Let’s say you’ve arranged a meeting with a potential client. There have been a few rudimentary email exchanges outlining what they have in mind, but the face-to-face chat will formalise their needs and expectations. You walk into said meeting and find yourself discussing a forthcoming celebration with people of a culture you’re unfamiliar with, and the event will incorporate traditions that you’ve never even heard of. What do you do?

You have a mouth: use it

The most important thing you can do when faced with a cultural celebration that you’ve had no exposure to is to be honest and ask about it. These people are putting their event in your hands, and though your immediate instinct might be to reassure them that they have nothing to worry about, you’re likely to cock up something vital. Be upfront and let them know that while you’ve planned similar events, you’re unfamiliar with specific needs that they might have: ask that they be explicit about important details to ensure everything runs smoothly, and communicate with them often to verify that you’re putting it all together properly.

Do your research

Quinceañera. Handfasting. Bat Mitzvah. Sealing Ceremony.

If you’ve never encountered these terms, it’s ok—there are many celebrations that those outside a specific culture/religion won’t be privy to, so if you have agreed to coordinate one it’s your responsibility to research the living hell out of it. You don’t necessarily have to memorise rituals, but it’s important to know what the major expectations are. Are there specific decorations required? Foods? Candles? Anything verboten? The last thing you want to do is to put together a gorgeous event only to horrify everyone with a wretched gaff.

Anecdotes of “wrong”:

Just to make a point, these are examples of some ugly scenarios that have actually happened—either to me, or to former colleagues of mine.

• An inexperienced employee was asked to source catering for a meeting of the entire 20+ member Board of Directors—she ordered an assorted sandwich platter consisting of ham & cheese, BLTs, and egg salad options. 90% of the board members were Jewish. How well do you think that went over?

• A wedding reception for a Chinese group was going to be decked out in pristine white linens, until another planner caught wind of it and saved the day by switching them to red and gold.

• One young planner suggested menu options to a very devout Jain family that consisted of a choice between beef and chicken.

These are all travesties of cultural insensitivity, and if you don’t understand why, make some tea and do some Google searches for an hour or ten to educate yourself.

Do keep in mind that people will often turn to an event planner within their own community to help with an event because they’ll already be well-versed with the ins and outs, but there will come a day when you’ll be faced with something that’s out of your usual comfort zone. In an absolute worst case scenario, you can always pass the contract on to another: if you’re faced with a situation where you honestly feel that you won’t be able to please your clients to the best of your ability, it may be better if another colleague (or even another event company) handles the event.

We try to wear as many hats as possible, but there will be some situations in which our best efforts will pale in comparison to those of someone who has a better grasp of what’s expected, and what can be done to make the event shine. Ultimately, the client’s happiness is more important than your ego, and having the integrity to let them know that you can’t do justice to their celebration will earn you a fair bit of respect, especially if you give them a recommendation for someone who can take it over—it’s nearly guaranteed that they will speak highly of you to others, and may come to you for other work in the future… as opposed to avoiding you like the plague after you’ve botched their event monumentally.

Lana

After spending over a decade coordinating and managing events ranging from weddings to celebrity charity functions, Lana Winter-Hébert has stepped away from active event work to pursue a new direction in her career. With the event companies and home décor specialists she writes for, she has the opportunity to flex her creative muscles to conceptualise memorable celebrations, and to share inside tips with those new to the industry.

Currently, Lana divides her time between writing for various clients and doing collaborative projects with Winter-Hébert: the design studio she runs with her husband. Best described as "endearingly eccentric", she spends
most of her spare time wrestling with knitting projects, and cohabitates with two hand-raised sparrows who live in her writing-desk.
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