May 01, 2002
Meetings & Conventions - Take It Outside - May 2002

Current Issue
May 2002 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 outdoors.

Site inspection
Arrange site inspections at the same time the event will be held, says Greg Jenkins, president of Long Beach, Calif.-based Bravo Productions.

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 attend.

Wheelchair access. Make sure the paths and at least one rest room facility can accommodate persons with disabilities.

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,” notes Jenkins.

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 advance.”

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 mind.”

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 equipment.”

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.

Getting there
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 continuous shuttle.

Safety first
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 sports activities.

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 signs.

Think security. If the event is in a public area, such as a park or beach, considering hiring security to keep outsiders away.

Ground cover
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.

Pest patrol
“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 Jenkins.

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.

Table manners
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 says.

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.

Mopping up
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 Jenkins.



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
(800) 334-2177

International Special Events Society
401 North Michigan Ave.
Chicago, Ill. 60611
(800) 688-ISES

National Association of Catering Executives
5565 Sterrett Place
Columbia, Md. 21044
(410) 997-9055


That idyllic 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 events.

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 $1,500.

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, Fla.

• L.G.

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