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Events that Matter

By Natalie Lowe, CMM

This past year I had the privilege of overseeing an event that was a Canadian ideala day with the Stanley Cup and a Canadian NHL player for the Washington Capitals, combined with a community and charity focused initiative with the SickKids Hospital in Toronto. What is more Canadian than hockey, community and giving back?

Even better, the client was the kind of client you always hope to work with. He had a unique opportunity and was willing to share it for the greater good. He was open to ideas but clear on his desired outcomes. He made decisions quickly, had a budget and while he had done some of the legwork, he was supportive of handing over the reins and trusting that I would deliver. In other words, he was a team playernot surprising given his occupation.

In case you are not familiarthe Stanley Cup is the trophy for winning the National Hockey League Championship. Each member of the winning team can have the Cup for a day for their personal celebration, and while there are a few rules, overall they can organize the day as they wish. The Stanley Cup has a rich history in Canada and is highly revered, with many superstitions and stories. It is considered one of the most difficult trophies to win in team sports (or at least that is what the people who have won it tell me).

Organizing the day with the Cup was a great experience, but the truth is charitable events and personal events are hard because they matter so much. A successful event can make the budget of a charity, bring forward much-needed publicity and resources, create memories for a lifetime, or help a community to bond, grieve or heal. They are our hardest and most rewarding events. To that end, I have collected some thoughts on what we did right, combined with my observations over 20 years of managing events, in the hope that it will be of service to you at your own events in the future.

Be clear on the event objectives, the target audiences and what those audiences need.

It’s easy to get confused about event objectives, because what you are trying to achieve with an event is usually more than one objective, and they can get complicated.

From the start, the client was super clear that there were several different objectives to the day. He started the day with a tour to recognize people and places which played a role in his journey to the Cup. There was a private event for the kids and parents of the minor hockey association he played with as a kid, followed by a large public event that included the charity, in this case, the SickKids Foundation. Another private event followed for VIP guests. Media would be involved in all aspects of the event.

Thus, our audiences were as follows and we identified their unique needs as part of the event.

  1. The host—it was after all, his day with the Stanley Cup
  2. Close friends and immediate family
  3. The minor hockey association—the kids and their parents at North Toronto Hockey
  4. Venue and staff—the North Toronto Memorial Arena
  5. A charity or cause—SickKids Hospital and its Ambassador
  6. Media and team representatives
  7. VIP guests 

All events are an emotional journey. 

As event professionals we are responsible for the logistics, but that is like saying hockey is about skating and passing…it is, but it’s so much more. Like a good story, the event should follow an arc—a build up, a mini-climax, another build up and the bigger climax—then either a dramatic end or a nicely wrapped up ending that satisfies the attendee. We call our event outlines “scripts” for a reason—we gather to tell a story.

The emotions you want the attendee to feel serves the purpose of the event—in this case, the hopes and dreams of every kid who laces up their skates. We see the grief and sadness of a child struck by illness followed by their grit and determination in their fight against disease. This is the classic hero’s journey, and by showing people who have persevered through this journey, it creates hope that can motivate us to “fight” by donating or volunteering. The emotional journey brings the attendee to the final destination, which in the case of this event, was a feeling of community, a sense they are appreciated and hopefully motivate them to an act of generosity towards the SickKids Hospital Foundation.

A wedding or product launch might follow a different story arc—but there is still a story there and you need to spend time to unearth it in order to maximize your event.

If what you are creating has no emotional journey, you might be better served with a press release, a video or a memo. Live events are intended to evoke emotion.

Be inclusive, not exclusive.

Sometimes when we organize events, we can develop control issues and we get overly fussy about certain details, or worse, keep all vital details and tasks to ourselves. Weddings are a traditional example of this, but corporate events and charity events are just as susceptible to being hijacked by our egos. If we keep others out of the communication and planning, we can lose the insight and assistance of key individuals who can help make the event a success.

For this event, due to the personal schedule of the player, we were three weeks out from the event when we started planning and I knew it was going to take a lot of help. For an event to go smoothly, we often must navigate our way in communities that we don’t know well. In this case, the environment of professional athletes, sports media, minor hockey leagues and a large public fan base. It’s smart to recruit the help of people who know these communities to help along the way.

We had the luxury of a great informal team to help us get this event off the ground—friends, family, the minor hockey association board, the local arena manager, PR people from the team, vendors for audio visual, carpeting and the team at SickKids Foundation. Taking the time to include them in the planning and execution of the event was key to getting the event off the ground—every time we encountered a roadblock, we had a team of engaged, invested people to call upon to assist us.

When people offer to help, try to say yes to most of the offers and ensure as best you can they are a positive influence and try to find everyone a meaningful way to contribute. I do need to add a caveat here, if you find a vendor or a person who is not a team player or a bad influence—you need to address it as quickly as possible.  

The reality is you can’t account for every variable at an event, so you need team members who have your back if things start to go sideways. That means taking the time to invest in your team, from paid staff and vendors to volunteers, get to know them and have them understand their importance to the overall success of the event.

Managing an event is an exercise in leadership and events are a team sport.

Leading an event is an emotional journey not just for attendees, but also for people working on it—and that includes you as the event lead.

Harnessing the emotional excitement of the vendors, staff and volunteers in a positive way is vital. You need to be clear on what the event needs and understand what the different stakeholders need from the event and find a way to meet those needs.

Some stakeholders are happy to just contribute, that’s usually just a few key people—often limited to the mom, the best friends and a few others. Everyone else will have a need that must be met, like a personal acknowledgement or a business objective that must be considered. It’s your job to understand what each party needs in order to perform to their potential.

There are times you need to encourage and motivate and there are times you will need to be firm. It can be challenging to empower people without having them get a little carried away–so you need to check in with people and on occasion pull them back in line with the event objectives.

Taking the time to be clear on what the event objectives are is important so you can lead the event team properly. Take the time to create relationships that allow frank conversation and a high level of trust. The trust you build will pay huge dividends when you are executing.

It’s tempting to work too much going into an event, not sleep, not eat and obsess on all those extra details. You are better off doing whatever you need to ensure you are rested and alert the day of the event and as the lead on the event, you can greet the world with a happy, calm attitude.

Always start with gratitude & remember attitudes are infectious.

The first thing we did with the “Day with the Cup” event? Order the thank you cards. We did this for a few reasons—firstly, the client had a lot of people willing to help and was already very appreciative, so we knew we wanted people to be thanked. Secondly, it’s a good reminder that we are certainly not doing this alone and it keeps that ego in check.  We knew the cards were there and had to be filled out, so you start keeping a list of people to be thankful for—and that changes your perspective.

Events are “live action” and it is a given that there will be mistakes and missteps. It’s key that you help others feel comfortable with what is expected so they are working toward the event objectives and fixing issues, not paralyzed by guilt over an error, fearful of a reprimand or resentful that you don’t appreciate them. As the leaders on the event team, you may need to help each team member perform at their best, especially in the heat of the event. If there is time, you might need to change the team or help people develop their skill set, but onsite at the event isn’t the time or the place. At game time, you have to play the bench you have and give them the confidence to believe in their abilities. Sometimes faith will get you further than all the skill in the world.

Staying focused on things to be thankful for helps because humans tend to find what we are looking for —it’s far too easy to get critical or let our perfectionist tendencies overcome us.  

As best you can, try not to work with jerks.

My family jokes that I come home from every project raving that I adore my client–and the reason is simple–I don’t work with or for jerks. I used to, but I got smart.

Events are stressful. Event planners and managers are routinely ranked as one of the top five most stressful jobs.  Events that contribute to social good can be more stressful as they are emotionally taxing—there are a lot of moving parts and the desire to do social good adds a layer of responsibility to the event.

Trust and respect need to be at the core of your client relationship, or the cost is just too high. Your confidence can be eroded, your professional reputation at risk and sometimes your mental and physical health can be compromised because you spend too much time managing a difficult client.

My client was Tom Wilson, number 43 on the Washington Capitals. When this project was referred to me, I didn’t know who Tom was.  I mean, even after he was introduced, his name didn’t mean anything to me. I had to google which team had won the Stanley Cup to find out who he played for.

When you start a project, the client knows they are interviewing you, you should also be interviewing them. In those initial conversations you will be looking for a match with your values and work style–and it’s not wrong or bad if it’s not a match–it’s just not a match.

For myself, I like a collaborative work relationship, I don’t feel I need to have all the answers to prove my value nor do I like being given orders and the client has to trust me to work this way.  Tom was respectful and thoughtful. He had a clear idea of what he wanted to achieve but was open to how we achieved it. This made our work together enjoyable–and please know we worked hard but it was fun.

All successful events have something in common–they feel good. We’ve all experienced the positive energy of a great event and once you have felt that, you want it at every event. These suggestions and observations are designed to help you achieve that positive energy despite the stress, the obstacles and the hard work we all know events take.

Understand your event objective, define your audience and their needs–take the attendee on an emotional journey. Include people—make the circle large—your role is to lead people who will execute the event to achieve an outcome and to foster goodwill. Protect the energy of thegroup, thank people and be grateful, empower people to handle issues while they are small. Lastly, don’t work with clients that don’t work with you—everyone is happier working with people they can collaborate and communicate with.

Good luck with your next event, I hope I am lucky enough to attend one. As always, if I can be of assistance, please reach out.

Natalie Lowe, CMM
President, Celebrate Niagara & The Sustainable Planner
President of the Canadian Society of Professional Event Planners, 2018-2019

Postscript:
Tom carried on his good work long after the Stanley Cup event and created a charity initiative called “Forty Three’s Friends”, he was nominated by the Washington Capitals for the King Clancy Award in 2019 for his charitable work.

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