Archive for September, 2009

Watching The Clock At Your Party

Wednesday, September 30th, 2009

Having a tentative schedule of the events at your party is a good thing. Being slavishly locked in to that schedule is – unfortunately – not so good.

In the first place, your guests have their own timetables. And they may be very different from yours.

If you have a cocktail hour outside the ballroom, just getting the guests in the door may take twice as long as you budgeted. (Some hosts even resort to “crowd herders,” to shepherd guests into the ballroom in a timely fashion.)

However, other invitees – older ones especially – may already be in the room and at their seats when the dinner chimes sound.

Invocations, words of welcome, and toasts are also notoriously variable in length. A 30-second prayer that was scheduled to last for 2 minutes doesn’t do much damage to your schedule. But Uncle Harry’s “toast” that turns into a stand-up comedy routine can leave your banquet staff wondering whether to serve now – on schedule – or to let the soup get cold, waiting for Harry to shut up and sit down.

Also, parties rarely end exactly as predicted. Brides and grooms, stressed from too many intense days in a row, may run out of energy an hour before their planned departure. Other galas may practically scream for overtime. In either case, sticking to what you thought was appropriate timing ignores the real-world needs of your event.

Your catering staff, music supplier, and other vendors do need to have an approximate idea of the flow of the evening. But – as party professionals – they already know that your well-thought-out agenda is just a guideline, and is not chiseled in stone.

Time management is an important part of any successful event. But savvy event planners take into account that a few minutes more here or a few minutes less there, as needed, are the difference between a good party – and a great one.

Why Every Bride Should Depart In Her Wedding Gown

Monday, September 28th, 2009

The momentum and flow of otherwise perfect wedding receptions come to a screeching halt, every time the bride disappears to change into her travel ensemble.

Why?

First of all, because the bride is the center of the wedding reception universe. She is Cinderella, Homecoming Queen, and Belle of the Ball, rolled into one. She is the reason for the whole party. (The groom would probably be just as happy to have departed right after the ceremony.)

Secondly, the bride never leaves alone to change clothes – she takes every other key female with her. Without Mom and the bridesmaids to keep the guests happy and engaged, the dance floor empties, the party spirit wilts, and guests start standing around, looking at their watches.

Which brings up reason number three: Tanner’s Law of Wardrobe Replacement dictates that the more “helpers” a bride has to assist her in changing clothes, the longer it takes. From the moment she leaves the reception with her entourage, until she returns, can often approach 30 minutes. No wonder the party dies.

For all these reasons, I favor brides staging the Great Escape in their wedding best. Depart in your limo in a shower of rose petals, rice, or bubbles. Savor every last moment in your gown. After all, it’s probably the most expensive dress you’ve ever worn. And you’re only planning to wear it once. So skip the costume change.

Believe me – your guests will thank you!

When Ya Gotta Go…

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009

Yesterday, Iran’s president spoke at the United Nations. As he began, the entire UK delegation walked out. No, they didn’t need a potty break. It was an act of protest against an oppressive regime. And no one present missed the message.

Today, I spoke at a luncheon. Mid-way through my presentation, two ladies walked out. As it happened, this was not a protest. Instead, it was… a doctor’s appointment.

In the real world of public speaking, these things happen. Cell phones ring. (And occasionally – someone in the audience actually answers the call.) Talkative types continue their conversations, oblivious both to the speaker and to those around them. Waiters and busboys in the kitchen assume incorrectly that – with the kitchen door closed – we can’t hear them. Teens and 20-somethings text non-stop, like demented court stenographers (except that I’m pretty sure they aren’t writing down anything I say.

And sometimes, a person who would never dream of being rude simply feels an urgent call of nature. They exit because – when ya’ gotta go, ya’ gotta go.

All of these interruptions are distracting for the person speaking. But few such situations are improved by the speaker calling attention to them. For this reason, as long as people leave the room (or text) quietly, I try to hold the focus of the rest of the audience, because I understand that these are only momentary distractions.

However, in the case of ongoing noisy rudeness, I’ve learned (the hard way) that it is much better to let an audience of their peers correct the bad actors, than for me to do it directly.

If I take someone to task from the podium, I am assuming the role of parent or teacher of an unruly child – and that’s not my function. But – when I simply stop speaking, glance at the offending persons, then open my hands at mid-chest in a gesture of “what?” – the audience almost inevitably does the heavy lifting for me. Choruses of SHHHH! fill the room. Once in a while, a stern Good Samaritan will even walk over to the blabbermouths, and they fill the disapproving parent/teacher role. Better them than me.

There may be no known cure for the rudeness disease, but there is one pretty effective treatment. It occurs every time I am introduced on stage by someone well-known to and well-liked by the audience – someone who brings the instincts of a Marine Drill Sergeant to the podium. When that beloved peer lays down the law in advance, telling the crowd that they will turn off their cell phones, and they will listen attentively in a way that brings honor to their group, it has a most beneficial result. Generally, folks who know they are being held to a higher standard of behavior rise to the occasion.

At least – until they gotta go.

Do We HAVE To Invite Them?

Monday, September 21st, 2009

For many brides and grooms, pruning the guest list is the first real test of their marriage.

Guest lists have a tendency to grow and grow, until the harsh realities of limited seating space and costs per guest require (for most of us) some judicious “editing.”

What makes this process especially painful is the moment when bride and groom must choose between someone they both truly love and want to have present, and someone who – by blood or other relationship – they feel obligated to invite.

At such times, the question is often asked: “Do we really have to invite them?

And the one word answer is “no.” If you are the bride, you control the guest list.

That’s the good news. The bad news is, you are are also responsible for the consequences and repercussions of your decision.

One solution some of my couples choose is the Destination Wedding, where only the bride, groom, best man, maid of honor, and immediate families go to what will become the honeymoon location for a small ceremony. Other ready-made excuses for an “immediate family only” ceremony are choosing a small “boutique” hotel for the venue, or even having their event in the home of a close friend or relative.

A series of receptions, one for friends from work and school, another for family members, can follow. These are usually much more low-key and informal than a typical wedding reception, and give everyone the opportunity to feel included.

But there is one other reason you may not wish to invite a particular person, and it has nothing to do with limiting the size of your guest list. It may be a person whose behavior at such events has all too often been a source of embarrassment, or who has in some egregious way offended you.

Again – you don’t have to invite them. Indeed, I just worked with a bride who declined to invite her own father (for reasons he understood perfectly well.) But if not inviting them only creates a larger set of new problems, one solution may be to first have a blunt discussion with the person in question, detailing your expectations and eliciting a promise of good behavior. Then – at the event itself – you may be able to prevail upon a close friend or family member to “bird-dog” the problem child, monitoring their actions and inter-actions through the evening. (I have also known brides who had good luck by assigning their potentially troublesome guest to a limited official role – like working the bride’s table, or making sure of the head count on the out-of-town guests’ bus. Trusting them, even in a small way, paid dividends.)

In the real world, all of your guests have “problem” friends and relatives, too. If someone misbehaves at your event, no one is going to blame you. They will assign guilt where it belongs – on the offender. (And they will empathize with the no-win position inviting them put you in.)

But, at your wedding, nobody has the right to ruin your night. If there is someone whose mere presence will do just that, you may feel free – to paraphrase that master of the malapropism, Sam Goldwyn – to “include them out.”

A Nearby Reception Site Makes One Less Problem For YOU

Wednesday, September 16th, 2009

Like most major cities, my town has some great downtown hotels and venues which are popular for wedding receptions. Unfortunately, they are a 30 to 45 minute drive from many of the suburban places of worship brides choose for their ceremonies.

In real terms, what this means is that guests from all over our metropolitan area must first trek out to the ‘burbs for the nuptials, then retrace their steps all the way back to the city center to be part of the reception. (And then afterwards, make yet another jaunt back home.)

Out-of-towners must bus from their host hotel to both sites, and then back again.

And time after time, I have seen that – the greater the distance between locations – the more chances there are for folks to get lost, delayed in traffic, or otherwise have their nerves frazzled.

For me, the solution is to keep the 3 key locations (ceremony site, reception site, and host hotel) as near to each other as possible.

If the ceremony site is crucial (a home church or college chapel, for instance), then I would suggest finding both a reception venue and host hotel nearby. And nothing is handier for your out-of-town guests than making their hotel and the reception site one and the same.

Conversely, if the reception site is most important, consider having the ceremony there as well.

Especially when one of your chosen sites is a considerable distance from where the majority of your guests will start and finish their day, I recommend moving them again as little as possible. (Take into account that – at most weddings – the guest list includes infants to elderly, as well some with mobility issues.)

How little? I can think of no circumstances where the driving time from hotel to ceremony, or ceremony to reception, should ever be more than 15 minutes. Even less is better.

If this requires compromising the bride’s vision of her special day, just remember: the only “perfect” wedding is one enjoyed by all the guests. Keeping their required relocations simple and quick makes them happy, giving you one less needless complication. And on your wedding day – that’s a really good thing.

Ultimate Freedom = Ultimate Responsibility

Monday, September 14th, 2009

I had the honor this past weekend of emceeing an event honoring a couple whose durable marriage and history of service to family and community earned them a long-overdue tribute dinner.

Like most such events, this one was set to consist of a time for guests to enter and visit with the couple, followed by the meal, a brief program from me, and then an opportunity for family and friends to offer their comments and toasts.

Prior to the event, the honorees entrusted me with the responsibility of pacing the evening. And – when I say “entrusted” – I mean that they handed the reins of their special night to me. Such assurance is rare in my business – I almost always have a chairperson or party planner who outranks me. Their faith was very liberating. It gave me the flexibility to run the show, based on my years of experience. If I thought it was time to move on to the next item on the agenda, no one was going to second guess me. I have to admit, it felt really good.

For about five minutes.

Then the realization soaked into my thick cranium that – if this party bombed – there would be little doubt who was to blame. It would be yours truly, and nobody else.

Fortunately for me, things went pretty well. At least, the guests of honor seemed pleased.

But it made me realize – for the very first time – how Newton’s Third Law of Motion (“For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.”) affects our daily lives.

How many college freshman are so thrilled to be “free” of parental constraints, that they flunk out their first semester? They overdose on the freedom, without accepting its equal and opposite: responsibility to show up for class and study.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I should point out that – while I didn’t technically “flunk out” my first semester – I didn’t wow anyone with my mature behavior, either.)

However, the older I get, the more I agree with Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore:
I slept and dreamt that life was joy / I awoke and found that life was service
I acted and behold, service was Joy.

“You Can’t Please Everyone, So You’ve Got To Please Yourself.”

Wednesday, September 9th, 2009

The lyrics which form the title of today’s entry are from Rick Nelson’s 1972 hit “Garden Party,” composed after he was booed at a Madison Square Garden “Oldies” show for daring to include some newer tunes. As a philosopher, Rick may not rank beside Confucius or Lao Tse, but I do believe he expressed an important truth in this simple chorus.

All parties (not just the garden variety) need to express a point of view – be it that of the host and hostess or the guest of honor. The choice of music (as well as its volume) at a silver or golden anniversary event should – generally – reflect the tastes of the honorees. Food, timing, and decor at a quincinera and bar or bat mitzvah need to be appropriate for early teens. Everything at a wedding ceremony and reception ought to be an extension of the bride’s personality. (Sorry about that, grooms. The rehearsal dinner is your event.)

As the song truly says, “You can’t please everyone…” Or, at least, you can’t expect to please them all at the same time.

For this reason, many multi-generational gatherings offer sequential olive branches to their various constituencies. The music selection and volume at a wedding reception is often geared to older guests early in the evening, moving forward chronologically (and moving upward in decibels) as the event progresses.

But – too often – planners who try to please everyone wind up pleasing no one. The younger folks are bored out of their minds, long before any of “their” music is heard. And everyone over 40 hurriedly says their “good nights”, the moment the first Hip Hop song is played. By trying to have a “one size fits all” event, your perfect party feels like a perfect disaster. At least when you please yourself, somebody is happy, all the time.

Please understand that I’m not advocating knowingly alienating part of your crowd. I’m simply saying that it is almost impossible to keep everybody equally happy, all night long – with one major exception.

And that is, unless they’re happy because you are happy. If it’s your party, and you are having the time of your life, most of your guests will share in your joy (if not in your musical tastes.)

And frankly, when you are the guest of honor, or when your money is paying for the event, you have every right “to please yourself.” (So thanks for the wise words, Rick. Ozzie and Harriet would be proud!)

Define “Casual”

Monday, September 7th, 2009

Over this past Labor Day weekend, I played for a post-wedding brunch held the morning after the big event. Guests had been told that dress for the affair was casual. But never have I seen “casual” cover so much territory.

Part of this was due to the fact that many of the invitees were from out of town, and had only brought a limited selection of clothes from which to choose. But a lot of the least dressed-up were young locals, which leads me to conclude that the word “casual” itself has now become a subject of considerable generational confusion.

Older guests tend to define the word as meaning blazer but no tie for the guys and informal dresses or slacks for the ladies. But a growing number of younger guests apparently regard it as a license to wear the shirt they slept in, and it is this trend which has prompted some pre-party pre-emptive action by those hosting the events.

At similar gathering recently, the hostess actually called me personally to clarify the parameters of appropriate wear. To her, “casual” meant Tommy Bahama-style shirts and khakis. Apparently, every other guy got the same phone call, because we all showed up dressed for a Carnival Cruise.

Other hosts narrow the variety by designating their dress code as “Business Casual,” “Dressy Casual,” or even “Party Casual.” These terms seem to communicate well to both men and women. And so it is only the generic term itself that has become seriously degraded.

Knowing this, we may soon see the day when an invitation arrives, asking us to wear Clean Casual, or Ironed Casual. Because just as styles change, so do word usages. And it appears that “casual” is a word which now carries a completely different meaning to one generation than another.

The war is over, and the old definition lost. So hostesses, you’ve now got 3 options: Plan to call each guest individually to discuss wardrobe, use modifying terms (like maybe “Country Club Casual?”) in your invitations that make explicit your dress code, or… learn to be okay with greeting a guest at the door who has come “Ultra” Casual.

Don’t Blame Me – I Voted For Perot!

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2009

In 1992, independent candidate Ross Perot took on the sitting President of the United States (Republican George H.W. Bush) and the Democrat nominee (Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton) in a 3-way contest for the White House. Conventional wisdom dictates that he should have had no chance at all. Why?

1. He had never sought or held public office before, and thus had no track record.
2. As an independent, he had no party backing or organization.
3. In our telegenic age of blow-dried candidates with $300 coifs, his white-sidewalled crew cut had hardly changed since his years at the U.S. Naval Academy. While Bush resembled the Chairman of the Board at the local polo club, and Clinton both looked and spoke like a televangelist, Perot came across as Everyman. If ever there could be a “People’s Billionaire,” it was him.

Which is why 20 million Americans – 19% of the voters – cast their ballots for the gentleman from Texarkana. Apparently, they considered his message more important than his lack of elected experience or his supposed sartorial shortcomings. Uncounted millions more wanted to vote for him, and would have, had they not bought into the canard – no doubt endorsed by the Democrat and Republican National Committees – that he could “never” win. (Note to all would-be Nostradami: prognosticators who say never – ie. “we can never split the atom, …put a man on the moon, …elect a non-white President, etc. – tend to have a diet rich in crow.)

What exactly was this message that compelled 20 million Americans to “throw away” their votes? It was the very Essence of America – that’s what.

Perot said that if every grandparent understood how relinquishing their personal claims to a Social Security check would save their grandchildren from inheriting a bankrupt America – they would gladly do so. This was the “Greatest Generation,” after all – folks for whom no sacrifice was too much in order leave their beloved country better able to face the future.

So, with pie charts and straight talk, Perot gave us all fair warning of the financial melt-down to come. Events of the past months how only proved how right he was.

Last November, I was convinced that the Greatest Generation had given way to the Narcissist Generation, a group of voters who believed in “Me First,” and cared not a whit for the debt they were leaving for their children to shoulder. I would have told you then that – had Ross Perot been running in 2008 – he’d have gotten less than 2% of the vote.

But now, at the end of what has truly been the Long Hot Summer of town hall meetings, I think the tide may have turned. A late-August Rasmussen poll found that 57% of Americans would vote to kick out all 535 of our senators and congressmen. A 21st century Ross Perot (or Bill Cosby, or Rick Warren) run might trigger the biggest electoral upset in our nation’s history.

Like a lot of super-successful businessmen, Perot really was able to see into the future (which is how they become so successful in the first place.) And he got 20 million voters to share his vision. Unfortunately, it’s taken 17 years for most Americans to catch up. Now the problems have reached critical mass.

So Ross – if you’re interested – America needs someone with your clarity. America needs to hear your message again now. Only this time, it’s we who will be “all ears.”