Everyone makes mistakes. In the events industry, it’s how—and how quickly—you “fix it” that counts. Serenity J. Knutson found plenty of industry pros who aren’t afraid to bare their blunders, and here, in Part III of a series, we bring you their stories, along with a few lessons to be learned.
Many industry pros know the tale of the one essential event element that does not arrive on time. Whatever “it” might be varies from one event to the next, but the absence of “it” inevitably throws a monkey wrench into the preparations and requires acrobatics on the part of the planner to replace it.
Last October, Dallas Teague Snider, CMP, hosted an inaugural event for The Spirit of Kindness Awards. With no budget and only six weeks from planning to execution, Teague Snider was happy to have 92 attendees for the first-time event. Of course, the central component of an awards presentation is … the awards.
“I was told by the founder that he was going to send the awards to me [by] Federal Express and that they would arrive to my house the day prior to the event,” Teague Snider says. “The event was at 7 a.m. the following morning, and I was assured that they would arrive in ample time — not to worry.”
By noon the day before the event, no awards had arrived at Teague Snider’s doorstep. She called the founder to check on the packages, and his response remained the same: “All was well, not to be concerned,” she says. “He even encouraged me to meet some friends for a dinner because [the awards] would be there — guaranteed.”
Teague Snider arrived home around 9:45 p.m. to find a conspicuous lack of packages at her house. With the event to begin first thing the next morning, Teague Snider got on the phone with the founder and requested that he e-mail to her the 15 personalized letters for the award recipients. Then Teague Snider and her husband made a late-night run to a 24-hour Wal-Mart store in search of 15 frames.
“Fortunately, we did find a store that had 15 frames — not one to spare,” she says. “We spent the next two hours printing letters and putting them into frames for the following morning.”
The honorees, Teague Snider reports, never knew the difference, and the last-minute awards she and her husband assembled in the middle of the night were “much nicer, anyway.”
What became of the missing packages?
“When I arrived home about mid-morning, there sat the two boxes of the original awards,” Teague Snider says. “They are still in my garage to this date.”
Sometimes, roads paved with good intentions lead to miscommunication and ire. Sylvia Wildfire owns a medic company that provides its services for meetings and events, overseeing the safety of clients and attendees.
“We try not to get in the way of the other vendors, unless we have a safety issue,” Wildfire says.
But at one high-profile event, serving staff members began to complain that Wildfire was interfering with their duties.
“I kept asking the wait staff for special items,” Wildfire explains. “A latte; a veggie plate. By the end of the night, they complained to the event production company that I wanted all these things, and it took too much of their time to just serve me.”
The staff members’ complaints landed Wildfire in serious hot water with the production company before anyone thought to ask why she was being such a pain.
“I explained it was all for two VIPs in the back room who were in wheelchairs, and they couldn’t get anyone to wait on them in there,” she says.
In the end, everything worked out, but Wildfire will think twice before acting as the messenger in the future.
“I’ll just get the catering manager to handle it,” she says. “I thought I was helping, but it just caused more confusion.”
Hiring big-name speakers can sometimes result in big-time no-shows. In a past position with the Professional Products Association International, Jeff Hurt, now the director of education and events for the National Association of Dental Plans, often hired high-caliber celebrities to present at his events. As he found on several separate occasions, working with the stars can sometimes cause astronomical stress levels.
In one case, for a fall conference held at the New Orleans Convention Center, Hurt contracted Hollywood-renowned legal assistant Erin Brockovich for an opening session. His superiors did not want him out of the office for the full 10 days of the conference, so he planned to arrive onsite the day of Brockovich’s appearance, following her presentation.
“Erin didn’t want to stay at our headquarters hotel — first mistake,” Hurt says. “I, typically, am pretty good about insisting that [presenters] stay at our headquarters hotel, so we can get to them quickly if need be, particularly marquee names. But it was a dealbreaker for her, so we agreed to let her stay at another hotel.”
Around 8 a.m. on the day he was scheduled to travel to the conference, Hurt began to receive anxious calls at his Dallas office about Brockovich’s absence from her 7 a.m. rehearsal. Hurt called her cell phone, her hotel, and her agent, all to no avail — no one could get in touch with her.
As one hour led into another, and Brockovich still had not appeared onstage, Hurt’s staff worked quickly with the convention center staff to arrange a buffet-style continental breakfast and a few videos to occupy the restless audience.
“The audience stayed and waited,” Hurt says. “We were stunned they didn’t get up and leave.”
Finally, concerned that Brockovich might not even be at her hotel, Hurt convinced the hotel’s security personnel, along with a couple of his staff members, to check her room.
“She was asleep, and she wasn’t real happy,” Hurt says. “She ended up showing up two hours late, almost three hours late, and walking onstage. She didn’t put on any makeup, didn’t shower, didn’t do her hair — anything — and she still got a standing ovation.”
As an apology to the audience, Brockovich stayed on-site following her presentation to give autographs to every attendee who wanted one. While the audience was satisfied in the end, Hurt learned an important lesson in celebrity management.
“I learned very quickly that, from then on, whenever I had a marquee name, I was always going to be there, meeting them at their room at a specific time in their hotel and walking them to where they needed to be, then walking them back,” he says.
In very few cases does a celebrity no-show work out for the better. While working on-site at a five-day event called the PPI Expo, held a few years ago at Mandalay Bay Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, Nev., Hurt suddenly found himself scrambling to develop a last-minute Plan B for an early-morning general session.
One day into the event, upon the conclusion of a star-studded day of education, Hurt was escorting MLB Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr. into a limousine when his cell phone began to ring incessantly. A little while later, when he checked his voicemail messages, he learned of an impending disaster.
“Carolyn Kepcher from ‘The Apprentice,’ who used to be Donald Trump’s assistant, was our next day’s keynote speaker, and she had left me a message that she was literally hugging a toilet,” Hurt says. “She was already supposed to be in town, but she would not be able to get on a plane and fly from New York to Vegas in order to speak.”
Knowing he had 7,000 people who would show up the next morning, expecting a celebrity speaker, Hurt jumped on the phone to find a suitable replacement — fast.
“I went through tons of names — marquee names I’ve used in the past,” he says. “Everyone was unavailable.”
Racing through his contacts, Hurt knew he had to find a star with wow-power.
“In a situation like this, when … there’s an expectation from an audience that they want to hear somebody famous, if you don’t really go above and beyond their expectations, they get really angry,” he explains. “I didn’t want our people walking out on whoever we got.”
Hurt knew of a few local celebrities who could deliver the star factor, but, he says, “I was very concerned about their presentation skills.” As the evening drew near and Hurt approached the end of his options, he hit on a winner: a “no-name” named Alison Levine, leader of the first all-women’s team to climb Mount Everest.
“I interviewed her at about five in the evening,” Hurt says. “I said, ‘I have two major questions for you. The first one is do you mind being Plan B?’ The second question was could she guarantee me that she could deliver a presentation [from which] the people would walk away saying, ‘I’m glad Carolyn wasn’t here’? She agreed to both.”
Levine caught a flight from San Francisco and landed in Vegas around three in the morning. As soon as she arrived, Hurt sat down with her to customize her presentation. Pressed for time, the two devised a few creative uses for Kepcher’s materials.
“She took the intro that Carolyn was going to use, and we kept the first slides up,” Hurt says. “As it went through and showed those slides, the audience started clapping. When the audience stopped clapping, and Carolyn didn’t walk out, we had a PowerPoint slide with animation that drew a big X over Carolyn’s face, then we had a slide come out that said, ‘You’re fired!’”
Then, Hurt says, out walked Levine, a short brunette, whose first words were, “I know you’re expecting a long-legged blonde, but you’ve got me. By the way, Carolyn Kepcher, you’re fired—and here’s why.”
Explaining that Kepcher had fallen ill, Levine put up one of Kepcher’s slides, which read, “Everything I Learned In Business I Learned From ‘The Apprentice.'” As Levine spoke, the words ‘The Apprentice‘ were X-ed out, replaced by the words ‘Climbing Mount Everest.’ From there, Levine delivered a grand slam that Hurt counts as one of the best presentations he has ever seen.
“It was one of those situations that could’ve failed miserably but actually turned out in our favor,” Hurt says. “She delivered a phenomenal presentation, and the audience walked out saying, ‘We’re glad Carolyn wasn’t here.’”
Do you have a tale of an event blunder that you would like to share? Tell us your story for an upcoming installment of “What Could Possibly Go Wrong?”