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How This Events Team Dealt with Extreme Weather During a Gala

A thunderstorm and tornado warnings meant the planners at Lincoln Park Zoo needed a backup plan.

Inspired by the zoo’s giraffe inhabitants, the ball’s theme was “Reaching New Heights.” Inside the dinner tent, decor from Vince Hart Designs was meant to evoke a sunset in the Serengeti, where giraffes roam freely.
Inspired by the zoo’s giraffe inhabitants, the ball’s theme was “Reaching New Heights.” Inside the dinner tent, decor from Vince Hart Designs was meant to evoke a sunset in the Serengeti, where giraffes roam freely.
Photo: John Reilly Photography

CHICAGO—In the days leading up to the outdoor Lincoln Park Zoo Ball, all eyes were on the weather. Like much of the country, the Chicago area had been plagued with some extreme weather, including tornado warnings, before the July 14 event. Planners quickly put a rain plan in place.

“With all the wild weather we’d been having, we’d been keeping an eye on the forecast for days,” says Elizabeth Janicki Smith, manager of development events at Lincoln Park Zoo. “A few days out from the event, we had to make our rain-plan call with our tent company, PRO EM.”

The plan involved moving the dance floor out of the dinner tent and into its own tent, and bringing in additional tenting to cover both sides of the Pepper Family Wildlife Center. The team also arranged for marquee tenting, and additional tenting to cover a new Jeep activation. 

After one of the ball’s co-chairs met a Jeep rep at another event, she connected the brand with the zoo’s internal team. Jeep signed on to sponsor the ball, bringing in a 360-degree photo opportunity with a concept vehicle. The brand also brought a Wagoneer to transport guests from the Zoo’s West Gate (where some were accidentally dropped off) to the East Gate, where the official ball entrance was. “That Wagoneer was a nice touch, so that people didn’t have to walk,” says Janicki Smith.After one of the ball’s co-chairs met a Jeep rep at another event, she connected the brand with the zoo’s internal team. Jeep signed on to sponsor the ball, bringing in a 360-degree photo opportunity with a concept vehicle. The brand also brought a Wagoneer to transport guests from the Zoo’s West Gate (where some were accidentally dropped off) to the East Gate, where the official ball entrance was. “That Wagoneer was a nice touch, so that people didn’t have to walk,” says Janicki Smith.Photo: John Reilly Photography

“Those areas were initially all open-air, so the extra tenting provided more coverage for our guests,” Janicki Smith says. “In retrospect, we were all really glad we went through with that.”

The planning crew also met with the operations team before the event. “We went over the processes and the parameters, and what to be looking out for in the case of inclement weather,” Janicki Smith says. “Luckily, that allowed us to pivot when we did have an unfortunate swell of strong winds, lightning, thunder, and rain.” 

That severe weather started around 10 p.m., just as dinner (which began at 8 p.m.) was wrapping up. The dinner program included a paddle raise, which contributed to the gala’s approximately $1.6 million take. 

“We’re so grateful that the weather held off until dinner was done,” Janicki Smith remarks. “It would have been super tricky to figure out how to serve dinner to [more than 800] guests without the tent.” 

Had the rain held off, guests would have headed to the dancing tent for live music from the Don Cagen Orchestra after dinner. But when strong winds started to blow rain sideways into the tents, planners asked the crowd to head into the lion house while they worked out a plan. 

“We weren’t quite sure at that juncture how the rain would affect the [band’s] audiovisual and electrical components and wiring,” Janicki Smith says. 

In a quick pivot, the planning team decided to move the after-dinner festivities to the lion house when the thunderstorms started. Though a few guests left when the rain began, the vast majority of them opted to stay for more drinks, snacks, and mingling.In a quick pivot, the planning team decided to move the after-dinner festivities to the lion house when the thunderstorms started. Though a few guests left when the rain began, the vast majority of them opted to stay for more drinks, snacks, and mingling.Photo: John Reilly Photography

While guests trickled into the lion house, the planning team consulted with key members of the operations team. Janicki Smith also checked in with her vendors to assess the status of their equipment. 

“Ultimately, seeing how soaked everything was and how long it would take to get things back up and running, we decided that the best option was to keep the party at the lion house” and forgo the live music, Janicki Smith says. 

This, she reports, is when the vendors went into “quick thinking” and “pivoting” mode. The catering team from Blue Plate brought more beverages into the lion house and set up two bars; they also passed late-night bites. Frost had some music piped into the space, and mobile bidding vendor One Cause helped the zoo update guests. 

“We have a series of text blasts that go out when people register [for the silent auction,]” says Janicki Smith. “Throughout the evening, they’ll get updates about the auction, like: It’s closing in 30 minutes, make sure to bid!” 

But when the severe weather went into effect, zoo staffers worked with One Cause to draft a different kind of text. “We sent out a message saying: 'The party is now moving into the lion house,'” Janicki Smith shares. “'Please enjoy beverages, late-night bites, and some music.' And people stayed! People had a great time and really made lemonade out of lemons.” 

Keep scrolling to see key vendors and more from inside the Lincoln Park Zoo Ball...

VENDORS
Decor & Florals: 
Vince Hart Designs
Catering:
Blue Plate
Music: Don Cagen Orchestra
Photography: John Reilly and Kyle Flubacker
Tenting: PRO EM
Audiovisual & Lighting: Frost Chicago
Mobile Bidding: One Cause

The color scheme was inspired by an African sunset and included hues of orange and red. The colors appeared in everything from the event invitation to the tabletop decor—and even carried over to the menu.The color scheme was inspired by an African sunset and included hues of orange and red. The colors appeared in everything from the event invitation to the tabletop decor—and even carried over to the menu.Photo: John Reilly Photography

Bright floral arrangements appeared throughout the event.Bright floral arrangements appeared throughout the event.Photo: John Reilly Photography

In the past, dinner and dancing had taken place under the same tent. This year, planners worked with PRO EM to create a separate dancing tent as part of their rain plan.In the past, dinner and dancing had taken place under the same tent. This year, planners worked with PRO EM to create a separate dancing tent as part of their rain plan.Photo: John Reilly Photography

The three-course dinner, provided by Blue Plate, included a deconstructed tomato tart that reflected the ball’s signature colors. The first course also came with chilled English pea soup.The three-course dinner, provided by Blue Plate, included a deconstructed tomato tart that reflected the ball’s signature colors. The first course also came with chilled English pea soup.Photo: John Reilly Photography

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