Archive for January, 2008

Managing Those “Anything Can Happen” Moments

Wednesday, January 30th, 2008

Ever watch “The Price Is Right?” I do okay guessing the actual retail values of the products. How? It’s easy – they are always twice as much as I think they should be.

One element of some parties is like that: those open-ended, open-mike moments when guests get up to speak. Whether it’s a 90th birthday party (which I played last week) or a school fund-raiser (where I also entertained last week), anything can happen when your carefully-wrought script and timetable go out the window. The only thing for sure is that such moments usually last twice as long as you imagined.

What can you do? How can you loosen the reins, without losing control of your party? Well, here’s how my hosts dealt with their challenges last week.

At the 90th birthday, it was a given that family members and friends would want to roast and toast the honoree. Knowing the family well, our host (the honoree’s son) polled the usual suspects to see what they had planned. Discovering not one but two Top 10 lists, he cleverly combined the best elements of both. The result: a shorter, yet funnier, tribute. A cousin’s humorous song followed, after which came a tear-filled eulogy to those no longer present. Sensing that it was time to cut the cake and move on, my boss then delivered “the last word” himself, a clear signal that we were proceeding to the next phase of the evening.

At the fund raiser, apparently nobody told the chairman that there would be a series of performances by the children of the school. We hastily shifted mikes and piano into position so the little darlings – ultimate beneficiaries of our gala – could perform. It was precious and perfect for the crowd, but delayed the start of dinner (which threw off the timing on the live auction, and all that followed.) Our veteran chairman and his auctioneer quickly switched the schedule to start the auction as soon as dessert began. It was the right call. Everyone was not only still present, but they were still in their seats and even quiet (their mouths were full.)

In both cases, my hosts understood the tricky and sometimes fickle nature of guests. Older invitees, especially, tend to depart at a pre-determined time (usually really early) – whether the cake has been cut (or their pockets picked by the auctioneer) or not. Shifting your schedule as needed means those guests won’t miss the party’s highlights.

“Anything Can Happen” moments are – by definition – out of your control. Simply knowing that such things can – and probably will – occur allows the savvy party planner to budget a block of time, “just in case.”

How To Get Free (Or Cheap) Entertainment For Your Gala

Monday, January 28th, 2008

The fundraiser’s dilemma: you want a good – and, if possible, famous speaker or entertainer to draw patrons to your annual gala. But – being a fundraiser (whose moneys are meant to help a charitable cause) – you want to spend as little as possible.

How do you do it? How do you get great speakers or performers, while still saving every possible penny for your charity?

1. Choose someone personally connected to your cause. Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul, and Mary) sang and spoke to a Home Hospice convention here in Dallas, because his own mother had benefitted from such care. Now that Lance Armstrong isn’t training full-time for bike races, he’s a frequent draw for Cancer research. In such cases, your only expenses might be air fare (which can use donated air miles) and a hotel room (which – if your event is being held in a hotel ballroom – can also be comped.)

2. Pick someone from a related field. Two years ago, my band backed up a couple of singers at a gala benefitting a hospital in Haifa, Israel. One was a cantor at a local synagogue, who is also a gifted singer of tongue-twisting comedy songs. The other was a physician herself, who happens to have a gorgeous singing voice. They were perfect! A local garage band of MDs, – cleverly called “Doctor Doctor” – entertained with me at an Alzheimer’s Memory Walk. Each of these people are well-known in their individual fields, but are also delightful entertainers (even if their musical talents are not their claims to fame.)

3. Go for the “next” big star. Most major cities have local showcases of up-and-coming talent who gain stage experience and a following through performances there. Typically, these acts receive little or no money. Many would gladly appear before hundreds of potential fans. At a fund-raiser we did for a child with Cystic Fibrosis some years back, a pre-teen LeAnn Rimes did just that, singing her soon-to-be smash hit, “Blue.”

4. Find Underwriting. Most galas occur on Saturday nights. Bands like mine can discount our fees on a Saturday, but we can’t afford to literally give our services away. That’s where underwriters come in. They pay for the band as their donation to the cause, leaving more of whatever moneys come through the door as profit.

Finally, let me just add a personal note, as one who has both sought entertainers for worthy causes, and one who has provided such services: those who generously share their musical or speaking gifts with you deserve “star” treatment. You may not be able to pay them top dollar, but you can make them feel appreciated by you and your audience. Or, put another way…

Free entertainment is a priceless resource. Treasure it!

“Will You Work With Me On That?”

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2008

There are times when – as Frank Sinatra used to sing – “Something’s gotta give.”

My band’s standard stage size is 12′ deep by 24′ wide. In a large hotel or country club ballroom, this usually presents no problem. But in certain venues where we are hired to play, the unique layout of the room makes such an amount of square footage (or at least, in that particular configuration) difficult or even impossible for the buyer to provide.

In such cases, my client often asks: “Will you work with me on that?” And my answer is always, “Yes.” The same is true of most of my fellow bandleaders.

Brides who have reached the outer limits of their budget, and fund-raisers who are trying to maximize their charity’s net profit both ask that same question. And again, as far as we are able, the majority of bands and deejays answer in the affirmative – we will work with you.

But there are a few factors that I hope you’ll take into account, before you make a similar request:

1. There are space limits beyond which your music provider cannot go. Given advance warning, our band can cut our stage size by 1/3 in either or both directions (down to 8′ X 16′.) We do this by scaling back on the amount of equipment we bring, and by squishing closer together. Beyond that, there’s not much we can do for you without adversely compromising both the look and sound of the band.

2. Some nights are better for squeezing budgets than others. On Saturday nights, or during weekends in December, bands and deejays can – and should – make full pay. You will find the best deals from your music providers by booking them during “off” times. Your other option is to cut back on the number of musicians hired.

3. All such negotiations should take place BEFORE the contracts are signed. You would justifiably be upset if your bandleader showed up at your party with 2 fewer musicians than you had contracted to have, or if he unilaterally decided to work less hours. In turn, your band or deejay deserves everything from you that your contract has promised. The only good time to ask “Will you work with me on that?” is before contracts are signed. Otherwise, your music provider has every right to expect that his amount of set-up time, stage space, and conveniently available electricity will be just as the contract has spelled out.

Discovering the extent to which compromise is possible before you sign on the dotted line protects both you and your vendor. The one thing neither of you wants to hear at the party is this exchange: “Will you work with me on that?” “No!”

Is Your Wedding On A Tight Budget? Think Funky, Or Think Small!

Monday, January 21st, 2008

Four words I have never said: “Price is no object.” If price is a factor in your bridal plans, please read on.

Saturday night, Gina and I were visiting our son Erik in Houston. He and 4 of his friends took us to their favorite funky Chinatown hang-out, Lai-Lai. Our entire party of 7 enjoyed a delightful meal for less than $60 – tip included. Sunday brunch at the more up-scale Baba Yega Restaurant was equally fabulous, and also – for Gina, Erik, and me – about $60. So, sixty bucks can feed seven or it can feed three – depending on whether you go for fun and funky, or for classy and classic.

Those same options apply to your wedding and reception. Assume for a moment that you are on a fixed and slightly tight budget. (For most of us, that is a very safe assumption.) Without going deeply into debt, your financial limitations preclude “The Wedding Of The Century.” In fact, they may preclude inviting many of your closest friends and relations.

Here’s where my example of the 2 very different restaurant visits (with the same tabs) ties in.

On such a budget, you can either have a big, happy, but low-key wedding day, or you can have an elegant and tasteful, but intimate gathering. Which is right for you?

If it’s important to you that the most folks possible share your wedding, but Daddy’s Money (or yours) is finite, go for fun and funky! Forget the 5-star hotel or country club as a reception venue. Instead, book your favorite bohemian or ethnic restaurant during off-hours – like 2:00 ’til 5PM on Saturday. (They’ll be thrilled to work with you.) Don’t blow 50% of your total bankroll on a wedding gown that you will wear only once. Buy something pretty, yet functional for future parties and easier on your wallet. To save even more money, have your ceremony at the same venue. In years to come, you’ll remember how much fun you had, surrounded by those you love and who love you. Neither you nor they will worry a moment about the (lack of) expense.

But if you’ve always dreamed of a more traditional wedding, then – by all means – that is what you should have. (But without everyone you’ve ever met in attendance.) In order to prevent bruised feelings, you might consider having your immediate families join you for a ceremony at your romantic honeymoon destination. Under such circumstances, anyone with their priorities straight will understand why the guest list was limited. Such a site need not necessarily be in an exotic location. Most major cities have “boutique” hotels which are noted for their service and cuisine, but are severely limited on space. Your wedding can be like a perfect diamond – precious and beautiful, with a value out of all proportion to its size.

Which brings up four words I have often said: “It’s your wedding day.” Make it right for you and your budget!

The Abe Lincoln Theory Of Party Planning (Keeping Generational Wars Civil)

Wednesday, January 16th, 2008

Weddings would seem to be the hardest parties on earth to play. Typically, the age range of the guests runs from toddlers to Senior Citizens. So what is the secret of my success at pleasing these very diverse groups? (Sorry if that sounds awfully smug, but I have survived in this business for over 30 years. I must be doing something right!)

Answer: I don’t even try to please the 8 and 80 year olds. To paraphrase Mr. Lincoln, “you can’t please all the people all the time.” It’s impossible! So, I simply please the bride. If she’s happy, everybody is happy (or should be.) And pleasing just one person is a snap!

Obviously, the same concept also applies to birthday parties, anniversaries or any other gatherings at which the enjoyment of the guest of honor is your paramount objective.

But, let’s suppose that your next party isn’t a wedding or anniversary – it’s a social event at which (1.) everybody is equal, and (2.) a 40-year age spread will be present. And let’s say the oldest guests enjoy Sinatra and Big Band, while the youngest prefer Baby Boomer hits. How can you make the evening enjoyable for everyone?

Answer: By making every song somebody’s favorite, and by adjusting the set list to the realities of Seniors and Boomers.

What do I mean? Specifically this: most Seniors are the first to arrive, the first to dance, and the very first to leave. The majority of Boomers need more time and more “social lubrication” before venturing onto the dance floor. So, at a typical 8PM ’til midnight dinner dance, I would keep the music soft and conversational (also – very important – not busy) during dinner. Let folks visit without shouting over the band. After dinner, I’d play the songs, rhythms, and volume that the oldest guests love. (I also like to play lots of tunes that have been hits more than once. “Unchained Melody” is an Al Hibler movie theme to the Greatest Generation. But Boomers also know and love it as the Righteous Brothers song from “Ghost.” In this way, the same tunes often perform double-duty.)

The later the hour, the more the repertoire will favor the Boomers. By 11:00, the only Seniors remaining are usually the “young at heart,” who are perfectly happy to share the dance floor with their grown children.

Honest Abe might call this “pleasing all the people some of the time.”

I only know that most of the people, most of the time, leave parties where I do what I’ve described above with a good feeling about the night in general and the music in particular. And that sense of satisfaction makes hosts and hostesses very happy.

That Abe Lincoln – he was quite a party planner!

Is A BIG Reception Wrong For You?

Monday, January 14th, 2008

As a musician, I love big wedding receptions with hundreds of guests, a huge dance floor, and – of course – my band. Not only are such lavish gatherings good for the local economy in general, but they are vital for the Tanner family’s financial well-being.

But let’s face it: some brides just aren’t cut out for the additional stresses and strains that a full-scale reception entails – from the first dance to the four additional hours in high heels and wedding dress, with smile fixed firmly in place. For any number of reasons, many brides count simply surviving the wedding ceremony as challenge enough. All they want and need by way of a reception is 60 minutes in the fellowship hall to shake a few hands, cut the cake, toss the bouquet, and then get out of Dodge.

My bride this past weekend struck me as just such a person. Her one and only appearance on the dance floor was for a ceremonial first waltz with her new husband. Since she didn’t dance, nobody else did either. The band and dance floor (and the moneys which paid for both) were thus wasted. Nor did she bask in the spotlight’s glow all night. In fact, she seemed to be a bit overwhelmed by all the folderol – a sweet young lady whose ambition had only been to get married, not to be the center of the universe all night long. This may be an overstatement, but a few times, I got the impression that she’d have been much happier being married by a Justice of the Peace at the county courthouse. Such a wedding would have been quicker and cheaper, too – and much less torture for an essentially shy bride.

So why didn’t she elope? Why did she put herself through the physical and emotional exhaution of a “big” wedding?

I don’t know the answer in this case. Certainly sometimes, the big parties appear to be more Mom or Dad’s idea than the bride’s, and to say much more about parental personalities and likes than their daughter’s.

My advice to any such daughters is – when Mom or Dad suggests a bigger wedding than you are up for – just say “No.” If they persist and insist, stay firm. Never forget that it is your wedding, not theirs. If they’re so dead-set on spending your inheritance, let them make a big fat downpayment on your first house. But if you are a “one hour and out” gal who dreads the very thought of a long reception, stand your ground. Tell the folks to have their own party if they want to plan one so badly.

And please, tell them my band is available.

If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It!

Wednesday, January 9th, 2008

Change is healthy, change is good. But – with parties – change for its own sake is not only a world of extra hassle, it also often involves tampering with a proven recipe for success. (And that is a recipe for disaster!)

Which is why so many corporate party planners – once they find the right venue and entertainment for specific events (like the annual Christmas party, for instance) – go back to them repeatedly. This benefits not only the planner, but also allows the guests to have a continuing familiarity with the flow of the event.

In order to avoid that familiarity becoming contempt (your “groove” could be other folks’ “rut”), planners frequently work on a 3-year schedule. They either use the same good-fitting vendors three years running (before changing), or else use specific rooms and bands or deejays every third year.

Brides whose older sisters have had a successful ceremony and reception will occasionally try to capture the same magic, while changing each of the individual elements. Unfortunately, this all too frequently ends in failure at some level. (For comparison, imagine baking your favorite dish with entirely new ingredients. It’s not usually as good.)

My friend and classmate Bill Turner’s committee spent hours and hours planning our last reunion. Eventually, they decided on a weekend that coincided with our school’s homecoming, a venue that offered a nice mix of intimate and large rooms, and my band for the music. You can imagine Bill’s surprise when – after all this work – a member of the following class told him that her committee had completed their labors in one hour flat. Knowing how much effort our gathering had taken, Bill was incredulous. He asked her, “How did you do it so fast?” As you may have guessed, her answer was that they had decided to hold their event on Homecoming weekend, at the same venue we’d used, and with my band.

Change is good. But sometimes, simple is better.

Avoiding Those “Party-Killing” Intermissions

Monday, January 7th, 2008

When a deejay needs a sandwich or a quick pit-stop, the music, and therefore the flow of the party, never stops. Live musicians – being human – need breaks once in a while. As the host, your task is to see to it that their time off doesn’t adversely affect your event.

There are three easy ways to accomplish this. Depending on the needs of your party, you may choose one, two, or even all three of them (they work great together.)

1. Schedule breaks early, not late. For a standard 4-hour evening, most bands expect three 15-minute breaks. It’s that last one – the one around 11PM (at an 8 ’til midnight gathering) – that kills the momentum of the party and sends half your guests home. So, instead of taking their breaks at 9:00, 10:00, and 11:00, I suggest moving everything forward by 30 minutes. That will get your musicians back on stage to start their last set at 10:45, and they can play straight through until midnight. You’ll need to clear this with your bandleader in advance, and I recommend doing so before you sign a contract with them.

2. Fill the breaks with attention-holding activities. My band has always taken what I call “invisible” intermissions. How? Well – at a wedding, for instance – nobody needs the band while the cake is being cut, toasts are going on, or bouquets and garters are being thrown. Plenty of opportunities exist for bandmembers to take care of their business, then be back on stage in time for the next set. But – if you do it right – none of your guests will notice, because they will be busy watching the alternate activities. All you have to do is plan out with your bandleader a schedule that spaces the timing of these events throughout the night.

3. Use recorded music to fill the breaks. No band can play every kind of music. And – at a diverse gathering – there comes a point in the evening when you want to “toss a bone” to whatever constituency has been ignored musically thus far. Simply schedule 15 minutes worth of those numbers back-to-back while your musicians take their breaks. It doesn’t matter whether the music is Big Band, 70s Disco, Latin, or a combination of all the above. The fans of those particular styles will be happy to have heard “their” songs, your band will be happy to have had their breaks, and – most importantly – you will be happy because the momentum of the party will never stop.

Your guests will have no idea how you made the evening flow so beautifully, they will only know that – all of a sudden – it’s midnight (two hours later than they’d intended to stay.) And on their way out the door they will tell you: “This was the best party – ever!!”

Adding Celebrity “Star Power” To Your Fundraiser/Gala

Wednesday, January 2nd, 2008

I once knew a TV news anchor who would finish her 5PM broadcast, rush to return her wardrobe to the department store who supplied each evening’s outfit in exchange for an on-air plug, then go to her “real” job as a restaurant waitress.

Being a local radio or TV personality may seem glamorous, but it used to be a low-paying proposition. Consequently, deejays augmented their incomes by appearing at sock hops, while news, weather, and sports folk from the tube made extra cash as emcees and after-dinner speakers.

Today, in many of our major cities, these same folk – who are now being very well compensated – offer those same services as a public service. That’s right – for a good cause, you may be able to score a “big name” (at least, in your town) for nothing more expensive than a rubber chicken dinner.

The benefits can be phenominal. Our town’s hockey play-by-play man is not only a good sport, he is a gifted emcee and auctioneer. The Chief Meteorologist at one of our network affiliates shows up not only looking glamorous, but having done her homework. Such “star power” makes any event seem big-time. In addition to TV and radio talent, we are also fortunate locally to have a number of current and former pro athletes who are entirely comfortable at the podium.

But beware – some “personalities” take these jobs less seriously than others. My Alzheimer’s support group once endured a rambling talk from a news anchor who knew less about the disease than any person in the room. At your event, you’ll want someone who can tie in their talent and life experiences to your particular cause. Rampant narcissism, even when it’s free, adds nothing to the enjoyment or education of your guests.

For this reason, I recommend that – before you extend an invitation to that sports anchor who seems so entertaining on TV – you check with a few of the folks who have used him in the past. Was he sober? Did his remarks speak to their interests, or only his own ego? (Was it all about them or all about him?)

You see, Star Power is terrific – as long as you don’t get struck by a falling star.