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An Affair to Remember

An Affair to Remember

From initial planning to final execution, operators who regularly stage effective special events never waver from their goal: quality interaction that earns loyalty to the organization.

Thousands of events small and large are executed every day at educational and healthcare institutions, business parks and elsewhere. At all of them, onsite operators strive to pull off programs that build traffic, customer loyalty, institutional morale and help achieve other goals.

Whether it's a catered business lunch for five or a graduation party for 7,000, every now and then an idea comes along that is so thoughtful, so happening-right-now and so much fun, it not only elevates the department's brand, but also creates a customer experience that generates an affinity for and loyalty to the entire organization.

Building Memories & Traditions

Truly stellar events raise the bar and create expectations for the next, equally exceptional event or an encore performance the following year. And while food is a critical part of most theme events, it's not always central to them. More important is creating an experience that resonates with customers, creating a sense of community and an emotional bond with the host institution. The best events go on to become annual cultural traditions.

Dining Services creates just such an event annually at St. Leo University in central Florida. There, for three hours each September following term start, 1,200 students crowd into food tents serving popcorn, sno-cones, pizza, funnel cakes and cotton candy at its Old Fashioned Carnival. Other tents house various games like ring toss, egg walks and cakewalks that award snacks, 2-liter bottles of soda and stuffed animals as prizes.

“I worked with an event company for 12 years, and never saw the same people twice,” says Robin Lavalle, St. Leo's Dining Services manager, who, with other managers in her department, volunteers to get drenched in the dunking booth. To take turns, students proffer cans of food in lieu of cash or tickets, to be donated later to a local women's shelter.

In contrast to her earlier experience, Lavalle now sees faces returning, and even fields Facebook posts of graduates who recall fondly winning a cake or prize. “We're building memories that last and that people want to remember,” she says, adding that's a sure sign the event is achieving its objectives.

An Approach to Education

Among the many themed dinners for students each year put on by SUNY Cortland Dining Services, the favorites of director William McNamara are those with an educational component.

“Taste of Africa” in late 2010 sought to inform students about the ingredients, flavors and cooking methods prominent in different regions of the African continent while challenging stereotypes that it is composed largely of jungle and savannah. To achieve authenticity, McNamara's team conducted exhaustive research and worked closely with the university's Africana club.

For such detailed events, McNamara and his team start planning a year out. A timeline for marketing that schedules e-blasts, table tents, menu boards, video screens and printed posters for residence halls is carefully orchestrated and adhered to. So are meetings with managers, supervisors and students.

“The thing for me is to do it right,” McNamara says. “Not everyone can meet for 20 hours the week before. So right after an event is over, we start meeting on the next one.” He makes event planning meetings part of the department's ongoing task schedule.

Events as Marketing Strategy

The elderly man's friends from the old neighborhood where he and his wife raised a family and lived for decades mingle and marvel at the meticulous landscaping in this Fort Worth community. It's one they've heard advertised, but never visited.

Inside, a crisp Viognier greets couples as they emerge from the foyer to a living room where a platter of cheeses, some sliced, mild or smoky and some crumbled and robust, awaits. They serve as a preamble to the dinner served in a soft-lit dining room. The event shows off a beautiful, comfortable place to live, managed by Legend Retirement Corporation, and it costs the recent widower nothing.

Food is central to the housewarming parties that Legend Retirement Corporation (Fort Worth, TX) hosts for new residents, their family and friends to celebrate move-ins to its mid- to upper-scale apartment communities. It's a regular part of Legend's “Good Friends Make Good Neighbors” marketing program, in which culinary directors meet with new residents and arrange personal “Get Acquainted” events as simple as a wine and cheese gathering or as elaborate as a meal for upwards of 20 guests.

Beyond the food, the experience extends a convivial welcome to what can be a major upheaval in seniors' lives, says Aaron Fish, director of food and beverage. He adds that, as a result of exposing a new resident's guests to the community and its hospitality, a big dividend for Legend is referrals.

A Very Special Prom Night

It's Prom night in San Francisco. The former patient with a willowy form steps out of a limousine, graceful in her gauzy dress and heels, her arm linked around that of a tuxedoed boy.

Inside, the dance floor is packed, as is the photo booth. A dapper young man in a wheelchair gets spun around by his nurse and, despite the physical toll from his chemotherapy, breaks into a wide, toothy smile.

It's held at UC-San Francisco Medical Center, but like every prom everywhere, it's an evening designed as a sweet rite of passage that will become a cherished memory.

Next month, the Nutrition & Food Services department of UC-San Francisco's Medical Center will stage a gala Prom Night for former and present patients of its Benioff Children's Hospital. It's held in Moffitt Café, the largest retail food outlet and public space on the campus, which is tranformed for that magical night into a glitzy ballroom festooned with billowy banners, gilt and other prom regalia.

This will be the second year Nutrition Services has worked with the hospital's Child Life department on the program. It's designed to let patients who would otherwise miss their regular proms enjoy a special event that caters to their unique needs.

As such, it relies less on sliders and miniature pizzas to make impressions, and more on the beauticians and hair dressers brought in to make the 15- to 21-year-olds shine on their special night, says Nutrition Services Director Dan Henroid, MS, RD. Despite the lavish trappings of the inaugural event last April, he says that executing the prom for 125 guests plus 40 parents, physicians, nurses and support staff still cost the Child Life department less than $10,000, thanks in part to donations of services from the community.

Building a Campus Culture

Vanderbilt Dining is already working on the fall-harvest menu for its third Farm to Fork dinner in September on the grassy grounds near the historic Wyatt Center on the Nashville campus. It was conceived by director Camp Howard, CEC, as a way to showcase the university's relationships with local farms and dairies, food artisans, chefs and bakers.

The family-style dinner is served outdoors to a group of 300 students, faculty and staff, with tickets selling out within a couple of days of being offered.

“It's a small part of our population, but we don't think we'd want it to be any larger,” says Julie Akard Crider, communications manager. “It's perfect at this size and a great bonding and socializing experience for those lucky 300.”

Last year, two long tables seating 150 each were preset with Winesap apples, locally baked breads, Kentucky apple butter and Amish pumpkin butter, blackberry-sage water and other offerings. The aromas of pork chops and zucchini grilling nearby and fresh-from-the-oven caramel-apple bread pudding with sorghum butter sauce added to the sensory experience, as did a rockabilly band.

The biggest challenge, Crider says, is that farmers don't sit at their desks reading e-mail, so visits to the local producers to talk face-to-face helps ensure a successful event, as does keeping the menu fluid in case a planned ingredient ends up not being available.

"What I like about this event is that it brings farmers and chefs together with students. They can ask how animals are raised on the farms. They can see where their food comes from.”

Looking for New Themes

Lary Tarnowski, Dining Service Complex manager at Michigan State University in East Lansing, is a constant observer of popular culture to glean new event ideas.

Last Halloween his department staged an apocalypse-themed “Wasteland NC-17” dinner based on the best-selling Hunger Games trilogy and other popular books of the genre geared to young adults. Replete with zombies, vampires, eerie music and background fog, and dishes like “Soylent Orange” based on the blue-box mac & cheese much loved from childhood, the event was a huge hit.

You can have impact without spending a bundle, Tarnowski adds. When it comes time to obtain props for such events, “I know where the clearance racks are,” he says. “For our most-recent event we got everything at 50% off.”

Event Idea: Get Dunked.

At St. Leo University, the dining department annually hosts an Old Fashioned Carnival for students every September. Dining personnel take turns sitting it out in the carnival's “dunking” booth. Tickets to “pitch” in the booth are purchased with donated canned goods that are then donated to a local women's shelter.

Event Idea: Get Social.

To get students and guests more engaged in voting for contestants in the school's annual Miami Idol competition, Miami University hired a local d.j. who provided a system so the audience could text ongoing evaluations of the performers during auditions and vote for winning finalists at the event's Grand Finale.

Event Idea: Get Current.

Don't rely on classic themes — look to customers and their interests for new ideas. Michigan State staged its apocalypse-themed Wasteland NC-17 dinner based partly on the hugely popular Hunger Games book trilogy. It came replete with zombies, vampires, eerie music and dishes like “Soylent Orange” mac n' cheese.

Event Idea: Get Local.

Customers increasingly want to know more about where their food comes from, an interest that provides a natural theme for Farm to Fork events like the one Vanderbilt University holds to showcase its relationships with local farms, bakers and food artisans. Other operators find that a focus on food regionality can equally effective.

Event Idea: Get Feedback.

Actively seek out feedback from customers and/or clients after the fact, says Steve Shorette, catering manager at University of California-San Francisco Medical Center. It not only helps you improve follow-up events but also helps build stronger personal relationships with internal catering clients and other customer groups.

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