Business In The Sunshine

Business In The Sunshine

Outdoor events build relationships among colleagues, business clients and conference attendees.

With winter in our rearview mirrors, people want to spend as much time as possible outdoors on warm days. For businesses, a special outdoor event can be used to entertain clients in a picturesque setting, such as a golf course, Mississippi riverbank venue or a courtyard at a major hotel.

Outdoor venues also are a unique option for event planners who help industry groups and professional associations stage a memorable conference. After sitting in meeting rooms, an informal outdoor lunch provides an excellent break and a chance to chat while soaking up the sun. Meanwhile, outdoor evening receptions provide out-of-town visitors and Minnesotans a chance to mix and mingle.

Though Minnesota summers can be a perfect backdrop for a business reception or conference-related event, rain or even thunderstorms are a factor that must be considered well in advance. Experienced meeting planners know the risks to weigh when choosing food, entertainment, sound systems and decorations for outdoor venues.

Logistics and weather contingencies are foremost in the minds of veterans who understand how to pull off a successful outdoor event during a Minnesota spring or summer. Twin Cities Business interviewed several planners who know how to take advantage of good summer weather and attractive venues, but also incorporate back-up plans to minimize the risks of an event spoiler caused by rain, hail, wind or extreme humidity.

0615_BusinessSunshine_S01-(2).jpg Many outdoor business and social events take advantage of Minnesota lake settings, including this one designed by BeEvents.

A seasoned industry

Minnesota event planners, hotel employees and civic leaders expanded their hospitality experience last summer, when the Twin Cities played host to several prominent national events. “It started with a big national volleyball tournament, followed by [major league baseball’s] All-Star Game and conventions for the National Conference of State Legislators and Meeting Planners International,” says Dan McElroy, president of Hospitality Minnesota.

“Most of those events saw increased occupancy at downtown [Minneapolis] properties and overflow business in St. Paul and the suburbs.”

In particular, the All-Star Game week provided an opportunity for visitors to see the sights and enjoy the culture of the Twin Cities at outdoor events. Lessons from those events and others held in recent summers translate to outdoor events that businesses would like to host in 2015 and 2016.

Once a company chooses to go with an outdoor business event, one of the first big decisions is hiring an event planner to coordinate event work, or selecting someone internally to take the lead.

A clear purpose and theme

A well-defined theme that helps a business achieve its goals for the event lays a foundation so the event planner can make smart choices for food, entertainment and the visual setting of the event. A company may want a fun theme, if the intention is to encourage employees to get to know each other in a relaxed, informal setting. If a business is hosting an event for clients, a welcoming setting and theme will create the atmosphere that allows people to make new contacts as well as deepen business relationships.

Regardless of the purpose of the gathering, the physical environment, food and music should complement the tone the business is seeking. Narrowing the purpose and theme helps reduce planning stress and increases the likelihood that the event will be successful from the perspective of attendees.

Once the purpose and theme are defined, the planners can unleash their creativity and practical know-how to craft a solid plan. For example, if you want to sponsor or host an event that is primarily being held for networking, people should be able to mix and mingle with ease.

Ryan Hanson, owner of Minneapolis-based BeEvents, says guests shouldn’t be expected to juggle too much when they want to make a good impression at a reception. For example, a caterer could suggest menu items that require knives and forks to eat because “we do that in Minnesota,” Hanson says.

The problem arises when guests try to eat off of a big plate of food while juggling silverware, a drink and a handful of business cards. If there are no tables where they can sit—because the experience was designed as a mix-and-mingle—then you’ve got a disconnect.

Choosing a good day and month for the event can be just as crucial.

In May or June, “if you’re a business, you’re going up against a lot of competition—against weddings and graduation parties,” says Hanson.

Terry St. Martin, co-owner of Broadway Party and Tent Rental in Fridley, notes the same thing: “June is the graduation month, so all of the little backyard parties make us run out of tables, chairs and other things,” St. Martin says.

Late summer and early fall can pose other problems. “September is full of last-minute events—the last hurrah of the summer. It didn’t used to be that way but it’s moved in that direction,” St. Martin says.

0615_BusinessSunshine_S03.jpg Event Lab worked on this Meet Minneapolis event, which was staged last August between the Mill City Museum and the Mississippi River.

Location, location, location

If a downtown park is a potential venue for a business event, the company may need to reconsider.

Shane Stenzel, manager of permits and events for the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, issues about 150 to 170 permits per year, but only for public events, such as the Minneapolis Marathon.

“We are pretty careful about commercialization in the public parks,” he says. “If Coca-Cola wants to come in and do an event, we wouldn’t allow it. Even if it’s public, we don’t allow it. We’re really recreation-based.”

For corporate events, Stenzel suggests venues such as the Nicollet Island Pavilion, Theodore Wirth Golf Course and similar areas with more rental flexibility.

Last August, Eden Prairie-based Event Lab coordinated with Meet Minneapolis to bring a two-story tent gathering to the riverfront by the Mill City Museum near the Mississippi River.

In retrospect, Event Lab vice president Becky Harris found the permitting process and informational outreach to the neighborhood to be the most daunting tasks.

“Depending on the time of day, you have to find the local ordinances for sound, what sort of permits you need, what the neighborhood is like, where the electrical and gas lines are, [and] whether you need barriers,” Harris says.

Communication between the lead planner and vendors is key, she says, because every supplier needs to be on the same page. Restrictions may dictate when tents can be loaded in, from where and at what time.

Insuring your investment

Minnesota’s unpredictable weather can ruin an outdoor event, but a good tent can serve as an effective insurance policy.

Frank Steck compares the need for a quality tent rental to camping in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. He’s a 30-year veteran of corporate event planning and founder of Spotlight Corporate Entertainment.

“You [get] a tent and bring equipment that is better than what your worst need might be,” Steck says. “The tent cannot be your weakest link, because everything is underneath that—your catering, your guests and your production.”

Tent rentals can stretch from around $100 to several thousands of dollars, and most of the cost is determined by the labor involved. If the company takes on tent set-up, that can reduce the cost compared with the vendor’s initial quote that includes the installation. However, going the self-service installation route to save money could put event attendees at risk.

“If at all possible, get the tent staked,” says Broadway Party and Tent Rental’s St. Martin. “If it cannot be staked, there are weighting options. There are really cheap ways to weight a tent; there are companies out there who barely weight it, and it is not safe.” Sidewall attachments are available as a protective measure, although they can look bulky to a designer’s eye. However, it is your best method in case of a rainstorm or high winds.

For uncertain weather days, Harris suggests that an event coordinator “pull your sidewalls open and strap them like an accordion to the tent poles. I don’t know if I would ever, in Minnesota, take the walls down completely.”

Constructing a temporary floor for use with the tent is another option. Given the chance of rain, elevating everything off the ground provides extra insurance against the worst scenarios.

“Even if you say the event is outdoors, women still might wear heels,” Harris says. If the event doesn’t have flooring, then “you’ve also got chairs sinking into the ground and uneven surfaces to worry about.”

Enacting a plan to shield against foreseeable disasters deserves as much consideration as the event itself.

0615_BusinessSunshine_S02.jpg These food choices by Mintáhoe Catering and Events illustrate how the menu can add color to an outdoor business gathering.
Photo by Noah Wolf

The great food challenge

Based on the panoply of dietary restrictions you’ll find in any large group, creating a cohesive menu for an outdoor event may sound like an impossible feat.

But there are good ways to address that concern. If you are hosting a sit-down, upscale dinner as part of a fundraiser, then you’ll need to gather detailed dietary information when people register for the event weeks in advance. If you are planning for an informal reception, it’s possible to take into account some of the most common food limitations, so the outdoor food offerings would include some dishes that are gluten-free as well as accommodating those who are vegetarians.

When catering an event, Nicky Metchnek, event sales director for Minneapolis-based Create Catering, says information about attendees is gathered before final plans are formulated.

“We ask if there are dietary or religious restrictions or allergies that we need to keep in mind when putting together the menu,” Metchnek says. “It’s always notated on the menu which items are gluten-free, dairy-free and all of that stuff.”

Hanson of BeEvents identifies three categories of foods that tend to be safe bets for any event: comfort foods, local and sustainable foods, and fresh foods.

Deciding how much food should be served is tied to the budget.

“On average, it flies around $85 to $90 a person,” says Metchnek. “That would be taking into account the [alcohol], dinner, appetizers, labor, tax, a service fee, and hopefully some measure of the rentals—although that’s such a big variable.”

If a caterer is being hired, separate tents are routinely assigned to the cooking staff and servers. If an indoor kitchen is nearby, Metchnek’s staff is also open to that possibility.

“If we can have a water line, that’s fantastic. Otherwise we bring in a ton of bottled water or we rent these little pump sinks,” she says. “Usually we need hotboxes and convection ovens to keep the food warm, and then generators, too.”

The closer the caterer’s tent is to the main event, the better the food tends to hold up in unpredictable weather. And in the thick of the summer, it might be worth considering a sundae bar.

0615_BusinessSunshine_S04.jpg Ultimate Events provided tenting for an MLB All-Star Game event last year. Photo depicts how tenting can serve large outdoor crowds in Minnesota.

Music and comedy

Entertainment at an outdoor event can make it or break it. Choosing the right act for your business crowd often can be a difficult undertaking. But when great matches are made, the entertainment may become the most memorable aspect of the event.

Once you have a short list of entertainment options, Spotlight Corporate Entertainment’s Steck suggests you see any act before you book them. “And be very clear with your expectations.”

He often hosts a meeting between his client and whatever performer is being considered for the event stage. Either through a conference call or a meet-and-greet, they’ll discuss the demographics of the audience, what the business does, performance options, and the overall theme and desired outcome of the event.

“Budget comes to mind because that will drive a lot of what you are able to do,” says Steck, who has organized events involving Jerry Seinfeld, Tony Bennett, the Beach Boys and other nationally known performing artists. “Comedy typically has lower costs from a production standpoint, but if it’s comedy it has to be super-clean,” he says.

Orienting the stage as a centerpiece for the company outing can create a movie scenario with lights out and all eyes on the stage.

As an alternative, “have the bar or a quiet space somewhere else in the area positioned so people can have a conversation if they want to,” Hanson says. “That way not everyone [has to stop] to watch the performer.”

Is the price right?

At the outset of planning an outdoor business event, it’s helpful to start with a rough price range rather than a hard number for the dollars you intend to spend.

“It’s important for folks to do a little educational work, to go out there and see what things cost before they start with the budget,” Hanson says. “Coming to the table and saying ‘We’re going to spend $10,000 on our party’ without knowing what $10,000 buys can turn out to be a little tricky.”

It’s realistic to assume that 15 to 20 percent of the budget will go toward an event planner, although some operate on a flat fee. Handing off the responsibilities to a professional to organize everything from start to finish can vastly reduce the chance of major problems.

“An event professional has the depth of resources to buy things more effectively and get what you actually need rather than cobbling together the things you want and running into trouble,” Hanson says.

He compares it to an insurance policy, or venturing to a foreign country with a tour guide versus traveling alone.

One thing remains certain: the price that comes with moving from a hotel ballroom to an outdoor venue.

“When you have an outdoor event, you have to rent everything,” Harris says. “It does get more expensive when you’re outside.”

Sam Schaust is an editorial intern at Twin Cities Business.