Event planning 101: How to plan a successful year-end function

Your company year-end function is usually the highlight for most of the employees, and for management, it should be as well. It should be approached and handled with much care, and spending as much resources on the event is not necessary, it is imperative. The company has this one chance, this one opportunity, to not only thank the employees for a great year that is passed, but to also ensure they tackle the following year with gusto, enthusiasm and eagerness. It is one of the fastest and cheapest (over the long term) ways of building staff loyalty. As with customers, keeping a loyal staff member costs almost 5 times less than looking for and training a new staff member. So even if budgets are tight, spare a few rands to make your employees feel appreciated.

Because it is such a big deal, the event must be properly planned. By properly planning you are improving your chances of meeting the expectations of your number one asset – your employees. With any function, the keywords are “fresh” and “exciting”. With a year-end function, you can also add “appreciated” and “spoilt”.

So how do you properly plan? Firstly, a successful function is usually conceptualized at least 3 months before the intended date. In most organisations there are a lot of red tape, so you need to have enough time to get the needed approval, budget allocation, RSVPs and more. Most popular venues are also quickly fully booked, and if you have your heart set on one of those you need to secure the date as early in the year as possible. If you alone are responsible for the decisions, then your job is a bit easier compared to organisations where a whole team is responsible. If you have a team, then get together as soon as possible. Make a list of everything that needs to be done, sourced or planned together with a timeframe, and divide the responsibilities. Identify a broad theme to work in and then allow each team member or division to get ideas for whatever falls under their banners. If you have a deadline, everyone can present their suggestions and a decision can be made. From there the venue and suppliers can be confirmed and finalized. Remember to clearly state the budget, as well as how the money will be allocated to the various elements. Make sure your team understand they need to stick to the budget.

What are the elements you need to take into consideration?:

  1. Budget: this is a tricky one, especially in our current economic situation. A company cannot spend lots of money on a function if they plead poverty when it comes to bonuses or increases. Neither can they not do anything – it is bad for morale. Strike a balance between spending money that you do not have, and giving the staff an event that is special and well thought out. If you can only afford a braai, make it the best braai ever. Make sure your team is aware of the budget, as well as the suppliers that you source. Demand contracts before signing off on anything, and read the fine print.
  2. Venue: as part of the quotation process, make sure to get the answers on paper to important questions such as after-hours penalties, noise levels, cut off times for music, last rounds, do they accept cash, how long before the event must you give your final guest count, what are their deposit policy, when is final payment due, do you have exclusive use of the space, what is included, etc. Also remember to discuss possible issues such as maximum and minimum guest counts, dietary requirements, accessibility if you have disabled employees, safety and security, and if there will be management present on the day of the function.
  3. Date: Since most year-end functions are hosted in silly season – the time of year that is usually ridiculously busy for the hospitality industry, it can sometimes be tough to get a suitable date that is also available at your venue of choice. How to overcome this? 1 – book as early in the year as possible, and 2 – be as flexible with your date as possible. Even consider hosting having the event in October, thus avoiding the Nov/Dec rush.
  4. Theme and décor: Having a theme is one of the sure-fire ways of ensuring the event is fun. But, keep in mind that it should not be expensive or difficult for guests to adhere to the theme. For example, dressing up according to Titanic can be difficult. Then rather go for a beach or fun-in-the-sun theme. Also, a successful theme does not have to extend to the guests. It should be simple, fun, and consistent as it is merely used to set the tone for the event.
  5. Entertainment: Largely deterimined by the budget and the theme, entertainment can be a major contributor to how successful an event is. Live music is a great way to set the mood. Having a karaoke bar brings in a fun activity. Playing games is wonderful for getting the guests to interact. Be creative and come up with something that has not been done before.
  6. Timeline: This includes the planning timeline – when must what be done, as well as the timeline on the day of the event. When will décor be done, when will guests start to arrive, what is the sequence of events for the day, what time will they eat, etc. Ensure the venue has a backup plan if the unforeseen happen such as the guests are delayed, or the program finishes a lot earlier than planned.
  7. Food: The food offering should be selected and tailored to suit the group as well as the tone and mood of the event that you are planning. If you want a relaxed, more informal event with lots of socializing, having a cocktail or pairing can work great. For bigger, more diverse groups a buffet will most probably be better suited. For smaller, more structured and formal events a plated meal will be better received. Ensure the venue can meet your expectations, and if you cannot find a reliable review to confirm that the food is up to standard, ask if it might be possible to have a tasting.
  8. Drinks: If the budget is not extensive, opt for a welcome drink and something on the tables for the guests to enjoy while listening to speeches or having their starters. Juice or flavoured water works, and offers an incentive to stay hydrated. For bigger budgets, keep in mind that a bar tab is rarely seen as a limit, but rather as a challenge. Never in our years of doing events have we had an event with an unfinished bar tab. Instead, it is usually lifted at least twice during the course of the event. Be specific about what is allowed on the tab and what not, and double check how other drinks will be handled – must guests order from the bar, will they have individual tabs, is it a “pay-as-you-drink” system etc. as well as payment methods and be sure to give this info to your guests.
  9. Transport: arranging transport for the employees is another way of ensuring the function is a success. You also increase the number of attendees and prolong the function with a few hours giving staff ample time and opportunity to relax and enjoy themselves.

The weight that we think each element should carry in terms of the budget:

Food: 40% – if the food is unsatisfactory, the whole event will be a disaster. You can make a less-than-beautiful venue look great with a few cheap décor tricks, you can negotiate on drink prices, and even entertainment you can wangle. But if the food is bad there is no way that you can fix it.

Venue: 20% – when choosing a venue, don’t stare yourself blind against the venue fee. Rather consider what value the venue will provide in terms of ease to work with, willingness to help, what is included in the fee, how adaptable is the venue, times and availability etc.

Entertainment: 10% – you do not have to spend your entire budget on entertainment. Depending on your theme and goal, the entertainment can be anything from lawn games for an outdoor event to a DJ for a late-afternoon event. You can consider hiring a band or singer, or something more interactive like a drumming session, cooking lesson, wine pairing or even something more adventurous and active like a treasure hunt or Amazing race. Sometimes you can DIY the entertainment, or get a cheaper alternative.

Transport: 10% – getting your guests there and back safely should be of concern to you and your team. Renting a bus or taxi for the day is usually very affordable, especially when weighed against the brownie points your company is bound to receive from the employees.

Drinks: 15% – ensuring your guests are well hydrated is one of the best ways to make sure they have a good time. Just remember to have a good variety of nonalcoholic drinks as well! If you decide on a bar tab, be very specific on what is allowed and what not e.g. only local beers, softdrinks and wine, and be firm on the cut-off amount.

Décor: 5% – this should not be a major budget item. Many of the items can be DIY’ed, such as table numbers, invitations, name cards, and even center pieces. Again, the costs involved with décor refers back to choosing your theme strategically.

My biggest tip to planning a successful function? Get a professional event planner to help. Most venues have in-house event planners and coordinators, make use of their expertise. More often than not they can assist with packages that include most of your needed items, they can negotiate better prices from their own suppliers, or even help you with items they already have thus costing you a fraction of what it would otherwise. People tend to think that it is too expensive to hire a planner, but the value that they can add makes it out and out worth it.