Monday, October 23, 2006

Tastes Like Chicken – Tips for Making an Awards Banquet Meaningful

If you were to ask a room full of people what their favorite activity is, I’ll bet you not a one of them would say going to an awards banquet. We imagine ourselves sitting through speeches, eating rubbery chicken, clapping for people we don’t know, and looking at our watches as the agenda drags into double overtime. We’ve all been there.

But from an organizational perspective, an awards banquet can serve several important purposes. It can:

  • Bring to the forefront an issue of concern,
  • Raise funds,
  • Extend gratitude to individuals or a group of people,
  • Support a brand, and
  • Encourage and inspire.

I’ve been to several in the last few months. Those that were really well-planned with the participants in mind, were excellent. They were even enjoyable or touching. Then there were the others. For those, it often seemed like all the planners cared about was kissing up to their committee members or funders or the like. I would have rather sat in my car with a sack lunch.

Among the banquets I attended this year, there was a significant contrast between the good and the bad. None fell in between.

Here are some tips based solely on what I observed:

• Plan with the audience in mind. Make sure all the elements of the program will be of interest to them. Think about their experience from the time they enter the parking lot through to when they leave it: lighting in the parking lot, signage to help them find their way, how to find bathrooms, will guests be looking for someone in particular, how they will know where to sit, have room at the registration table for big crowds to arrive at once, have accommodations for crutches and wheelchairs, ensure guests will be able to hear and see the program from where they are sitting, etc. There is a reason they have taken their time to attend. Make it mean something.

• Make the main award recipients feel special before, during and after the event. Don’t notify them by e-mail. At least pick up the phone or pay them a personal visit. Use their names as part of the promotion strategy both for the event and to give them more visibility. Help them notify their friends and family so that they can buy tickets or be present. Give them a sense ahead of time about what the program will look like. During the event, have someone at the door to welcome each recipient and direct them to where they need to go. Afterwards, send them thank you’s, photos and copies of news coverage.

• Be deliberate about staging. If there are 100 or more attendees, elevate the stage so that the whole audience can see what is going on. Make sure lighting facilitates the ambiance as well as visibility of the speakers and awardees. If you have a projection screen, put it to the side a bit. Don’t put it behind the presenters. (And don’t use it as the backdrop for photographs.)

• Don’t depend on doorprizes to keep the audience there to the end. The program should be made strong enough to keep them there. Either give out the doorprizes at certain intervals throughout the program or do it near the end (but not as the last thing). And, I know it’s tempting to save the best for last, but the opposite is really the best. Give the biggest doorprize first. That way everyone has a chance for the big prize. Plus, once the big ones are given out, the little ones won’t seem so little anymore. If there are more than three to five doorprizes, find a creative way to award them so that folks aren’t sitting through drawing after drawing and clapping for winners as if they’ve actually accomplished something.

• Be strategic about planning the program. Place your organizational announcements and protocol stuff at the beginning of the program. When the last award is given, people are ready to go. They don’t want to stick around and applaud the planning committee or staff or to hear appeals for money. Don’t start the awards presentations in the middle of the main course. People are too distracted trying to cut their rubbery chicken. When you do start the awards presentations, instruct the servers to stop clearing dishes. Pad your schedule a lot so you don’t go over time.

• Use a real MC. Don’t give the job to someone just because of their position in the organization. Make sure he or she or they have excellent speaking skills. They should be able to read a script without anyone knowing there was a script. The better banquets I attended recently used media personalities as their MCs. When it worked well, it worked very well. In those cases, the MC was already very familiar with the organization hosting the event.

• And speaking of the script, someone who really knows what they are doing should write the script. I mean really. This is one of the most important elements alongside booking the right location and serving food. It should touch on the purposes of the event, organization and/or cause. It should include a little info on why each award is special as well as why each recipient is deserving. It should not be filled with platitudes or partisanship (unless it is a partisan event). It should be pleasant to listen to. The closing should be as planned-out as the opening. People should leave on a high.

I am sure there are great books on this subject. And I am even more sure that professional event planners do this in their sleep. There are tons of details to deal with. It’s a really big job. But, gosh, there a lot of people planning awards banquets who do what they think is right without investigating or who are stretched way to thin. And it shows in the program.

A couple of months ago, I left an awards banquet in tears. It was held by the San Antonio chapter of the March of Dimes to thank leading family and corporate teams in its Walk America event to end prematurity. The banquet logistics were so well-planned and carried out, that as a participant, I was able to focus on the content of the program. I was deeply moved when the names of the winning teams were announced. It was clear that they were happy about winning, not because of a competition but because they knew it would make a difference. Had the event been poorly planned, that core message would have been lost.

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