CUSTOM LINEN, HAND-calligraphied invitations — special events are high-touch. But in today's fast-paced world, event professionals increasingly rely on high-tech tools to get the job done.

THE BIG PICTURE

Pictures tell the story of a special event better than the most eloquent description can, and a large-format digital printer makes beautiful images for Deco Productions, Miami.

With the ability to print up to 60 inches wide in virtually any length, the printer “has allowed us to provide our clients with small- and large-scale sign-age, CAD [computer-aided design] drawings, posters, backdrops and displays,” explains president Sharon Siegel, “all in-house, to exact specifications. This in turn saves valuable time and money while allowing us to maintain a competitive and creative edge.”

Pictures from digital cameras are boosting bookings for Feastivities Catered Events, Berwyn, Pa.

“We can't do business without them,” says company vice president Meryl Snow. “We take our digital camera to all our events and snap ‘before’ and ‘after’ pictures. We run back to the shop, drop them into the computer, add music, and run back to the event and give a compact disc to the client just in time to say good night. It blows them away.”

Beautiful decor photos may help sell the event, but detailed diagrams are vital to make it function properly. Jon Michaels, a producer with Sherman Oaks, Calif.-based Extraordinary Events, relies on TimeSaver Software's Room Viewer Deluxe. “It allows producers who do not know how to use AutoCAD or other professional floor-plan programs to design basic floor plans,” he explains.

E. Wickey Helmick, head of York, Pa.-based Wickey's Caterers, likes the room-diagram software from MeetingMatrix International. “It's easy to revamp for the next client once the original [diagram] is composed,” Helmick notes. “In the computer age, where 99 percent of our work is transmitted electronically — proposals, invoices, diagrams and follow-up — the need for paper has basically disappeared. These tools save time, create efficiency, reduce staff costs and trouble-shoot on larger events.”

FAST TALKERS

Perhaps no technology has had a greater impact on event planning than innovations in communication. Cell phones, the Internet and e-mail have made communication faster and event professionals more effective.

“Good communication in special events translates to profits and savings,” explains Cathee Hickok, co-owner of Renaissance Caterers of Canoga Park, Calif. “Buffet runners talking to the chefs to alert what foods will be needed next, captains receiving last-minute changes from managers, managers talking to producers about alterations in the program schedule — all this can add up to a seamless event, and then to repeat events and referrals.”

Her two vital communications tools: her cell phone and two-way radio.

“In our business, time is so critical that I swear I hear Big Ben chiming in my head,” she says. “The cell phone has dramatically cut the losses from unnecessary truck trips, address errors, staff questions, etc. Additionally, being available to those busy clients further assures them of our commitment to their event.” Although two-way radios were the butt of jokes when they first popped up at parties — it was said that servers “looked like they should be directing airliners on the tarmac,” she recalls — “the efficiency they allow was worth their unwieldy nature.” And the new lightweight headsets “are almost invisible,” she adds.

In love with the speed and reach of e-mail, many planners harness its power via PDAs — personal digital assistants — which now usually combine databases such as address books and schedules with wireless e-mail capability.

Wedding planner Yifat Oren of Yifat Oren & Associates, Sherman Oaks, Calif., has had her BlackBerry for just short of two years. “Since so much of our business communication has been in e-mail rather than phone — avoiding the never-ending phone tag — being out of the office in a meeting for a day or two would backlog me for another day just sorting through e-mails and catching up with responses,” she explains. “Now, I have responded to most of the e-mails by the time I return to the office. Also, my office will now e-mail messages or questions rather than call me. This works great because in between meetings I can respond to them. Receiving e-mails is a lot less obtrusive than having your cell phone constantly going off.”

Key managers on the event team at Sharp Events in San Francisco combine two-way radio and wireless with Nextel BlackBerrys. “The BlackBerry allows our operations staff to be accessible to clients even when they are on site for other client events, and the Nextel component allows them to be programmed into our fleet of Nextel radios used by the on-site team,” explains president Laurie Sharp. She is sold on the device: “I'm a certified ‘crack-Berry’ addict,” she jokes.

Heather Keenan, head of San Francisco's Key Events, says she can't do without her next-generation cell phone, a Treo “smart” phone.

“It has my calendar, e-mail, calculator for doing proposals, whole database — vendors as well as clients — and, of course, phone. It also acts as a camera, with the ability to send pictures immediately,” Keenan explains. The powerful package means, for example, that “I can be in New Orleans and need to contact a vendor in London, and I have all their contact information. The office got pretty sick of giving me phone numbers while I was on the road, and I got pretty sick of my office being closed when I needed phone numbers. I can start the ball rolling on projects before I get back to the office or before I get to my laptop. I can download driving directions, I can store frequent flyer numbers and every password and every account number I own, both personally and professionally. I can create notes next to an appointment that went well — or the opposite. I even keep my grocery list on Treo. And every night I connect her to my desktop so that I have up-to-date information in both locations. I call her ‘Sexy Sadie’ because she can do it all.”

WHAT'S NEW?

With their tight schedules, how do event professionals learn about new tech tools? Many report that they first see the newest gadgets in the hands of their friends. Greg Jenkins, a partner in Long Beach, Calif.-Based Bravo Productions, has a subscription to Popular Science magazine — “which provides great information about new technology and gadgets.”

Although ever-faster communication is helpful, it brings headaches, too. “Clients have become so attuned to the ‘immediate response’ that they allow us little or no time for a thoughtful, informed response,” notes Hickok. “This can hamper necessary reflection and creativity.”

It can also be a bit cold. “I'm a relationship-building kind of guy who is interested in what other people have to share,” Jenkins says of himself. “Sometimes it's a little cold and impersonal to [try to] truly connect through gadgets.”

And despite the payoff from delivering speedy catering proposals, sophisticated technology “has not assisted us in the production of food,” Helmick notes. “Yes, there are faster cookers, etc., but the reality of delicious cuisines is the hands-on slow roasting and meticulous preparation of menu items.”

COOL TOOLS

How high on the technology food chain are event professionals? Most describe themselves as falling somewhere between high-tech and low-tech. “I'm medium-tech,” Snow reports. “I know enough to get myself in trouble.” Yet sometimes the aura of high-tech tools is just as important as their capabilities. Using the latest tools “gives the perception to the client that we are ‘with it,’” explains Rita Bloom, CSEP, of Creative Parties Ltd. in Bethesda, Md. “For a company in business as long as we are, that is an important perception to convey.”




RESOURCES

Bravo Productions, 562/435-0065; Creative Parties Ltd., 301/654-9292; Deco Productions, 305/558-0800; Extraordinary Events, 818/783-6112; Feastivities Catered Events, 610/889-0750; Key Events, 415/695-8000; MeetingMatrix International, 603/610-1600; PalmOne/Treo, 408/503-7000; Renaissance Caterers, 818/999-0990; RIM/BlackBerry, 519/888-7465; Sharp Events, 415/912-5650; TimeSaver Software, 714/731-5390; Wickey's Caterers, 717/747-9500; Yifat Oren & Associates, 818/981-9950

“WHAT I'D REALLY LIKE TO HAVE IS …”

Planners dream up the perfect high-tech tool

“The ideal high-tech equipment that I wish existed would be one that could read your mind, translate the thought into a picture automatically, and forward it to the client in a matter of seconds with a preliminary cost and budget attached. This gadget would automatically do a room configuration and logistics plan for you, as well as give you the best venue options to host this particular event.”
Greg Jenkins



“A virtual personal assistant.”
Yifat Oren



“User-friendly software capable of rendering events in a three-dimensional format that allows a ‘virtual tour’ of the designer's vision. This would allow clients the opportunity to experience the color, textures, lighting and design — a real-time glimpse, pre-production.”
Sharon Siegel



“Robots! We could use them for setup and breakdown. Or better yet — as bartenders, and the mixed drinks would just come out of their fingers.”
Meryl Snow