Who wants to go to Florida to only see the inside of a ballroom or conference center? No matter how nice the ambiance, it isn’t the same as tiki torches framed against the setting sun. That’s where outdoor events come in.
Morgan Connacher, CSEP, vice president of events and special programs at Haute Companies, says her passion for the events industry stems from the integration of the creative with the logistical. She has equal passion for brainstorming sessions or figuring out how to put everything into a shipping container to get it to the event site. She has managed events from 50 people to 6,000 people, domestically and internationally, live and virtual — many of which have been outdoors.
“Creating a truly lasting connection is oftentimes routed in a time and place. Creating moments that turn into memories means you must find ways to leave the ballroom,” Connacher says. “The perfect way to do this is to truly explore all the options a property has to offer during an initial site visit.”
The Haute team tries to integrate outdoor venues into every multiday event they help create. The company recently created an indoor/outdoor casual evening for a client that had a music festival feel. They worked for months to create meticulous floor plans that provided optimal flow, interesting seating areas and access to exciting food and beverage moments.
“What made this event the most successful was treating the outside just like the inside,” Connacher says. “We even created custom-raised decking to allow for special lounge areas that overlooked a sloping lawn area. From that vantage point, guests can truly appreciate the experience of being outside.”
Success looked like guests flowing through the space and fully experiencing the event because Connacher and her team had taken so much time on multiple site visits and across many planning meetings to embrace the twists and turns of the venue to enhance it with their designs, rather than fighting it. It was also flexible during load-in to adapt to changes — outdoor events are never static — including impromptu tree-trimming that needed to happen above the custom decking.
“Don’t be limited to just the traditional spaces, but work with your hotel and venue partners to find the uncommon. “When you are outdoors, you are more connected to your location and can create deeper meaning with the story that your event tells,” Connacher says. “In addition, outdoor locations now have added health benefits. Our guests have been trained over the past few years to expect more outdoor venues that provide better air circulation and enhanced ability to distance guests. We don’t have to choose outside anymore just for health and safety, outside can be the right choice for its inherent, unexpected qualities.”
Brian Formato, CEO/founder of LeaderSurf and Groove Management, conducts leadership development programs that bring together executives for a week-long workshop that conducts the training at the beach. Included in the company’s workshops are daily surfing lessons.
“Beach meetings or outdoor meetings have several benefits. During COVID-19, they enabled participants to safely participate in person without the fear of spreading infection, which [usually] occurs indoors,” Formato says. “Generally speaking, outdoor meetings provide a novel experience, which opens people to do more creative thinking, to be more open-minded and to rely less on technology. Too many meetings these days are driven by PowerPoint and A/V support. Outdoor meetings don’t lend themselves to the use of these technologies.” He continues: “This is a real benefit in that it enables participants to focus on each other and on the interactions rather than on the technology. The vista of a beach with the endless horizon, the lapping waves and the sand all contribute to a Zen-like experience. It can be very soothing, therapeutic and enlightening.”
The LeaderSurf leadership development program has been well received by executives. They love the learning environment at the beach, the ability to dress in T-shirts and flip flops and the use of the sand as a whiteboard.
“We share ideas in the sand rather than using a whiteboard. It is creative and inspiring,” Formato says. “The daily surfing lesson pushes people out of their comfort zone and into the learning zone, and we use the ocean as a great metaphor for the challenges and opportunities at work and in life.”
Caytie Pohlen-LaClare, founder/president of The LaClare Group Inc., thinks the main benefits of being outdoors are the effects it has on the meeting attendees. Being outdoors improves the mood, attention span and productivity of human beings. If attendees have traveled to a distant location for their meeting, being outside is a wonderful way to embrace the destination while they attend the sessions.
Pohlen-LaClare has done many outdoor and beach events. The most successful events usually included a large tent that provided protection from potential weather elements. “One of the most memorable events was a summertime gala dinner for 600 people held in a huge tent in Paris. The fresh air enhanced the multicourse dinner experience,” she says. “The chandeliers hanging from the ceiling provided an elegant lighting source. We opened the side walls to reveal a breathtaking view of the Seine River and the Eiffel Tower lit up at night.”
The LaClare Group also did a successful outdoor event to celebrate a corporate anniversary. The tent was a vital component to this event as well. It provided shade from the sun, and protection in case of rain. Keeping the side walls open allowed for good air flow. “The décor was influenced by the outdoor location and food was easy to eat either sitting or standing,” Pohlen-LaClare says.
Allie Scott, program manager at Brightspot Incentives & Events, says meeting attendees often find themselves in stuffy meeting spaces for the duration of the day, with little to no outdoor exposure, leaving them tired and run down. Incorporating outdoor events encourages attendees to soak up some Vitamin D and enjoy the fresh air to either break up their day of meetings or end their day on a refreshing note.
Brightspot operates many outdoor events with a great number being in beach destinations. Attendees love at least one event with their toes in the sand to fully immerse themselves in the destination. “To make a beach event successful, planners must consider the décor, food and beverage and entertainment aspects of the event. Depending on the overall theme selected, whether it be Mexican fiesta or a Hawaiian luau theme, all of the event’s elements must tie to it,” Scott says. For example, with a Hawaiian luau, imagine bright local floral arrangements, vibrant linens, a traditional luau menu, a lei-making station and traditional hula dancers for the evening’s entertainment.
Scott recently utilized a resort’s farm for an authentic farm-to-table dinner in the Virgin Islands for an evening event. The resort and vendors fully embraced the vision and brought this dinner to life with oversized, natural wood picnic tables and benches, organic and eclectic floral centerpieces, string lighting in the trees and a unique farm-to-table menu.
“The resort distills and bottles its own gin, and guests participated in a creative cocktail demonstration featuring the resort’s gin alongside the guest’s selection of fresh herbs as garnish straight from the resort’s farm,” Scott says. “This farm event was successful because it provided variety to a Caribbean island’s classic beach dinner and also highlighted the destination’s local cuisine in a highly unique way.”
Weather is the No. 1 challenge surrounding meetings outdoors, so having an indoor backup is crucial. “Indoor ballrooms are predictable. As planners, we aren’t doing our due diligence unless we have a weather alternative to our outdoor location, sometimes multiple options,” Connacher says. “You can choose a tent, but for larger functions, you need to absorb the cost of the tent even if you don’t end up setting it up. Or you need to set it up a week in advance to accommodate all production needs, and thus may be dining under a tent in perfect weather.”
Tents also aren’t 100% effective depending on your location — high winds, heavy rain, snow, etc., aren’t solved by a tent and some heaters. Extreme heat is also something planners must anticipate, and need to make sure they have proper air conditioning, shade and/or seating when planning an outdoor event.
Connacher adds, “For truly unique outdoor venues, you may be looking at bringing in most or all of the infrastructure needed to run an event, creating a kitchen tent, bringing in restrooms, generators to provide electricity and decorative lighting.”
Pohlen-LaClare says sound is another challenge, and having the correct sound system so everyone can hear is important. “If the event is in the evening, you need to know what the quiet time parameters are,” she says. “Also, other living creatures like bugs, lizards, birds and alligators are uninvited guests who might crash your event.”
When planning an outdoor financial or insurance meeting or event, a key consideration is what time of day the event is scheduled. Mornings might mean you have dew on chairs, or it’s a little chilly. Pohlen-LaClare says if it’s the middle of the day, you will need to provide some shade options and plenty of water.
“Sand can be especially hot on bare feet in the middle of the day,” she says. “Evening events mean you’ll need good lighting options, and maybe some bug repellent. Are you on the beach? Make sure your seating is sand friendly. Consider a beach bonfire as a way to encourage people to linger and relax.”
Also, will sensitive or confidential information be discussed during your outdoor meeting? If yes, you probably don’t want to be outdoors where people passing by could see or hear it.
Scott says outdoor events without any covering must take extra precautions. Venues will likely require a weather call be made up to 24 hours prior to the outdoor event to allow ample time for suppliers to fully set up either the outdoor venue or the backup indoor space.
Other challenges a planner may face are kitchen capabilities of the venue. As Scott explains, some hotels and private venues that are not structured to host outdoor events may struggle with providing certain types of dining experiences to the attendees in the outdoor space.
“Depending on how far away the nearest kitchen is, sometimes planners may find that a venue can only offer a buffet dinner or even just passed appetizers in the outdoor venue due to food-safety protocols,” Scott says. “It is always wise to ask these questions of the venue while planning the event menus to ensure all parties are on the same page.”
Providing the proper power and equipment for any event entertainment is also something to consider when planning an outdoor event. As mentioned, depending on the environment, power can be limited, in which case a generator or two must be secured to provide power for lighting, the band, etc.
Outdoor lighting is a large factor that a lot of people forget about. That’s why Connacher says planners need to work with a technical director who has worked on a beach or in an unconventional outdoor space before. It takes a lot of unique solutions to be able to provide truly beautiful lighting design — sometimes inclusive of digging trenches for cables, burying truss towers in the sand, and loading in many days in advance to ensure you can properly focus your lights.
“You also need to remember that you should not only site this location during the day, but see it at the time of your event,” Connacher says. What will the sunlight be when guests arrive, and how will it change throughout the evening? Keep in mind that sunset fluctuates throughout the year, so check on times based on your event date.
For events on the sand, Connacher always likes to provide special footwear for guests — either provide flip-flops or sandals as a gift the evening before an event, or create a show valet station as they arrive on the beach. “Don’t forget to communicate, communicate, communicate. Tell attendees what to expect so they can plan their attire,” Connacher says. Even if a beach party is a surprise, make sure you tell them what the proper footwear and attire will be — do they need a jacket or a shawl? You can’t work to create moments of true human-to-human connection if people’s immediate needs such as warmth and comfort aren’t being met.
Also, don’t forget to ask about any additional setup charges. From your venue or your vendor partners, walking on the beach is simply harder. They will need additional staff and time to make this happen, and you need to price that accordingly and build the time into your schedule.
“Design your floor plan, remembering that nature and this beautiful location are your main canvas,” Connacher says. “Put a stage against the water line [without a stage back], arrange lounges or fire pits facing towards the ocean, dig custom sand pit lounges next to lapping waves. Don’t fight against your surroundings, fully embrace them.”
As with any meeting or event, an agenda and a set of goals are critical. Formato also likes to share a set of ground rules at the beginning of the meeting. This sets expectations for the attendees. Some people don’t like to sit on the sand, so either providing beach chairs or at least towels is often appreciated. If you have people with disabilities, make certain you have access for them.
Pohlen-LaClare remembers a couple of mistakes she made at outdoor meetings she planned. “A few of my mistakes included having beach Olympics in the heat of the day. The sand was burning people’s feet, and it was so hot they were all looking for shade — and lots of water,” she says. “Also, at one event, when the outdoor dinner event started, there was plenty of daylight, but as the evening progressed, it became increasingly difficult to see the food on our plates. A good lighting source is important.”
Or course, having a strong team of vendors also is critical in the success of an outdoor event to help mitigate any open issues that arise during the planning, setup and operation of the event. “Sell the fun! Let participants know in advance that this will not be like any other meeting they have attended,” Formato says. “Your goal is to open their minds to new thinking via the venue. You must plan for the worst, such as bad weather, crazy winds, mosquitoes and other unexpected visitors. By planning appropriately and setting expectations with the participants, you can orchestrate an amazing and very memorable outdoor meeting.” I&FMM