Strategy & Marketing

How to Stage a Memorable Banquet or Event

I know, I know. I write on media, faith, and culture, but this time I have to speak out on a topic close to my heart (and stomach). If I have to attend one more poorly planned rubber chicken event for an organization’s fundraising, anniversary, or award, I’ll slice my wrists. Come on people, banquet type events can actually be fun, not the torture sessions we usually sit through.

So if you have to plan an event in the near future, here’s some tips to keep in mind (if you don’t want me leaving early):

1) Keep it moving. You may think it’s a two hour event, but trust me, it will be at least three hours or longer. It always takes longer than planned. Admit it. So do everything in your power to keep it moving. When it comes to events, speed is good.

2) Don’t wait for dessert to start. Here’s a big problem – you open with a few remarks, have dinner, then start the official program after dessert. Big mistake. Dinner takes too long. Sure – give people some time to talk, but once they’re really into the meal, start the program. That alone will solve the majority of your problems.

3) If the special guest isn’t a great speaker – interview him. In most cases, you’re honoring someone who isn’t a professional speaker. So why do we let him or her speak? Instead, find a good host and do an interview. With an interview, the pressure is off, the speaker can relax and enjoy himself, and the host can control everything. He can keep it to interesting topics, and cut it off when necessary.

4) Keep it moving (did I mention that?).

5) Be ruthless about limiting the keynote speaker’s time – 15-20 minutes max is my opinion. Shorter if possible. Before the event, get in the speaker’s face and tell him or her the time limit. Pause. Then tell him again. Make sure he understands you are serious.

6) Don’t skimp on the food – Everyone says that an event isn’t just about the food, but trust me – they notice, so make it good. If you don’t have a big budget then get creative. My wife Kathleen has staged major events with stand up appetizers, sandwiches, and snacks and people loved it. It’s all about how you do the presentation and how you meet expectations. Creative thinking can easily overcome a limited budget.

7) Finally, end on time – no one ever complained about getting out early. Want to know the best kept secret of a great event? Hit the closing time (or end early if you can). You’ll always be criticized if it goes long, but never if you end on time.

Let me know if I’ve missed anything that drives you nuts at a banquet. And above all, forward this to whoever is planning your next one.

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  1. Label the selections on the buffet, especially if the tables aren’t staffed by people you can ask. Almost every line I have been in has been delayed while people try to figure out what an entree is or what elements are hiddeni in a sandwich. This is particularly helpful for people trying to avoid allergies or seeking vegetarian selections.
    Also make sure there ARE vegetarian options.

  2. Start people laughing. Nothing makes you feel more uncomfortable and out of place if everybody is too serious. If the host is able to crack a joke and makes people smile even little mistakes won`t be a big deal and the atmosphere will be way better.

  3. Print up a master plan identifying your objectives for the organization – what the fundraiser is meant to accomplish. Place one of these on every other chair before the event begins. Have AV projectors and screens showing a powerpoint loop if these objectives. Include photos. Have the MC reiterate these goals. Show a brief 3 minute video that reiterates these goals. All forms of media build upon the message . Have 1 or 2 short but powerful in-person testimonials of the results of being connected with the organization.
    Emphasize happiness, fulfillment, success, joy and peace.

  4. I attendedd an events planning and management workshop recently, and shockingly one of the speakers was late for his presentation and eventually began to repeat some of the points that the first speaker had touched on..I think if a speaker is late they should just be completely removed from the panel because whatever they are going to say will no longer be relevant as they will have broken one of the rules of being late..

  5. Don’t let any sponsors highjack the night. if they’re give 5 minutes to speak, prep them before and make sure they’re sticking to that time. Confirm with their office before and the speaker backstage just before their entrance.

  6. For conferences, we sometimes do ‘posh packed lunches’. We spend the limited budget on great, well-made sandwiches, muffins or chunky cookies, bottled water and shiny apples or other fruit. Lay it all out creatively on a table and let people pack their own bag. The brown bags also have stickers on, which day, ‘Ask me…’. At the beginning of the line, there are pens, so people write on the bag, the question they’d like to be asked. They then fill the bag and sit down to network, with a readymade ice breaker.

    It’s cheap, cheerful (but doesn’t look it) and people seem to really like it.

    1. Love that idea. I think “casual,” fun ways of doing food can be really interesting – even with high class events. Thanks for sharing that idea!

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