Gather even the most experienced event planners together and there is one subject on which they are bound to agree. Whether it’s a birthday party, family reunion or wedding, planning events that involve family members can be much more challenging than planning client events. This seems to be the case even when the client events are larger and more complex.
There are many reasons for this but the central theme is that planning personal events involves an emotional component that is absent from client events. When planning events for family and close friends, event planners have the inside scoop about relationships and interpersonal dynamics. As a result, a number of issues can arise.
Here are some of the more common challenges associated with planning family events and a few tips for addressing them.
Navigate the politics of planning
Family members will often have strong preferences and opinions and express them more freely than corporate clients. There is usually a broad range of interests that must be served during the course of planning family events. This can delay decision making about everything from venue selection to menu planning.
- The best approach is to identify the key players who will want to have input during the initial stages of planning. Run ideas by them.
- Set boundaries. It is impossible to involve a cast of thousands in planning an event. You’ll need to politely manage the close family friends who will expect to have input.
- Don’t be surprised if family members who don’t usually plan events experience sticker shock when they see pricing. Carefully and patiently present various options. Listen and compromise.
If you’re getting stuck, there are likely different visions for the event. It is not unusual for some family members to picture a formal reception while others have a BBQ or buffet in mind. Harmonizing the different visions will be a key event success factor. It is best to come to joint decisions about the most important event components (e.g. date, time, format, venue, cuisine) and then win support to handle the logistics on your own.
Manage accessibility challenges
Accessibility issues for family functions can be much more complex than those involved in planning a corporate event. At family gatherings, there can be parents with infants in arms, seniors and guests with mobility challenges.
- Before selecting a multi-level venue, ensure that there is an elevator or ramp. (Even if you select the ground floor, the venue may reserve the right to assign your group to a different space if the guest list grows. Ask the venue to inform you of any changes.)
- Be sure that guests don’t have to navigate stairs to access the venue.
Bridge the generation gap
It is not unusual to have up to five generations at family events. (Corporate events typically include two or three generations.)
- Select the dress code with care and communicate it clearly. For example, to keep things casual but not sloppy, saying “no jeans” may no longer be enough. You may also need to specify “no jeans, cargo pants or hoodies.”
- Opt for no music or select a playlist with some variety to appeal to as many guests as possible. To make sure everyone has fun, you’ll want to throw in traditional ethnic favorites and also include everything from oldies to hip-hop.
- If there are a lot of teens or young adults, you may want to open a special lounge or dance floor with a DJ on another level once meal service has ended.
- A sports lounge set-up in one of the rooms would also be appealing if there are a number of sports fans in the group. For one event that I planned, family members from out of town were invited back to the house to continue celebrating in the party room and the young adults headed up to the apartment and bonded over a televised game.
Bridge the cultural gap
For some families, there are cultural factors that must be kept in mind when planning events.
- Menu planning can be a challenge if foreign-born family members prefer ethnic cuisine and individuals who are born in the U.S. or Canada are used to more mainstream dishes. Be sure to provide a menu with options.
- Sometimes, there are language requirements that must be kept in mind. Some of the older relatives or recent immigrants many not speak much English. If possible, select a venue where multi-lingual staff is available.
- Bear in mind the fact that punctuality has different meanings in different cultures. Announce the start time as 30 minutes earlier than you want to begin meal service. Sometimes wait staff expect everyone to be present before taking orders and you many need to brief them in advance that there will be some latecomers.
- Reserve seating near the door so that late arrivals can flow smoothly into the party.
Stage manage guests who can’t “play nicely”
When planning events for clients, event planners are usually unaware of the conflicts and strained relationships that exist. With family events, there is no such luxury. As the size of the guest list grows, this increases the likelihood that some individuals just don’t get along.
- Minimize the possibility of conflict by giving careful attention to seating arrangements.
- For weddings and formal parties, placecards are the way to go.
- For less formal events, it is a good idea to have reserved tables for family members and a seating plan to help hosts direct guests to their assigned tables.
- Avoid a “lighting rod” scenario. Pay careful attention to which guests are seated near the entrances. You don’t want to start the party off on the wrong foot by having someone walk in and immediately see a person with whom they are in conflict seated near the door.
- Pay attention to sight lines. Some venues have pillars or natural alcoves. Seat guests strategically so that people who don’t get along don’t even have to see each other.
- Be sure to minimize contact with guests with whom you are in conflict.
- Manage alcohol service carefully to keep a lid on conflict.
Make strategic decisions about alcohol service
For client events, event planners are rarely aware of which guests have drinking problems. For family functions, the event planner and other guests are well aware of alcohol-related issues.
- If some family members have drinking problems, it’s best to opt for a service style that does not involve alcohol. Consider serving a non-alcoholic punch. While alcohol won’t be missed at a luncheon or during an afternoon tea, it will be expected for sit down dinners.
- It is not unusual for guests with drinking problems to slip a mickey in their purse or pocket or a bottle in their bag. Make sure that certified waiters are on-hand to help you keep an eye on situations before they get out of hand.
With careful planning and attention to some potential challenges, family events can flow smoothly. It is possible to design and create events that the family will rave about for years.