• Planning Nightmares & How Event Pros Handled the Unexpected

    POSTED January 24, 2018

    Event Pros Share a Few War Stories About When Things Went Wrong

Meeting and event planners often face a more difficult job than most people might think. It’s not simply calling a caterer and placing a few tables and chairs. There’s a lot more to it, planners say, including last-minute crises that threaten to destroy an event.

From a fireworks show that nearly became a disaster or an auto show in which one of the attendees happened to be the President of the United States to an event that drew 150 more guests than anticipated or a unexpected fire hazard, these event planners share some favorite war stories and how they resolved their problem situations.

Greg DeSandy
COBO CENTER || 313.877.8214

The President of the United States is widely regarded to be one of the most powerful human beings on earth. That’s something Greg DeSandy found out the hard way.

“We had a situation in January 2016 during one of our busiest events, the North American International Auto Show in the Exhibit Hall, in which President Obama decided that he was going to come to the show on Martin Luther King Day, the third day of the show that’s traditionally one of its largest attended days,” says DeSandy, director of sales and event services for Cobo Center in Detroit. “On a day like that, it’s not unusual for there to be 80,000 attendees.”

DeSandy, his staff and the show’s management had about 48 hours to get into “the President is coming” mode. “All of a sudden, we had to deal with so many different things, like working with the Secret Service and using metal detectors for the first time,” he says.

“We had to pipe and drape off about a third of the show floor where Obama could meet with some of the leaders of the automotive industry and enjoy the booths and talk about cars because he’s a car enthusiast. We had to arrange a way that he could get into the building and on to the show floor without disrupting the public in the other twothirds of the show.

“I think it turned out exceptionally well,” he says … now.

Kate Montgomery
DETROIT GOLF CLUB || 313.927.2451

Event planners are always “putting out fires” because problems arise constantly.

Kate Montgomery, CPCE, actually had to put out a real fire. “About four or five years ago when I was working as the event director at another property, I had an Indian wedding ceremony,” says the Detroit Golf Club’s director of events.

“And they didn’t tell me on purpose that they were going to start a real fire, a handmade fire, because they knew I’d say no. It’s part of their ceremony, but they never told me that. And it happened inside!”

The fire was lit onstage. Although it was relatively small and there was no real damage, Montgomery quickly put it out by pouring a cup of water on it.

“The ceremony was in a garden atrium with plants and everything around,” she recalls. “It wouldn’t have been a good scene if something would’ve happened and I would’ve had to call the fire department. It delayed the ceremony, so you can only imagine what 200 people looking at me was like. The ceremony was ruined, but it did continue on to the end.

“The rules were very strict there that no fires or open flames were allowed. I’m sure the guests would’ve eventually put the fire out, but the only solution to that issue was for me to put it out.

“Sadly, I had to think about the 200 people in the room before the bride and the groom,” recalls Montgomery.

“Event planners have to think on their feet at times,” she says.

Alix Dixon
THE FILLMORE || 313.230.2602

It happens all the time. The number of guests at an event turns out to be far more than the event planner expected.

“We were hosting an event at The Fillmore,” says Alix Dixon, special event sales manager for both The Fillmore and nearby St. Andrew’s Hall in Detroit. “We had a guest count that was given to us, but when the guests arrived, there were about 150 more people than had been accounted for.”

So at the last minute, Dixon and her staff found themselves scurrying about, adding tables, chairs and place settings. “The original floor plan already didn’t have seating for everyone because it was a stations meal, which is like several minibuffet stations spread all over the room. That really saved us.” 

An even bigger problem arose when, about halfway through the event, the on-site caterer threatened to up and leave.

“They weren’t used to dealing with something like that and they were unprepared, which anybody would’ve been,” Dixon says. “It was a very stressful time. I finally settled the caterer down and convinced them to stay. Again, the fact that it was a stations meal rather than a plated meal saved the day. There was enough food for everyone.

“In fact, believe it or not, there was food left over at the end of the night!”

Kelly Woo
SPECIAL D EVENTS  || 248.336.8600 

Imagine being at a firework show, and the fireworks are shooting everywhere but up in the air. Well, that happened—maybe not as bad as it sounds—but it occurred last July outside of a hotel in Asheville, North Carolina.

“We’re based in Ferndale, Michigan, but the majority of our shows are out of state,” says Kelly Woo, meeting and event manager for Special D Events. “Well, I hired a reputable fireworks company to put on a show at an employee appreciation event after the guests had eaten dinner and had their program inside. There were about 500 guests, and they all came out to the veranda to watch the fireworks show.”

Towards the end of the show, three fireworks tubes malfunctioned, and a firework from each shot out sideways—one towards the show setup table, another towards an open field, and the other towards a staff member who was off to the side, whizzing right by her head. “It was definitely too close for comfort,” Woo says.

“Thank God none of the fireworks shot toward the guests and nobody got hurt. Needless to say, we had a conversation with the fireworks company afterwards to find out what happened, why it happened and how to prevent it from happening next year … if we use them again,” she says.

Shannon McConnell

A huge windstorm last March caused a power outage of epic proportions in the Ferndale area. Unfortunately, for the mother of a young boy who was to celebrate his Bar Mitzvah a few days later, one place that lost its power was the company that had carved 18-inch tall ice sculptures with one of five logos on each.

They were to be the centerpiece for every table at the post-ceremony ice hockey themed party for about 250 guests, which was held at an indoor roller hockey rink.

“All the ice sculptures that were stored in a freezer melted two days before the party,” says Shannon McConnell, senior event director for Star Trax Event Productions. “The mom called me in tears. At the last minute, we had to arrange for another ice sculpture company that didn’t lose its power to get involved. It was a mad scramble.

“Due to time restraints, this other company wasn’t able to provide sculptures for every table, but they were able to carve ice sculptures with one of two logos on each for every other table. For the tables that didn’t have ice sculptures, our designer came up with other options, including lighting and floor pieces.

“That second ice sculpture company really came through under pressure. They saved the day,” McConnell says.

Andy Bolkcom
CHASE CREATIVE || 616.785.8660

“Sometimes, we have to outsource equipment for a show,” says Andy Bolkcom, a sales account executive for Chase Creative in Wyoming. “And that means it might have to be shipped from somewhere across the United States.”

Well, Bolkcom once had a last-minute piece of equipment—custom drapes—that had been ordered. “They were supposed to be delivered a day before the show,” he says. “We were following the UPS tracking, and we realized the day before the show that the drapes were being re-routed to Louisiana instead of Michigan, which was obviously the wrong direction.”

So Bolkcom immediately contacted UPS to get the drapes shipped to their correct destination. “We had to drive out to a distribution center the next day to pick them up,” he says. “So it all worked out. We work with UPS all the time. You really have to stay on top of that stuff.”

Bonnie Steinbock
ELM EVENTS || 248.515.2800

The bat mitzvah girl entered the room and began to cry. “It was this amazing post-ceremony party, and the girl saw this big sign with her logo, the letter ‘W,’ on it because her first initial was ‘W,’” says Bonnie Steinbock, owner of Elm Events in Huntington Woods.

“Well, the ‘W’ had four colors, one of which was supposed to be a dark purple, but it really looked black. And that’s why the girl was upset. I’d noticed it, but I didn’t think it was a big deal. The girl, though, said, ‘It’s ruining my party!’

“So what do you do? You don’t think it’s a crisis, but this poor Bat Mitzvah girl is crying! She was focusing on this one little part of a letter that was the wrong color. Fortunately, the florist was there and was so helpful. She went back to her shop and fixed it for the girl, who was very happy when it was made right.

“It was her party, so you’ve got to fix that stuff,” says Steinbock.  

Lisa Gebhardt
LG EVENT DESIGN || 734.249.8335

The new bride was glowing. Like most new brides, she wanted to make a grand entrance to the reception. But there was a problem. She only had part of her wedding dress. 

“She had one of those dresses that has an extension at the bottom where you can take it off,” says Lisa Gebhardt, owner of LG Event Design in Saline.

“She’d taken the extension off while in the party bus after the ceremony. She’d had a couple of cocktails before the reception and refused to do the grand entrance without the bottom of the dress. She was very upset and crying. The bridesmaids were scrambling, and everyone was trying to figure out where the extension was. It was agreed that it must have been back in the bride’s hotel room.”

Typically, Gebhardt has an assistant with her at events, but she didn’t have one that day. She offered to drive to the hotel to get the dress extension. “So I ran into the hotel and had to get access from the staff to the bride’s room to get it,” she says.

“It was a huge extension, so I stuffed it in my car and drove back to the reception. The bride put it on and ended up making her grand entrance in time, just the way she wanted.” 

The CDC defines close contact as within six feet or less, for 15 minutes or more with someone who tests positive for COVID-19. At gatherings of many kinds, contact tracing is used to trace the people that someone has come into contact with, before they learn that they have tested positive. This allows the people that the sick person came into contact with to be aware of the situation, and to make health-informed choices. 


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