Hosting a company event without a hitch

Oct 06, 2013
Hosting a company event without a hitch
Employees of Comfort Systems of Virginia enjoy a game of tug-of-war at this year’s spring picnic.

The day before her company's spring picnic, Erin Kern, executive assistant at Comfort Systems of Virginia in Chesapeake, read some fine print and realized she needed a permit for the 1,200-square-foot tent she'd ordered from an event supplier.

It was too late - and over-budget, besides - to get the $175 permit, so the vendor suggested smaller tents to avoid the fee. Kern rented two 600-square-footers, and the picnic was a success. But she learned a lesson about planning events.

"You think you have a checklist going, but there's always something under the rug that's ready to snag you at the end," said Kern, the unofficial party planner for Comfort Systems, a general contractor specializing in HVAC, plumbing and sheet metal services.

Whether they're organizing a professional retreat, an industry trade show or the company's Christmas gala, business owners and their team juggle multiple tasks, from booking a venue to finding a caterer to hiring entertainment. As such, they can easily overlook small but important details.

Kern and other business professionals recently attended "Backyard to Ballroom: Event Planning Basics," a Business Education Series class held in Norfolk by the Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce. With the holiday season just around the corner, the Sept. 12 workshop - led by planning experts from the Virginia Beach Convention Center - provided advice on being a "host with the most":

Establish a timeline/checklist. To flesh it out, start from the date of the event and then work your way back in time to determine various deadlines, said Bryan Miller, assistant general manager at the convention center. "Work backwards to find out when you need to line up everything," he said.

If you're sending invitations, make the deadline for RSVPs one week before the actual catering deadline, said Sabrina Rinaldo, the center's catering sales manager. And always allow for 3 percent above the total number of "yes" RSVPs.

Establish your budget. Common expenses are venue rental, catering, decorating, transportation, entertainment, insurance, printing, gifts for attendees and/or speakers. Remember that food and beverages are usually the largest part of an event's budget. Keep track of expenses as you plan. Periodically request estimated invoices from your venue and/or vendors, so you're not shell-shocked by the final bill.

Download free planning templates - available as Word or Excel documents - at Click on "Templates" and then scroll down to click "Planners" under "Top categories."

What about special permits, licenses or inspections? Ask folks at your venue or check with city officials. Will you have a tent larger than 900 square feet? You'll probably need a special permit under the Virginia Uniform Statewide Building Code. Will you serve alcohol? Ask the caterer if he has an ABC license. Otherwise, you'll need to obtain your own. Also, some cities have an admission tax if you're selling tickets. Will vendors sell merchandise at your event? You may need to get a transient business license.

"Every municipality may have a different permit or inspection, so it's good to check with whatever regulating agency there is to make sure you have it all covered," Miller said, noting that the Virginia Beach fire marshal requires a $50 permit for vehicle displays at trade shows.

Consider doing everything under one roof. Many venues have their own event coordinators, caterers, set-up and other services. You'll have slightly less freedom and flexibility, but fewer headaches in keeping track of every detail. Plus, some full-service venues offer discounts or freebies for using them exclusively. You can also ask about "ganging" your menu, or sharing food and beverages with another event happening on the same day, Rinaldo said.

And remember: As a rule, the earlier in the day you hold your event, the cheaper the food and beverages. Breakfast at the Virginia Beach Convention Center can range from $8 to $16 a person, and dinner is $26 to $35 a person.

If possible, consider off-peak or off-season dates. Weekdays are more affordable than weekends. Winter is cheaper than summer in an Oceanfront town like Virginia Beach. If your event is outdoors, find out if you can get a backup "rain date," said James Caralivanos, the center's sales manager. And ask what other events are scheduled for that date, to make sure they won't conflict with yours.

Also, can you get the space the night before your event? This will make set-up a lot easier, especially if you're doing it yourself. Booking rooms for your guests? Many hotels will comp one room for every 50, Caralivanos said.

Use social media to promote your event. It's free and easy and it will generate excitement about your event, said Courtney LaLonde, the center's marketing coordinator. Create an event website on Start a business page on Facebook. Use Constant Contact for email marketing and RSVPs. Again, Microsoft Office has free templates to create fliers, brochures, press releases and other cool products.

Why bother? Well, 64 percent of marketers say trade shows, conventions and other events are used as sources of new prospects and business, LaLonde said.

Sarah Reuter, marketing coordinator at Triquetra Technologies in Hampton, appreciated those tips. She and a few colleagues attended the "Backyard to Ballroom" workshop. They're currently planning this year's holiday party, as well as some charity events with Military Ministry.

Last year, their holiday party presented some unusual challenges - from seating arrangements to gift giveaways - as the festivities combined the company's annual Christmas celebration with a milestone birthday for the CFO.

"We invited other people outside our office, and we went up to Williamsburg, so the locale was a little different for us," said Tk Childress, travel and expense coordinator at Triquetra Technologies. "And we actually had a lot of folks that were flying in, so we had to coordinate travel and hoteling and getting them from the airport. So that was much bigger than what we normally do."