Sunday, February 13, 2011

Boys In Black

As a marketing professional I plan lots of events; everything from four person briefings to 500 person training events. While each is completely different, I'm always amazed that my event checklist is virtually the same for all of them. So I wondered, what would happen if I applied that planning checklist to my son's 10th birthday party. I already knew my objective, now it was time to get into the details.

Step 1: Brainstorm venueWhen brainstorming a venue think about your audience, consider external factors such as the weather and take your budget into account. But, don't hesitate to think creatively. Picking the right location often leads to an easy theme, and encourages attendance. In this case I had to entertain 10 year old boys taking into the unpredicatble New England winter. Let's just say having the party at home was NOT an option! After exploring several options, 5Wits Espionage topped our list Forget the Men in Black, the Boys In Black were coming to town.

Step 2: Visit the event siteDon't skip this step! By visiting the site you understand traffic and parking expectations, get a hands-on feel for the venue, and aren't hit with on-site surprises like the two rooms your reserved are a 10 minute walk apart (yes, that's happened to me before at a convention). For our birthday bash we went through the 5Wits adventure before inviting guests - And its a good thing we did. We learned there are some dark spots that mighten frighten younger siblings -- SOLUTION: Glow Sticks for our guests. They were the perfect addition to our theme.

Step 2: Plan your scheduleFor 10 year old boys this might be the most important part! Down time is not a chaperone's best friend. 5Wits took care of the adventure but we had a 45 minute drive to address. We carefully planned drop off times, scheduled the bus, and even planned when we'd break into teams. We opted to use the time on the bus to get into the spy groove. With a home made CD of spy music (think Mission Impossible meets James Bond), black fedors, sunglasses and fake mustaches our party animals were transported secret agent style. And of course - we didn't forget the snacks (for both directions) -- boys are ALWAYS hungry.

Step 3: Make contingency plansLet's face it - one of your party guests is going to get sick, or your key speaker's flight is going to be delayed. While you can't plan for every contingency, you can ensure the most likely problems won't throw you a curve ball. In our case we had extra mustaches (they don't always stick), plenty of water and a bathroom on the bus!

Step 4: Menu selection

Every time I plan an event I hear my grandmother's voice reminding me that if I don't have left overs I didn't cook enough. Not the most cost effective advice, but important none the less. Leave all of your guests satisfied. For our party we had pizza and snacks for the kids. For the parents we had chocolate covered strawberries, a goat cheese roll and crackers and some veggies and dip. Turns out the boys loved the strawberries too, good thing I made three dozen - Grandma was right!

Step 5: Make it feel special

While most work events don't have to entertain 10 year old boys, we do need to use our guests time wisely. Never underestimate the appreciation people have for the little things; whether its easy access to the daily newspaper, a chocolate turn down service on their hotel pillow or planning time in your agenda for checking email. For the boys the music, disguises and fun adventure were enough to bring on a chorus of "that was the best birhtday party ever".

Step 6: Promotion

The best event won't be a success if you don't meet your attendance goals. Invitations are a great time to use your creativity. For our party the Secret Agent Recruiting Office inviting our guests to join Mission: Celebrate Derick's Birthday. You don't always have to be "cute" with your invitations, but you do need to be memorable.

Step 7: Confirm, confirm, confirm
Enough said.

Step 8: Event Day Prep
Cooler packed, check. Goody bags on the bus, check. Copy of event contract, just in case, check. You get the idea. Write down your event day needs in advance and methodically review things are you go through the day.

Step 9: Have fun!
I'm not kidding. As a host your guests take your emotional auro as their queue. If you're not having any fun, they won't either. At the event know you've done everything you can to ensure a great event, roll with the unexpected bumps and remind yourself -no one but you will even notice the goody bags are missing the invisible ink pens you bought three weeks in advance. Have a blast - you've earned it.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Three Cheers for Kennedy Middle School

Yesterday morning was the fateful day I had been invited to share my experiences of living in Liberia with my son's 7th grade class. Having been a middle school student in Liberia by no means made me an expert, but it certainly gave me hands on cultural experience that Nicky's class could learn from - or so I'd been convinced by an eager Nicky.

My cold left me with a horse voice and some trepidation about keeping a roomful of 7th graders entertained for 40 minutes. Armed with fresh tropical fruit, fried plantains, and a Liberian handshake lesson to kick off the class, I arrived a few minutes early to set up. My main goal - don't embarrass Nicky, and if I'm lucky, maybe the class will learn something interesting about West Africa as seen through the eyes of someone their own age.

Mrs. Downing, the teacher who hosted the class, invited me to stay for her homeroom attendance call and morning announcements. The bell rang, everyone sat in their seats. Much to my surprise a formal attendance roll call wasn't the focus. Two girls in the class shared Facebook chats they had been having over the weekend with a sick class mate who was in the hospital. They talked for a few minutes about what more they could do to make the ill student feel connected to the class. Mrs. Downing gracefully guided the discussion but let the kids share their feelings and thoughts.

Then in the back of the room a boy raised his hand. Remember, these are 7th graders. He asked Mrs. Downing if she had seen the news about the riots in Cairo. She acknowledged the news, and set the students up for a discussion they would have later in the day about this very timely topic. Then everyone rose at once, faced the flag and said the pledge of allegiance - with seeming honor, or at least no eyes were rolling.

All of this transpired in 10 minutes. What a wonderful way to start the day. In my head the kids should have been passing notes back and forth, and spitballs would be fired as the teacher formally called out the students name. This was so much better. Something wonderful was in fact happening at the Kennedy.

My hopes of simply not embarrassing Nicky were raised to an optimistic desire to engage the class in a dialog.

I had heard about similar experiences at the Kennedy. Nicky comes home every day with a new fact, a silly joke or other story he read in the Newspaper. Long ago I stopped asking who shared that with him - it was always Mr. Murphy, his Spanish teacher.

And let's not forget Nicky's math teacher, who's last name I'm embarrassed to admit I can't spell! This teacher has Nicky as eager to hop on Study Island and take on his teacher's latest challenge, as he is to play any of his video games.

Mr. Murphy, Mrs. Downing and this math professor - teach more than Social Studies, Spanish and arithmetic. They, along with a fantastic staff at the Kennedy teach students to love learning, to be inquisitive and to relish story telling.

My talk with the 7th graders went well, but I suspect I learned a whole lot more than they did. I learned a new respect for this public middle school - a respect I knew lingered but hadn't fully surfaced. A respect earned not by the slightly run down building that houses these students, or the well used text books the students lug home every night. A respect earned by the quality of the staff - in the classroom, and throughout the school.

I look forward to the weather getting warmer for many reasons, but today, it's so I can proudly wear the Kennedy Middle School shirt the class gave me.

Way to go Kennedy - you are what public schools are all about.