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Event Planning and Catering: The Big Return!

Despite persisting uncertainty, event planners remain optimistic, and safety is top concern as people come back together


With Alberta’s reopening announcements in early summer, Edmontonians looked forward to a return to the events taken for granted in pre-pandemic times. For event planning professionals, this meant phones began ring off the hook. But was this return everything everyone hoped for?

Olivia Weaver Pilip, Principal with Boutique Events describes a sense of cautious optimism. “For those first couple weeks we saw a ton of inquiries. In mid-July, things seemed optimistic. Now with case counts continuing to rise, rules can be expected to change,” says Pilip. “Even when the government revises some of their enforced rules, companies may still wish to incorporate them. Even if we don’t close again, a lot of corporations likely won’t be going through with everything they started to think about or plan back in June.”

At Connected Events, Hannah Chorneyko, Founder and Lead Planner, also saw steady interest along with apprehension, especially around setting dates for previously postponed and canceled events. “We do have a number of in-person events taking place over the next couple of months,” says Chorneyko. “But, even if restrictions in Alberta are enforced or not, it’s so important to make people feel comfortable.”

For Joe Ammar, owner of River City Events, the workload increased heavily, nearly to pre-pandemic numbers. “Everyone’s excited to get back to in-person events and parties,” says Ammar. “There are very few event companies like ours in the city so when restrictions opened up, we had to react quickly, and our team is working diligently to accommodate all our clients’ requests as best as we can.”

As business picks up, so do uncertainties heading into fall. Event planners are working to do everything they can to ensure the safety of their clients so in-person events can continue to take place. That includes following AHS guidelines for providing proper social distancing and masking for those who choose to wear it. “Being sure we’re well-prepared going into an event is critically important,” says Chorneyko.

Because River City Events is a full-service event planning and rental service, they have an extensive amount of items, from linens to lighting and dinnerware coming in and out. They’ve implemented ultra-fogging machines into their safety practices. “These machines disinfect, sanitize, and deodorize, with 100 per cent organic products, any item we use,” says Amar. “Any of our equipment going out the door and coming back in goes through this process.”

Other possible safety tools could include onsite testing or proof of vaccination as policies continue to be developed. “Events are a case-by-case basis,” says Pilip. “We must consider the size and scope of an event as well as who is attending. Is it a group of people who are already regularly together or a mix of people who haven’t met before? The demographics of people attending are also factors, especially those who might be in more compromised positions.”

The extra space required to meet social distancing parameters is also proving challenging for some. Connected Events’ corporate functions tend to be large with 1,000-plus attendees and Chorneyko says there can definitely be venue limitations with the city. It’s also playing into River City Events’ plans and rentals with tents. “Typically, when someone’s renting a tent, everything’s based on square footage. So, with a 20-by-20 tent, or 400-square-feet, this usually suits a 40-person gathering,” says Ammar. “Now, that’s been cut in half if we’re working to provide that recommended six feet for social distancing. People are now going with bigger tents or having less guests, and we work to accommodate this.”

In contrast, the virtual space has opened opportunities. Connected Events has a number of virtual events coming up for fall and Chorneyko is a fan of the hybrid-model. “There are so many advantages to these virtual events, and I think hybrid events are here to stay. The accessibility advantages alone make hybrid events worthwhile” says Chorneyko. “Those who want to travel in for them can if they so choose, but they now don’t have to. This opens up so much more opportunity for people further away, and the potential for attending at a lower cost as well.”

As events return, their planners are working in uncharted territory and must account for ongoing change. The way contracts are written up has added extra consideration and time to their process. “Nobody’s dealt with COVID policies in the past,” says Chorneyko. “If there’s a case where a client has no choice but to cancel an event due to restrictions, we have to think about what that looks like. Is the deposit lost, does it transfer forward to a new date, do we pivot to a virtual event, how can we ensure everyone is comfortable with the terms? These considerations are all very important before anyone signs a contract now.”

Communication and contingency planning are now essential. “For all my in-person events coming up over the next couple of months, we’ve had to basically plan two or three events because we have to have a plan A, B, and C,” says Chorneyko.

Planners are working to put together proposals in uncertain and constantly changing times. Pilip says her pre-pandemic high rate of follow-through for proposals is inconsistent today. “This summer, putting proposals together, I had this realization that if 10 per cent in the past didn’t go forward, that perhaps as high as 90 per cent would now be a futile exercise,” she says. “Time will tell.”

Because Boutique Events performs highly customized planning, everything from services to costing require extensive digging into details. When Pilip makes a good connection with a client, her first step is putting together a high-level plan. “If that looks okay to them, then we have to flesh those details out further. It’s a lot of unpaid work completed before even securing the job in the first place,” says Pilip. “When things are put on hold, it’s challenging when we think about the amount of work being done and when that revenue will come in.”

Corporate event planners are often working with clients who must remain conservative in their approach whether governments relax restrictions or not. “If they’re hosting people, they need to be responsible for their guests,” says Pilip. “We have to determine what our clients need to stay safe as well as our staff. We all have to mitigate the risk of having our name attached to an outbreak, but most importantly, just be responsible as human beings.”

Uncertainty also continues to create staffing issues. River City Events’ average business was 98 per cent decimated between the pandemic’s onset in early 2020 up to June of this year and staffing had to be decreased from 85 to approximately 30 today. “We’re accommodating large numbers of requests, working with bigger spaces, all with a drastically reduced staff and budget,” says Ammar.

While these businesses are operating in unprecedented times, they’re all embracing the increased connection as they hear from more clients. They’re also creating innovative solutions as they move forward. In all they do, the client is top of mind.

Pilip encourages businesses to put safety first, which looks different for every unique situation. “There are always options and alternatives. Maybe create a solo experience or online gathering, maybe a curated package of corporate gifts. I’ve worked with people to put these together in place of a full-scale event,” she says. “It’s about showing people your appreciation and that they’re top of mind. We are excited for our clients, and we’re passionate to see everything come together.”

Ammar looks forward to helping business surpass the limitations when events can’t take place. “We understand the value of in-person events from the social and marketing perspectives, for staff and customer appreciation, and in supporting local charities. It’s a good thing to keep that morale and company culture coming through,” says Ammar. “We’re working hard to keep everyone safe and to put their events back on.”

Chorneyko encourages Edmontonians not to give up. “We’re getting closer every day,” she says. “If you’re planning an in-person event, have a back-up plan in place, be prepared to pivot in case you have to, and make sure you have a strong, experienced team there to support you if you do have to make short notice changes.”