Today, more and more funeral industry professionals are becoming “accidental” event planners due to the ever-changing nature of funeral practice. Industry professionals are being asked to produce events in venues outside of their facilities and to work closely with suppliers not traditionally associated with their business. This post, derived from a presentation at CANA’s 2017 Cremation Symposium, provides best practices from the event industry, standardized forms used by event planners and suppliers, ideas on how to make your events successful, examples provided by attendees for how they have made their events successful in the past, and tips for avoiding common mistakes.
As a funeral professional, you’re planning events every day – coordinating supplies and products, preparing for attendees, crafting a memorable experience. This is a space you can comfortably own, so there’s really no reason to let it go to an outside planner. With the right tips and tools at hand, you can be a success.
There are two common complaints regarding events, backed up by lots of research, and they’ve been standard for quite a while:
#1 : Why am I here anyway?
#2 : Wow, This is boring.
Why am I here? This should be pretty obvious for a funeral or memorial service, but you don’t want the only connection people have to event being obligation to attend. The best way to change that is to make the experience worth their time. Make sure they receive something they can use – for a funeral, this may be a memory or keepsake – so they leave with a positive outcome.
Wow, this is boring. You may have heard that goldfish have a memory span of 9 seconds, but the average human has an attention span of only 8 seconds. So how do we keep them engaged? Everyone takes in information differently so it’s crucial to understand what families want. Rather than starting with the budget (a limiting question), ask them a foundational question: what would a successful event look like? Then you can reflect what they told you and attempt to deliver exactly what they want.
Ask lots of questions, don’t make assumptions
In every industry, there will be mistakes. But in the event industry, the biggest mistakes made are based on the planner’s assumptions of their client’s needs – what the purpose of the meeting was, how they defined success, what they wanted, how much money they had – and the way to eliminate that is to have an in-depth conversation and then confirm what you’ve heard to make sure you’re on the same page. Maybe you have a preliminary form to get them thinking. Your goal is to avoid an unhappy client who got something they didn’t want or didn’t get something they did.
Most Fundamental Issue of All
How does your client define event success?
Four ways in the traditional event planning industry to define success:
- Achieving certain financial goals.
For conferences with tickets or tradeshows with booths, you budget and plan to profit.
- Meeting certain attendance goals.
For conferences, you want to build attendance every year by providing and experience and takeaways.
- Attendee satisfaction.
This is particularly important for the hospitality industry, but the challenge is how do you measure if they were satisfied. An ideal survey is 5-10 questions.
- Media coverage/social media “likes”.
This is a common way that families are connected and can be a useful tool in the planning process. For a conference, they want to know about the buzz and the online engagement.
For a funeral service, success might be defined by:
- Finding a convenient location to attendees.
Being creative, even leaving the funeral home, can make the experience.
- Focusing on celebrating a life, rather than mourning it.
Remembering loved ones they way they want to be remembered.
- Correctly performing required religious rituals.
When ritual is key in event planning, professionals often bring in consultants to make sure this part goes right.
While your goal for any event is meeting the needs of the family, their concern is their own experience, and that of everyone who came – what was their experience and what did they think? The best way to meet their needs is to know what the family wants.
Personalized experiences require research of the subject matter and, in the case of funeral events, the subject matter is the decedent. You will want to ask questions of your families about the deceased individual. Have them bring photos, mementos - things that mean something – starting with the first meeting. It’s essential that you get to know the person. Be sure to research him/her yourself online – find the photos and stories people are sharing online to get even more information.
You may not have much time to gather everything, so ask your client who you should talk to outside of the arrangement room in order to enhance the experience. Relinquish a bit of the control and partner with the family to get these other people involved.
Consider developing a theme. What was important to the decedent? What made this person happy? You don’t often get a readymade idea from the deceased about what they wanted, and you can’t ask, so get creative. From there, incorporate appealing décor and music, and even a nearby club, team, or group, based on what you learn about this individual.
Use of Technology
Using technology may not always be appropriate or feasible, but most attendees today expect some level of technology for virtually every event. This can include the use of simple AV equipment to play a video retrospective or a slideshow of favorite photos. It can be more elaborate, such as a video “invitation” about the upcoming service shared on social media or your website.
Technology also allows planners to be in contact and interact with the families online throughout the planning process. With a custom, private portal, family members can to communicate budget and vision, and see project status on their schedule. Many families don’t know exactly what they want – they don’t know how much it will cost, the options that are available, or how long it will take – but they have a general sense of what it should look like. Sitting down and committing ideas through their portal, especially with families spread across the country or the world, can keep everyone informed and facilitate these conversations.
Best Practices of Meetings and Events
For most people, the opportunity to celebrate someone’s life is coming at them at the deepest of their grief. The more examples you provide, the easier it may be for them to choose. We go back to “What is the take away from this event?” Wedding planners say to the couple, “What do you want your attendees to leave thinking about?” Some people will say “I want them to remember the food” or “I want them to remember how beautiful the room was.”
Location, location, location.
The venue should mean something to the family and friends. Don’t hesitate to look beyond the funeral home or rely on outside help. If you are facing a limited timespan to organize things, partner with venue managers and planners to make it happen. But be upfront about cost. If you’re talking about doing something original – a barbeque at a gravesite – you may need time to get the permit, the space, but the family will remember how meaningful it was.
Take time to visit local venues to get to know the space. When choosing a venue, you really want to think about the ambiance and its impact on all five senses. Does it smell musty or fresh? Does it look bright or dim? Is the furniture soft or uncomfortable? In Las Vegas, a casino will spend millions to place diffusers in slot machines, cushions on chairs, the right lighting, etc. to make sure that their visitors stay at the machine or table just a little longer.
If you establish relationships with local venues, you’ll know what you can offer and have concrete examples for your families. And cultivate the relationships with the local venues to keep the planning in house. If your space is booked, then you can refer your families to the outside venue and build a local partnership. And if families prefer another space, you won’t have to relinquish your role in planning. You can build on the relationship with the space, caterers, tech, etc. to work together.
Always walk through your event from the attendees’ perspective. What are they thinking about? If you walk through thinking about that, you’ll have a better understanding of exactly what is going to take place. And you’ll see the pitfalls, the challenges.
It’s all in the Timing
A detailed planning timeline is a best practice to keep in mind. The more details you include, the more helpful it will be in helping to organize the family members and your staff.
Traditional funerals give you a three-day timeline, but many CANA Members report that cremation expands the time to plan. A cremation arrangement doesn’t need to be condensed into three days, so you can continue working with the family and get creative. Since Saturday is the most popular day for a service, the timeline might naturally expand up to five weeks until the next available weekend.
If you’re helping a family celebrate, you have to keep them informed of the timeline. Some families wait two weeks while some wait six months until the weather clears. That’s the family’s decision – the more you push, the more uncomfortable they’ll be. Let them know the pitfalls of waiting three months for burial. Communicating to everybody involved in an event frequently and transparently is very important.
The Event Industry Council is an association of hospitality companies that focus on events and they have come together to provide a collection of templates and forms. With these, and your newfound event planning knowledge, go out and start looking at venues that are outside of your normal facility. Look at them, and imagine what an even would look like there. Then, when you hear what the family wants to their service, you can have options and ideas for them ready.
This post is just part 1 of our two-part event planner series excerpted from the 2017 Cremation Symposium presentation “Best Practices for the ‘Accidental’ Event Planners” by Dr. Rhonda Montgomery and Todd Uglow of William F. Harrah College of Hotel Administration at University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Part 2 will be published soon, so check back.
You can learn more about event planning and access useful resources from the Event Industry Council:
See what CANA has planned for the 2020 Cremation Symposium: goCANA.org/cgt
Todd Uglow is an assistant professor, faculty in residence of event management in the UNLV Harrah Hotel College. He has been a member of the UNLV faculty for over 10 years and focuses on event management & marketing, having expertise in festival design and entertainment management. Former clients of Mr. Uglow include the NFL, Professional Bull Riders and Major League Baseball. He is certified by the courts to testify on matters of celebrity and brand valuation. He holds an undergraduate degree in Business Management, with a marketing emphasis from Cal State San Bernardino and a Juris Doctor degree from Western State University College of Law.
Rhonda Montgomery, Ph.D. is the Department Chair of the Food & Beverage and Event Management Department in the William F. Harrah College of Hotel Administration. She conducts research and has written articles on the social psychology of purchasing decisions and customer loyalty for meetings, conventions and festivals. She has also written numerous books in the areas of meetings and conventions, private club management and the first-year experience.