The hospitality business is filled with big visions and little details, and often a dedicated team of vendors is tirelessly working behind the scenes to make it all come together. When exceeding expectations is part of the job description, the stakes can be high and the time frames can be short—a combination that can easily result in tension, but the most successful vendors in the industry work through issues with a smile. Here, some of the area’s best share common challenges they face and how they work through them to deliver an outstanding event and build a strong partnership.
When an event involves multiple moving parts and vendors working together, preparing a plan of action that considers timing, supplier needs and the venue’s rules and facilities is essential. Knowing the loading dock schedule, ceiling heights, elevator size, union terms and other details in advance sets everyone up for success. “When the planner hasn’t explored these issues, we can end up in a conflict with other vendors that are providing services for the same event and others that are going on at the venue,” says Egils Matiss, co-founder of Eggsotic Events in Hampton. Experience has taught him to reach out to the venue and other vendors to “work it out amongst ourselves. That extra time is well invested if you realize that you’re going to have an entire crew wait- ing for three hours just to get in.”
When James Rossiter, president of Westfield Audio Visual in Union, accepts a job for a meeting or event at an older venue, he needs to make sure that the space is equipped to handle his modern equipment. His team once had to carry 80-inch monitors up three flights of stairs because they wouldn’t fit in freight elevator cages made in the early 1900s. The number of outlets in older properties can also cause concern. “When it’s a building you’re not familiar with, we’ve learned to spend some time talking with the loading dock manager, the event manager on-site or the building engineer just to get a good handle on what it is we’re getting ourselves into,” he says.
Attention to detail is an important quality in a meeting or event planner, but it’s important not to dig in to the minutiae before considering basics like preproduction, timelines or budgeting, says Matiss, who’s been designing one-of-a-kind events for his Eggsotic Events clients for more than 15 years. Being aware of the big picture helps him know when it’s time to steer a client into discussions about “these bigger questions that we need to address,” he says.
SPEAK THE SAME LANGUAGE
Westfield Audio Visual serves a client mix of 80 percent corporate and 20 percent residential, and oftentimes works with a planner who is translating an end user’s needs and Westfield’s capabilities. “Obviously there’s a technical barrier for a lot of people when it comes to audio- visual equipment,” says Rossiter. “They know what they’re trying to do, but they don’t necessarily know how to do it.”
For instance, a client might think they need a microphone, but they actually need a mixer, speakers, cables, an engineer and a podium mic to achieve their objective. Rossiter spends time with his clients, who are often hotel sales and meeting professionals, to educate them about the equipment and common needs. This helps the end user have a clear idea of what they’ll be ordering and paying for, and it also cuts out back-and-forth conversations later by making sure everyone is on the same page from the beginning of the process.
SAVE THE DATE
The Bernards Inn in Bernardsville is a historic luxury hotel that features 20 lavish guest rooms and suites and several distinct meeting and function rooms that capture the elegant atmosphere of the early 1900s and today’s highest service standards. Director of Catering Bonnie Schleimer strives to respond, “Yes, I can make that happen,” to each of her clients’ requests, but the property’s boutique size (which makes it sought after for intimate meetings) also imposes a limit on the number of people who can be in attendance. “When space is not available or guest rooms are not available, then our hands are kind of tied,” Schleimer says. Her next steps are looking for an alternative date, and she also helps clients arrange additional accommodations at nearby hotels with shuttles to transport guests to meetings and events at The Bernards Inn.
LET’S TALK BUDGET
In the excitement of exploring the creative potential for a special event with Matiss at Eggsotic Events (he brings years of experience in architecture, sculpture and art installations to his work), some clients hold back from discussing an important element of their program: the budget. Without this information, time and creativity can be misdirected. “If you’re not given the parameters, you don’t always know where the priorities lie,” Matiss says. “We end up doing two or three versions that could have been eliminated if we had the information from the beginning.”
In Rossiter’s experience, clients sometimes have skewed expectations of what costs for services will be, particularly for individual social events. “Between what something costs and what someone is willing to spend, there can be a bit of a difference there,” he says. The total number of components required to make a few announcements at a child’s birthday add up to more than a microphone. “This stuff’s not cheap, unfortunately,” Rossiter says. “If it was cheap, then everyone would just buy it themselves.” By talking with his client about their overall needs—maybe they were also planning to project a video montage in addition to making announcements—he’s able to bundle equipment at a lower cost.
LET’S TALK PAYMENT
Once pricing is agreed upon, it’s important for clients to honor the schedule of deposits and final payment dates outlined in the contract. “For whatever reason, they’re not always followed,” says Matiss. “It can be difficult, not only for an obvious cash flow reason, but from a good faith perspective, as well.” Just as it’s often his client’s accounting department that is responsible for making payments, Matiss finds it’s best if his wife Shelley Matiss, who handles bookkeeping at Eggsotic Events, follows up on payment issues to remove tension from the creative part of the business relationship.
SOMETHING’S COME UP
Life is unpredictable, which is something that those in the meetings and events industry have to not only understand, but embrace. Bad weather can make it impossible for attendees to arrive to a meeting that’s been planned for months. Changing priorities cause a break-out meeting to be added at the last minute, and mergers can double attendance overnight. “Things are always changing at the last minute. I’m used to that, and I’m expecting changes,” says Schleimer, who’s worked at The Bernards Inn for four and a half years and in hotel catering for 10. “Counts go up and counts go down, and my job is to make sure that the client is very, very happy. I’m the liaison to the rooms department, the kitchen, the operations team, to figure out how we can make sure that happens. ... Most of the time there’s nothing that you can’t fix.”
It’s not only clients who can throw curveballs during event production. Chef and co-owner Becky Geisel employs subcontractors to provide furniture, décor, staffing and other services at some of the events her BEX Eatery & Catering Co. in Califon caters. She’s cultivated trusted partnerships, but she can’t always foresee bumps in the road. Once while setting up for a plated dinner, her staff noticed their clothing was slowly becoming spotted, then realized that there was bleach on all of the tables and chairs that had been delivered earlier in the day. With only three hours before the start of the event, the team began washing and drying all of the tables and chairs. “Our clothes got ruined, but thank God it wasn’t the guests’ clothes getting ruined,” Geisel says. “We’ve learned to anticipate things going wrong and to have a plan in action so that we’re prepared to take care of it.”
TIME IS OF THE ESSENCE
Time is often one of a vendor’s most valuable resources, and they manage it carefully. While spending time with their clients is an enjoyable and important part of their job, they rely on their clients to be prepared and respectful of their schedule. Matiss says that he’s been part of preconference meetings led by a planner who could have been more prepared, and rather than a walk-through of the event, the meeting is spent gathering basic information. “What ends up happening is that you have a lot of people sitting there who can’t be productive,” he says. He also cautions that both clients and vendors should be conscientious about pressing the “send” button to avoid a constant flow of emails that can be time consuming and difficult to track. “Communication is the most important thing above all,” Matiss explains. “It’s always a team effort, and the best events are the ones where everyone really works hand in hand in a respectful, cooperative manner. When it happens, it is exhilarating and it’s how you build great partnerships.”
Competition gives clients options and it drives suppliers to offer their best with every job. “If you can provide a great service and great product and be up front with pricing and expectations, a client is going to be very loyal,” says Geisel. Still, while working through initial bids, she’s watched clients select a competitor because of a lower quote that often doesn’t include a complete picture of the costs that will be involved. Being in business since 2006 and working in the industry for 25 years allows her to know what it takes to deliver a client’s vision, and the organic ingredients and from-scratch philosophy behind her business can mean higher food and labor costs. “We just try to be very honest up front with what things are going to cost. I think we don’t get some of the jobs because I am so honest up front,” Geisel says. “Competition is good because without competition people wouldn’t know why there’s a difference in pricing. It might not be a good thing in the beginning, but it helps weed out the better caterers.”
CHECK OUT MY PINTEREST
With its virtual bulletin boards and endless ideas, Pinterest has become a valuable tool in the meetings and events industry. “It’s a fabulous tool that clients are more comfortable using, and I love it because it gives them a quick way to channel ideas and abstract concepts,” says Matiss. “Unfortunately these beautiful pic- tures don’t come with price tags.” The magic of the moment they’re looking at can make clients forget about budgets, Photoshop and the reality of making the effects happen. Matiss’ clients often pin photos of outdoor events with whimsical lightbulbs strewn across the sky, but what isn’t in the picture is the structural rigging surrounding the space to suspend the lighting in midair. It’s another instance where open communication makes an event come together.