Barb Shepherd remembers planning a teambuilding session for a sales meeting that had all the makings of good, clean fun. A pharmaceutical company’s sales reps were set to play in a series of inflatable games, including basketball, sumo wrestling, calf roping and a 55-foot obstacle course. But when her client demanded a five-hour open bar during the session—despite Shepherd’s discouragement—she got a little worried.
As she expected, the attendees got drunk, but their inebriated behavior was even worse than she imagined: They popped some of the inflatable games. They drove golf balls into the hotel’s new temporary air walls. Several guests even went to the emergency room. The event ended up being unprofitable—and embarrassing—for Shepherd’s firm, Columbus, Ohio-based Kaleidoscope Enterprises, and she fought back, wisely severing her relationship with the client.
Unfortunately, such stories of misbehaving guests aren't unique. An exclusive survey of 430 event professionals reveals a downward trend in guest etiquette: 65 percent of the BiZBash readers who responded said they felt guests are behaving worse now than five years ago. (While 26 percent said behavior was about the same, a mere 8 percent said it was better than five years ago.)
Etiquette expert and author Letitia Baldrige—best known as the social secretary of the Kennedy White House—agrees. “It can't get much worse,” she says. “With behavior like this, people will stop entertaining altogether.”
At a time when many people get invited to more events than they can even attend, their attitudes seem to have shifted from being thankful for an invitation to feeling an event would be lucky to have them show up. Such guests increasingly take events—and all the work that goes into producing them—for granted, forcing event planners to deal with an assortment of unkind acts.
Nearly all survey respondents reported seeing guests commit offenses, ranging from examples of basic bad manners (81 percent have seen guests arrive without RSVPing) to more scandalous behavior (16 percent have caught guests having sex). And they had plenty of stories.
There was the guest who stuffed beef tenderloin from a buffet right into a Duane Reade shopping bag. There was the person who urinated in a fountain. There were folks bribing bartenders to hand over full bottles of top-shelf liquor. One person attacked a meeting planner in the elevator and demanded sex, another accused a waiter of being in the Taliban. One even threw a 15-pound cheese wheel at a banquet captain's head.
Who are the worst offenders? Thirty percent of respondents said young twentysomethings, 17 percent named celebrity handlers (only 3 percent named the celebrities themselves), 15 percent blamed socialites and 14 percent called out high-level executives. But bad behavior is not limited to any particular type of event: Horror stories come from fashion shows and corporate meetings alike.
Among the acts that get planners in a sniff: Dressing inappropriately for an event (“People show up at a party looking like they've spent the day gardening rather than preparing themselves,” Baldrige says). Rearranging seating charts to accommodate unannounced guests or get a more coveted tablemate (one planner remembers when a noted TV journalist demanded a seat next to a visiting royal). Showing up with children at a dinner that was clearly billed as an adults-only event. And we've heard plenty of stories of drunken guests caught in compromising situations with someone other than their own spouses.
According to many planners, guests and gift bags can make for a tricky combination: 86 percent of survey respondents reported seeing guests take more than one bag. Event producer Eileen Wolter of Eventstyle even caught someone going incognito just to scam more swag at the release party for Iggy Pop’s latest album. “One guy who was leaving begged to have an extra bag for his girlfriend who was not at the event,” she says. After the bag-givers said no, he returned to the party with a different shirt on—and a bulging backpack.
Other planners complain of guests rifling through all the bags at a table to swipe their favorite items and discard the rest. And some guests even demand to have their freebies sent by a messenger to their offices the next day so they won't have to carry them to dinner or another party—where it's likely they'll pick up another sack of free loot.
But guests' greed—and sense of entitlement—extends beyond gift bags. Planners have seen their guests try to escape the premises with everything that wasn't nailed down: 69 percent said they had spotted guests taking centerpieces or other décor without permission. One reader planned a New Year's Eve event at a casino, where everything—food, beverages and entertainment—was free for the V.I.P. gamblers, but they still wanted more. “I used huge floating candles in glass bowls so they wouldn't be able to take the centerpieces, but guests poured the water under the table to take the bowls,” the reader says.
Thefts included leftover food, candles, rented barware, bottles of wine, furniture, trees—someone even tried to walk off with a life-size blowup of Ashton Kutcher at a People party. “It was like, did they really think we were not going to notice that a cardboard cutout was moving out the door?” says People special events manager Erica Morris.
Lauren Fishman remembers plenty of looting at the official Grammy awards after-party. “Guests were even stealing the signs with the talent's names off their dressing room doors,” says the event producer, who helped with the party. Stealing is among her biggest complaints, along with lighting up in non-smoking venues and lingering long past an event's ending time. “If the party's over and they’re still sticking around, my trick is to make them uncomfortable,” Fishman says. “If it's winter I turn the heat off, or I turn the air off in the summer.”
It's no secret that drunkenness can be another big cause of problems at events, from movie premieres to sales incentive meetings and corporate holiday parties: 79 percent of readers reported seeing guests get overly intoxicated. That can lead to disruptive behavior like harassing costumed performers, creating loud scenes during speeches and—inevitably—vomiting or passing out, often leaving the planners to find a remedy. Lighting designer Guy Smith even drove a scotch-drinking guest home after he discovered him passed out under the table while cleaning up after an event.
Worried about such shenanigans, Conseco vice president of meetings and event marketing Brad Boyd has resorted to some less-than-hospitable tactics. “We have watered down drinks, instructed bartenders to serve drinks less full as the night progresses and switched some folks over to nonalcoholic beers,“ he says. “They never catch on.”
Such coping mechanisms may be all planners can do other than grin and bear it. Baldrige advises event planners to “let it roll” when they see their guests behaving badly. “It's no one's fault except society's,” she says. “We all just have to hope it will turn around.”
THE MOST COMMON GUEST OFFENSES
Guests can find plenty of ways to misbehave. In an exclusive survey of 430 BiZBash readers, the following percentages of respondents reported seeing guests commit these infractions:
Take more than one gift bag 86%
Treat event workers poorly 84%
Show up at event when they didn't RSVP 82%
Get overly intoxicated 79%
Take more than one piece of food from a tray 79%
Talk through a performance 73%
Show up with a group of unexpected guests 71%
Take centerpieces or other décor items without permission 69%
Have a loud cell phone conversation in an event 68%
Dress inappropriately (wear jeans to a formal event, for example) 62%
Cut in front of someone in a registration line 57%
Move a place card for a better seat 54%
Dance in an overly suggestive way 42%
Refuse to leave at the end of a party 33%
Insist on smoking inside a non-smoking event 32%
Have sex at an event 16%
HOW TO DEAL
When guests are misbehaving, getting them to shape up without disrupting the event can be tough. Here are some suggestions:
Hope for the best, but expect the worst
Anticipating possible situations will help you prepare to deal with unexpected guest behavior. “There's a lot you can do ahead of time, like using drink tickets to regulate intoxication and prevent drunken nuisances,” says Emee Pumarega of EJP Events.
If you spot a disruptive guest, take care of the situation before moving on—and before it gets worse. “Keep your eyes open as much as possible when you have 50 other things on your mind,” says Pamela Miller, director of special events for Project Renewal.
Get them on your side
Debbie Solimine, events manager at the New York Racing Association says, “Try to patiently explain to the customers that what you're doing is in their best interest.”
Be firm, but personable
“I don't yell, I don't scream, but I'm very direct and my answer is final,” says Arista director of publicity Sandie Smith.
Keep your sense of humor
“Force yourself to smile,” says People magazine special events coordinator Erica Morris. “That makes it harder to be mean.”
Pass the buck “If you aren't at a high enough level to tell someone to leave, say you'll get someone else to talk to the problem guest,” People's Morris says.
This story is from the Winter 2003 issue of the BiZBash Event Style Reporter.