B2B: What does it take to pull off a large-scale event? Are there consistencies, or is each one unique?
Mike Mancuso: Each event is unique. Taste of Omaha is now, 22 years into it, very different than what it started as. You try to make it fresh, to bring in new attractions. We’ve brought the restaurant community into this event, and the restaurant community continues to evolve. That’s the fun part—new restaurants, new cuisine. The other part is entertainment. We’ve tried to use a lot of local talent and sprinkle in regional/national artists so people can hear songs they enjoy while focusing on Omaha.
Vic Gutman: With any event we do, I personally walk the area and try to visualize how to use the site. How to maximize the architecture? What will the event ultimately look like? How do you see this coming together? How do I want people to feel about, and at, the event? How can we make this a great experience? How are artists going to get in and out? Where do we place dumpsters, the port-o-johns? It’s like being the mayor of a city in some ways, you have to take care of all the infrastructure of a city. If you don’t have that, the event’s not going to succeed.
Renee Black: I agree with Vic with the mayor analogy. The event planning industry is hectic. There are certain tactics that can be used with each event, but they are each unique. The human factor is so strong in events, and that’s always a challenge. If there’s a plan of the look and feel of the event, then it becomes, how do you make that happen? The foundation has to be strong, and you have to be nimble.
B2B: What is challenging about event planning?
Gutman: There’s a lot of burnout. People who tend to come to our company tend to be control-oriented. You have to be able to roll with it, and not everyone is able to work with you. I find we get a lot of people in their 20s come to the company, and they get so intense.
Black: That burnout is definitely a challenge. I find that with a lot of people, they say this is their dream job, but they get into it, and if they aren’t able to be flexible, they end up frustrated.
Mancuso: What makes us unique is that we are bringing people together. Our brand is about connecting people. As the saying goes in show business, it is true for us also: The show goes on. That means sometimes we have to make changes.
Gutman: There’s also a lot of new twists. I started in 1971 in Ann Arbor. When we hear about shootings in Las Vegas at that country music festival, you hear about trucks barreling into crowds, it’s scary for us. You have to think about security now. The event I started in Ann Arbor has started to work with concrete barriers.
Black: One of our most increased expenses these days is security. When we did the Lead the Change luncheon with Aly Raisman, we had to have security. You wouldn’t think, with a crowd that is 96 percent women, that you would need security, but we did. We have policies in place with regard to Ubering when we are out of town, because we are a company of 16 women.
Mancuso: I know CHI is putting in more security, and we do a lot of events at CHI.
B2B: What major changes have you noticed in your industry?
Black: Omaha is becoming more cosmopolitan. Paying for parking has changed. We have a lot more venues now. When we started in 1998, almost every event was held at the Holiday Inn on 72nd Street because that was the only place that could hold 600 people.
Gutman: In 1975 when I started, the only public event was Santa Lucia Festival in Little Italy. There were no big festivals downtown. Septemberfest came two years later. Then came Shakespeare on the Green. Now, people have to choose what to go to.
Black: Some of the things we do now, people 10 years ago would have thought “Whoa, what is this?” You can think outside the box now, and it’s OK.
Gutman: Look at Maha, which I think they do very well. They are laser-focused. They are after a certain crowd, and they can get it. A lot of these niche events work, they have people that are willing to pay $50 to get into.
Mancuso: When we first started, the family events were the norm, now you have these breakout events. Even our events are not what we thought they might be. When we started Balloon and Wine Festival, we thought it would be a 21-and-older event, a romantic night out. We found out year two that it was a family event, and we had to change our format to make it for families.
Black: When you increase the offerings it’s more OK to do something for 4,000-6,000 people. I think lots of people see Omaha differently, especially in the last five years.
Events are good for brand awareness and marketing. The events are the culmination, not the starting point. We love to be able to talk about our history, we love that consulting role. Some of the clients, we feel bad for, because their plan wasn’t in place, and when that happens, you don’t get that sense of fulfillment.
Mancuso: I think if you keep what you’re doing fresh and current, you’re going to keep going. There is a business side. There’s a lot of risks to doing events. In one particular instance, there was a Taste of Omaha West one year that wasn’t done by us. There were bills left unpaid. You have to be careful, because situations like this give event planners a bad name. We are so fortunate to we have a great relationship with our suppliers, we have a lot of good people behind us.
B2B: What is something people don’t think about with events planning?
Gutman: I think all of us take responsibility for the attendees very seriously. In 2008, we had that storm that came through so quickly at Omaha Summer Arts Festival. The thing I worry about most is, “Is anyone going to get hurt?”
Black: You have to be quick on your feet. We do a lot of B2B events, and there is a lot of alcohol consumed. We took a stand about 15 years ago, and we said “There has to be a certain amount of food served if you are having an open bar.” We found we have to be proactive. Now, anytime there is an open bar, we have to serve dessert bars and coffee at the end of the night. At first, the clients often don’t want to spend the money, they think, “people can go to the coffee shop right down the street.” Once you explain the risks of not having it available, they start to understand.
Mancuso: We provide a lot of economic impact. We have also helped other people create business by the networking they do at our events.
Black: You have to be solutions-based. We have to be able to suggest something. A lot of it goes back to our vendors and suppliers. Now, technology is important. We do a lot of research on event technology, whether it’s RFID so you can tell if someone is in or out of the meeting, especially if someone has to log a meeting for CEUs, or online ticketing so we can get people in the door faster.
B2B: That actually leads to my next question. How has social media impacted events management?
Mancuso: Technology is a way of life. We expect everything now. All these expectations of speed. I remember having a mimeograph machine. The speed at which we now communicate—there’s so many more options. We try to bring the best technology to the people. The better relationship we have with them, the better the event. All these techniques help us tailor each event to the customer. It’s a task that was not needed previously. We’ve implemented programming. We still are big proponents of traditional media because you have to keep reaching out to customers. New media is enticing simply because it’s free. It’s a strategy you have to keep improving on, because it is constantly changing.
Black: We’ve been committed to traditional media. We had to learn new territory because [social media] was not our forte. We looked into it, and we committed ourselves to three methods: Instagram is for our photos, Twitter is so we can get the news out, and Facebook is because there are so many people on it. It’s a big risk, because it’s immediate, but permanent. Someone is always coming up to us and saying “Hey, can you do this (social media site), too?” But we stick with those three.
Mancuso: People’s time is spent differently. They have 500 channels of TV, they have the internet. You have to really present events in a way that they want to come. Our audience has been steady. That experience is what’s changed. The expectation is to give people a lot more things to do. We take things Omaha wants and make them bigger.
Black: No matter how good your model is, you have to meet their expectations. We are the opposite. We create what a bigger city would do but Omaha-style. We are still a safe, clean city. We travel so much that we see a lot of places that are not nearly as great as Omaha.
B2B: When you are in need of an events manager, what qualities do you look for in an employee?
Black: I want a strong work ethic above all else. I want a flexible person who is a problem-solver. I need someone with positive energy and intelligence. And I want someone who appreciates and cares for other people.
Mancuso: Communication skills, first off. Then, I need someone with good technology skills. They need to be flexible—egos need to be checked at the door. I want someone to be task-oriented, and I want someone who prefers passion over money. We have made a lot of money in this business, but it comes from having a passion to do the job. This job takes long hours.
Gutman: I look for a passionate, organized, detail-oriented person with good verbal and written communication skills. No experience necessary.
This article was printed in the February/March 2019 edition of B2B. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.