Whether they're huge summer cookouts, tasting events or collaborations between many chefs, food events can be an important source of revenue and a great way to gain visibility. But a poorly done event can be a disaster: not only a lost opportunity, but a permanent blight on your brand.
How can you ensure that your event is a success? We talked with Amy Kantrowitz, two-time managing director of the Vendy Awards and current food event coordinator with more than 15 years' experience in policy and program design work in schools and non-profits, through which she's gained insights and skills crucial to event planning.
Here's what she had to say:
Q: Let's start with the bad news. What sorts of issues can make a food event go off the rails? And what are some of the most common problems you've seen?
A: There are three major ways a food event can go wrong: 1) when you don't deliver what you promise, 2) when lines are too long, 3) when you don't have enough food.
Those are the kind of problems you can't step back from. Sure, it might rain, but if you're clear in advance ("Event will go on, rain or shine! Bring an umbrella!") you'll be all right. People are up for anything, as long as they feel as if they've been fairly prepared.
Building the correct expectations is crucial: what vendors will be there, what sort of experience they'll have. I'm a big fan of the update e-mail; when things change, be sure to communicate how they've changed. It's the basic things that matter. If you're holding an event at a certain place and the transportation is complicated, that's fine, but be very clear with people about what their options are. Give them all the information they need to make smart choices.
Q: What considerations go into setting ticket price?
A: A few things: how unique the event is, whether it's an experience a person could get elsewhere. Are you just assembling things people have easy access to? How much is the experience really worth? Also, of course, consider the cost structure; whether you pay for admission and then food inside; whether it's all-inclusive.
I'm a big fan of the all-inclusive, both because of the culture it fosters and the logistics of it. Lines are cut down enormously when there's no money handed back and forth. But more than that: all-inclusive events, once you've bought your ticket, take the transaction out of the experience. It becomes more like a party, more like you've come over to someone's house, like you belong.
But you've got to put yourself in the customers' position. What should a $40 event feel like, as opposed to a $70? What would make you feel that amount of money is justified? You've got to stay close to the customers.
Q: What's your approximate timeline for putting toegther a mid-sized event?
A: I've seen events that came together in two months that were amazing, and I've seen events in the planning stages for over a year that turned out to be a disaster. It varies so much.
That said, there are two things you have to determine well in advance: the core staff you have on board, and your access to whatever "talent" you're bringing on.
Ideally, you want to be selling tickets by two months out, for an event with advance ticket sales, so you've got to work backward from that. By the time you sell tickets, you have to have your participants, date and venue locked down.
Once that's in motion, you've got to consider other matters, like permits and insurance; it's better to have your liquor license in hand two weeks before the event than two days before the event. And you've got to have your core group of volunteers by about two weeks in advance; there will always be stragglers, you'll add on more people closer to the event date, but you want enough people to run with a skeleton crew.
Q: Let's talk about volunteers. How do you recruit people to work for free? And how do you keep them happy?
A: Most people don't have something in their lives, beyond their job and their family, that's fun, exciting and theirs. I try to create a culture that's open and inclusive, which starts from the event announcment; something that says "let's all be part of this." And once people join up, they're family. That sort of culture means that people seize the opportunity to get involved.
From there, have your volunteers recruit their networks. Have it be a party—and give them real things to do that matter. In this respect, my approach to events was totally transformed by the Obama campaign where I was a volunteer supervising a group of volunteers—but my boss was a volunteer, whose boss was a volunteer, whose boss was a volunteer. It was absolutely remarkable. And that whole structure worked because every single person was given something real to do. They were well-used and highly valued. Whatever you thought about its results or what happened after, that campaign was just incredibly coordinated.
There was only one rule: if you said you were going to do something, you had to do it. You'd get all the support and resources and instructions you needed, but you had to follow through.
As long as we're clear about standards, culture and target results, it's okay if people do things their own way; people like to put their stamp on it. I don't have to be right; I just have to know that the end results will be what we wanted. People can figure out their own ways to get there. And if I know that there's a core group of people who "get it," I don't need to be putting out fires; people will take care of problems themselves.
In that respect, training is hugely important. You've got to connect with most of your volunteers well before the event, ideally at least twice. Not everyone will show, but the more people you have who already feel ownership of an event, the better. And show them how they can succeed. There's nothing worse than a team of well-intentioned but ill-prepared colunteers. It's okay if they don't know the answer to every question, but their response shouldn't be "I don't know"; it should be, "I know who I can ask." And if you've got a team of people who feel supported, you've got an army of people to make guests feel welcome.
Q: How do you manage unsatisfied customers on the day of the event?
The most important thing is to listen for the core of the problem as early as possible. If they're saying "I want a refund," what are they really saying? What made them angry?
Sure, you can refund someone's money; that's the easy part. But you really want to make them feel heard and understood. Acknowledging problems and communicating your willingness to help is what makes someone trust you.
Q: Any last words of advice?
A: Remember that you're putting together an experience; something where, for a few hours, people feel differently than they do at other times in their lives. I occasionally bristle at being called an "event planner" because it's about so much more than that. You're creating a culture. Like a one-day summer camp. There are some events that look and feel like factories—you go in, you're handed something, you walk out—but that's not what makes a memorable event; it's the way you feel when you're there. And the work to create that should be seamless. It should feel like an extension of the organization that's throwing it. If I've done my job, it shouldn't feel like I'm throwing an event. It should feel like the event just came together.