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.