The art of successful event planning
NH venues highlight key points to consider when organizing a gathering
An outstanding event, conference or meeting can be a valuable asset to your business — but as anyone who has attempted to execute one knows, it’s not as easy as it looks. We’ve reached out to a panel of experts to learn more about what it takes to plan, prepare and execute a great event.
James Paone, general manager of front of house and rentals at The Music Hall, in Portsmouth — themusichall.org
Joe Ouellette, director of sales and marketing at Mill Falls at the Lake, in Meredith — millfalls.com
Holly Arnold, sales and community relations coordinator at Southern New Hampshire University — snhu.edu
Wendy McCoole, site rental manager at Strawbery Banke Museum in Portsmouth — strawberybanke.org
Melissa Samaras, sales and marketing director at the Bedford Village Inn, in Bedford — bedfordvillageinn.com
Joelle Cesario, catering manager at the Currier Museum — currier.org
Q. What is the first step when planning an event?
Paone: “The first step has to be establishing a firm ‘Why is this event taking place?’ Without that, you may lose sight of the end goal. When that happens, stress and anxiety can become the lead event planners.”
Ouellette: “Know the purpose and objective of your meeting. Having a firm understanding of what you’re trying to accomplish goes a long way towards building the framework needed to ensure its success. If it’s a board retreat where high-level members will be meeting to determine future business practices and sharing confidential information, you’re going to want to be sure you’ve picked a location that adequately addresses their need for both privacy and security. If it’s a regional conference where you’re pulling from a large geographic sample, you’ll want to pick a central location that is easily accessible with a similar travel time for those attending. This will almost always increase your attendance numbers.”
Arnold: “The first step to planning any event is gathering some of the details: how many people are you hoping to host, what time of day, what kind of function and is there a certain date or range of dates that you might prefer? Having most of these factors at least considered will make finding a venue and planning easier for both the venue and the client.”
McCoole: “Whenever you enter into the planning process for an event — whether a corporate function, wedding or fundraiser — it’s very important to identify not only your objectives and goals, but also the type of setting where you envision your event taking place. The most perfectly executed plan may get lost if the location doesn’t function properly both aesthetically and logistically.”
Samaras: “On the venue side of planning, our first step is confirming availability of what we have available on-site to meet our client’s needs. We have a multitude of executive meeting spaces, fine dining rooms and casual spaces to fit all corporate needs from board meetings, large training sessions, cocktail parties, retirement events, holiday parties and multiple day retreats. Whether via a phone inquiry or in-person meeting, I like to hear what the planner is looking for. After listening to their first few sentences I can focus in on their needs, which then tell me what will fit best for them here at our property. Being here for over 11 years, I know all that we can make work. No event is the same and we are in a great position to have flexibility due to the fact that we have so many meeting and event spaces at our disposal, all on one property.”
Cesario: “The Currier Museum is a unique venue and offers a variety of different spaces that can cater to the needs of any client. Whether it be a corporate retreat, a wedding or a fundraising gala, we work to ensure the venue is set up to the client’s exact specification. Understanding the needs and desires of the client up front is always critical to ensure their event is a success.”
Q. What makes an event venue desirable?
Paone: “What we pride ourselves most on, at our venue, is flexibility. A beautiful space isn’t worth much if you can’t turn it into your beautiful space. Without that personalization, an event won’t feel special to the guests or the hosts. In such a dense market, the little details and personal touches are what set apart the memorable events.”
Ouellette: “First and foremost: location. It’s the first thing every potential attendee searches for when receiving your invite: where’s it at? If you can’t entice attendees with the locale, you are already operating at a disadvantage. They know it’s a meeting, but they are also looking for a ‘mini vacation’ at the same time. The next desirable would be an almost obnoxious passion for hospitality, because that level can’t be faked. If a property has a passionate sales/events team, experience and creativity will typically be readily at your disposal. Focused in the right direction, they’ll make you look great as the planner.”
Arnold: “What makes a venue desirable depends on the function. However, the overall factor that makes a venue desirable is the condition of the space and the services the location can provide. Most event planners are hoping for the venue to be in good condition and that it can provide all the services they need in one location. For example, we try to make it easy for our clients by offering facility rentals, audiovisual services and catering all on site. This means the client doesn’t have to go in search of third-party vendors. It is basically a one-stop shop.”
McCoole: “Many things make a venue desirable — price, location, parking (especially in downtown Portsmouth) — but equally important is the venue’s look and feel. The surroundings need to support the goal of the event so guests feel comfortable and have a positive experience.”
Samaras: “Our New England charm, and sophistication with respect to the Bedford Village Inn’s level of service and our new addition of the Grand Boutique Hotel — offering 50 luxurious overnight rooms, a business center, fitness center and an enhanced continental breakfast included with each stay. Even more desirable than the pure beauty of the property is our maturity. We have been in the business for many years and have some of the highest-level clientele that entrust us to take care of them and it is our job to deliver. I am confident in saying that we do all that we can to make sure the client is impressed and pleased upon their departure, and then some.”
Cesario: “The Currier Museum is a stunning venue. From our Winter Garden to our Historic Court to our seminar rooms, we’ve hosted a spectrum of events. Most recently we’ve begun offering corporate retreats where companies can use our space and technology to hold meetings, take advantage of guided tours of the museum as well as enjoy a catered breakfast and lunch that is cooked in-house to their exact specifications. Recently, we hosted the governor and Executive Council for their breakfast. The morning began in our Winter Garden, where guests enjoyed a delicious buffet breakfast that included quiche, smoked salmon, sausage, eggs, sweet potatoes, in addition to fruit and yogurt. After breakfast, the group took a guided tour of the museum that highlighted some of the museum’s more famous paintings and works of art. Following the tour, everyone adjourned to our auditorium where the governor and executive councilors conducted their official state business. The event was an incredible success.”
Q. In what ways do you use technology to meet clients’ needs?
Paone: “Technology isn’t just important during the show — the team at The Music Hall uses technology extensively in the planning stages, whether it’s in communication, testing new and exciting lighting instruments or utilizing CRM for event marketing and ticketing.”
Ouellette: “A property wants to be the answer to every question a prospective client has. Being able to offer robust content to aid in painting that virtual picture of your offerings is critical to gaining their attention. Once onsite, our goal at Mill Falls at the Lake is to provide the technological requirements, while also putting them in their proper perspective. Today’s successful meetings are focused around engagement opportunities. If technology provides the conduit, great, however, if you want to truly wow your attendees, get them to engage with each other face-to-face, sans devices. You’ll differentiate your event — and your attendees will thank you for it.”
Arnold: “We use social media like Facebook and Twitter to advertise and welcome our guests. We also welcome people that are interested in holding an event on our campus to inquire through Facebook and our website. During the contracting process we use a service called Docusign to create and sign contracts electronically, again to make the process easier for our clients. Our facilities all have state-of-the-art audiovisual equipment built into the space. The client can bring their own laptop, if preferred, but otherwise they don’t have to bring any other equipment or outsource services. We can also provide dedicated audiovisual assistance, recording, live-streaming and professional photography through our Media Services team.”
McCoole: “Because we are a museum that has spaces available for rent (as
opposed to a full-function facility), we find that our guests typically don’t require much more than Internet and AV capabilities, which we have. They choose to utilize our indoor and outdoor venues primarily for the ambiance that comes with having an event at a living history museum,
such as our historic gardens and buildings.”
Cesario: “Technology in today’s market is critical. The Currier recently renovated our spaces with state-of-the-art technology that allows us to be able to accommodate PowerPoint, video and live video conferencing. Whatever our guests require, we have the technology and ability to meet their needs.”
Q. How do you utilize sustainable practices at your event venue?
Paone: “This is an area that I hold particularly high on my priority list. We have already made the shift over to a great deal of compostable packaging in food and beverages and have bigger plans set for the immediate future.”
McCoole: “As an organization, we care deeply about our environment and strongly encourage our employees and those who rent our spaces to recycle paper, plastic and aluminum. In addition, Strawbery Banke Museum has recently become involved with the issues around rising sea levels and how they can adversely affect the stability of historic structures. Seeking a solution to this increasing threat, the museum was invited to join the City of Portsmouth’s Local Advisory Committee for the Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment on Historic Portsmouth.”
Q. How has your venue changed to keep up with trends and client needs?
Paone: “I keep a detailed list of declined prospects for this exact reason. It is so important to evaluate trends especially when they tell you things you don’t necessarily want to hear. Adaptation is the name of the game.”
Ouellette: “We’ve always been a brand focused around guest engagement and relationship building. That business model has great longevity. As a result, we’ve grown with many of the businesses that we host. There was never a shovel-to-the-face moment where we felt we’d fallen behind on key event metrics. Through those long-standing relationships, our clients have informed us as their businesses evolved. Logistically, Mill Falls at the Lake has traditionally provided unique meeting/event experiences. That has become more fashionable in recent years, as event planners understand their responsibility to stakeholders and are striving to differentiate themselves amid the gauntlet of meetings today’s executives face to face.”
Arnold: “We have moved to a mostly digital platform. We can take the client through most of the planning process all through digital means making planning extremely easy for the client.”
McCoole: “Prior to 2017, although the museum allowed individuals and businesses to host events on the property, the staff didn’t make a concerted effort to reach out to the community to promote and encourage such events. Since then, a part-time position has been established to create a site-rental program that actively welcomes businesses, brides and family members looking to utilize the historic spaces for meetings, weddings and gatherings.”
Samaras: “We are ever changing and one thing that we do not do is become comfortable. We listen to the desires that each group has and we find a way to make it work here at the Bedford Village Inn. Whether that be arranging for a special wine tasting in our Corks Wine Bar following a long full day meeting to show their staff appreciation, helping to coordinate live music and specialty chef attended stations for an outdoor client appreciation cocktail party in our courtyard gardens, or coordinating multiple breakout spaces for our larger training sessions, the bar is never too high for us here. We work to make sure that we do all that we can to make the client happy and meet their needs. Additionally, meetings are becoming more and more technology based. Our on-site audiovisual suite is ever changing to keep up with the demands of our clients.”
Cesario: “The Currier Museum has long been known as a beautiful venue with stunning architecture and artwork. We have now added a full-time catering staff that can prepare any type of custom menu as well as installing state-of-the-art technology so that there are no limits to what we can offer.”
Q. What is your No. 1 tip for anyone starting to plan an event?
Paone: “Remember to delegate — even if that means asking your best friend to pick up the phone from a vendor when you’re overwhelmed. Doing it all isn’t necessarily admirable; it’s a recipe for burnout.”
Ouellette: “Know your product first: purpose, strategy, budget. Then look for a venue whose staff really wants to positively impact all three. The good properties want to know what you’re trying to achieve with your next meeting. The great properties want to know what you’re trying to achieve with your business. To them, the revenue associated with a single event will always take a back seat to the partnership they’ll form with your business when it is over.”
Arnold: “Gather some basic details before starting to plan the event in detail. You don’t want to plan an entire event only to find out there is no venue available for your date or that no venue can accommodate the amount of people you are looking to accommodate. You might also want to know if it is going to be a function with a meal versus a short lecture. These details will make inquiring with different facilities more streamlined. The facilities will be able to tell you what they can provide specific to the event style or date and this will make a big difference to the venue as well.”
McCoole: “Write it down. A successful event begins with a detailed living, planning document. Start by breaking the objectives into top-level categories, such as marketing, food, entertainment, schedules, etc. Appoint a team member to be the prime coordinator of each of those top-level categories and then create sub-categories and sub-sub-categories until every to-do is written down. Assign tangible timelines and keep track of every detail so nothing is overlooked.”
Samaras: “When possible, do not rely on the internet solely when booking such important events. We are available all week long for full property tours and as much as anyone tries to portray all that they have to offer through their website, social media handles and event planning sites, it is always better to come in person to see all that we have available. If distance is a set-back, I urge planners to call us. Once touring, or speaking, we hope that the client will leave understanding why the Bedford Village Inn is set apart from our competitors.”
Q. What makes your venue unique?
Paone: “While we have two beautifully complementary venues — that isn’t even the most exceptional offering at The Music Hall. You will not encounter a staff more accommodating, knowledgeable or talented than The Music Hall staff. I consider myself the luckiest rental coordinator in the world, not because of the beautiful venue I get to share, but because of the people who make the venue more than just a photogenic space.”
Ouellette: “The people. We care. We see hospitality as an opportunity to meet people, impact relationships and keep promises at Mill Falls at the Lake. To that end, we have owners and management who live and breathe that philosophy. In turn, they hire like-minded individuals. Those individuals become part of a family working to promote our brand of hospitality. Everything we do stems from that foundation. As a result, there is a sense of ownership and urgency in every role. Oh, and we just happen to have the most beautiful location on Lake Winnipesaukee, with an abundance of activities and stay experiences enveloped around a town that epitomizes quintessential New England.”
Arnold: “Southern New Hampshire University is unique because we can offer so many different styles or spaces. We have a banquet hall, lecture halls, conference rooms, classrooms and gym space. We also offer overnight accommodations in our dorms during the summer months. This allows us to accommodate many different kinds of events. We also offer on-site services such as catering and audiovisual services. This makes us a one-stop shop and really streamlines the process of planning an event. We also offer an academic setting which is great for educational conferences and even corporate seminars. However, our beautiful grounds and facilities also accommodate a special event such as a shower or wedding quite well. Our diversity in facilities and services is quite unique.”
McCoole: “Strawbery Banke is a 10-acre living history museum whose historic houses — most on their original foundations — along with heirloom gardens, traditional crafts and costumed role players evoke the families who lived in the Puddle Dock neighborhood over the past 300 years. Young adults getting married in our gardens came to the museum as children. Businesses appreciate that our spaces have more character than traditional meeting rooms. And community members value all that the museum does to preserve the rich history of this beautiful seacoast neighborhood and its residents.”
Samaras: “We are unique in more than one way. Here at the Bedford Village Inn, we have various dining options for those business travelers staying with us or for local groups enjoying a daytime meeting or evening event with us. They can expand their visit by visiting our Wine Bar Corks, our new Lobby Bar & Terrace at the Grand Boutique Hotel, or our local favorites: the Tavern, patio and dining room in our restaurant. We take pride in working with planners in making them look good and take the stress away from them when planning due to our level of service and knowledge of all styles of corporate events. I like to make my clients feel at ease and able to place their confidence in me and our entire team here. We are a destination venue where their clients, staff or team will want to be, which helps to generate the positive energy to support productive meetings and successful events.”
Cesario: “The Currier Museum is an internationally renowned art museum. Our works of art include Picasso, Monet, Hopper, O’Keefe and many more. Art tells a story and we can incorporate specific pieces into any event. For example, if a company wanted to host a retreat at the Currier and have their employees reflect on teamwork, we could incorporate a private tour of the museum and facilitate a discussion around specific paintings that would support a discussion around teamwork. We are a beautiful canvas where creativity, inspiration and productive conversations can take place.”