Meetings & Conventions - Take It Outside - May
Take It Outside How to organize an outdoor event
By Lisa Grimaldi
The great outdoors can lend a fresh, au naturel ambience to
anything from a company picnic to a black-tie dinner. But for
planners, staging an event at a beach, park or any seemingly
idyllic open space is anything but a freewheeling venture.
“The moments of truth for an outdoor event are three times
greater than for an event held in, say, a ballroom,” says Ralph
Rendsland, catering sales manager for Black Tie to Barbecue, an
off-premises catering division of the Wyndham Palace Resort &
Spa in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
Among the forces that can literally rain on your parade: bad
weather, high winds, local laws, bugs and power shortages, to name
a few. The key to a successful outdoor event, says Rendsland, is to
“map out every detail and potential problem prior to the event.
It’s easy to figure out what’s right about the spot, but our job is
to find out what’s wrong or could go wrong.”
And while it might seem cheaper to head for a park instead of a
hotel ballroom, that’s hardly the case. “Outdoor functions almost
always ending up being more expensive than traditional ones,” says
Deidre Underwood, director of business theater for Miami-based ME
Productions. “I can spend $20,000 for stuff that people won’t even
appreciate portable potties, tents, power, security before we even
get to the entertainment, props and fancy linens.” Following are
some valuable tips from event planners with experience in the great
Arrange site inspections at the same time the event will be held,
says Greg Jenkins, president of Long Beach, Calif.-based Bravo
Sun spots. Consider where the sun will be at
that time of day. Realize, too, that if the event is a few months
away, the time the sun sets will be different.
Wear and tear. A public area like a park or
beach might be in worse shape at 5 p.m. than at 10 a.m. “If there’s
trash all over, you might need to budget to have someone clean it
up,” says Jenkins.
Go back. If the event is at a beach, check it
out again a few weeks before the event. “Beaches change all the
time; they can erode to a fraction of their size in as little as
three months,” says Deidre Underwood.
Tent show: A wine festival in Stowe, Vt., covered 50,000
square feet and drew 2,500 people.
Rest room check. Does the area have adequate
rest rooms? Jenkins recommends “upgrading” the facilities if they
are too rustic for the type of event or level of guests who will
Wheelchair access. Make sure the paths and at
least one rest room facility can accommodate persons with
Check the rules
Local and state governments might have laws and statutes pertaining
to outdoor events, public spaces, alcohol and fireworks, for which
most places require local fire marshals to be on hand. “Some places
even have restrictions about using glass in an outdoor setting,”
Buy a permit. Even if seemingly prohibitive
laws exist, planners usually can purchase permits for exemptions
from the proper governing body, says Underwood. Permits generally
cost less than $1,000, she says.
Apply early. “The hardest part is getting the
permit on time,” says Underwood. “Government agencies generally
require the host to apply for permits at least six weeks in
BYO power source
Since few outdoor venues offer access to electrical outlets, hiring
a generator is standard procedure. Such equipment is available from
rental firms and is typically priced at $1,000 and up. In fact,
Jenkins always rents a spare generator as a backup “for my peace of
Think big. Be sure to get a generator large
enough to handle all the events’ power needs, including lighting,
entertainment and catering ovens (if the caterer doesn’t have its
own powered trucks).
Beware of noise. “Be conscious of where the
generators are set up,” advises Underwood. “They tend to be very
loud, and you don’t want them drowning out the band.”
Stay connected. Make sure cell phones are
completely charged and walkie-talkies are in working condition on
show day, advises Jenkins. “It’s particularly important when you’re
in the middle of nowhere, without any backup phones or
Cover your assets
“My biggest recommendation for outdoor events is to have some type
of shelter or covering even if the weather is guaranteed to be
picture-perfect,” says Michele Young, banquet manager for Lovin’
Oven Celebrations, a catering firm in Sayville, N.Y.
Consider comfort. Even a bright sunny day can
be rough without shelter. “I once had a client who insisted that
umbrella tables would provide all the necessary coverage from the
elements,” recalls Young. “It turned out to be an unseasonably hot
day, and the guests were miserable in the sun. They would have been
much more comfortable if there had been a canopy or tent.”
Have a backup plan. Nicole Marsh, president of
The Arrangers, a Denver event firm, always has a backup shelter in
mind in case of sudden bad weather. “It can be an on-site building
like a barn, a covered pavilion or even a tent, so people can move
into it immediately during the event,” she says. “If there is a
chance the event will have to be canceled because of a storm, I
recommend putting a tentative hold on a ballroom or event space;
you’ll pay for it, but sometimes it’s really worth it.”
Rent a tent. Tents are readily available from
equipment rental firms and priced per square foot. “They are so
versatile,” says Jenkins. “They come in a variety of sizes, styles
and colors; some are even clear and they can be easily decorated
and lit.” Tents also can be heated or air- conditioned, so they can
be used any time of the year.
Consider how staff, suppliers and guests will get to the site.
Essential crew. “Make sure to provide all staff
and suppliers with a good set of directions,” advises Ralph
Rendsland. If the budget allows, he rents a bus or minivans to
bring staff to and from the event.
Road work. Deidre Underwood often looks at the
state of the roads leading to the venue to determine if they’re
able to accommodate the large equipment trucks she typically uses
to transport suppliers to remote outdoor venues. “Sometimes, we’ll
use vans if the roads aren’t truck-worthy,” she says.
Save the grass. When it comes to using a golf
course for an event setting, “we have to build our own road of
plywood so we don’t ruin greens,” says Underwood.
Bring in the guests. Often, participants will
be transported to the event site by motor coach or van. However, if
they’re driving themselves, be sure to include clear directions
with the invitations. Greg Jenkins likes to have buses remain on
site after dropping guests off; two hours into the function, he
says, people will start departing, and then you should have a
Safety precautions are particularly important when an event is in a
remote outdoor location. “Have at the very least a first-aid kit or
medical services professional on hand,” says Jenkins. He also
recommends keeping handy a list of local hospitals and directions
to them from the event site.
Hire help. Underwood often hires an emergency
medical technician (typically for $600) when the event will include
Turn on the lights. If the function is taking
place during evening hours, make sure walkways from tent to the
rest rooms and buses are well-lit and clearly marked with
Think security. If the event is in a public
area, such as a park or beach, considering hiring security to keep
Grass and sand might feel great on bare toes, but they’re less than
fun to navigate in high heels.
Rent a floor. Unless it’s a casual event that
calls for sneakers and sandals, consider using flooring, available
from tent and equipment rental firms and priced per square yard.
Flooring is also a good idea if the ground is uneven, so tables and
chairs can be stabilized.
“If you go on your site inspection in March, you might not know
what it will be like in summer there might be mosquitoes or even
caterpillars if there are a lot of trees,” says Jenkins.
Investigate. “Find out about all potential
pests from a reliable source,” Jenkins adds. He usually brings
along electrical bug zappers and large citronella tiki torches,
“just in case.”
Clear the air. Michele Young recommends having
a potentially mosquito-ridden area professionally “bombed” with
insect repellent a few days before the event.
Be alert. There are larger pests to deal with
in the wilds of Colorado. “We’ve had bears walk within 30 feet of
an event,” says Nicole Marsh, “but there’s always someone from the
park or ranch on hand to chase them away.”
While an outdoor venue won’t have a green room, consider the needs
of entertainers and presenters.
Give them space. Some type of private area,
usually a small tent, should be set up in which the entertainers
can take their breaks and store their instruments, suggests
Keep it simple. When setting the venue up with
a stage, Underwood avoids high-tech presentations outdoors, even in
a tent. “Video screens and PowerPoint just don’t work well outside,
even in a tent,” she says.
Furniture such as tables and chairs, as well as linens, tableware
and centerpieces, should all be chosen with extreme care.
Tables and chairs. “Use smaller tables, rounds
of eight or 10, so you can be flexible in setting them up around
the poles of a tent,” says Rendsland. When the venue is a beach,
and flooring is not used, tables and chairs might have to be
leveled with blocks and bricks.
Go for disposables. Plates for casual picnics
and barbecues should be made of sturdy Styrofoam or acrylic, says
Jenkins; drinks can be served in plastic or Styrofoam cups.
Do dishes. For a more formal, seated dinner
with wait service, Jenkins recommends china and silverware.
“Crystal glasses and goblets should always be used for formal
events, unless the venue has an ordinance against glass,” he
Mind the breeze. Marsh points out that wind is
a frequent outdoor hazard in the Rockies. She chooses table decor
that doesn’t tip easily. “We also don’t use candles or open flames,
and table linens need to be clamped down,” she says. She also uses
sturdy wood chairs, tables and benches that won’t blow away or fold
if the gusts get serious.
In most cases, the party sponsor is responsible for the clean-up of
the outdoor space. Caterers will usually take care of any mess they
generate, but it’s up to the planner to make sure the entire area
is spotless and trash is hauled away.
Who hauls? Rather than loading up your own
pickup truck and heading for the nearest dump, planners can hire a
hauling firm to do the dirty work of cleaning up after the event.
Or, the area’s regular haulers might be willing to dispose of your
trash. For the latter option, you might need to purchase a public
works permit (generally a few hundred dollars), according to
The following organizations have members
that provide services for outdoor events.
American Rental Association
(for tents, flooring, tables, etc.)
1900 19th St.
Moline, Ill. 61265
International Special Events Society
401 North Michigan Ave.
Chicago, Ill. 60611
National Association of Catering
5565 Sterrett Place
Columbia, Md. 21044
cliff overlooking the Pacific is perfect for the final
night dinner, with one major exception: There are no rest rooms for
miles. That’s when a planner can turn to a portable facility
suppliera niche market if there ever was one.
Portable rest-room facilities come in a
wide range of luxury levels and prices. At the upper end are
rest-room trailers, divided into separate men’s and women’s
sections and outfitted with simulated marble floors and walls,
porcelain flush toilets, hot-and-cold water sinks and even stereo
systems. Most are configured with two to four stalls on each side,
as shown above.
These top-tier toilet units cost
approximately $3,500 per event and require a freshwater hookup and
generator, according to Rachel Zidak, director of marketing for
Sparta, N.J.-based Elite Coaches. If necessary, a water supply
truck can be rented. Extra charges apply for travel to
A less-expensive option, says Zidak, are
trailers equipped like traditional public rest rooms, with
partition walls and optional hot- and cold-water sinks. Typically
equipped with up to 12 stalls, costs run from about $725 to
How many are needed? Figure on one stall
per 25 guests, advises Ralph Rendsland, catering sales manager for
Black Tie to Barbecue, an off-premises catering division of the
Wyndham Palace Resort & Spa in Lake Buena Vista,
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