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Lessons learned

A level head will help you deal with a rampant goat
Jennifer Henczel, owner, Connect Now Business Network: “even if you know the people, don’t assume they have the skills to put on an event | Submitted

It's been 20 years since Leeann Froese, founder of Town Hall Brands, stepped into the world of event planning. The frustrations can be never-ending, especially as a go-to planner in the wine industry where 85 per cent of her business comes from out of town, participating in wine-tasting events, dinners, cooking competitions and scavenger hunts.

She keeps her sanity by knowing where to draw the line.

“We’ll accommodate the client as much as possible,” she says. “But we might say ‘We can’t’ or ‘It’s not appropriate.’ And with unreasonable people, you have to say ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’”

That line seems to have a lot of play, considering at one point a client asked her team to polish the spit buckets, and another time a live llama became part of the decor at a Chilean wine tasting.

“Llamas spit like professional wine tasters,” Froese says, laughing. A fenced-off area and plenty of straw kept the animal happy and avoided scatological misfortune.

Froese advises being aware of difficult venues, such as the Vancouver Art Gallery, which has a loading dock extremely far from the event space. The difficulties at one event led to a late opening with attendees sitting down to their tables while Froese’s team was still running around to local hotels getting ice.

What keeps her head on straight?

“I have a solid team,” says Froese. “You need people who are level-headed, flexible and work well under pressure. Always own up to your mistakes. Own it and apologize for it and ask what they want to make it better.”

Jennifer Henczel oversees about 50 events per year through the Connect Now Business Network that she manages, drawing business owners from Greater Vancouver and the Fraser Valley.

She offers four keys to success: knowing what your audience wants; looking at venue reviews; always getting a floor plan; and clarifying terminology. Breaking those rules led to a major snafu at a B.C. winery/farmers market. She hadn’t check the reviews because she had been there once and received good customer service.

“Even if you know the people, don’t assume they have the skills to put on an event,” she says, acknowledging her lesson learned.

Adding to the misfortune, Henczel never got a signed floor plan and realized too late that the venue staff didn’t know what a “vendor table” was or the difference between “per  person” and “per platter” pricing. Her 60 guests ended up with three platters of food – enough for 15 people. She ended up buying extra food from Costco.

Though most of her patrons didn’t realize how many things had gone awry, Henczel admits she was more stressed than usual, especially when the farm’s goat was allowed to roam around unchecked.

“It was so weird saying, ‘Could you put the goat away?’”

Shannon Berry, who owns the Promo Syndicate, is used to doing promotional events for groups of up to 20,000, from corporate branding to celebrity wrap parties. Based in Edmonton, she manages events in Calgary and Vancouver. Her specialty is finding unique spaces that can be tailored to a special theme, such as 1930s gangster era.

Her mantra is to always have a great relationship with clients. It will go a long way if things go wrong.

At one Casino Royale-themed event, 100 patrons filled a four-bedroom house in Edmonton. The chef quit three days before the event and her Plan B caterer was on holidays. When a friend offered to step in (saying he had done events before), Berry unwittingly said OK. He came in the day of the event with chicken drumsticks he was going to barbecue for the whole party, though the theme was supposed to be Asian. Also, having gone over budget, he decided to charge for the drinks, which was a violation of the liquor licence and surprised guests who thought it was a hosted bar.

“We laugh about it now and I still get ribbed about it,” says Berry. “That’s the joy of building relationships with your clients.”

Like Froese, Berry credits her team for her success.

“I’m great at planning and the vision,” she says, “but my team has the expertise and mindset to deal with challenges, like 20,000 people who all have wine-tasting tickets. You have to get the right people in the right place. Have them walk through with you and know everything they need to back you up. I don’t even have to worry about them during the event.”

Of course, no matter how much is reviewed beforehand, Mother Nature can always step in to drive plans sideways. Town Hall’s Froese held a wine-tasting event in the Okanagan where 40 C heat rendered all the wines impractical for tasting.

“It was the most uncomfortable wine tasting in history, and dropping a cube of ice into a wineglass is rather frowned upon,” says Froese.