Fall Preview: New Season Brings Busier Event Schedule, More Last-Minute Business

By Michael O'Connell September 8, 2009, 12:24 PM EDT

Planners, producers, and vendors seem to agree with recent declarations that the worst of the recession is behind us, as fall calendars are crowded with events and business appears to be picking up for many. This resurgence in activity marks a return to business as usual for some, while for others the season could be even busier, thanks to short-notice commissions from clients and sponsors just deciding to get back in the event game.

New Jersey-based producer Michael Cerbelli, president of special events at Total Entertainment, said business never got particularly slow, thanks in part to late bookings from clients. “What's making us even busier is that everything is last minute,“ he said. “Two to six weeks out, and we're get calls for lighting, staging, and, production. We're working 10 times harder because we have less lead time, but looking to the fourth quarter, 9 out of 10 of our past holiday party clients are already back on the books for this year.”

Shorter lead times seem commonplace in the New York area for the next month or so, as clients and planners take longer to weigh their options before making a commitment. “We're doing proposals, but people are still taking advantage of the fact that they think they can take a while to lock it in,” said Joan Steinberg, who develops new business for New York catering company Sonnier & Castle. “Lead time might not have returned yet, but the energy level finally has.”

Venue details and specifics have been slow to come in for parties surrounding the Toronto Film Festival, New York Fashion Week, and MTV's Video Music Awards (which return to New York this year)—all traditionally busy occasions for industry professionals in their markets and all kicking off this week. Still, there are parties.

Lead-time shrinkage isn't something everyone sees as something born of the recent recession. Miami event producer Javier Velarde of Triton Productions noticed the trend over the better part of the past decade. He recently booked October upfront events in New York for Latin American divisions of Fox and Turner Broadcasting, and it's about as much time as he has had in previous years.

“I really think this next month is when we'll get a consistent message about the economy and where business is headed,” Velarde said. “September is when all the phone calls start coming in for October, November, and December. It's a key month, and how much winter business we get will be telling. We'll know more about the volume of parties around Art Basel and the 2010 Super Bowl.”

Still, others are enjoying roomier preparation schedules than previously seen in 2009. “This 11th-hour planning panic just isn't floating anymore,” said Chicago planner Julie Darling, whose eponymous business is actually getting back on a normal schedule. “Everyone's tired of being tired. I'm seeing clients more willing to spend the money and take the time to do things right, which is why I'm in the throes of planning a few big events for the spring already.”

Darling has a lineup of restaurant openings and other events in the fourth quarter, though the biggest thing on her plate is leading the 2010 revival of a local fashion show that's been defunct for 13 years. “There's a lot of hope right now, especially here in Chicago, with so many looking to the results of the Olympic bid on October 2.”

Time is a luxury for everyone, and while most agree it's a moot point as long as business is coming in, it will probably continue to be different for everyone as brands and clients come out of hibernation. One thing that doesn't seem different is sponsors' heightened expectations when piggybacking on events. A need to prove return on investment has producers thinking of new ways to incorporate sponsors this fall.

“One thing is sure, and that's that the days of slapping a logo on a program are long gone,” says Joel Hock, founder and president of the Toronto-based event management firm Solutions With Impact. “What they represent has to be woven into the event, the experience, and the press it receives.”

Hock did that earlier this year when he worked branding on donated goods from sponsor Ed Hardy into photo opportunities for the Los Angeles incarnation of charity race Car Rally for Kids With Cancer. At his two big projects for the fall, the Bell Celebrity Gala and Toronto's Car Rally (both benefiting the Hospital for Sick Children) his biggest challenge will be to duplicate that success with new partners.

“I think for the first half of 2009, people just wouldn't commit,” he said, “but now they're making decisions to participate in things that they wouldn't have three months ago. The economy has turned, the pressure is off a bit, and funds are being allocated to budgets. People just need to decide what to do with them.”

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