First time planners are often stricken with complete fear! Even those that plan events over and over again still fear that something will go wrong and they will be the subject of ridicule. Hopefully we can allay the fears and quell the butterflies in your stomach by helping you through the entire project.
There are a lot of questions you need to ask. First timers probably don’t have the foggiest idea what questions to ask, so, the first thing we’d better do is outline these for you.
Perhaps the easiest way to do that is to fill out a form. (I love forms!)
If you were to phone me and ask me to help you make arrangements for a special event, the first thing I would do is reach for a blank form, and over the phone we would fill it out. When I had all the information, I would be better prepared to help you.
Before you continue reading, you may want to print the banquet planning worksheet(PDF) from my website. That way you can follow along with the worksheet as I describe the planning process. I’ve also included a pre filled sample planning worksheet that you might help.
Let’s begin with fact finding.
The first question to ask is, «What is the purpose of the event?» This question should be really easy, but it’s perhaps the most important. The purpose of your event will determine your event’s agenda.
Break out your calendar to decide a date for your event. Look for possible conflicts. It might be tough to get people out to a Saturday night banquet if it’s a three-day holiday. It would be unwise to put on a church social if your local school, where most of your congregation had children attending, were having an open house or play that night.
Pencil in a date and then try to think of possible conflicts. I know of one organization that booked a very popular and relatively expensive Jewish comic into the club house of a predominantly Jewish retirement community. Attempts to sell tickets failed miserably, because they had not realized they had scheduled his appearance on a Jewish holiday — a very expensive oversight!
There are many, many determining factors in establishing a budget. First of all, how many are expected to attend? You might have a pretty good idea for a company party, but in some cases you might just have to make a «guess-timate» until you can get more information. Make the best possible estimate based on what facts you have, and proceed.
Another factor to determine before we select a location is how much your attendees are willing to pay. Sure, we can work the other way: we can pick a location, hire a band, select the menu, etc., and then add up how much it all costs and thus determine how much everyone needs to pay, but doing so will probably leave you hurting in the end.
If you expect 1,000 people, and you determine $25.00 a person is acceptable, then your entire budget for food, printing, entertainment, etc., is $25,000. If you expect only 20 people and you know they won’t come if it’s over $5.00 a person, then you know you’re far more limited.
Determine the geographical area where the event is to take place. If you live in the area where the event will take place, you may already know of various hotels, country clubs, restaurants or catering halls that can accommodate your group. If you don’t live in the area, be sure to go look at the potential location before you book it. If the event is in a distant city and it’s not possible for you to travel there, and the event is a significant one, I suggest you hire a professional meeting planner.
I once attended a banquet in a quaint «50’s malt-shop-type restaurant. The party planner had not gone there to look at the room where the party was to be. She had just taken the word of a friend. True, it was a great restaurant, but their «room» had about 5 permanent booths on each wall. Guests were facing in all different directions. This made it almost impossible for the magician they had hired to perform. To further confuse the issue, it was not even a private room. Restaurant customers could not get to the restroom without disturbing the party, and the 50’s music continued to blare through the ceiling speakers throughout the evening because it was piped throughout the whole restaurant and could not be isolated from one room. A visit beforehand could have prevented this nightmare.
Many, if not most, facilities do not charge a fee for the use of the room but instead absorb the rental fee into the price of the meal. For instance, in our example of 200 people, a banquet facility would be delighted to supply a private room in order to sell 200 dinners.
Usually they will have several dinners to choose from — perhaps a chicken dinner, complete with beverage, salad and dessert, for $12.00 per person; or prime rib at $18.00 each; or sirloin steaks at $25.00 per person. In our example we are charging $30.00 per person. Let’s select the prime rib at $18.00.
Does that include tax and tip? Oh, Oh! Find out if it does, or you may get a surprise at the end of the night. Let’s say it does not. 15% tip and 8% (or whatever) tax makes the dinner a total of $22.14 per person. Our sample budget calls for 200 people at $30.00 each for a total of $6,000. If all 200 people attend, dinner will cost $4,428. That leaves $1,572 for all other costs.
By the way, the facility may ask you for a deposit and guarantee. If you guarantee 200 people, you will have to pay for 200 dinners even if only 175 show up. Generally, a facility is prepared to serve about 10% more people than you guarantee. So it makes sense to guarantee a lesser number than you expect. Even some of those who told you absolutely they would be there, maybe even gave you a deposit, don’t show for one reason or another.
Just to be on the safe side, in our example of 200 people, I would guarantee the restaurant 185. If you’re pre selling tickets, which I recommend, you can always adjust your estimate upwards with the restaurant a day or two ahead of time if needed. Ask the facility about their requirements in regard to a change in the guarantee.
The evening agenda is largely determined by the event’s purpose. A typical event might go like this:
6:00 — 7:00 — Social or cocktail hour
7:00 — 8:00 — Dinner
8:00 — 8:15 — Meeting/Awards/Business
8:15 — 9:00 — Entertainment/Speaker
9:00 — 9:10 — Raffle/Door Prizes
9:10 — 1:00 — Dancing
Having an hour to «gather» is always good. You and the facility both will want everyone present when you actually sit down to eat. It’s been my experience that almost everything starts late, so plan for it and don’t be disappointed when it happens.
Will you be having a cocktail hour? A «Hosted» bar means that drinks are free to the party-goers. If you choose to host the cocktail hour, be prepared to spend about $1200 for our sample group of 200 people. Most organization-sponsored events have a ‘No-Host’ bar, in which guests buy their own drinks. It’s appropriate to announce ‘Hosted’, or ‘No-Host’ in the invitation.
Some form of entertainment during the cocktail hour is certainly a plus. The facility may have music piped in through its sound system, which is certainly the most economical; however, for around $300 you could have live music. Most banquet facilities have a piano, sometimes on wheels, and will let you either rent the piano or use it for free. Fee for the piano rental should be around $50 to $100 and a piano player anywhere from $150 to $250.
Other cocktail hour entertainment could include a chamber group, a jazz or «society» trio, harpist, or a strolling accordionist. A strolling «close-up» magician, performing from group to group or table to table, is always fun. Other forms of entertainment for the cocktail hour could include celebrity look-alikes, mechanical or conventional mimes, a balloon animal sculptor, caricaturist, graphologist, palm reader, tarot card reader, stilt walker, or just about anything else you can think of! Again, your budget is your gauge.
This is pretty easy. When the Maitre’d says dinner is ready, have your party sit down!
The vast majority of banquets have certain people assigned to sit at the head table while everyone else may sit where they wish. If you choose to have a head table, you should make small place markers for those assigned to sit at the head table, and don’t forget to discuss table arrangements with the facility.
Someone, perhaps you, should step to the microphone and announce that dinner is ready and ask everyone to take a seat. When this has been accomplished your President, or whoever is presiding, should welcome everyone.
It is appropriate at most banquets to have someone lead the flag salute, followed by a blessing on the food. People should not be called upon for these jobs extemporaneously, but should be asked in advance and their names and responsibilities should be listed on the printed program if there is one. Following the flag salute and prayer, your Master of Ceremonies (or who ever is conducting) should introduce the people sitting at the head table, introducing himself last.
If business of any sort needs to be conducted, begin when dessert is finished, or at least served. Make sure that the facility knows that you do not want any bussing (clearing of tables) or coffee served after the program starts, as it can become an irritating distraction and take away from the enjoyment of the program.
Following opening remarks, and/or other business, you could either introduce the main speaker, or present some form of entertainment.
This could be the highlight of the evening! There are many outstanding after-dinner performers and speakers. If you really want to have a successful event, hire a professional. At this writing $500 to $1,000 can buy you some pretty top-notch entertainment.
How about a comedian-magician who uses a member or two of your group and does some hilarious bits of business and audience participation magic tricks — 30 or 40 minutes of non-stop laughs!
Or picture this…the dessert has just been served and in walks «Lt. Columbo,» complete with overcoat and cigar…»Oh, excuse me,» he says, «I was looking for somebody else.» All eyes are riveted on this familiar figure as he turns and starts to walk out. «Oh, one more thing, is this the Walker party?’ Then for the next 30 minutes or so he does a comedy routine in the style and delivery of Peter Falk as Lt. Columbo, using names of people in your group.
That will rock your people out of their seats with laughter. These are just a couple of suggestions. Everybody loves to laugh, and a good professional entertainer can make you a hero.
How do you find that kind of entertainment? Again, watch out for the well-meaning friend. Sometimes hiring a friend of a friend who tells jokes or plays the banjo can put a wet blanket on the evening if they don’t live up to your expectations.
Probably the best way to secure talent is to work with a professional talent agent that specializes in special events. Ordinarily there is no fee for his services. He can make recommendations and suggestions based on what your needs are, and work within your budget limitations.
Some entertainers may have special requirements, like a stage, spotlight, two mics or something else, and these items need to be arranged with the facility. There may be a rental fee involved.
Giving away door prizes or raffle prizes should not be held until after the entertainment or main speaker. Perhaps it’s an inducement for your guests to stay until the end.
If you’re selling raffle tickets, again you need to make out a budget. How many tickets do you expect to sell and for how much money? Do you want to make a profit? Let’s say you expect to sell 100 tickets to those 200 people expected to come, and we sell them at the banquet for $2.00 each. That’ll give you $200 to buy prizes with. You can put this in your general budget or assign someone to take care of the whole raffle, including purchasing the prizes and selling the tickets.
Following the raffle, the formal portion of the program is really over. Your people can now go home. If you’ve elected to have a deejay or band, they may stay for dancing.
The facility might charge to set up a dance floor. Sometimes this is a portable dance floor they build right on top of the carpet. A band will cost anywhere from $150 per band member to $450 per band member for four hours. A small trio of keyboard, drum and guitar could be anywhere from $750 to $1,500.
An $1,800 to $3,500 five-piece band, including a vocalist, is average. If you hire a band, you may be able to use one or more of those same musicians to provide cocktail hour and/or dinner music for a small additional fee. You normally need to make a deposit at the time you hire the band. Anything over four hours’ playing time is considered overtime, and you should talk with the band or agent about the cost of overtime when you make the initial arrangements. Bands also need to take a 10-15 minute break each hour. Ask if the band will supply recorded music during their breaks.
Sometimes you might prefer a DeeJay playing recorded music instead of hiring a band. This gives you the advantage of hearing the original recording artist instead of a dance band’s rendition.
Another advantage is that most mobile DeeJay units will set up before dinner and offer to play dinner music at no additional cost, and of course, a DeeJay does not take a break during the evening, so you have non stop music for your event.
Cost-wise, there is not a lot of difference between a 3-piece band and a DeeJay. Some DeeJays offer a full light-show that few bands do, and even with an additional charge, this could be a real plus. I think it’s just a matter of taste. Some people insist on a live band and others are just as adamant about a DeeJay.
PHOTOGRAPHER OR VIDEOGRAPHER
Video taping an event, except for historical purposes, is unnecessary. Seldom will the video tape or DVD be watched more than once after the event. Yes, maybe a Bar or Bat Mitzvah will watch his or her recording years later when they grow older, and maybe even a bride and groom would watch a well-edited and condensed recording. A company or organization’s banquet, however, will be seldom if ever watched.
I would recommend that you hire, budget permitting, a professional photographer rather than leaving it up to one of your guests or a friend of a friend who only takes photos twice a year. You can have the photographer deliver prints or a CD of digital photographs in which case you could print just the photos you want.
Probably the most traumatic thing that could occur is that you planned the entire event and then no one came. If it’s a company party and the food, entertainment, drinks and dancing are all free, I don’t think you will have a problem, as long as you let everybody know when and where and that it’s FREE!
But if that’s not the situation, you may need to promote the event. Once you have all the facts (WHAT, WHEN, WHERE, WHY, WHO, and HOW MUCH), you can create a flyer — a piece of paper with all the facts on it, designed to motivate people to attend.
If you’re an artist, great! You can create the flyer yourself. If not, maybe someone in your group is and they can help you. Otherwise, you need to «rough it out» the way you’d want it and take it to a graphic artist to do the «camera-ready copy» for you, then off to a printer to print however many you’re going to need. How many you need will depend on how you’re going to distribute them.
The layout, printing, envelopes and postage all need to go into your budget. There are, of course, additional ways you can promote the event — word of mouth, bulletin boards, phone committee, club or company newsletter, posters. If your event will be open to people outside your organization, you might try using the publicity channels of other related groups, companies, schools, etc., as well as your own. Have a «brainstorming session» with your committee, if you have one, to think of all the ways you can get the word out.
And remember that if you want people to come to your activity, you can’t just tell them. You have to tell them and tell them and tell them! Use all the resources at your disposal, and don’t hesitate to repeat yourself. The more times you tell them, the more will come!
There are as many ways to handle this as there are ways to promote the event. If you have to lay out funds ahead of time (which is usually the case), it is good to get as much money as you can up front. Pre selling your tickets will help you do that. Of course, your publicity must state your requirements and deadlines. This also will help you get a handle on how many are going to attend. Remember though, that there will still be some last minute cancellations and additions, so stay flexible.
As mentioned earlier, most organizations assign only the head table, and the rest of the attendees are left to sit where they wish. Some groups insist on drawing pictures of the tables on a sheet of paper, numbering them, and then assigning people to specific tables.
I think it’s far more work than necessary, but if you must, then have at it.
Some banquets, especially those honoring individuals or groups, offer entire tables «for sale.» 10 people per table at $30 each means that for $300 someone could reserve a whole table. Make sure you put a «reserved» sign on that table, showing the name of the host.
THE PRINTED PROGRAM
When all the facts are in, if the budget will permit, a nice printed program could be put at each place setting or handed out as people arrive. It should contain the agenda for the evening and credits given to all those who contributed to the event.
Many organizations have been successful in selling ads in the program to defray the cost of printing or even to raise some extra money. I’ve put $250 income under the income column of our example. Don’t you think you could convince 10 people to give you their business card and pay $25 to be advertised on the back page of the program? Of course, this idea could be a little tacky if the event is to celebrate little Bobbie’s 10th birthday. Use your best judgment.
This could be a big item or not — strictly up to you. If you picked a beautiful location, and it’s not a special seasonal event like a Christmas or Halloween party, why not just enjoy the facility’s decor? If you feel you need decorations and you have a sufficient budget, call a party decorator who uses balloons. They go a long way towards dressing up a room without spending a lot of money.
Centerpieces on each table look nice. You can ask someone to donate these or have someone clever make something for each table. Many facilities make such a nice table layout that a centerpiece is not necessary. Don’t spend money unnecessarily, but do remember that the nicer the ambience, the better the memories or the event will be in the minds of those who attend, which means that they will want to come to your next event, too!
One note of caution. If you’re having entertainment, be careful that large
centerpieces, particularly balloons, don’t block the view of the performing area or even the people sitting on the opposite side of the table who want to see and talk to each other.
YOU DID IT!
Yes, you will fret and worry until the whole thing is over, but every party planner does. Just relax, do your best and enjoy! (Here’s a secret: If you enjoy what you’re doing, the people you are doing it for will enjoy it, too!)