Today, more and more funeral industry professionals are becoming “accidental” event planners due to the ever-changing nature of funeral practice. In part 1, we talk about best practices from the event industry, standardized forms used by both 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.
Part 2 covers event trends to inspire you when planning your events.
As more millennials become consumers of your business, they aren’t wanting the traditional. They’re not thinking about that at all. What they want is experiences. Think about how Pokémon Go was able to get nerds out of their homes and running around, chasing after ridiculous phantoms. That’s what the events industry saw. Pokémon Go reached out to every generation, but millennials are going to change the way all of us have to do business.
In preparing for this presentation, we met with CANA members in Las Vegas. One member said his career has been traditional funerals followed by cremation. Now, families combine memorial and reception with island music playing with a bar and a food buffet of shrimp with a slideshow playing. Fill the chapel with silk plants and soft lighting – people love it. It’s a meaningful experience. The family then invites attendees to share words of remembrance, not a clergy member.
One member said that they had just spent a lot of money renovating their funeral home, because they want to keep families there. They offer food and families can BYOB since the business can’t have a liquor license. So they emphasize convenience – it’s all here, simplifying the decision-making for their families and keeping the service in-house.
If the other option is to lose the business, become an event coordinator. Think about your direct cremation families. Let’s say 25% aren’t using your facility. So, how can you get them to come back? Don’t think about the families you’re doing well with, think about the ones you’re gaining by planning events that mean something to the families.
Small Meeting Trends to Know
In preparing for this presentation, I spent a lot of time reading about what is coming down the pike for us. These are the trends we’re talking about in the events industry, but you can see how many they apply to the modern funeral.
This means people being involved – the talking heads, the powerpoints, that’s not what people are looking for anymore. We are talking about an experience that translates to a memory. More than anything else, events are about memories.
And a funeral shares lifelong memories. There are ways to do that through technology, but it’s really important to sit down and talk to the family about what they want to get out of this gathering.
The most fundamental question you can ask is “How does this event succeed?” No two events (including funerals) are the same, so don’t make assumptions about them or the funeral, but ask the family what they envision for the event.
Here, you can tell a story about someone’s life. Sit down with the family and ask them about the experience they want people to have and make it a personal experience for them and the people that gather.
Smaller, shorter meetings
While this one might be more obvious for the corporate event, it really means that people don’t want to sit in a chair for three hours. People prefer events that are small, shorter, and invite interaction or keep a variety of speakers talking all day.
Use of Technology
This has been around for a while, but the technology changes every year. In events, we use technology throughout the planning process from designing the space and layout, through the way that it contributes to the experience at the event. Technology enables the use of emotional memorial videos, favorite songs, and even controlled lighting to set the atmosphere of the space.
But don’t use technology just to have it, and don’t have it just to say you do. There must be a reason behind it and it must be used to make the event and the experience better. Whether it’s used to improve event planning or in the production of a keepsake video, technology can enhance the experience.
Food and beverage trends
If you’ve ever planned a big event in a special location – think a wedding at the Bellagio – there are specific rules about food and beverage. They don’t want you to bring in an outside caterer – they want to keep that revenue in-house. If your facility is large enough to add catering, this can be a great service to add to your business. If it’s not, you can work with local catering companies to develop special relationships that add value to your services.
One of the most important things we think about in events is the food. It’s one of the most common memories from an event – we congregate around food. Adding food to any of your packages is a great idea, especially if your family is not affiliated with a church group that brings food to the family. Gourmet nostalgia – a new twist to an old favorite (e.g., lobster mac-and-cheese, chocolate chili) – is really in. Growing up in Indiana, some of the best food I ever had was at funerals. What kind of foods are you seeing served at your events?
The local and sustainable “farm-to-table” has been around for a while, and people and chefs are very interested in buying locally and sharing the best that they can. The grass-fed beef raised without hormones is healthier and tastier.
We’re moving away from processed foods as the general population becomes much more interested in eating healthy. We’re seeing new cuts of meats and chefs are moving toward using the entire animal. Catering menus, and your own menus, now involve bone marrow, chicken skins, pork neck. I know that my family, in Tipton, Indiana, went to the Pork Festival every year (my mother was actually Pork Queen!), so being able to involve the foods that address the culture or the person is very important in your events.
One of the trends is do-it-yourself cocktails and mocktails, and some funeral homes have even acquired a liquor license. I don’t know about you, but I think liquor would make a celebration of life a lot more fun. I can imagine mine being my favorite drink – vodka tonic – and my favorite foods, and everybody just has a great celebration. Do-it-yourself cocktails and mocktails – if you don’t have a liquor license cocktails are hard, but mocktails are easy.
Try it out
What can you do to help make memories for attendees?
Get them involved in the planning process. This is a way they can feel like they’re contributing to the legacy of the deceased. Solicit input from the larger family to make it special. Music, photos, fragrance – these can raise memories for attendees and make a lasting impression.
Much of the direction of the event is determined by tone. We talk a lot in the event industry about tone and theme. They’re related, but not the same. Tone is how people feel when they’re in the room, the atmosphere of the event. Tone can be defined by lighting, ritual, language, and the design of the event is defined by and reinforces the tone.
I haven’t been to a lot of funerals, but, at the best ones, I learned a lot I didn’t know about the person who died. Finding ways to bring that out, to show different sides, is valuable and what I think the person would have wanted. Themes can be defined by the interests and hobbies of the deceased – fishing, motorcycles, and related mementos.
Participation in planning and the event
This is not only a great way to be inclusive, but also a great way to increase attendance and make memories that are long-lasting. Since funerals have tight timelines, it can be difficult to get many people participating – in some cases, waiting for families to get back to us can slow us down – this is where technology is key. An event planning portal, or even a private chat on Facebook, can keep everyone informed and attuned to the schedule. The benefit of their participation will out-weigh the inconvenience of the family being involved if you can manage them. And be up-front. Ask if these tools will help gather the key voices that should be heard.
Select unique and interesting venues if possible.
This is a trend in every industry, and funerals are no exception. For team-building events and corporate conferences, planners are looking for interesting places (and it’s not just physical challenges – cooking a meal can be a great team activity.) Similarly, destination weddings and funerals are growing. Developing a relationship with venues in your area and they will become your partner in making memorable events. Get to know them, their space, and preferences and they will bend over backwards for you when you need them.
Looking to the future
Immersive Sensory Experiences
Today, 3D Mapping is possible for most events and venues. This technology combines the use of fabrics used as screens with projected imagery. It may seem out of financial reach, but it will only continue to drop in price and rise in popularity. Imagine how powerful it could be to create this for your families and embody the tone and theme of your event.
The Holograms are Coming!
Some of you are going to think this is too out there, but I still want to mention holograms. People are still talking about Tupac performing at Coachella in 2012, years after his death. More and more deceased celebrities are performing at events. Now, it’s still very expensive – you can’t set up shop and do this now – but it too will come down in price. There’s already technology where you can open a book and enjoy a hologram.
It’s going to happen. I can see a day where the decedent could eulogize her own funeral or perform her favorite song. Maybe it’s not them, maybe it’s their favorite companion, or another person, but it’s out there.
I’ve been fascinated with your industry ever since HBO’s series Six Feet Under. I thought it did a wonderful job, and I don’t know if it’s realistic, but it took away the fear about this experience for me and everyone I knew. I know I’m going to be cremated and I’ve got it in my trust that I’m going to fly my closest family and friends to the Four Seasons in Wailea and have my cremated remains scattered there. It’s going to be an event. I’ll need an event coordinator to do that for me – or, do you want to do that in-house? Have you done something like that? That’s a package. That’s an opportunity.
This post is part 2 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. Read part 1 here.
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
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.
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.