The event biz is kind of like the mafia… once you’re in, you never really get out. After a decade in media/communications, seven years of which were dedicated to the events industry, in early 2012, I decided to leave that world to pursue a new direction in life. And I’ve found myself in and out of planning ever since, serving mainly on a volunteer basis for local church and community events. When I was brought on staff with my church this summer to assist with the community life ministries of a 2,000+ person congregation, I immediately inherited a line-up of wildly diverse, large and small events that take place on a monthly basis throughout the year. On the plus side, I’ve been volunteering with many of these events since inception, and I had a pretty good idea what I was getting into when my team started throwing planning items at me. At the very least, I remembered that nothing ever goes according to plan.
The first event on the roster was a drive-in movie night hosted in the church parking lot, which brought in 1,500+ spectators to see Sing my second week on the job in August. Slam dunk. Off to a great start.
Next up, in September, I took on a marriage conference featuring a well-known, comedy-based seminar speaker who was booked to fly in from Green Bay for a live appearance in our worship center. This particular speaker was coming with a high level of name recognition and popularity among our target audience. By all accounts, this one was going to be a huge win for our church and surrounding community.
I was brought into the planning process a few months after the deposit was paid and the dates were set, before any significant advertising or ticket sales had begun. It sounded like this seminar was basically a self-running operation. The speaker’s team would provide the content, scheduling, online registration, promotional materials, social media, stage set, merchandising, and even on-site volunteer training. We just provided the volunteers, the venue, and the snacks at break times. Easy, right?
Well, right off the bat, I learned we had just about everything possible working against us in terms of attracting attendees. First of all, tickets were expensive, and our congregation is accustomed to us putting on free community events. Second, it was a two-day commitment, with evening sessions running 7-10 p.m. on Friday and morning sessions running 9 a.m. to noon on Saturday, wreaking havoc with bedtimes and babysitting schedules. And, just to top it off, the event was taking place at the worst possible time of year for our sprawling Midwestern community: the last weekend in September, the beginning of fall rush, when the farmers were in the fields for harvest, the hunters were bailing for their season opener trips, and the families were traveling for kids’ sports activities. Oh, and our ministry coordinator’s wife was in pre-term labor with twins, so he probably wasn’t going to be around to answer any questions along the way.
Ever the optimist, I cheerfully took on the challenge. We might miss a significant portion of our target audience this time around, we acknowledged, but we’d roll with it. We’d extend the invitation to all the other churches in town, send out the details to our denomination across the state, market to regional counseling providers, and run some Facebook like-and-share campaigns across our area communities. And there’s always next year to try again on different dates—like in February, when it’s too cold for anyone in the Midwest to have anything better to do besides attend a marriage seminar. For now, we’d just run with the plan and take what we could get.
What could go wrong?
So, with two weeks to go before event day, our ticket sales were sitting at 60—not exactly a stampeding crowd, but a decent enough number for a local marriage conference, right? Besides, our congregation is made up of notoriously last-minute types, and we always see the bulk of our signups in the last week (or the day of). No big deal; we know our attendees, and we know they’ll come.
At the end of the day on Monday, I was thinking, Yeah, okay, 60 people—that’s worth it. Then the lead pastor strolled into my office to chitchat. He asked how many tickets we’d sold. I told him where we were at, and he casually mentioned, “You know, there’s a 300 minimum for this guy to come.”
Oh. No, I didn’t know that. Had I known that, I would have communicated things a little differently in my promotions for the last month. In fact, a little detail like that changes everything. Somehow, when the details got handed off, we’d let that one slip through the cracks.
We hadn’t implemented a deadline for ticket sales or registrations. We hadn’t even thought about it. As it stood, all of our people assumed they had until the day of the event to walk in and attend… just like every other event we’d ever hosted.
#1: Inquire about whether or not there’s a required attendance associated with your event, like as soon as you step into the planning process.
The next day (Tuesday), when I arrived back at the church office, I walked into a flurry of anxiety and questions. The speaker’s event team had called the church staff that morning and laid out options for us to 1) guarantee the minimum ticket sales, 2) alter the delivery method for the seminar content (video vs. live), or 3) cancel the event.
Most of the church staff was under the impression that meant we were canceling the event. By this time, the ministry coordinator was in the NICU with his wife and two brand-new preemie daughters, so his sense of urgency was understandably elsewhere. It was up to me to read the situation back at home base. Within minutes of walking in the door, I found things had escalated quickly as the news traveled from office to office. From what I could tell, based on the lead pastor’s demeanor today, the sky was falling and our budget was doomed.
We took a gamble. My gut said, “Let’s see how it looks this Sunday, and then make the call.” With some quick hashing, negotiating, and wringing of hands over calculated figures, the involved parties agreed that if we could hit 200 tickets sold by end of day on Sunday, which was five days away, our church would cover the last 100 tickets to meet the 300 minimum and ensure the event would go on the following weekend.
I wasn’t thrilled by the prospect of blowing our conference budget to cover unsold tickets for this one seminar, but I really wasn’t looking forward to the nightmare of issuing refunds, either… since we’d already processed deposits for a number of cash and check sales (in addition to the online registrations handled by the speaker’s organization) without thinking we needed to collect any individual details. The assumption had been “You have a ticket in hand; you’ve paid to get in.” Now we were suddenly looking at a very dismal prospect of trying to figure out who was going to need their money back, if we couldn’t sell enough tickets to make this thing happen.
#2: Whenever you’re charging in advance for admission to your event, keep track of individual contacts for each ticket purchase, and maintain a complete registration list—better safe than sorry!
How’d we do?
We gave it all we had. We threw money at radio ads, newspaper ads, Facebook ads; we sent out another church email blast and plastered flyers all over town and prayed for online sales reports from the speaker’s organization. On that deciding Sunday morning, we scrapped our scheduled announcements to push ticket sales during all three church services, telling our whole congregation, “Today’s the day—if you want this event to come here next week, tickets need to be purchased today.” By the end of the day, our on-site sales had increased by a whopping 20 tickets. Not quite the harvest we’d hoped for.
On Monday, I headed resolutely to the church office, fully anticipating I was on my way to cancel a conference. I requested an update for our online registrations from the speaker’s event team. After counting and re-counting, no matter how many times I counted, our combined online and on-site ticket sales had come in at a total of 143—a full 57 short of our agreed upon 200.
Disappointed but resigned to reality, I texted the ministry coordinator the numbers, knowing I’d be the one canceling the speaker, calling off the event, and figuring out the refund mess. After all, we’d agreed that if we didn’t hit 200 tickets sold, we’d have to cancel the event. Instead, after I delivered the news, I received the buoyantly cryptic message: Good! We’re all in.
In my head, I saw a flash of light, followed by hemmorhaging dollar figures. I wondered if he’d understood my message. I wondered if he’d been medicated by the NICU nurses. I had a meeting starting with the connections pastor right about then, so I asked him what he thought the text meant. His eyes got really big when he heard the sales deficit, and he asked, “Do you think we can make it to 200 by Friday?” I nodded slowly, looking meditative while the gears in my head clicked over all the extra promotion we’d run throughout the weekend, along with our congregation’s history of showing up unannounced to previous church events. I said, “I think it’s doable.” Our connections pastor said, “Then I think that means we’re all in.” I took a deep breath, walked out of that meeting with a big smile on my face, and assured the other staff members we were confident the ticket sales would come in by the day of the event.
#3: When the instructions change at the last minute, sometimes everyone just needs someone to adjust on the fly and move forward.
We’re in the clear—right?
I’d be lying if I said I carried no trepidation with me as I called up the speaker’s event staff to report on our on-site ticket sales for the weekend. As I diplomatically explained that our church had decided to honor those individuals who’d purchased tickets by going ahead with the event, and that we were fully prepared to pay the difference for any unsold tickets, I half expected the plug to be pulled from the other end. Was our brave little gathering of 143 even worth this speaker’s time at this point? But I must have sounded very calm, at least enough for the speaker’s V.P. of events to cheerfully confirm they’d get their money one way or another. I got off the phone and breathed a sigh of relief—now it was just a matter of waiting for the attendees to arrive.
But that wasn’t the last of the complications. On Tuesday, just a few days before the event, the kids’ ministry director ran into me in the hall and casually asked, “So, for childcare on Saturday morning, how many couples are bringing kids? Should I be planning to have enough volunteers for like four kids, or like 80 kids?”
I think I actually lost consciousness for a moment. I remember seeing stars. Just as casually, I replied, “That’s a really good question. Let me check on that for you.” I knew nothing about forecasting for childcare on Saturday morning. I’d been under the impression the kids’ ministries utilized some mysterious, standard algorithm for estimating kid-to-attendee ratios in these types of situations. After all, this certainly wasn’t our first event. Regardless, we had no on-site childcare signup in place, and the online registration through the speaker’s organization included no associated field. I had no idea how many kids to expect. I called the ministry coordinator at the hospital, and he said, “I have no idea.” Great.
So I sent a quick, beseeching appeal to the speaker’s event staff to obtain an emergency email list for online registrations. On Wednesday, out went an email blast to all known attendees and volunteers, followed on Thursday by a last-second Facebook campaign to beg for RSVPs. By Friday afternoon, we had 25+ kids confirmed for childcare—with more sure to arrive unexpectedly the day of. From there, it was up to the kids’ ministry director to come up with enough volunteers for Saturday morning, and I was ready for a long weekend at a spa in the mountains, far from phone calls and emails.
#4: If you’re going to offer childcare during your event, include a checkbox on your registration form with clear instructions about how your attendees can RSVP their kids.
By the way…
Finally, it seemed, all the oversights were behind us, and we were ready to just grit our teeth and get through this thing. On Thursday at 3 p.m., I received a final checklist from our speaker’s event team, with a few last reminders for the day of. I nodded my way through all the requested time slots and rider items, mentally congratulating our team for being right on top of all the details we did have to work with, back in the beginning.
Then, at the very end, one bullet point on the list froze my blood solid: “And Mr. Speaker will NOT be arriving at 10:30 in the morning as planned. He will arrive around 5 p.m.”
The seminar schedule flashed before my eyes. The speaker’s team had been on tap to complete a sound check with our staff in the morning, set up product tables in the afternoon, and run the volunteer training at 5:45 p.m., prior to the seminar start at 7 p.m. We’d already wrangled schedules for the tech director to be on-site that morning, so he could run through slides and video content to ensure everything was set up for his volunteer team, who would be covering the sound booth that night. The tech director couldn’t be there himself on Friday night due to another commitment—where he was supposed to be at 5 p.m.
Now, instead of having most of the day to work out any kinks, our tech director would be leaving site right about the time our speaker was arriving on-site, and we’d have about 45 minutes to pull off the speaker’s set-up before volunteer training and go-time. And we thought this seminar was supposed to be a self-running operation…
#5: Have a full contingency plan in place to cover all associated event roles, just in case the speaker’s schedule changes before the planned ETA.
Oh, and just for fun…
So, for better or worse, there we found ourselves on Friday night: the ministry coordinator and the tech director and me, lined up at the main entrance at 4:50 p.m. to welcome Mr. Speaker at 5:00. The ministry coordinator hadn’t slept all week; he’d left his family in the NICU and driven 45 minutes to be on-site for this event. The tech director had somewhere else he needed to be; his wife and son were eating McDonald’s in the car and waiting for him. I had a tired smile plastered to my face, waiting for the formalities to be over; I’d already put in 64 hours this week, and the event hadn’t even started yet.
At 5:07, the three of us were checking watches, looking around at each other, and saying, “I would feel a lot better if he was here right now.” The ministry coordinator ventured, “Well, if he’s late, he must be feeling pretty confident, right?” At 5:11, I was reviewing my email to be sure I hadn’t imagined being told, “around 5 p.m.” By 5:20, my brain was feverishly calculating the time left to let everyone know the event was canceled after all. At 5:25, I had the cell number to Mr. Speaker’s assistant in Green Bay pulled up on my phone, staring at the seconds ticking by. When the clock hit 5:29, I had my finger over the icon to dial—and right then the shiny rental car pulled into the parking lot with Mr. Speaker in the passenger seat.
The ministry coordinator, the tech director, and I all died a little inside. Then we started calculating the time all over again. Was Mr. Speaker’s assistant still going to handle the volunteer orientation, or were we doing that now? How long would the sound check take? Our tech director needed to be gone 30 minutes ago! Were we supposed to unpack all of Mr. Speaker’s product? Why wasn’t he getting out of the car? Why were they just sitting out there in front of the church? Were we supposed to go out there to welcome him in? Should we go get the red carpet out of the closet or something? We supposed technically, Mr. Speaker had arrived “around 5.” And now our volunteers would be arriving in 15 minutes. Good thing I’d spent my entire afternoon pre-setting all the tables and snacks, because there sure as heck wasn’t going to be any time to do it now!
#6: At the end of the day, there’s nothing stopping your speaker from showing up half an hour late without notifying anyone.
By the time Mr. Speaker got out of the vehicle and wheeled his suitcase to the door, we were fully composed, smiling, and gracious, pleased to meet him and show him to his dressing area while his assistant got busy opening boxes and arranging product tables. The tech director ran through the sound check in record time and rushed off with his family to their evening engagement. The ministry coordinator and I divvied up the volunteer trainings and raced through them without preparation, on the fly, skipping half the details without batting an eye. The event went on, we checked in 187 attendees, and the weekend was full of stories shared throughout our congregation about how the seminar content hit so many couples exactly where they’re at, blessing dozens of marriages in our community and beyond. Sunday afternoon, with satisfied smiles, the ministry coordinator and I were content to eat the cost and never speak of it again—and we’d take Monday off from work while we were at it.
Serenity is a former newspaper, magazine, and digital media editor who now serves bi-vocationally as a ministry assistant and services coordinator. In a past life, she headed the content department for a regional meetings publication targeting the Midwest, and she assisted the launch of Plannerwire’s online media/marketing strategies. Today, through the faith-based mentoring/coaching mission of The Serenity Project, LLC, Serenity’s passion is equipping individuals to become leaders in their own lives. www.theserenityproject.us