By Teresa Mariano
For Tony Conway, CMP, and owner of Atlanta-based A Legendary Event, life is a party. After spending 20 years working in the hotel industry, and achieving the position of director of catering and conference services at Ritz-Carlton, Conway decided to start his own company in 1997 to, in his words, “get out of the ballroom and start designing events.”
Today A Legendary Event employs a team of 48 managers and more than 200 employees who oversee and work more than 1,200 events a year. “That includes everything from catering small events to planning events for 10,000 people,” Conway says. “It keeps us out of trouble.” Plan Your Meetings spoke with him about planning fabulous events, staying on top of trends and how a little service goes a long way.
What have been some of the most extravagant events you have done?
We created the name A Legendary Event because we want every event to be legendary. So you know when you put a name like that on your company, you have to make sure you’re sticking to your promise. I would say some of the over-the-top events this year alone have been working with Delta Airlines on their restructuring training hospitality program, doing an event this past fall with [Spanx founder] Sara Blakely with her Give a Damn party [It closed down Peachtree Street in Downtown] … getting to work on a wonderful multi-million dollar wedding — a destination wedding that was quite lovely. In the past, we worked with an individual on a Millennium New Years Eve party, which was planned in three months for over a thousand people … we had REM and Duran Duran and Cindy Lauper and Squirrel Nut Zippers, and a 40,000-sq. ft. tent on their property.
What are some of the challenges you’ve encountered?
For the Millennium event, there was a small driveway. So how do you get 1,000 people into it? We built a new drive for that event. We then dealt with some of the guests coming and their security issues, needing to add secret service at the last minute. Then there were concerns with this being in a neighborhood and parking 500 to 700 vehicles and how that works. Those are challenges you sit down and work out with your team; you don’t come up with those decisions yourself.
We have the same challenges when we have a small party … weather and those kinds of things … a tent flying away the day before the event because it wasn’t anchored correctly. We have challenges of power — putting power in places where there is no power — or running water.
Your Web site states that event planners have to have the creativity of Da Vinci and the endurance of a marathon runner. What are some things you can do to stay in shape mentally as well as physically when planning an event?
I think communication — and everyone uses that term so loosely — is key. We meet daily; we back each other up. There are things that happen, and it’s how you deal with those obstacles and opportunities, and how you deal with the client. We don’t keep anything from our clients. Of the 10 years we’ve been in business, we have grown with our customers and they’ve learned to trust us. All we can do is sell a promise to our customers — you can’t buy it off a rack. So they’re getting it in black and white, on paper, and we’re saying this is going to happen. We’re up front with them; we share the obstacles we have; the opportunities we have. We don’t promise things we know couldn’t take place.
I think that’s it. I have never enjoyed the word “stress.” I think it’s unnecessary. We try not to use that in our company. We never use the word “assume”; it’s not a word in our vocabulary. We never assume anything, and we always get everything in writing.
You won a Gala Award for Best Event on a Shoestring. What was the event?
We actually turned something that was going to be black tie and very costly into something a little bit more fun and created it in a bowling alley atmosphere. [It was] a little more casual and relaxed, and everyone had a great time and raised tons of money.
What things can a planner with a limited budget do to step up an event, create a “wow” factor?
The first thing is never to skimp on the service. Look at your budget and make sure you have the right service to take care of things, whether it’s the valet parking or the caterer or whatever. You know in Atlanta, your guests are going to deal with some traffic issues, so take the ease off of that, so when they pull up, they’re not dealing with parking issues.
You might choose, instead of a full bar, to do a champagne party. You may want to create one type of cocktail. I think less is more sometimes when you’re trying to create that “wow” factor. Let’s make it really, really special for what you’re doing. And again, that can be doing two or three items instead of 13 to 14 items in this party. Maybe the music is the “wow” factor, maybe there’s the addition of an artist doing something, maybe there’s some entertainment happening where you’re giving back to the community.
Any advice to anyone just starting out, or the occasional planner?
It is an exciting industry. It’s an industry about show business. We plan and plan and plan, and we put the show on and we wait for the applause. I always suggest to people to make sure you have a balance of life and work. First of all, our life is nothing but a party, so how bad can that be? We’re there to help people entertain and entertain their guests, so it’s a great business. But you have to schedule your personal time as though it was an appointment, and take that time to recharge. What I love about all the young new talent coming into the event planning world is they do it; they’re not about working 60 hours a day like some of us old people in the industry.
Time management is the most important thing in the hospitality industry. You have to be really, really good at time management, and you have to be organized. Do nothing without a contract, and never assume anything. If you have a crisis and someone has to step in and take over for you in an hour’s notice, they should be able to take your files and know everything that’s happening. Get what’s in your head down into that file. And ask your team to critique what you’re doing. It’s not a one-man show.
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