Updated: Nov 17, 2018
What do you get when you combine a thriving community of over 5,000 residents and 20 years of history? You guessed it: a party!
I am currently the Chair of my Homeowners Association’s Communications Committee. Thus, when we began to discuss the possibility of hosting a party to celebrate the community’s 20th anniversary, I volunteered Altheta Design Group’s services on a pro bono basis. Spoiler: the party was an incredible success! However, despite my past experience in event planning, there were still many obstacles and much that I learned along the way.
Our community is the only community within the DC Beltway that has a vast amount of land, brick walkways throughout the neighborhood, charmingly historic lantern street lights and a vast number of amenities: a pool, a large gym, basketball and tennis courts, long walking trails, two parks, two playgrounds, Martini Mondays and community events year-round. We are incredibly dog friendly (with our own canine-centered events). This is a place where new neighbors are invited to join in on the fun as soon as they move here; where people are able to quickly make new friends and lifelong relationships.
For some time, I had wanted to host a community-wide event both to support our community spirit and also to increase public relations with the other newly-developed communities near ours.
The plan was to post the event photos on our community website as advertising for future residents - as an example of what a wonderful community ours is. I also wanted to provide current residents with a photo album of our neighborhood.
With that in mind, I began planning for this event in March of 2018.
Early Leadership Buy-In
Regardless of my current role on our HOA board, with an event of this scale, it is still essential to have a majority buy-in from the leadership. This is important in the case of any event planning. If leadership is not on-board, you will have problems at every turn and will lack the help that you need from others throughout the process.
Our HOA board meets once a month. From March until May, I attended each monthly meeting. I had prepared and presented to them mood boards with my proposed layout for the party and my plans for every detail of the event. This was necessary in order to obtain their approval of my planned budget from the committee’s current unused funds. Unless you are up against an incredibly tight deadline, you don’t want to waste time requesting and waiting for vendor quotes until you are certain that the event’s budget and overall plan is approved.
The budget itself was fully funded from a combination of my Communications Committee, as well as another committee’s extra budget and local community sponsors. Local sponsors are an excellent way to supplement the budget for your event, however it is certainly a feat in and of itself. Fortunately, I had a phenomenal team of volunteers who took on the responsibility of contacting local entities and obtaining contributions. (Thank you to all of you!) We received donations from another committee within our community that had excess funds and wanted to support the event by combining one of their yearly events with ours.
In the end, we held a town hall meeting, in which I presented the event’s theme and mood boards to the HOA board, as well as to interested neighbors, where I laid out the proposed costs to the community. With only a few initial naysayers, the HOA unanimously approved the event, to be held in September 2018.
Have a Consistent & Compelling Theme
For our 20th anniversary, nothing but the grandest theme would do: The Great Gatsby. I chose this theme because of the splendidly opulent Art Deco era. But it is also near and dear to my heart. Not only is it my favorite book, but also F. Scott Fitzgerald was my grandfather’s medical patient.
Since I am a graphic designer by trade, I created a gold and navy 1920s Art Deco logo that we used throughout the advertising process (on newsletters, weekly email blasts and flyers), as well as on the gold-foiled napkins and the giant welcome banner at the event.
The Great Gatsby theme extended to every part of the event. The plastic cups for the beer and wine were all gold foiled. The table linens were gold and turquoise themed, alternating from table to table. We used Art Deco-styled chairs, painted gold. Lastly, the table centerpieces were bronze lanterns filled with flameless candles, surrounded by small LED strands. Above them, clear balloons full of gold confetti pieces hovered. One of our community’s park - our event location - also contains two large, white pergolas. To finish off the ambiance, I wrapped large LED lights around the pergolas’ poles and hung the welcome banner across them.
Every detail of the event consistently conveyed the theme.
The Importance of Movement
I also planned for the actual event’s functionality. It’s important to remember that, in event planning, the end result is never static. You want people to move consistently and freely, without bottlenecks or awkward areas.
To that end, we placed 5 round tables and 14 tall high boy cocktail tables strategically around the park. We also incorporated three separate bars, placed on three of the four “corners” of the circular Pocket Park. This kept traffic distributed throughout the area. And since we had placed the DJ in the middle of the event and the larger tables for seating along the side of the park that is the farthest from the entrance, people were encouraged to move around the consistent and central focal point.
Permits, Permits, Permits!
Outdoor parties are a much more tedious event to plan because of the many required city permits. These will include things such as a liquor license, a Parks and Recreations permit, noise permits, assembly permits, etc. You also have to coordinate with the city about trash pickups, closing off streets, and with the lawn maintenance company regarding tree trimming and mowing and watering of the lawn… or a request to refrain from doing so. In our case, because of our area’s poor drainage, we had to monitor the extent of the watering in order to ensure that the ground was adequately dried out ahead of time.
Be Flexible & Have Back-Up Plans
As Robert Burns said: “The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” And that is the truth. There are always elements of any plan that will not play out as you intended. Plan to be surprised, but also prepared. And plan ahead, to the extent that you can, for tricky logistics and unexpected obstacles. We had our share.
First, the location of the event, in the park, proved to be a huge challenge for our caterer. It was just a little too far from the community clubhouse kitchen where they were preparing the food that would be passed throughout the evening. In order to accommodate their needs, we used two 10x10 tents and five 8-foot-long tables in order to create an outdoor prepping station. The prepared food was driven over from the clubhouse to the outdoor station for final assembly and serving.
Second, weather is always an unknown when planning an outdoor that you were not planning originally to tent. In our case, it rained consistently for two weeks prior to the planned date of the party. As I mentioned before, our pocket park has a significant problem with flooding. When we reached the week before the party and local meteorologists were still forecasting that Hurricane Michael was headed our way, we felt it was best to reschedule the party for three weeks later. Granted, the hurricane ended up being nothing more than a significant storm in our areas on an alternate trajectory. However, at the time, we couldn’t take the risk. If you are planning an outdoor event, plan ahead by asking your vendors at the onset about “Acts of God” clauses in your contract and any potential fees associated with a change in date. This can be a costly problem.
And third, four days before the event, we realized that our loaned 10x20 tent was missing eight of its main pieces. It was a stressful race to find and purchase another one that would be available before the day of the event. And in the end, the replacement tent still didn’t arrive until the start of the party, rendering it useless for that event. Thank goodness another vendor was able to provide us with two 10x10 tents at the last minute (the day of the event).
Fortunately, I had already spent months ordering and gathering all of the other necessary accessories and decor for the party. Because of this, these items were all in place ahead of schedule and I was able to address the other emergencies as they arose.
Order is Imperative
For an event to come together, all of the different elements have to arrive in a certain order. Our DJ worked independently from us and was the first to arrive and began his setup around 11:30am, as well as getting volunteers to help put up the banner on one of the pergolas. The furniture rental vendor arrived next, actually ahead of schedule, which typically does not happen. Then the 10 casino tables. This was very important. Without the furniture, the caterer could not have set up and we could not have stocked and organized the three bars. The caterer arrived last, approximately 3 hours before the party.
While all of our vendors were wonderful, any event is easier to plan and manage if you can maintain as few vendors as possible.
Don’t Forget Your “Tool Kit”Also, as I have mentioned in my past blog about event planning, ALWAYS remember to have a “tool kit” with you. That tool kit will include a fix for anything that could go wrong with your event - tape (scotch and masking), scissors, a sewing kit, batteries (the specific voltages that you are using within your decor), etc. You will almost always need something, if not many of these things at the last minute and will be grateful that you had them with you.
Leave Plenty of Time for Setup
We began to setup for the event two days ahead of time. I personally decorated the pergolas with our large LED lights so that I was not doing it during the hectic setup on the day of event. We also set up signs in the parking area adjoining the park, giving residents advanced notice not park in that area 30 hours prior to the start of the event to allow for there to be open spaces to place tables and the caterers tent.
(Image of large LED lights that were wrapped around the pergola poles)
On the day of the event, I began working early - around 7:30am - in order to answer last minute vendor/volunteer emails and messages. Then, while vendors were arriving and setting up, volunteers and I filled a floor-to-ceiling cargo van with cases of wine, water, sodas, decor, eating and drinking utensils, and other miscellaneous items to be transported to the park. In addition to all the above logistics, I had to orchestrate two different delivery times for the ice that was required for the beer kegs, the white wines and other beverages at each bar station.
Start early and plan to be very involved in every step of the process. I ended up working at the party throughout the entire evening: from 6-10pm. After that, I and our volunteers aided with the “breakdown” of the tents, décor, etc. Keep in mind that city-wide noise ordinances generally dictate when this must be complete. In our area, we had to have everything complete by 11pm.
The Power of Effective Advertising
But of course, it all came together… even better than we had planned. Initially, the HOA board and I had planned for just under 400 attendees. But the consistent and compelling theme that we had used in our advertising and promotions proved to be so successful that, by the week before the originally scheduled date for the event, we had RSVPs of almost 600 people. When we rescheduled due to the weather considerations, we feared that many residents would be out of town for our new event date, over the Columbus Day long weekend.
To our surprise, the RSVP numbers skyrocketed to 780 people. I generally assume that 10% of the RSVPs will not attend. In the end, around 650 people attended the party.
The Result: A Resounding SuccessOf course, all of the work was absolutely worth it. After seven months spent planning, creating new advertisements (new content for weekly and special email blasts, flyers, and social media PR), after rescheduling the event due to a possible, impending hurricane, and after all of the last-minute changes and hurdles, everything fell together perfectly. Our turnout was incredible and I and my team have received nothing but praise for how well it went. It was the largest event to date since the community began 20 years ago.
Lastly: Involve the Community
On a final note, one of the things that I’m glad we did was to involve the local community. Before the event, we asked the three predominant, local realtors to each donate $500 towards an event raffle. Then, during the event, residents were able to purchase raffle tickets.
Between the three realtors donations and the raffle tickets purchased, we gave 50% of the total - $822.50 cash to our raffle winner and the other 50% to two different charitable causes: school supplies for our local Elementary Public School and general support for our local homeless shelter.
In addition, as I mentioned earlier, a volunteer group helped me immensely by visiting businesses that they had relationships with, asking for the support of local sponsors to cover any extra expenses. Our premise was that, as a community of over 5,000 people, we support their businesses. In turn, we asked them to support our community for this special event. And they did! From these sources we raised $3,700, plus about $300 in restaurant gift cards. While it wasn't a huge amount, it was greatly appreciated.
In summary, through one event, we were able to build community morale, meet new neighbors, engage with local businesses, and give back to area organizations. Was it incredibly difficult doing this pro bono on the side of my other client work, having to go through many lines of approvals, and the time-consuming process and, at times, stressful? Yes. Was it worth all of the effort? Absolutely!