a tiny budget. And failure is not an option.

So here are 5 best practices we have put to good use over the last several years that we know would also benefit any event professional.

1. First imagine what you can do with no budget

Most startups (ours included) have a shoestring marketing budget to use to grow our initial user base. As such, we have to rely on our own efforts and ingenuity to find our first customers, which means we often must rely on low-cost marketing tactics (like content marketing, social media, SEO, etc.) for the first few years of running the business.

Very few events are successful without at least a small budget to devote to things like food-and-beverage, venue space, entertainment, etc. However, regardless of your event’s budget, if you begin your brainstorming by first thinking about what you can accomplish at no or low cost, you can add more value to your event and squeeze more out of every cent in your budget for the things you must pay for.

A good way to start this process is to look at your existing assets and how you can leverage those. If you already have a marketing list and a reasonably good (and cheap) email marketing system in place, you can significantly reduce your marketing costs already. Also, startups are known to barter like hell to get the assets and resources we need to thrive. You might be able to trade your some of your services or assets with other vendors or contractors to drive down costs or create new synergies that benefit your events and/or your clients.

2. Use productivity tools and hacks to whittle down busywork

Like startups, event planners and most event businesses usually have either no staff or a small staff, and each staff member must take on dozens of responsibilities and manage thousands of details every month. We are both spread way too thin and have to wear lots of hats, and sometimes it feels like we are moving so fast that we are doing a mediocre job at everything instead of a great job at a few things.

This is why it is vital to find productivity tools and hacks to help you minimize busywork and give yourself more time to focus on the tasks that will really make a difference for your events and your business. We built Planning Pod to be a productivity tool that event professionals can rely on to help them streamline their event management processes, but there are thousands of tools available for managing tasks and calendars, collaborating and communicating online, and so on. For example, we use tools like Desk.com to automate and streamline our customer support tickets; Hootsuite to automate our social media marketing; Dropbox for managing all our electronic files; and MadMimi for simplifying our email campaigns and outreach.

Smart time management is the key to any small business, and if you can remove certain hats or automate certain tasks so that you free up more of your time for mission-critical tasks, the better off you will be.


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3. Hire people who are eager and capable of assuming multiple roles

Due to budget limitations, most startups are forced to either use unpaid interns or hire recent grads with very little work experience because those are the only employees we can afford. And from talking with event professionals, I know you are faced with similar restrictions in hiring and retaining event staff and assistants to help them run their events.

With that said, the employees you should be seeking out are those people who are 1) very eager and quick to learn new skill sets and 2) able to take on new roles as your needs multiply. As small businesses, we can’t afford to have an employee who is only capable of taking on one small set of responsibilities. We need our staff members to be flexible because we never know when a new need will arise (and they always do).

This may mean that you have to pay a little more for someone with broader work experience. Or it may mean that you have to forgo bringing in an unpaid intern in favor of a more qualified candidate you have to pay. As we have discovered in our event tech startup, the extra investment is well worth it.

4. Look for plug-in solutions instead of creating everything from scratch

Often it’s cheaper and faster to find someone who has already built the wheel than to rebuild it yourself from the ground up.

For example, often we find that some bright developer has built a piece of code for a certain function that is cheaper for us to buy and modify than to build ourselves. The same could be said for certain event tasks or initiatives.

For example, maybe a certain keynote speaker has a pre-prepared speech on a topic related to your event; it would probably be cheaper to hire them and tweak their already-prepared speech for your event than to have it custom created by another speaker. Or maybe one of the production companies you are considering has a stage backdrop and setup they have already used for another event that they can tweak for your purposes. This could save you money and free up funds for other areas of your event.

5. Eliminate all costs that don’t contribute to the bottom line

Sometimes it’s difficult to know what you should spend money on and what you can go without until after you have spent the money. We experienced this dilemma when we signed a lease for an office space 4 years ago.

We anticipated that our small team would need a place to work and collaborate in building out Planning Pod. And for the first few months of our lease, our office was a good asset in that we could work closely in creating the first version of Planning Pod.

However, as the months rolled on, we found that most of us were more productive and hit our milestones faster if we all worked from home and collaborated online, occasionally meeting at coffee shops or shared workspaces when we needed to talk one-on-one. The $3K+ we were paying for office space wasn’t contributing to the bottom line, and in fact was taking money away from other critical initiatives like marketing and customer support. So we dropped our office after our lease was over (only a 1 year lease, which makes a strong case for having a shorter lease term if you must have an office), and this let us reallocate that money to more productive uses.

I would recommend looking critically at your event budgets upfront and trimming out all the fat – i.e., those expenditures that really aren’t contributing the bottom line or could be shaved down considerably. And for your business or department, a yearly audit where you evaluate your expenditures is always a good practice so you can identify those areas where you can streamline and reallocate your money in ways that will help you grow faster.

8 Ways To Supercharge Your Attendee Engagement

Attendee Engagement at Events

As if our attention spans weren’t short enough already pre-smart phones, now event professionals have to contend with a whole technologized universe of distractions – including social media apps, gaming apps, wearable technology, media walls, etc. – on top of fighting off good-old-fashioned boredom and daydreaming.

Getting and keeping the attention of our guests has been and always will be one our biggest challenges as event professionals, and our jobs have not gotten any easier in the 21st Century. But instead of swimming against the current, some event pros have found ways to use technology to their benefit in enhancing attendee engagement, while others have turned to tried-and-true methods and even some unconventional tactics.

So here are several event engagement strategies that some seasoned event pros are using regularly to improve attendee engagement at their events.

1. Keep Everyone in the Same Environment

“Often event engagement is tainted by the layout of the event.” says Norman Aamodt, founder and CEO of Event Strategy Group . “Breakout groups are in one space, food and beverages are in another, keynote presentations are on a different floor – you get the drift.”

Instead of creating a disjointed environment of separate spaces – which silos your attendees and hence your event – consider designing a floor plan where you have one large event space divided up into concentric areas using wall panel systems. For one of their clients, Event Strategy Group designed a layout that split one large space into four separate layers, starting from the perimeter and moving inward.

“This design made the flow of the event intuitive and easy to navigate, while creating a number of open areas that encouraged interaction.” says Aamodt. “Using a wall panel system, the perimeter encompassed 10 breakout rooms. Moving inwards, the third area contained food and beverage stations, the second-to-center layer contained a Product Showcase and finally, the center of the space held a Feature Display.”

Aamodt said that interaction at the event was “at an all-time high,” and it’s easy to understand why … because everyone was in the same proximity and there was a logical, intuitive flow for attendees.

2. Set the Tone With Assigned Seating

“There is a reason why brides go nuts about seating charts,” says Cristin Massey, a PR and events pro with Cover Story Communications . “They know that it can make or break the celebration.”

She has employed assigned seating for other events like meetings and professional networking events and has seen engagement skyrocket simply because she is forcing people out of their comfort zone and to interact with new people.

At these business-oriented events, “people are more often than not just wanting to get through the presentation, check emails and get back to the office,” says Massey. So by assigning attendees to seats and/or tables where they don’t know anyone and providing them with icebreaker activities, you have created an environment that encourages engagement from the outset, which sets the tone for engagement throughout the rest of the event.

Yes, this may be old-school, but it still works because it acclimates your attendees to interact with each other from the outset.

3. Entertain First, Then Educate

Assigned seating is one way to prime the pump regarding event attendee engagement, and providing guests with some form of entertainment first also sets the stage for increased participation and creates a lighter, more collegial mood.

“On stage, engage your guests right away with live entertainment rather than video screens or slideshows,” says Kostya Kimlat of Event Magic International . “The human connection makes people pay attention, especially if they are asked to interact and answer questions.”

In addition, Kimlat also says that entertaining first can build anticipation and raise expectations about what’s coming up at the event. “When our company hires an entertainer on the main stage at a conference, we always have strolling entertainers interact with the crowd beforehand.” he says. “It’s especially perfect for a cocktail hour. [They] entertain the crowd, but more importantly, tease them about the big show to come.”


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4. Employ Games and Activities Using Social Media

Since most people will be looking at their phones throughout the event regardless of what content you put in front of them, you might as well use that behavior to your benefit.

For example, Cristin Massey has used an Instagram scavenger hunt at her professional networking events to stimulate attendee participation. “This can be done with any social platform that allows for images and hashtags,” she says. “I did this at several professional work events as well as some city events and it worked incredibly well. Just create a scavenger hunt that is related and relevant to the event, then direct people to take pictures of each scavenger point and use an event hashtag. Not only will this get people moving around, engaging in the event, but it will also help to promote your event via the hashtag.”

Holly Holliday of Create Promotions also employs Instagram printers onsite at her festivals to bump up interaction among guests. “Attendees take Instagram photos of themselves and their friends and the amazing time they are having. Then they use the event’s designated hashtag and the hashtagged photo is automatically printed out at the event and a free takeaway for attendees. [It has] increased my event engagement during the event by 300%!”

And Rachel Rosenthal actually provides corporate meeting attendees with rented iPads for presenting content. Not only does it turn the focus away from their own devices, but the loaner iPads “allow the attendee to be engaged further through the use of surveys and participation during the session with questions.

5. Show Attendees Something New

Attendees are almost always interested in seeing something new at an event – in some cases that’s the reason they are actually attending in the first place. So you can either showcase the latest trends and ideas in the industry, or you can use new technology to wow them and enhance the event’s environment.

Augmented reality is one such tool for accomplishing the latter, and Elburz Sorkhabi of nVoid has used this successfully at many events to enhance attendee engagement. “This is becoming quite a large commodity at trade shows – especially auto shows – and in museums and educational environments. The idea is that in most of the above areas, most of the objects people are looking at – like stationary cars or dinosaur bones – are very static, so using augmented reality by projecting images and holograms can create an interactive and more engaging experience around these extremely static objects.”

Making a wall or structure come alive by superimposing a moving, morphing image on top of it certainly stimulates conversation and adds another dynamic element to your events.

6. Approach Your Attendees From a Variety of Angles (Literally)

As guests and attendees, we have been trained to look at a stage or focal point to take in the main content of events. But what if content and interaction came at us from different angles, engaging us in surprising ways?

Julie Austin of Speaker Sponsor has implemented such tactics to snap people out of their event doldrums. “If you keep your program the same every time it can tend to become monotonous,” she says. “There are some tricks that filmmakers use – especially in the horror genre – that keeps an audience on their toes. Make use of the vertical and horizontal dimensions and have information coming at them from different angles. In other words, do something they don’t expect. They expect a speaker on a stage and a power point presentation. They don’t expect something dropping from the ceiling or popping up from the ground.”

7. Innovate With Comfortable Seating and Accommodations

There’s something to be said for making your event environment comfortable for guests and attendees. COOK Medical Group has created such a welcoming meeting environment by outfitting their meeting space with lounge chairs and sofa-style seating (in white leather, no less).

“These large seats accommodate attendees by offering comfort and a less stratified form of seating. No rows of folding chairs,” says John Eckberg of COOK. And it is making a difference, making guests feel more relaxed and tuned into each other and the event activities.

8. Hire a Professional to Boost Your Content

Sometimes in the scramble to secure the perfect venue and create exotic menus, things get lost in the mix, and often one of those things is “content.” This is why many events end up with industry experts as keynotes and content providers … because it’s almost a no-brainer.

Industry experts can be extraordinarily knowledgeable,” says author and speaker Barry Maher. “But sometimes they can also be so dull it’s all attendees can do to stay awake. And panel discussions can be lively and instructive. But just as often they’re unfocused, redundant and so boring that after a few minutes it’s hard to even focus on what’s being said.”

On the other hand, professional speakers have spent many years honing their craft to grab an audience’s attention, inform them in unique ways and inspiring them to go out and take action on their new understandings. Plus they also have tons of experience custom-tailoring content for a wide variety of audiences.

So if you want content that will make your attendees put their smartphones down and engage, consider hiring a professional to create and deliver your content and keynotes.

You can also go a step further and hire a professional MC as well as script out your shows and main content sessions to ensure continuity and avoid those dull spots in your content.

Have more ideas on how to improve attendee engagement at events? Provide them in the comments below.

5 Old-School Tactics for Marketing Your Events Offline (That Still Work)

Offline Event Marketing Strategies

I will be the first to say that it’s easy to get carried away with all the great ways to promote your events and/or your events business on the Internet. Tactics like marketing via search engines, email, social media and blogging have become so popular that we often forget that there are proven offline marketing tactics for events just waiting to be used.

And before you roll your eyes and say “thanks but no thanks”, think about these stats for a minute.

  • Only 8% of internet users account for 85% of clicks on display ads. (Hubspot)
  • The average click-through rate for paid search in 2010 (worldwide) was 2%. (Hubspot)
  • 60% of all organic clicks go to the organic top 3 search results. (Hubspot)
  • When it comes to email marketing, events have the lowest click-to-open ratio of any industry (at 7.66%). (Smart Insights)

Although most online event marketing tactics still provide a great return-on-investment (just look at the stats here), the results above show that, as more and more people market their wares and their events online, there is more and more competition for people’s eyeballs and there is more online noise that potentially drowns out your message.

So if you find yourself looking for other ways to supplement your Internet marketing efforts – or if you want to explore other ways to reach an audience that may not be looking for you online – here are five time-tested, old school offline event marketing tactics that are worth trying.

Word-of-Mouth

Before there was Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Google+ to spread the word, there was, well, PEOPLE ACTUALLY TALKING TO EACH OTHER. But how, you ask, can this be? And what magical fairy dust did you sprinkle on people to get them to actually talk to each other either face-to-face or on the phone about your event?

Well, let me get past being overly sarcastic and say that this is where coming up with great reasons to attend your event works wonders. For example, people are more likely to spread the word about your event when you have booked an amazing speaker or entertainer. Or when you are offering an exotic and interesting menu (foodie culture is thriving right now). Or when they were so enamored by last year’s event that they tell everyone they know that they would be a fool to miss this year’s event.

Basically, you will get great word-of-mouth both offline and online if your value propositions and event drivers are worthy enough to stir up interest. However, you can also reach out to influencers in your industry – those people who are well-connected and have the ability to influence many others – and see if they will talk up your event to anyone and everyone they interact with. You may need to entice them with free attendance or some spiffs, but it’s always worth reaching out to them and asking them to spread the word for your event, especially if your event theme or focus is in their wheelhouse.

Direct Mail

This tactic started to fall out of favor about 15 years ago when email marketing campaigns became so easy to implement and so inexpensive. And by inexpensive, I mean about 100 times less expensive than direct mail.

But cost isn’t everything. An oversized postcard may cost $0.30-$0.50 per recipient, but when you consider that response rates for sending direct mail to an existing customer average around 3.4% compared to 0.12% for email, then you start to see the value of direct mail.

In addition, because so many people have jumped on the Internet and email marketing bandwagon over the last 10 years, the volume of direct mail that your potential attendees receive has dropped dramatically, making your missives much more visible in their literal, tangible inboxes. It’s this tangibility of direct mail that makes it so valuable for appealing to attendees for everything from conferences to weddings, and it’s why many marketers still use it to market events (often in combination with email because you reinforce your message on multiple fronts).

Another great thing about direct mail as a valuable offline event marketing tactic is that it’s also easier to implement than ever before. Local print shops and mailing houses will bend over backwards to land new customers, and online printing companies like VistaPrint  and PrintPlace provide good discounts and fast service on postcard printing and direct mailing.

Promotion via Other Events

Often the best place to promote your upcoming event is at another event with an audience similar to your event. First, the people in attendance have proven that they enjoy devoting their time to attending events. Second, they probably are on the lookout for other similar events, so this is a great time to plant that seed in their head about your event.

So how do you reach out to these people? For starters, contact the event organizers and see if they are open to any type of cross promotion between events. See if they are open to mentioning your event from the stage and allow you to either say a few words or set up a table or booth to promote your event. And even if this costs you some money for booth space or advertising, you can hopefully more than recoup your costs by registering as many attendees as possible on premise at the event.

Another thing to ask is if you can distribute flyers or inserts to the event’s attendees or include them in the show “bag of goodies.” Again, this may cost you a little in printing and design costs, but it puts you in front of a receptive audience who may be very interested in your leave-behind.

Associations/Organizations

Marketing through professional associates and organizations is usually a game of negotiation. Often they have an audience of members who are very receptive to the communications and recommendations they receive from the organization. And very often they also have a need for money to fund their own events and membership offerings.

This type of marketing works best when the focus of your event and the goals of the organization align. For example, if your event is a fundraiser for a local animal shelter, your local veterinary association may be a great partner to seek out for cross promotions (vets with sizeable disposable incomes can make wonderful donors). Usually, once you have found common ground with the organization, the horsetrading begins, so you should decide what you are willing to offer. It could be more cross-promotion agreements. Or a donation to their general fund. Or discounts for their members. But whatever you decide to give away, what you must get in return at minimum is inclusion of your event details in at least a few of their member communications (and the more mentions the better, because marketing is vastly more effective when people see your message repeatedly).

One thing to remember about partnering with associations or organizations for your offline event marketing efforts is that both parties need to see value in the relationship. You may need to go back to this partner again if you have a recurring event or similar events, so you want them to get as much out of the relationship as you do.

Speaking Engagements

Many people in the events industry are naturally fluid public speakers and wouldn’t think twice about taking the stage to promote their upcoming event. In addition, you or your colleagues may be asked on occasion to speak on a topic that is familiar to you.

On these occasions, you may want to ask the event promoters if you can also promote your upcoming event at some point during your speech or presentation. At times the occasion may not be appropriate for such promotion. Say, for example, you are managing a bridal show; it probably wouldn’t be appropriate to promote your show if you are MCing a wedding that you have planned. However, if you are asked to speak at a local club or industry event about the latest wedding trends, you may want to ask if you can also mention your bridal show and make that part of the negotiation for appearing.

The great thing about speaking engagements is that you are instantly seen as a person of authority and a subject-matter expert, and so the things you mention at the podium are given more consideration than if they were uttered by a random stranger.

So try out these 5 offline marketing tactics for events when you are looking for fresh event marketing alternatives, and let us know if you have any good suggestions of your own in the comments below.

4 Ways to Make “Event Management by Committee” Work

Event Management by Committee

No event plans itself. And very few successful events are due to the efforts of just one person. In fact, great events are practically always the result of the combined time, passion and abilities of many dedicated managers, planners and vendors … not to mention the impact of guests and attendees.

So we have established the fact that it usually takes a team – including event planners, managers, staff, volunteers, vendors, venues and caterers – to pull off a successful event. Each person or contractor has their responsibilities and each contributes to the good of the whole. That’s the ideal scenario for every event professional.

However, when it comes time to make decisions for an event, sometimes a committee or team tasked with making decisions collectively can muddy things and, in the worst cases, cause things to come to a grinding halt.

Back when I worked in advertising, we had a saying: “No great novel was ever written by committee.” The gist of this is that great creative works can only come from the singular minds of inspired individuals, because most things done by committee get diluted due to clashing visions and/or the desire to appease the opinions of many.

A very similar thing can be said about the management of events. Yes, you need the input and assistance of your team and your stakeholders, but in the end you also need a leader who has the authority to make decisions that are true to the goals and vision of the event.

Many organizations (and especially non-profits) embrace a consensual approach when it comes to decision making, and this often extends to their events with an event management by committee approach. The intent of this is noble, but all it takes is two strong personalities who adhere to opposing positions and you have conflict and a potential logjam.

There’s nothing wrong with trying to find consensus, but do you really want to come to consensus on each of the hundreds of decisions, both large and small, that are involved in planning every event? Do you want to get caught up in debating the minutiae when you have bigger fish to fry (and potentially bigger debates)? And, as much as you like each other, do you want to risk those friendships and the success of your event? Instead of accepting these risks (as remote as they may seem … and they always seem remote at the outset), why not take a few precautionary measures to help ensure they don’t occur.

Next time you are faced with event management by committee, here are 4 steps to take to give you and your team the best chance of planning a successful event.

1. Choose a leader first.

Before you make a single decision, before anyone has an opportunity to disagree with each other, elect a leader who, in the case of major disagreements, will be the calming and directing voice in the room.

Now, the title of this position often matters quite a bit because of the personalities and egos involved. So you may need to call this person “chairperson,” “chair,” “moderator,” “speaker,” “presider” or any other title that is palatable to everybody. You should also consider to choose a second-in-command in case the leader is indisposed or cannot make a meeting.

This person’s responsibility is not to run roughshod over everyone or make decisions willy-nilly but to make sure everyone gets their say and is heard and that decisions are made in a deliberate and organized matter. The leader should be a great listener, a good arbitrator and a person that the entire committee respects.

Another thing you should establish at this stage is giving the leader and/or event planner the authority to make smaller decisions for the event. Although it’s understandable to put major issues in front of the committee, the small things really shouldn’t require group signoff, as long as your overall goals are clearly defined (that’s next).

2. Collectively agree on a vision.

Your first order of business after a leader is selected is to outline the overall goals and vision of the event, as these will guide the committee and the leader in making decisions. Among the things that you should consider at this time include:

  • Main objective(s) of the event – Including organizational, financial, educational, etc.
  • Your intended attendees and audiences
  • Event theme
  • Locale (geographic area where the event will be held)
  • Budget

By agreeing on these early on, you give your leader the ability to guide the committee based on the overall goals of the event. Basically, this helps prevent you from getting sidetracked down the road if one or more committee members go off-message. The leader keeps you focused and on-message.

For larger events, this also helps protect the event’s brand. Just like a brand manager at a company is the caretaker of the brand’s image, message and perception, the committee leader is also the brand leader for the event, making sure every decision hews to the overall brand and vision.


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3. Always be true to your event’s audience.

As a marketer and ad agency executive, I always felt that I was not serving my client well when I did not make recommendations that would guide them to a better relationship with their audience. So I would call out my clients when their decisions were based on their own personal opinions and not on the desires and needs of their target market. Basically, I felt that they hired me to look out for their brand and to serve their target audience first, because by putting their target audience first, I was doing my utmost in serving their brand and their organization.

The same goes for event management. Every decision you make should be made with your prospective guests and attendees and mind (well, unless your target audience is your committee and your organization is very dependent on their largesse, and then, well, I don’t envy your position, because then you are trying to serve two masters).

The leader will still get resistance and pushback from committee members who are basing their ideas and arguments on personal opinions that do not always align with the best interests of your audience. It is your job to remind the whole group of your audience’s wants and preferences and that decisions should be made with them in mind. You may not win every argument, but by sticking by your audience, you make a very strong argument that is difficult to refute.

4. Funnel your external communications through one or two people

Once decisions are made and it is time to communicate them to other team members, contractors, vendor, volunteers and outside parties, it’s also important to have one or two people be responsible for these communications and following up on them. Here’s the reasoning behind this…

Doling out certain responsibilities to designated committee members is unavoidable and usually a great idea so no one person is overburdened with tasks. But what you don’t want are situations where multiple people are calling on a vendor because then you have potential duplication of efforts and miscommunication. It’s much easier to designate a single contact person (or two at the most, who are working together closely and in constant communication with each other) who is responsible for all external communications or for designated areas of your event or vendors.

Believe me … nothing is worse for a vendor than to have multiple people calling or emailing you about the same thing, requests coming from different directions, often conflicting with each other, and you have to guess who is really in charge.

Have more tips regarding event management by committee? Provide them in the comments below.

17 Kick-Ass Event Planning Blogs (That You Should Be Reading)

Best Event Planning BlogsWe love providing great, useful content for event professionals here at the Convene @ Planning Pod (as well as creating useful event management applications and tools), but we also love reading what other insightful industry gurus have to say. A great thing about our industry is how open people are and how willing they are to share, and it shows in the quality of the event management blogs and resources that are freely provided.

With that said, we wanted to take a moment to share with you 17 of our favorite event management sites and event planning blogs that we consult (okay, more like devour) every week.

One caveat … our passion here at Planning Pod is helping event professionals – from event planners and designers to event venues and caterers to non-profits and organizations – be more productive and efficient in how they manage their events. So most of the event blogs and websites we follow have to do with the business end of the events industry (think sales, marketing, PR, HR, productivity hacks, legal, event management strategy, psychology of event management, etc.). There are thousands of wonderful event and wedding design blogs out there like Style Me Pretty  (and sites that list the best event design and wedding planning blogs ), but we will focus here on event management blogs and sites.

Event Manager Blog

Week in and week out, Julius Solaris and his team are possibly the best in the industry at creating truly useful content for event pros. There is really no fluff on this site … just down-to-earth, useful tips and tactics from seasoned event planners, managers and pros. Plus they frequently offer special e-books and guides like their recent Event App Bible, their Good Event Registration Software guide  and the Social Media for Events e-book . Must-read stuff … nuff said.

Velvet Chainsaw’s Midcourse Corrections Blog

If I want to hear a seasoned veteran share his insights about what it takes to create a successful conference … if I want a thinking person’s take on great ideas, tactics and strategies for meetings … I go straight to Jeff Hurt’s Midcourse Corrections Blog. Here you aren’t getting pretty pictures of the latest floral designs or great wedding gown ideas. Instead, Jeff shares thoughtful, strategic advice on the nuts-and-bolts of planning and managing meetings and conferences, and any event planner would benefit from his sometimes unconventional insights (take a recent post on using triple-loop thinking to improve your events) .

Event Planning Blueprint

If you run an event planning business, Melanie Woodward has got some great ideas for you. Melanie was once a stellar event planner but now uses her powers to help other event planners build their businesses. And the great thing about her Event Planning Blueprint blog is that she offers proven business strategies and tips based on real-world experiences and applications. And, if you want a great example of how to use video in your own blogs and social media, take a cue from Melanie, who is a video guru.

Grass Shack Blog

Mike McAllen has been blogging since 2003, and just browsing through his blog’s archives is a treasure trove of tips and ideas from a truly innovative thinker when it comes to planning events and meetings. And as great as his posts are, his podcasts are even more interesting and full of ideas. The personal voice he lends to his posts as well as his vast experience planning and producing events makes his blog a must-read.

Endless Entertainment Blog

If any event planner, event venue or professional wants a blueprint on how to successfully use content marketing, look at the team from Endless Entertainment. They do an amazing job of sharing content that event planners, event marketers and even event clients would find useful, and they also do an awesome job of keeping their finger on the pulse of the Web and sharing useful sources and ideas that they find tucked away in the corners of the Interwebs.

Conferences That Work Blog

If you don’t know the name Adrian Segar, now is the time to get familiar with it, because he may be one of the most inspirational writers in the events industry. Many of his posts may not be long, but they often contain unique ideas from other industries and academia that shed light on challenges we all face in the events industry. A great example is this post comparing event evaluations to how Chinese censors absorb feedback from citizens … a very worthy read, as are all of his personal and illuminating posts.


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Smart Meetings

An all-around great news and resources site for the meetings and conventions industry. Smart Meetings offers lots of great news and updates on venues, hospitality, travel, cuisine, event technology and event industry data and statistics, plus they also offer resources for connecting event professionals with venues. And they feature lots of contributions from industry notables with interesting perspectives.

TechsyTalk

Want to know the latest on event tech? Liz King and her crew have you covered. Not only is Liz a kick-ass event planner and the force behind lots of informative event technology forums, but her TechsyTalk Web site has loads of great insights and tips on what is happening in event technology and how the latest innovations can help you work and live better.

Preston Bailey’s Blog

Preston Bailey has the perfect sensibility and perspective as a blogger and is the consummate event professional. Many of his posts cover all sorts of tips and advice specific to weddings (and any wedding planner would be remiss not to absorb each and every one of them), but he also has many posts that expand on how to excel in business and in life. I find his posts a breath of fresh air.

BizBash

From decor ideas to venue updates/reviews to food trends to event planning tips, BizBash covers it all, vibrantly and in full color. I enjoy their site for a couple of reasons. First, they always have a fresh take on all kinds of topics. Second, they are as timely as any event-related site around. Third, I love their sincerity and desire to inform. Worth keeping on your weekly reading list.

PCMA Convene Magazine Blog

From one of the premier professional associations in our industry comes a blog that always inspires every month. The cornerstone of this blog is great convention industry coverage, giving readers an insider’s look at industry trends and developments and insights into what they mean. A great place to see what other convention mangers are doing and what’s working (and what isn’t).

EventBrite Blog

The folks at EventBrite do an amazing job of generating lots of great posts every week on a wide variety of event management and planning topics (in fact, I am jealous of how much great material they crank out, as I know personally how much effort it takes to come up with even one worthwhile, informative post every week). They serve a variety of event professionals and their posts reflect that diversity.

Mindy Weiss Blog

Like I said before, I’m not the type of event professional who spends much time browsing event and wedding style blogs (my passion is on the business and management side of events). Setting that aside for a moment, though, I am simply amazed at Mindy’s sense of style and her passion for design (especially event design). Many event/wedding blogs simply overwhelm with galleries and galleries of stylish wedding shots, but Mindy is one of the industry influencers who sets the trends you see in all those other blogs. For great design ideas, visit her site first.

BusyEvent Blog

Another great blog about the business side of the events industry. What I love about the BusyEvent blog is both the perspective they have as event technology providers. They know what challenges event professionals are facing and focus their posts on addressing these challenges and issues. However, I also really like their regular roundups of recent event-related articles that caught their eye.

WeThink – eTouches Blog

eTouches has been serving event planners and professionals for over a decade and it shows in their blog posts. Their posts very detailed, providing those special insights and “little things” that make a big difference when it comes to successful events. Even better, many of their articles cover the business and management side of events and provide a perspective you won’t find in many other event blogs.

Kapow Events Blog

Here’s another event management and planning company that gets it totally right when it comes to blogging and useful content. The team at Kapow Events provides frequent posts on a variety of topics, from sales and marketing tips for event professionals to the latest (and coolest) venues around the country. Their advice is always very hands-on and easy-to-implement, and since they are actively planning events in 11 cities in the U.S., they have a great sense of the zeitgeist in the events industry.

Event Industry News

If you want to know what’s happening in events on the other side of the pond, Event Industry News is the place to start. Besides having comprehensive news on the European events industry, they also have interesting coverage on event branding, event tech, venues and more.

So what are your favorite event management blogs and event planning websites? Share them in the comments below.

Event WiFi – How to Get It Right and Avoid #WiFiFail

Event WiFi Tips and Best Practices
© Bred2k8 | Dreamstime.comWiFi Hub Photo

These days, pretty much everyone assumes that they should get a wireless connection anywhere, anytime, even in the strangest places. Case in point … recently I was hiking in the Colorado Rocky Mountains with a friend who shook their phone angrily and cursed up-and-down that they couldn’t get a signal 10 miles into some deep, remote woods. Simply put, when someone can’t get a connection, expect fireworks and mass hysteria.

This goes double for events, where guests, attendees, exhibitors, vendors and contractors all expect the wireless signal to be omnipresent and strong. You won’t hear a peep from them when things are working fine, but expect lots of irate social media posts when people are experiencing slow load times, getting booted off the network or can’t even access it.

Event venues know secure, fast event WiFi is critical to the success of your events, which is why WiFi for events is the second most profitable service that venues sell (guest rooms are still easily the most profitable). And many event venues are really stepping up to the plate when it comes to upgrading their event WiFi infrastructure so it can handle the bandwidth required for large crowds with multiple devices.

With that said, here are the important points every event professional needs to know when assessing the WiFi needs for their events.

Never, ever rely on cell phone towers or standard WiFi in hotel common areas to carry the load for your whole event

This is a rookie mistake that even most rookies avoid, and if you go this route, you are only asking for anger and bile from your attendees. Don’t try to save money and skimp on WiFi coverage if you know your attendees are going to be relying on it to stay connected and participate at the event. Instead, include dedicated event WiFi coverage as a line item in your initial budget and explain to your clients of the importance of dedicated WiFi for events such as theirs.

Assess how people will be using devices/technology and how many users you will have

These days, even wedding guests are on their smartphones and thus require a solid wireless connection, and their usage pales in comparison to larger events or events in the tech industry, which could grow into the hundreds or thousands of megabits per second (Mbps – a standard measure of data transfer).

The first order of business is to determine how many actual users you will have – this includes attendees, vendors, contractors, exhibitors and event staff. A good rule of thumb for determining how much bandwidth you need is to allow for 8-12 Mbps per 100 users for high-usage groups and 2-3 Mbps per 100 users for lower usage groups.

So how do you determine whether your crowd is high- or low-usage?

You first need to look at who will be your users of technology and how much will they use. Are your attendees just going to need WiFi for general usage (like Web browsing, social media, apps)? Are they going to be loading low-resolution or high-resolution video (which sucks up tons of bandwidth)? Are they going to be super users who have lots of devices and open applications that are bandwidth hogs? The type of event and types of attendees are definitely things that you will need to asses upfront.

In addition, there may be other users who require more bandwidth than attendees, like your AV or IT staff as well as your vendors and exhibitors (who also may be streaming lots of video at their booths).

Any mission-critical applications that attendees will need to use during the event (like event-branded apps, bidding apps or polling apps) will also dictate bandwidth needs, and you will also need to accommodate for peak usage times (like during breaks when people check their email and phones or during keynotes when users are asked to use their devices to participate).

Finally, you also need to consider how many devices your users will be using at the event. Many people at conferences and trade shows have a smartphone, tablet and computer in tow and may be accessing the WiFi on all three devices simultaneously (for those of us with three hands). For example, if you have a conference-type event of 800 attendees, you may need to plan on 2,400 simultaneous connections. Some Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and event WiFi providers have the ability to limit the bandwidth of individual attendees or the number of devices they can simultaneously use, so that is something worth considering to keep costs down.


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Map out your event WiFi footprint

Do you want your WiFi to cover the entire span of your event, both inside and outside? This could get expensive, especially if you have a lot of square footage, some of which may see less demand for a wireless signal.

A good rule of thumb here is to deploy WiFi where you know you will definitely need it – like conference//breakout/session rooms, hallways, lounges, trade show floors and expo halls. Also, what some event managers do is to create a specific WiFi hotspot that has lots of bandwidth, and they direct heavy users to these areas.

Part of determining the event WiFi footprint is where you or your WiFi provider will place access points. An access point is a device (usually a router or relay) that enables Internet access for an area of approximately 3000 sq ft. Each access point usually can serve from 50-100 people, so make sure that your venue’s access points can each handle at least 50 people.

Negotiate and purchase WiFi far in advance

As mentioned before, WiFi is the second most profitable service event venues and hotels offer, and even though there are outside vendors you can potentially use, the markups for WiFi for events tend to be high across the board.

You have the most negotiating leverage early on when you are at the beginning of planning your event and are negotiating all your contracts with venues and vendors. This is the time to purchase WiFi bandwidth, and it will never be less expensive than at this time. And it’s always better to buy more now at a better price than find out at the last minute you need lots more bandwidth and pay crazy high rates.

Which brings us to negotiating WiFi terms and rates. First, you need to make sure your provider has enterprise-level hardware and systems and not consumer-grade stuff … the routers you get at Best Buy simply won’t do and aren’t built for the kinds of traffic we are talking about here.

In addition, check with your provider to see if they offer Dual WiFi. Older WiFi platforms were built on the 2.4Ghz frequency, while newer systems accommodate both 2.4Ghz and 5.0Ghz – hence dual frequencies. The old 2.4Ghz frequency can have a weak signal and is prone to interruptions due to interference, while the 5.0Ghz frequency is supported on most newer devices, can penetrate walls much better and is more stable.

You also need to know what your provider’s backup plan is in case there is an outage with the ISP or the main pipeline goes down. And you should always negotiate into your contract that the provider gives you a final usage report after the event concludes. With this report, you can see how much bandwidth your event used, how many users connected to the WiFi and the average connection speeds, giving you great information for planning the same or similar events in the future.

Make connecting to WiFi easy for users and keep tabs on them

At the event itself, your attendees’ first instinct will be to access a wireless signal from their cellular carrier, and they may be in for a bit of shock when they realize that thousands of others are trying to do the same and their device is operating at a crawl.

So to avoid this, make sure to publicize in all materials the WiFi Network Name (also called an SSID) and, if necessary, password. Make sure to make the WiFi Network Name intuitive (like an abbreviated version of the event name) so that it is easily recognized in a list of networks, and, if you must require a password, also make it simple, short and intuitive (not lots of caps and symbols). You should also post the WiFi Network name on posters in very conspicuous and high-traffic areas and provide clear, non-techie instructions on how to access the network.

Finally, you should keep tabs on how your dedicated WiFi is functioning at the event and if there are any outages or issues among users. A good tactic here is just to monitor your social media feeds and look for your event hashtag with the #WiFiFail hashtag in posts.

Have more ideas? Include them in the comments below.