My Event Fail with Caroline Manzo & What I Learned – For Budding Event Professionals

Back in early 2010, The Real Housewives of New Jersey had a few months before its Season 2 premiere, meanwhile I had been asked to put together a panel of distinguished women from North Jersey for a Women’s History Month panel. By this time in my career, I had several years of event planning under my belt for 3 different NJ institutions of higher ed. Working with celebrity clients was not new to me; in fact, we had just finished hosting Barack Obama the previous semester. Up until this particular event, I had the fortune of large & successful turnouts. Unfortunately, it took a total fail at an event where I invited one of my favorite celebrities (noting that I am not a huge fan of celebrities so this was a big deal) to learn some valuable lessons that would prevent me ever again having to endure the self-inflicted shame that continued to haunt me long after that night.

My goal was to bring together a panel of distinguished women from diverse backgrounds and professions who could best convey the lifestyle, challenges, and balance of the contemporary New Jersey woman. My audience was to be primarily students, ideally aspiring young female professionals, and also the rest of the university population. The first 4 women were quickly assembled; I had acquired a healthy list of impressive connections by this time in my career, so that part was a snap. It would be my first year booking this panel & I studied the previous few years’ content and speaker selections. Always a competitor, I wanted my panel to blow away the ones before mine. I needed a big fish.

I was a big fan of RHONJ, not as much for the drama as I was of the actual “housewife” values portrayed in (almost) every woman on the show. I was very inspired by watching the work put into their households, families, and professions/passions – this is what still draws me the most as a viewer through the present. Living within the10-15 mile radius of where the series is filmed, I’m sure like many other NJ women, that adds a little interest by association. Anyway, I quickly thought of Caroline & Dina Manzo as the potential prospects to draw large audiences as I felt their personalities on the show were a great match for the content of this panel.

As most event professionals know, there are typically booking agencies or PR managers to contact when you are trying to land a contract on a celebrity. I really didn’t know where to begin for the Manzo women, especially because the show had only concluded one season, and they weren’t located yet in any of my agent directories. So taking the total risk of seeming over-egregious, presumptuous, & creepy, I Facebook messaged Dina Manzo. I humbly explained that I realized this wasn’t a typical way to initiate a booking, but I was really interested in hosting both she and Caroline, or at least one of them, and the outline/purpose of the event. I cringed and pressed “send.”

A few days later, to my surprise (mostly that the account was in fact, real) Dina replied. She graciously explained although she would not be able to attend, that Caroline might be able to and she gave me her booking contact information. Later that week, Caroline was on board and I was feelin’ pretty damn smug I gotta say. I should have seen the end of my so-far Staples “Easy Button” career luck signaling, but life & God have a funny way of teaching us lessons.

Long story short, I banked on a standing-room only house that evening. What happened instead was a total embarrassment, as I think a total of 30-40 people (and I might be exaggerating just to save my dignity) showed. I went on with the event and even moderated the panel. On a bright note, it was a really excellent program in quality & content and those that did attend expressed amazing feedback. Ok, that’s a win for humanity, but for the event planner & perfectionist in me, it was my worst day ever at work. Actually, still is.

So here’s what I can share with all of you up & coming so-far successful event planners:

1. If your event if this scale doesn’t have enough professional PR, it essentially doesn’t exist.

My biggest mistake and I swear if I had just made a few calls/emails the week before the panel, I would have been gold. I thought I was a big shot and rested on my laurels, thinking that my department’s methods of publicity alone would carry the day. I did do a press release on our official university webpage, sent a campus-wide invite electronically, and had lots of flyers on public boards. I had myself and one grad student handing PR for this event while juggling about 350 other events set to happen that semester. Rookie move & I should have known better.

2. Find the right people to manage your PR: they should be better than you at doing it, or hire someone else.

One of my best strengths in planning an event is vision. However, I know nothing about Photoshop or other graphic design tools. I can see in my mind how I want every detail: the right title to convey the right content, the right taglines, the right visual images/palettes etc. This event needed professionally produced tangible & electronic releases. Mine were the best they could have possibly been using rudimentary tools, but I should have made the call to someone who could have knocked it out of the park & had the rights to do a much bigger release than I could back then. Whether it’s social media, photography, lighting, florals, or whatever- get the best you can for your budget.

3. Never assume, especially when the stakes are high.

I made a lot of assumptions leading up to this event and paid dearly for all of them. Including the aforementioned, I just “knew” in my heart that the news that Caroline Manzo was coming would spread like wildfire once one or two people found out and there’s no WAY someone this well-known, especially from right in our area, wouldn’t sell out. It had absolutely nothing to do with Caroline; it had everything to do with my under-utilization of resources, time, and talent that I should have recruited, and have ever since! Moreover, in general-check, double-check, and sometimes triple check on responsibilities you delegate so you are best prepared, even when event disasters occur.

4. Trusting others to help (as long as they are the right people to trust) is critical.

In New Jersey, we come out of the womb suspicious; we are a worldly street-smart breed for such a small place on earth. I find that like me, most event professionals don’t like giving up control over details. In this case especially, that quality burned me. Since, I’ve learned to hire smarter, what questions to ask to recruit & delegate more intelligently, qualities of people I DON’T want on my team, and what I should and more importantly, should NOT be doing. Present day, I have 5 professionals & nearly 50 undergrad staff members. There’s no reason jobs should not be successfully unless I’m not directing correctly. Do what you’re good at, be willing to recruit and find allstars at your weaker points, or what you simply don’t have the appropriate time to do, and make sh*t happen!

5. Don’t freak out if the unplanned happens; never let your guests see you sweat.

At least I maintained the ability to move forward in the face of extreme disappointment that evening and act the same way I would have if the place was packed. This has always carried me in stressful situations in life; if you watch the show, one of the greats at this quality is Albert Manzo, Caroline’s husband & owner of the Brownstone in Paterson. People that work with me know that even if sh*t’s hitting the fan behind the scenes at an event, showing any weakness publicly to our guests is unacceptable. Make the experience exemplary for an audience, no matter what the size.

6. Never stop dreaming big, even when failures happen.

Reality is, I’m sure Caroline Manzo never even gave this night a second thought after it happened; she has much bigger things happening in her life. Maybe she was slightly disappointed at best, but getting to speak with her that evening, I can say she is one of the most “real” reality stars, celebrities, personalities…whatever you wish to call her. She came across to me to be very genuine, a loving mother & wife, and she gave her best as well as I did to a small but appreciative audience. Even though I feel like I blew it in front of someone I would have liked to impress, I don’t regret the experience and valuable lessons learned from it.

Last year, I hosted over 2,500 events, meetings, trips, and other engagements with a staff that I can trust while maximizing the best resources available for a 0% failure rate. I’ve also released a smartphone App all about New Jersey Trivia, called “Jersey Pop,” and started writing this blog. So Caroline, if you’re reading this, thank you again for coming and for motivating me to make each event better than the last. Read your book, loved it, and all the best to you and your family.

One Funeral & Four Restaurants: Americana Diner, Anthony’s Pizza, Mastoris, & Under the Moon Cafe (East Windsor & Bordentown)

This Halloween weekend was spent on the road, as I left my home in Passaic County to relocate to my hometown, Bordentown, for a family funeral.

Bordentown is a wonderful little town, in a unique geographical position that places it right along the Delaware River, but smack dab in the middle of NY vs. Philadelphia-influenced NJ culture. At sports bars, you can find just as many Giants & Jets decorations as you will Eagles; you can tune in to both Philly and NY based television & radio stations. While there are many natives of the town still left, with generations of family born & raised, there is a recent influx of residents from both the north, south, and yes- that elusive “central” Jersey of folklore & mythology that have given this town a flavorful vibe, while maintaining its historical charms.

My first stop for Friday night dinner was at Americana Diner, in East Windsor. Like many New Jerseyans, I have patronized this diner for decades. However, it’s been a few years since I’ve visited and I noticed some changes. While the interior remains the same since their last major renovation (probably close to the new millennium, if I’m not mistaken), the menu has changed quite dramatically. While I appreciate that the ownership has taken the direction of a culinary manager, who clearly is qualified based on her bio on the website, I know I can’t be alone in missing the old menu. The new Americana menu is much more scaled-down, offering more of a restaurant or café-style selection vs. a traditional diner. Appetizers, salads, soups, sides, and entrees all fit on one side of a page. I was looking forward to my big fat diner menu; I’m all about being progressive but keeping the name “Americana” now in this case seems ironic. Gone is all the standard diner fare that made them famous; left is a lofty menu that sadly, I felt was frankly overpriced and ambitious for their market. Maybe I’m underestimating their “new” market – as I stated, I’ve been out of that area for a while. I know there probably are plenty of people happy with the change; the place was as packed as ever, so they must be doing something right. I guess I was just let down as I was all geared-up for the large selection & portions of the past as I drove down the Turnpike, making a pit-stop at this old favorite of mine. Maybe it was an “off” night, but I hope next time, if I’m paying higher-end prices at a diner, that the food quality matches the price.

Americana

Saturday’s lunch needed to be simple and brief, as we had a lot to accomplish before an early evening church service. Therefore, we stopped in at Anthony’s Pizza in Bordentown, a classic pizza “joint,” that remains in a comfy time-machine vacuum of sorts circa late 70s-early 80s. Locals know the owner, Anthony, who has a penchant for Elvis, Cadillacs, and the local women (bordering on the creepy side, but he seems harmless enough to take your kids there). Anthony is getting up there in age & as of late, I’ve noticed some new help at the restaurant. Seemingly, the pizza is not as I remember as a kid & I suspect that Anthony has suffered the effects of the economy & his age and has been forced to cut some corners. Just on the principle of tradition alone, I will continue to stop in from time to time when I’m in town, but it’s clear that Anthony’s is on its way to possibly closing up shop and ending an era. Sadly, many neighbors of the same stretch of highways 206 &130 that saw a heyday in the 70s-80s (Papp’s Bowling, most recently for example) have done the same.

Anthonys

After the services, I hosted a repass dinner at Mastoris of Bordentown. Mastoris is pretty well-known statewide, as it lies at close proximity to routes 195, 130, 206, and 295. Similarly, it’s about equidistant to exits 7 and 7A off the NJ Turnpike. A large facility, it is typically full of local & commuting patrons, along with large bus groups or catered events. Mastoris is another Bordentown dinosaur that has a lot riding on expectations of its past performance. Fortunately for them, their portions and quality still deliver. Their famous cheese & cinnamon breads are the centerpiece of a full on-site bakery, which gives the place a very welcoming appeal as soon as you walk inside and see everything on display before the numerous dining rooms. I like reading the Mastoris family restaurant story on their placemats and the efforts to create an “experience” is still a formula that works. I’ve heard rumors that their current site will close and they will move operations to their new Allstarz Sports Bar; I’m hoping this is not the case unless they are willing to invest in a serious renovation to recreate their current model that can still meet the demands of a modern world. Allstarz is a cavernous, contemporary sports bar that offers a completely different atmosphere than classic Mastoris. As I can say for now is “say it ain’t so” Mastoris. I’d love to see a renovation of the current facility instead of a move that could jeopardize the brand.

Mastori bread

Sunday brunch brought about a pleasant discovery in Under the Moon Café in Bordentown City. This small, yet distinct venue offers Argentinean-inspired dishes & to die-for desserts. I was immediately moved by the attention to decorative & interior design. The core elements of the café are rustic, and there is something interesting to look at on every table and wall. I get the impression that a lot of trips to antique dealers and second-hand shops were made with joyful finds that make this place special. The menu is as creative and intentional as the atmosphere. This location was definitely a much needed pick-me-up after an emotionally draining weekend. In fact, I left feeling inspired to write again – so I did. I will definitely be sampling more of Under the Moon in the future.

Under the Moon