Interview with an event planner: Holiday Parties

Caitlin Webster and Jennifer Hassen of the St. Bonaventure Office of Events and Conferences shared their insights and wisdom regarding planning a holiday party

Jennifer Hassen, Event Coordinator  at St. Bonaventure University

Jennifer Hassen, Event Coordinator
at St. Bonaventure University

Caitlin Webster, Events and Conferences Manager at St. Bonaventure University

Caitlin Webster, Events and Conferences Manager
at St. Bonaventure University

What is your role in planning the University Holiday party?

CW: Our office is the lead coordinator for the holiday party. We handle all of the logistics for the event and work with several different departments to make this event a success. The event is held on campus at the Regina A. Quick Center for the Arts.  We work with the Quick Center for logistics and set up; we buy the gifts for the party; we handle décor for the party; we work with catering.  In essence, we are the “go-to” office for this particular event.

How many years have you been involved?

CW: This will be my second year heavily involved in planning the party. JH: This is the first Christmas party that I am working on as an employee not an intern, so this is my first year working with the event in an all-encompassing capacity.  However, it’s the third year that I have helped out. Prior to joining the staff, I was an intern in the Office of Events and Conferences so I assisted to a much smaller extent in that role.

What changes from year to year? What stays the same?

CW: There is a tradition here with the faculty and staff; the holiday party is something that they really look forward to, so that anticipation carries over each year.  There are a few food items that the faculty and staff love and look forward to. We’re careful to keep the items everyone loves. There is also a gift raffle. We conduct it every year although we do change up the raffle gifts each year. We try to change up the décor each year, but the concept is the same from year to year.  The University administration holds this event as a thank you for all the hard work that is done through the year by every employee. The party is an opportunity for a few hours to relax and talk with your co-workers and have a good time.

How many people attend this event? How many are invited to attend?

CW: 600 people are invited – the entire faculty and staff. Each year, we see about 250-300 who attend. Our Christmas party structure includes a rolling attendance meaning that people can come in at any time and stay for as much of the event as they like. We have found, with our organization, we have to address multiple shifts that people may be working. People come as they are able to, based on their individual work schedules. We have staff that may be stopping by before or after a shift; this kind of open door structure is a little different than with other companies that hold a holiday party at which everyone comes at a set time. Additionally, we do our gift raffle at the end so everyone who has attended has the opportunity to enter for the door prizes included in the party festivities. We don’t require people to be there to accept their prize. This open-door structure fits our needs.

When did you start planning for this event?  What was your timeline like for this event?

CW: We know that the event will be within the first two weeks of December each year. We start looking at possible dates for the Christmas party in January, if you can believe it.  It takes some time for us since we have to take into account the academic year and other on-campus events. We also plan around the schedules of Sister Margaret, our University President, and members of the University Cabinet trying to select a date that works for most people.  By early September, we make the final decision on the date. Next, we have initial conversations with the Quick Center, our venue location, throughout the remainder of September. Heavy planning kicks in by early to mid-October. That’s when we are developing the catering choices and making firm decisions on décor. Then, beginning in November, we are collecting the supplies we need and implementing the creation for any items that we have planned. The last few weeks is spent checking our timelines and cataloging what we have completed and what we still have to do.

Pinterest supplied an idea for an ornament chandelier.

Pinterest supplied an idea for an ornament chandelier.

How do you gather ideas for the event?

CW: Lots of trial and error is involved. Obviously, it’s Christmas time so we already have a ready-made theme to some extent. We don’t have to overthink it, but we look for ways to keep it fresh and new. We look for ways to top our presentation from the previous year. Our team uses the internet and industry magazines to research what is trending in event décor and activities. It is a great resource for us. Pinterest is great because we can use it to find “do it yourself” ideas and directions on how to make different items. We take those ideas and put our own spin on them to meet our needs and budget. Between the members of our team, we have made all of the decorations we use except for a few which we purchase pre-made. For example, we found an idea for an ornament chandelier and our intern, Lorieanne, has recreated one of those to be used at this year’s event. It’s pretty cool and cost us less than $10 to make.

JH: When I’m gathering ideas not only am I looking to be price conscious but also time conscious. Some of the ideas we find could take hours to implement. Since we work with interns, who are in and out of the office, we have to keep in mind that anything we decide on will be implemented by different team members with different skills.

How is it different working with an internal vs. external client?

CW: With an internal client, like St. Bonaventure staff and faculty, we know there are traditions and we work to uphold them while still keeping our event fresh. We know that there is an expectation that a certain item or concept will remain from year to year. Beyond those traditions, we really have an open canvas to express our creativity, which is fun. We get to make many of the decisions for this particular event since the faculty and staff like to attend without the burden of planning placed upon them. With external clients we find that they may want to change events up more.  They come to us with a plan of what they want and we are either implementing that for them or complementing what their vision is. Many times, external clients are more “hands-on” for their own events.  They make decisions on design and room set up to meet their needs. This makes sense because an outside company usually has their own corporate event coordinator; our role is to assist that person or team. For internal clients we are more likely to serve the event coordinator role.

What are the TOP five items you prioritize for a holiday party of this size/type?

  1. Food is probably the number one item that makes or breaks this (or any) event. Knowing this, we try to keep the items people have loved in the past and still find new selections for novelties sake.

    Food choices tops the list of important choices for any event.

    Food choices tops the list of important choices for any event.

  2. Décor is next.  People notice what it looks like and they enjoy when we make it “feel” festive. We want to top what we did in previous years, but we also want to keep it classy. The overall atmosphere of the event can help people relax and have fun.
  3. Another really important priority is to be cost effective. We’re given a budget for this event and we have to adhere to it just as an outside client has a budget to remain within.  With prices rising for food, gifts, and decorations we know we have to be smart in our choices.
  4.  Something new that we didn’t have to think as much about years ago but really do now is the question of whether we are being eco-friendly in our planning and design.  With our own events and those we’ve held for others good environmental stewardship is something we try to keep in mind.  Of course, the trick is to keep that in mind and still provide a great experience for the guests.
  5. Finally, we always keep in mind what we want people to say about our event afterward.  What we want them to say when they walk out of the party is a huge part of how we design each event including the holiday party.  Throughout our planning and implementation we keep the “take away” feeling in mind.

Describe your top challenges and how you address and overcome them as an event professional.

  1. Budget is always the challenge not just for us with this event but any event, any time, for any company.  Budget is huge; planners don’t want to overspend but they don’t want to look cheap either. There’s a balance in that. For our event and when we work with outside planners, we always talk about the items we want to stand out and we put more resources to them.  For less important items, we make different budget choices.  Every event has that give and take with budget.
  2. The other challenge is staying on track. With multiple events and hundreds details staying organized can be difficult.  Since we work with an array of clients, we have an additional layer of organization in that we need to make sure we keep on top of their details and timelines.  There are many moving parts to attend to in our office for internal and external events.
  3. Keeping up with how the industry is changing can be a challenge.  We’ve addressed how to eco-friendly and how to use technology in events in other posts here, but these items are changing all the time and we as professionals have to keep current with that. Changes in the industry are happening all the time and we have to stay on top of that in order to compete with other planners and venues.
  4. And of course we say all the time “anything that can go wrong, may go wrong”.  We have to look ahead of that and plan for the unexpected. We figure out how we will proceed when things don’t go according to plan. This kind of pre-emptive planning helps us, so our clients don’t see panic when the plan doesn’t go just right. We can quickly shift gears when we need to and make sure the experience doesn’t suffer. Within almost every event something doesn’t happen like we thought it would, that’s the nature of real time events with real people. We have worked to sharpen our skills for those instances, but working without showing panic (even if you feel that way) is what solves issues. Many times the client doesn’t even know something has happened.  We’re proud of that.

What tools do you find most helpful to plan a large event like this?

CW:We have become experts with timelines, action plans and memos to limit surprises. Delegation and assigning tasks among our team is important. One person can’t handle every detail of the planning and certainly not all of the “day-of” event tasks, we delegate and use tracking tools to make sure everybody is informed and what we like to call “show ready”. We use our smart phones to create, share and keep track of task lists. That helps us to keep in touch and stay on track.

Tablets allow event planners to take their ideas everywhere.

Tablets allow event planners to take their ideas everywhere.

For planning, I’m a big fan of event boards.  I use my tablet to create these and I like that because I can take it with me wherever I go. It works as an image board to design an event.  I can gather images, ideas, notes in one place so that as I shape an event I have record of all the details. It’s easy to add and delete items and I’ve found that by the time an event takes place the tablet and the event are reflections of each other.

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