A guide to surviving holiday event planning

As the holiday season rapidly approaches, so does the creeping anxiety many meeting professionals begin to experience as high demand for booking spaces and securing event staff begins ramping up. This year, the challenges are more daunting than usual as inflation continues to torment consumers, logistical shipping hurdles keep essential items suspended in purgatory and severe staffing shortages nearly guarantee planners won’t see the requested number of workers show up on event day.

But that’s okay—Smart Meetings has your back. We’ve searched high and low for the best possible solutions to your holiday planning uncertainties so you can offer an elevated experience to attendees with a healthy dash of holiday cheer.

Anticipate Competition

Once planners have moved to the phase of booking the perfect venue for a holiday soiree, the next challenge is sure to begin. Chances are, numerous other planners will be vying for the same space and this issue is compounded by hotels with reduced staffing being forced to host fewer events. As the demand for in-person events continues to quickly ramp up, suppliers still in recovery mode struggle to keep pace with high expectations.

“Definitely connecting early—that’s a big part of it,” says Kate Patay CPCE, director of engagement with Terramar US, a DMC Network Company. “Get the venue and items secured as soon as possible because the demand is so high right now for in-person and face-to-face gatherings that items can and will sell out,” she says. In anticipation of stiff competition, planners need to make decisions quickly, even if planning a holiday event begins far in advance.

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Event professionals must also maneuver around past events that were rescheduled for a later date due to pandemic cancelations, further reducing event space availability. But not every holiday event needs to take place during the evening. Patay suggests planners unable to book venues and services for an evening event consider a luncheon as an alternative.

“It’s always nice to have an after-hours party, but close down the office and take four hours off. Give everyone a true break to get together,” Patay says, pointing out that providing attendees with a daytime event gives them more time to spend with their families during the holidays by giving them their time back. “I feel like that’s an even bigger holiday gift,” she says.

Communicate and Create Timelines

To mitigate the issues caused by high demand and staffing issues, it is paramount that planners communicate needs clearly—preferably during the time of drawing up a contract—to determine which services and outlets may be subject to limitations and to set expectations at host venues.

It is vital that planners be very clear on what the expectations of the client are when booking a venue and suppliers, according to Patay.

Planners and hotels that participated in a survey conducted by the Incentive Research Foundation, reported slightly different response times for RFPs, settling somewhere within two and a few days. Of the 280 hoteliers that responded to the survey, 50% said that responding to RFPs only takes 1-2 days.

Destination Management Companies that responded to the survey reported a slower response time to RFPs, typically responding within a few days with 10% of participating DMCs reporting that RFP response time can exceed two weeks to allow for logistical maneuvering needed to secure transportation, entertainment and furnishings, for example.

“DMCs have relationships across multiple venue styles and types such as hotels, banquet facilities, restaurants with larger spaces within them—the DMC will have that relationship so they can give the pros and cons of each and can help secure the right one early,” Patay says, adding that it is important to reach out as far in advance as possible to determine the best fit for the event while not shying away from putting down a deposit to secure the event space and services.

Serving Up a Memorable Experience on a Budget

It comes as no surprise that menu items are more expensive than ever with record inflation in the U.S. and can potentially evoke sticker shock when a planner receives a proposal for a catered event. But there are hacks for event professionals looking to get more bang for their buck.

Shortening the duration of an event from five hours to three hours, for example, can allow planners to provide their clients with the finer things—even when working from a slimmer budget, according to Mary Cline, Wolfgang Puck Catering vice president of national sales.

Read More5 Tips for Flexible Event Budgeting, No Matter the Format or Economic State

“I think now more than ever, you have to prioritize what is really important,” Cline says. “There are ways to nip-and-tuck around it and still have a great event without sacrificing the experience or getting people out to enjoy a meal together or reception.”

Reducing the timespan of an event can help with everything from service charges and staffing fees, to administrative fees and bar service, all of which are charged by the hour. “You can still structure a good three-hour party, but people are still getting out and having a great time,” she says.

Cheers the Season

Selecting the right spirits to usher in the glad tidings depends on the location and climate of a host city. Warm drinks such as hot toddies or mulled wine are a solid option for chilly climates while chilled drinks such as cranberry punch with vodka or sangria may be more suitable for holiday events hosted in warmer climates.

Selecting large-batch holiday cocktails, as opposed to an open bar, is another way to stretch a budget during a holiday event. “A full open premium bar, was the norm pre-pandemic, but maybe you are not at that spending level yet, or what you spent pre-pandemic isn’t going to get you as far,” Cline says. “For any season, we will have a menu of specialty drinks and cocktails we can offer,” she continues, noting that selecting batched drinks for larger events will save both time and money.

Designing a holiday-themed drink menu can also help stretch a tight budget and coordinating with a bartending vendor can help keep the beverage options festive. Planners can elevate the libations by serving them in a unique glass that can be imprinted with a company logo, for example, which attendees can take home to commemorate the event.

If planning for a holiday event with a charitable angle, consider working with the vendor to charge attendees a bit more for wine, beer, and cocktails and tout the contribution. Attendees will appreciate knowing the proceeds are going to a good cause. One way to garner funds for a good cause involves selling attendees drink tickets priced to cover the vendor’s fee as well as an additional amount for donation.

To avoid overdrinking after what everyone has endured over the last two years, Cline suggests only serving beer and wine and not spirits and offering mocktails for all the festivity without the next-day regrets.

Celebrate Safely

During such uncertain times, the safety of attendees should always be top of mind for planners and should be habitual, says Alan Kleinfeld, director of Arrive Conference Solutions. He pointed to complacency as one of the biggest security challenges facing planners. “We get complacent very fast because we’re so thrilled to get through something, we don’t want to deal with it anymore,” he says.

Kleinfeld had this advice for reducing the complacency around safety concerns: Make safety a habit. Planners often must perform risk assessments to be incorporated into a “duty of care,” as well as the “code of conduct” for attendees to follow. Safety needs to be considered before, during and after site selection.

While finding a venue that fits the needs of the client is top a priority, Kleinfeld suggests that planners perform site visits and consider security while evaluating the meeting spaces and other amenities using a checklist or a security consultant. Look for emergency exit signs with more than one way to get in and out. Ask to bring the director of security on the site visit in addition to the sales manager, he suggests, adding that doing so will highlight all adjacent security measures at a venue.

Safety processes should also be reviewed by event planners and event venue security staff to identify and understand the processes for handling active threats.

The Gift of Self-care

It’s clear that planning holiday events can be a daunting, stress-inducing task and Patay reminds event profs everywhere to take care of themselves and their mental health needs. “I’m a huge proponent of self-care,” Patay says. “That’s how you’re the best possible version of you—how you’re the best that’s out there.”

Holiday Wish List

  • Submit RFPs early
  • Communicate clients’ needs
  • Create a budget strategy
  • Consider a charitable angle
  • Create safety checklist
  • Practice self-care

This article appears in the October/November 2022 issue. You can subscribe to the magazine here.