Archive : January 2011

Freedom from the 60″ Round: Alternatives for the Seated Gala Banquet

Posted January 20, 2011

I sat on a panel this Tuesday for the Association of Fundraising Professionals entitled “Special Events and the New Normal: Finding the Right Opportunities in Lean Times”, and one of the interesting trends we discussed was the variety of options available beyond the traditional banquet dinner format.

Traditionally, the gala formula has worked like this:

1.    Serve cocktails while guests mingle.
2.    Seat guests at 60” round tables (10 per table).
3.    Commence program featuring honorees, speeches, maybe videos.
4.    Serve dinner.
5.    Resume program.
6.    Cash checks.  Hand out gift bags.
7.    Repeat next year.

The biggest complaint people often have is being stuck at those banquet rounds for most of the evening.  They want more networking, and when they have it at the dinner break, they’re stuck talking to the two or three people within earshot at their table.  Slim pickings at best.

Fifi Awards (Dalzell Productions)

But new trends are emerging.  Karen Dalzell, owner of Dalzell Productions, and producer of the FiFi Awards and the Tribeca Film Festival events, has been paving the way with replacing the 60” round with loungeseating.  Sponsors who previously would have bought top tier tables are now

given branded, more comfy lounges closer to the stage.

The Toy Industry Association’s Toy of the Year Awards has had great success by switching their program to theater style seating, like the Academy Awards.  Before the program guests are treated to a 90 minute grazing style buffet cocktail reception.  And after the program is a dessert reception.  Lots and lots of networking.  My old firm, Paint The Town Red (since acquired by Global

Toy of the Year Awards (Global Events Group)

Events Group) produced that event, and I was so impressed by the success of this format I convinced other clients to adopt it, including the Children’s Book Council’s Children’s Choice Book Awards.

And with the advent of LED lighting, you can take the same room you use for the buffet reception, and simply change the lighting for the dessert reception with the flick of a button.

Both of these format changes still preserve the formal program aspect of the event.  The biggest objection usually comes from committee members who are flummoxed that they can no longer sell the 60” round.  Those tables had become the only currency they knew.  There are easy work-arounds, of course, such as selling the lounge, or a package of reserved theater seats up font.

If, however, after being presented with these options, the bulk of your committee still seems mystified (like the scene in Spinal Tap where Nigel explains that his amplifier goes to 11), then it’s a sign for you to throw in the towel.

Lucretia Gilbert, Director of Development for the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, and a fellow panelist, oversees events around the country, and was clear to caution the audience that, well, you need to know your audience.  She pointed out certain markets where they are quite happy with the seated banquet round, thank you very much!

And that’s really the key to the whole thing, giving people what they want, so they have the best possible experience at your gala.  If they want to be liberated from the 60” round, then here are some ideas you can work with.  If, on the other hand, they like the standard gala format, keep riding that horse all the way to the bank.