The Life of an Event Planner – Dealing With Difficult Clients
Clients are the lifeblood of any business and in a perfect world, they are pleasant, kind and respectful people but in the real world, some are often “challenging”, a euphemistic word for the acronym PITA (“Pain in the A$$”)!!
A very good friend of mine, also an event planner, bought me a gift to set on my desk, a little pottery jar that said “Ashes of Problem Clients”. In less than ten seconds after receiving it, the ashes of several clients came to mind and I became inspired to write about my experience as an event planner.
I have been in the hospitality business for thirty-nine years; twenty-five of which have been in event planning. After I planned my first event, I was hooked. I loved the creative aspect of planning a function, the excitement of meeting people from all over the world, working without outside vendors and entertainers, and arranging corporate dinners, receptions, themed productions and social functions.
Obviously the ultimate goal of an event planner is to exceed, or at the very least, meet the client’s expectations by helping them to create a successful event and a memorable experience, and in addition to client satisfaction, you hope for repeat business or a referral for future business.
When clients act controlling and try to micro-manage the situation, I honestly do try to see their point of view no matter how unreasonable the demand or how irrational the request. I like to give the benefit of the doubt while trying to convince myself some clients have no idea how complicated they are making things but I also take into consideration that perhaps they are nervous or fearful because this is the first event they have tried to plan, although not many clients will admit that, or maybe their boss is pressuring them to make the event spectacular while threatening them with losing their job, time off, a bonus or a raise.
As an event planner, we’ve all experienced client horror stories and dealing with difficult and demanding clients comes with the territory but often times so does a migraine and an upset stomach; loss of sleep, non-productive stress and large quantities of aspirin and antacids, and for me, a few glasses of wine or a couple shots of Patron, after the event of course!
During the planning stages of an event, some clients will ask you what you think and then interrupt you as you start to answer, some try to involve you in a plethora of plots and plans and undermining schemes, and some expect you to be able to make your room or the venue bigger or smaller depending upon their requirements. After the details have been finalized and the contract has been signed, many times clients still try to make last minute changes. Some arrive shortly before the doors are to open and expect you to be able to rearrange the set up or add items to the menu, and some don’t understand that if more guests show than what was originally contracted for, why they have to pay for them. I had a client who guaranteed 200 people for a reception but in fact over 300 showed. My client was confused as to why she had to pay the overage since “there was plenty of food and plenty of booze on the bar”.
An event planner wears many hats. Depending on the client, some expect you to be a psychologist, a referee, a babysitter or a negotiator while others have little respect for your expertise or what works best in your venue even though you’ve produced thousands of events. They are critical of everything, and think we as event planners are being unreasonable and uncompromising if they don’t get what they want. They snub your ideas and suggestions yet when they get complimented from the boss or one of their guests, of course it was totally their idea.
Don’t misunderstand, I have had some wonderful clients over the years but I actually believe I have learned more from the challenging personality types such as the perfectionists, the nit-pickers, and the egotists to name a few.
I have a client whom I have been working with for years. I should be used to her selective hearing, her frequent outbursts and her drama queen antics but when she calls and texts me after hours or on the weekends several months before her event to ask something like, “Do you think the sun is going to be an issue in May before 5:00 PM, it gets exhausting. She e-mails me incessantly with “Urgent!!!” in the subject line. She schedules appointments, then cancels, reschedules or shows up late. During the meeting, a good portion of it is spent talking or texting her assistant, her mother or her dog groomer. She comes up with ideas, finalizes them and then changes her mind. She must have the tiniest bladder on the planet because she’s always sprinting to the bathroom or outside for “a little air” or a cigarette or three. No wonder she has to go to the bathroom every ten minutes; she needs her coffee or tea or water continually replenished, and sometimes even a “turkey club on whole wheat with light mayo” or a “grilled chicken Caesar salad with fat-free dressing on the side”. She loves the little pampering we “provide”; we are so “accommodating”. This client owns her own company and it is quite successful. She likes to host a client appreciation party each year yet she never has “much” in her budget and she expects little extras to be included at no additional charge. Once she asked if I would “throw in” the bar, not hard liquor, just beer and wine as if the cost of beer and wine was no big deal. I gave her the following analogy that I thought she could relate to, “Let’s say I’m in Bloomingdales and I see a beautiful dress that I simply must have. I ask the sales person if she could ‘throw in’ some shoes to match”. She processed that for a few seconds and said, “Ohhhh, I see your point” but I wonder if she did because later she asked me to “throw in” the dessert. The only thing I wanted to “throw” was her, right out the window.
The Attention-Seeking Client
I have an attention-seeker client who works for a party planning company. Whenever he has an audience, he likes to take the opportunity to berate the staff with his rants and barrage of expletives. For this particular event, he wanted floor length tablecloths but unfortunately my linen vendor only had two sizes of linens; one that was too short and one that was too long. My mangers and I opted for the shorter cloth because the longer cloths had so much extra fabric that we anticipated them becoming a liability with guests tripping and falling into each other. When my client walked into the room for the final walk-through, two hours late mind you, and saw the short cloths, he said, “I am coming unglued”. He ripped one cloth off a table as the staff stood paralyzed with their eyes and mouths wide open while everything they had just set on the table tumbled to the floor. He turned to me with blazing eyes and I swear I saw little pitchforks in the center. He raised his voice so high it could have broken glass as he screamed, “This is your fault Madame! If you were going to change to a shorter cloth, you should have called me for my permission”. I did and he would have known that had he answered his phone or bothered to check his voice mail. Any seasoned event planner knows that the key is to try and diffuse a hostile situation before it spirals out of control. I tried explaining my thought process hoping he would agree but he put up his hand in a dismissive manner and waived it at me and yelled, “Silence”. I assured him that I could have the linen changed out and the tables reset in less than thirty minutes. “I don’t have time for this”, he said even though we had five hours until the event. He plopped down into the nearest chair and yelled, “Someone bring me a bottled water, a glass of ice and lime on the side”.
It’s times like this when I wish I owned the place so I could finally say those two little words that I so often think inside my head. No, not those two words but these two words: “Get out!” Obviously you cannot change someone else’s behavior but I did make it clear to him that while I would do everything within my power to make him happy, what I would not do was allow him to continue to speak to me, or the staff, in a rude and disrespectful manner. After the event, my client informed me that his client was thrilled, “Darling, you did a fabulous job and I’m so sorry I was a bit testy! Please forgive me. Your staff must think I’m a pain in the neck”. Not the body part I was thinking of!
The Know-It-All Client
Know-it all clients are often arrogant, opinionated and believe they know it all simply because they have either planned their sister’s bridal shower, their parent’s 50th anniversary or their child’s first birthday party. They become self-proclaimed experts. I had a bride who scheduled an appointment with me to discuss having her wedding reception at the restaurant. She arrived with her maid-of-honor, who incidentally planned her own wedding after she watched “The Wedding Planner” so “JLo” did all the talking and of course she knew absolutely everything. She knew where she could get a “bigger, more delicious cake” for the same price I quoted, “cheaper flowers” and a “less expensive” Deejay. She talked over me, interrupted me and treated me as if this was the first wedding I had ever planned. The icing on the proverbial wedding cake so to speak was when she assumed they could bring in their own food and beverages. She was shocked when I explained that if they wanted the reception at the restaurant, we would be providing all the food and beverages. I often think about that bride and wonder how her reception turned out. The maid-of-honor thought either her backyard or the church hall was much more “suitable, not to mention cheaper” since they could bring in their own “food and stuff”!
I have a travel agent/event planner who booked a group from Europe for a sit down dinner from 8:00 PM – 11:00 PM. The first two hours was scheduled for the dinner and the last hour a variety of entertainers were to perform various singing, dancing and magic acts. At 8:45 PM, the client and her guests were nowhere to be found. I called her hotel, her cell and the bus company who was transporting them from the hotel to the restaurant. My client did not answer the phone in her room or her cell and the bus company told me they brought the group back from their tour “hours ago”. Even though my Chef and Manager on Duty were panicking, believing they might not show, I knew at some point the group would make their way to the restaurant because we had been paid in full and the entertainment company had received a hefty deposit. Shortly after 10:00 PM, the guests arrived. When I asked my client about the delay, she said she tried phoning me around 5:00 PM but she “just couldn’t get through”. Apparently her clients did not want to eat at 8:00 PM as she contracted; they were used to eating later. I explained to my client that she would be charged for three extra hours of labor since she was two hours late and the party would need to be extended until 1:00 AM. The entertainment director told her he too would have additional charges. She became hysterical. She had not budgeted for extra labor charges and it wasn’t her fault if she couldn’t get through to me, it was her mobile phone. I explained that even if she had been able to get through, changing the start time three hours prior to the contractual start of the party was not acceptable and if she wanted the dinner and the show to go on, she would have to agree to the additional labor charges. I also reminded her that these types of situations were outlined in the Conditions of the Contract but some clients do not read the fine print before they sign on the dotted line. Even though she has since booked three more events with me, during her tantrum, she vowed never to book at my venue again due to my “unwillingness to compromise”.
Another client booked a small two-hour reception. I created a menu, sent her a contract it, she signed it and paid a deposit. On the day of the event, my floor manager told me the function was going to be a “piece of cake” and insisted I take the night off. An hour after the reception was supposed to start, that same manger called me at home to say my client was a “no call/no show”. He pulled the contract and my client signed for that date and time. He was not able to reach him on his cell but left a message. I too called and left a message. Three hours later my client called and said, “Please don’t tell me I booked the party for tonight?” He actually wanted it for the next day. I was able to accommodate him since we had no other functions booked however, when I explained that he would have to pay for the labor that had been scheduled and the food that had already been prepped for the wrong night, he became indignant. He said since it was his mistake, the extra charges would have to come out of his pocket, that he was going to be “in a whole lot of trouble” and he didn’t “appreciate the fact that I was imposing these charges on him since it was an honest mistake”. I told him that while I sympathized with his predicament, if I didn’t get compensation, I was going to be “in a whole lot of trouble”. Even though I agreed to split the difference, he still was not happy and refused to speak to me the next night at his event.
The only thing worse than a rude and obnoxious client is another rude and obnoxious client! There is a certain breed of clients who think they are your only clients. They have little or no respect for your time. They think you are supposed to be available 24/7 and that you have unlimited resources at your disposal. A client set up a site inspection with me at 8:00 AM on a Monday. She confirmed the date and time twice after setting it up, the last of which was on my first Sunday off in one month. Fifteen minutes before she was due to arrive, she called and said, “Hi, I’m in a taxi driving right by your place. I’m switching plans”. Apparently she broke a nail and the manicurist at the salon in the hotel she was staying at was not in on Mondays so she was headed to another salon at another hotel for the repair. “So I can’t get to you until 2:00 PM because I have other places to site, and then a lunch so I’m moving you to 3:00 PM”. I apologized and explained that I had a site inspection with another client at that time and asked if she could wait until 4:00 PM. She told me that I was causing her a “real inconvenience”, that if I could not accommodate her at 4:00 PM, she would be forced to book elsewhere since she couldn’t possibly book with me sight unseen. She called me the following year asking if I remembered her. Really? She requested a site inspection and proceeded to tell me how displeased she was with her last party and how difficult the catering manager had been. She asked that I check availability but unfortunately and sadly and hip-hip hooray, I was already booked on the day that she needed. As she slammed the phone down, I heard her say, “Whatever”! I never like to turn down a piece of business but I am certain that if she calls me again, “third time’s a charm” will not be the case for her!
I have had many memorable clients by one of my ‘favorites” was the client of a local party planner her scheduled a final walk-through two days prior to the event. Even though I had met with this client twice before, she could not seem to remember my name. She said, “You must think me terrible but I have forgotten your name”, and this was our second meeting and we had been talking for nearly thirty minutes. Hello?! It’s not like my name is Scheherazade. It’s Kate, a very short, one-syllable 4-letter word. But knowing my name didn’t make a difference, she still insisted on directing her questions and her little underhanded comments to the party planner, referring to me as “her” and “she”; that is, when she bothered to acknowledge that I was actually in the room. “I hate to be a pest”, she said, “But do you think she can remove those extra ropes and stanchions if we don’t need them? And why are there so many extra tables and chairs in the room, this isn’t how I want the room set”. I reminded her that her event was not for two days and the room was set for an event that evening.
After she changed the start time, the color of the linens, the placement for her speaker and the buffet, for the third time, she got up with a jolt, ran to the middle of the room and stood there with her eyes closed, one hand on her head and the other on her stomach as if she were channeling Frank Lloyd Wright. After a few seconds, she exclaimed, “No, no, no this room is all wrong, this is not what I envisioned”. Apparently she just wasn’t “feeling the room”. In fact, what she was feeling was “frustrated” and “claustrophobic”. She swung around and opened her eyes wide and glared into mine and said, “What about you ‘Kathy’, aren’t you feeling frustrated and claustrophobic?” Yes, I thought, but not from the room! In a matter of seconds we went from the original set up of round tables to rectangle tables because after all, “rectangle tables are much more conducive to a dining atmosphere” whereas the rounds seemed “banquety” to her and that’s not what she “envisioned”. Her “vision” and her “goal” were to have the room “feel comfortable, relaxed and spread out” and oh how she wished the room was bigger but she “supposed there was nothing that could be done about that”. Mean while the room seats 250 people and her guarantee was for 100. I sat quietly taking deep breaths and wishing my life away, wishing for it to be two days later at 10:00 PM which would mark the end of her event. As she got up to leave, she put her hand on my arm and baby-talked, “I hope you don’t think I am too much of an ass pain” and giggled and snorted uncontrollably. Oh, I thought to myself, that’s not what I’m thinking at all! Then she said to the party planner, “Can you tell Ka-Ka-Ka Katie to make sure the carpet is vacuumed”.
So it’s the day of the event and standing outside the door is “Cruella Deville” in all her glory. I cannot put into writing the thoughts and fantasies that started running rampant through my mind; it just wouldn’t be lady-like. I looked at the banquet captain and said, “It’s show time. Your worst nightmare is about to walk through the door. If you need me, I’ll be at the bar”!