The Meaning of Service

February 22nd, 2010
It's all about you....  Courtesy of

It's all about you.... Courtesy of

I was most honored to receive a very positive review on Yelp that described me as, among other things, having a “servant’s heart.”  At first, to be honest, I was not sure what kind of a compliment that was.  After all, I am a professional and consider myself to be a manager.

The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized that it is one of the highest compliments I could have received.  My work is in a service industry, after all.  My goal is to make magical things happen while remaining invisible, myself.  My focus is on my clients and on their wishes.  These are, I think, all the hallmarks of service.  If that is what is in a servant’s heart, then I do fit the description.

I’m sure that I came by this ethic by working as a theatre stage manager for so many years.  In the arts, the highest goal is to serve the artistic product.  There is no room for ego, so I learned to think less of myself and more of the art.  This has carried over into my practice as an events professional.  It’s not about me.  It is all about you.  And I am very pleased by the feedback that tells me that I am achieving that goal.

Rerun: Event Planning on a Budget – Part Three: What’s for Dinner?

February 19th, 2010
Dinner is served! Photo by Carasco Photography.

Dinner is served! Photo by Carasco Photography.

Here is part three of this series:

After the location, food is probably your largest event cost. And many caterers will try to make sure that you spend at least half of your total budget on food. It doesn’t have to be that way, though. There are many ways you can keep your food and drink costs under control and still have a festive and hospitable event.  We’ll look at food here and look at beverages in a future post.

Consider Day and Time

The easiest way to control costs is to consider time of day. Breakfast, brunch, and lunch are generally less expensive meals than dinner. I believe that this is as much a matter of social convention as of intrinsic cost, but you can still take advantage of it. A late morning or early afternoon wedding can be followed by lunch. An anniversary celebration can be a brunch party. For the early risers among us, breakfast celebrations are unusual and offer great menu options.

Depending on your event, you might also choose not to serve a meal, but to limit your food service to snacks. Be careful, though: Many caterers will give you the same price for heavy hors d’oeuvres as for a full meal. A traditional morning wedding used to be followed by punch and cake. You can use or elaborate on this tradition to have a nice, inexpensive party.

Choose Your Caterer Carefully

Quality food from an excellent chef.

Quality food from an excellent chef. Photo courtesy of Artisan Events, Inc.

This leads me to my second easy way to control food costs, and that is your choice of caterer. In Chicago, there are the big downtown caterers and then there are the smaller outfits. The big ones are on the preferred vendor list of every venue in the city. Fortunately, some of the smaller ones have made it onto the lists of various venues, as well. If you can’t figure out with a little internet research which caterer falls into which category, ask an event professional. Personally, I have dealt with enough of each kind of caterer to know one from the other. The smaller caterers are more likely to be willing to work within your budget. They are also likely to have personal service and high quality food. As with any vendor, of course, check their references first and taste their food before you sign a contract and hand over a down payment.

Know Your Budget

One more very important thing you can do to control your costs is to have a fairly firm budget number in mind before you talk to a caterer. Every client I have ever told this to says, “But I don’t know what it costs.” That’s the secret: You tell the caterer how much you want to spend and it is up to them to come up with a menu within your budget. Don’t expect caviar on a frugal budget, of course, and do discuss your target budget number with any potential caterer. A good one will be able to tell you if what you are asking for is even reasonable. If you don’t go in with a budget number, they will start at the high end. You can make adjustments as you go along, of course, but it is easiest to start with your budget amount.

One way to think about your catering budget is to break it down into two (or three parts). First, consider how much per person you want to spend on food alone. Compare your per person price to what you might pay in a restaurant. At a highest-end restaurant, you could easily spend $100 per person for dinner, or more. But at a high quality neighborhood restaurant, you can get away with $40 per person. Of course, the prices at a restaurant also include a different kind of overhead from the caterer, but this gives you a way to start thinking about the costs.

Beautiful dessert.  Photo courtesy of Artisan Events.

Beautiful dessert. Photo courtesy of Artisan Events, Inc.

The second part of your catering budget is service–what you are paying for the chef, servers, and other kitchen workers. The most up-front caterers charge service per server per hour, and they will break this number down on your estimate. A less scrupulous practice is to charge service at a flat cost per guest. This method does not reflect the caterer’s actual expenses and may end up costing you more. A third method is to charge service as a percentage of food costs.  If a caterer charges a flat rate per guest, consider looking elsewhere.

If you want to cut down on service costs, you might consider buffet service, which requires fewer people to give smooth service. On the other hand, caterers generally must provide more food for a buffet than for plated service, which might offset the savings provided by fewer servers. Talk to your caterer if buffet is an option for you and see if a buffet will offer you savings. It depends on a lot of factors: price of labor, price of food, number of guests, etc. A conscientious caterer can give you a comparison of the prices.

The third part of any estimate you receive may be rental charges, depending on your venue and your caterer. These charges should show up separately from food and service on your catering estimate. Caterers with large staffs will sometimes break out the rental list with prices so you can see what they expect you to pay. Most caterers will not do this, however, and if you want to compare the details, you may need either a rental catalogue and an Excel spreadsheet or the help of a professional. I have actually broken down rental costs for a client and compared them to the prices I would expect to pay to help her to see the true costs of the proposal. Rentals can be a substantial sum of money, so don’t overlook the necessity if you are at a venue that doesn’t supply everything you need. There are ways to control cost here, too, although not as many. You can rent flat linens, instead of glossy, and you can rent the least expensive china, silverware, and glassware. You can also shop around among rental houses for good prices. Be aware, however, that there are rental companies that offer good prices but substandard service. Get recommendations or references for rentals so you are not stuck with poor service.

Always start with your food budget number before you begin your shopping. You may have to revise this number as you get a feel for realistic costs, but don’t believe anyone who tells you that you can’t feed a crowd for less than $100 per person in food costs. If you are creative and are working with a flexible caterer, you can have a celebration to remember without breaking the bank.

Reception Traditions

February 12th, 2010
The bride prepares to toss the bouquet.  Photo by Happy Buddy PhotoArt.

The bride prepares to toss the bouquet. Photo by Happy Buddy PhotoArt.

One conversation I have sometimes with my clients is about reception traditions.  There are a lot of traditions, like tossing the bouquet, tossing the garter, first dance, and others.  As far as I am concerned, everything is optional, so I try to help my clients figure out what they want as part of their wedding reception and what they would rather not do.

I like to suggest to my clients that they talk over what they want to do and what they want to skip.  Sometimes, both halves of the couple want to do a particular tradition.  Sometimes, both would both rather skip it.  But sometimes, there is a split decision.  One way to come to an agreement is to ask yourselves, “What does it mean?  Why is it important?  If it is important to the other person, is there any way to make it meaningful for both of us?”  If you can make it mean something, then it might be worth doing.  You can also modify the ritual to make it suit you.  Sometimes, the more personal it is, the better.  And perhaps you have family or cultural traditions that might be good additions or substitutions.

For example, I never understood the ritual of cutting the cake and then stuffing the slice in your new spouse’s face.  Even when done neatly and politely, I didn’t see the point of it (probably because I don’t like cake much).  Then I did a little research and figured out that this ritual probably began as a symbolic nurturing of your new partner.  It could be done with bread or fruit or cake or any food. Now that I understand it this way, I find it much more meaningful.

But when it comes down to it, these are traditions of the reception, not of the wedding itself.  If you don’t do any of them, you are still going to be married at the end of the day.  For some people, it would seem strange not to do them, and so they like to include all of them.  For others, they don’t have the same meaning, so there is no reason to do them.  As I like to emphasize to my clients, if you’re the one getting married, you get to make the choice about what to do.

Vendors I Know–Wellington String Ensembles

February 2nd, 2010
The Wellington String Quartet

The Wellington String Quartet

The thing that sets the tone of a party is always the music, and if you want a classy atmosphere, then you are probably thinking of hiring a string ensemble.  I like to recommend the Wellington String Ensembles to my clients who want a string quartet, trio, or other combination of instruments to play classical music.

This is a group of diversely talented young musicians headed by violinist Emanuel Ban.  I have worked with them on weddings and was most impressed by their professionalism and musicianship.  At one wedding, they were even able to bring a trumpeter with them to play the recessional, as the bride had requested.

There are many talented musicians in this city, so what I look for is people who are reliable and professional.  I want to be sure that if I recommend musicians, they will show up on time and dressed properly.  With this group, I never have to worry.