Event Planning 101: Fall Festival

The past several weeks had been a race towards the national after school programming showcase: Lights on After School. Every campus does their own party, fair, or exhibition, and families are encouraged to attend. Being new at my job, I initially hadn't thought of much to do aside from hosting our program instructors in a second recruitment fair. But then I hear that another group of schools had gone so far as to collaborate and host a parade, so the challenge to one-up was on.

Our event peaked at being a vendor recruitment fair, a student talent exhibition, a mini-fall carnival, and a hip hop show. Even though I've planned a wedding and lots of small functions, this is probably the biggest event I have ever coordinated and hosted. Maybe the wedding was bigger, but I had a year to work on that. This event came down to the two week wire.

As a reminder to myself for next year, and hopefully to help any one else with events to plan, I'm highlighting the key steps necessary to put on a successful event that doesn't leave one scrambling all over town on the big day. I totally put fifty new miles on my car the day of the event, so some of these items are things I will know better for next time. The handbook for Lights On After School filled a binder, so here are the essential don't-waste-my-time steps to hosting a larger event:

1) Plan your theme. We did Halloween/Dia De Los Muertos, then use that to guide activities and decorations.

2) Choose the activities. Ours were simple but still appropriate for young siblings: trick-or-treat bag making, papel picado making, skeleton mask coloring, a ring toss game, table pong, candy apple making, sugar skull casting, face painting, raffle prizes, and dinner.

3) Line up your entertainment (insure availability!). Luckily, I got to collaborate with Austin Voices to bring some of the Cipher on campus, and a member of Public Offenders runs a girls group for us every Thursday, so I asked her if her group was available to perform. My roommate, Eirik, (aka... Big Poppa E, aka... life saver), also volunteered to do a few poems, and then the students who are in performance based programming put together songs, dances, and poems. I made a set list and hung it on a big poster beside the stage so everyone could see who was up next without having to make programs. Also be sure, if you're working with kids, to think of how they can be showcased: art, photography, singing, dancing... whatever they've done. We had girls in a sewing program do a fashion show.

4) Communicate with people who are coming to help out at least every 2-3 days. Most people are busy and don't get back to you as soon or as often as desired, so sometimes a little friendly email spam is required to get confirmations or regrets. And then, even if you get a confirmation, RECONFIRM, and REMIND everyone to be at the event early for set up.

5) PUBLICITY. Can't stress this enough. Even though I made fliers to hang around the school, and put an announcement over the loudspeaker every day, there were still kids who acted like they'd never heard of the event. I had also relied on the school's phone tree to send automated messages to all the parents about the event, which was a mistake. The day before I went downstairs to insure that the message had gone through - BIG MISTAKE - it hadn't, so I had to scramble to hand call every family of kids with registration forms on file. And then, even though I'd advertised to all the faculty and all the student body, I still didn't see very many new faces. Next year I up the marketing.

My breakdancing/back flipping all around boy wonder child

6) Make a supply list, and start shopping early. Then, lay everything out and organize things into bags - for example - all supplies for a ring toss in one back, everything for skull mask coloring in another bag, that way everything's ready to go to it's assigned spot. Also think about how you want to decorate. We got mostly halloween decorations, and then used sugar skulls that kids had made and decorated in art class as center pieces on the tables.

The awesomeness that is Capoeira Evolucao

7) Make a map of the venue - I plotted out where each instructor and game moderator would go in advance to make sure that everyone got traffic. So instructors without snazzy performances would be by a fun game or a group with dancers to draw attention their way. I then assigned the staff to strategic points around the cafeteria to make sure the entire room had a supervisor watching.

8) Enlist help! Get volunteers, student workers, etc, to help with tasks. Make sure you know what tasks are critical for you to do, and which can be delegated. Then make sure they are there to help with set-up and take-down. It also helps if you are working with a good partner.

9) Have a welcome table with basic information like registration forms, sign-in sheets, field trip info, etc. Don't forget a camera!

10) Put signs everywhere. Label who goes where, what there is to do, what's going on, so people don't look confused and/or ask you questions all the time. If you're doing exhibition tables, it's also important to get poster board or tri-fold boards to make table displays, and have literature to hand out to people about the program.

11) If you're unsure of how something's going to work - practice! My biggest hurdle with this event was the sound system. I was told the PA in the cafeteria didn't work, so I had to borrow mics and speakers. Luckily, Eirik is also a sound system genius and was able to patch together a functioning PA system from a JCPenny bag full of cords and six borrowed mics. If he hadn't have been there, performances might not have happened. I'd made sure to enlist the school's tech guy early on, but even this might have proved too challenging for him.

12) Make sure there are trash cans, cups, napkins, forks, pens... all the little things that are easily over looked.

13) Pay attention to what's popular - the unexpected run away hits of the night for us were the ring toss, (also scrapped together - using found cones, coke bottles that doubled as prizes, and dog chew toy rings that were sewn together and had to be cut apart), and candy apple making. I think EVERYONE ate a candy apple - I had to send a staff member to go buy more in the middle of the event. Didn't see that coming.

14) Clean up as best as possible so the custodians aren't left hating you.

15) Thank all of the people who came out to help, who helped on site, etc. etc.

As stressful as it was to make sure that everything ran smoothly, I'm proud of how the night went, and I'm especially proud of the kids who worked hard to put perfromaces together and/or assisted with set-up, serving the food, and helping smaller children at the craft tables. Now I'm ready to kick-back and go to other people's halloween parties... as the guest!

Biggest challenge there is simply: what am I going to dress up as!?