How to Plan a Big Event Like a Pro

Planning a corporate event for 100+ people can seem daunting, but take heart! We’ve gathered advice from seasoned office managers on three key categories to consider.

The Flow

There’s often a natural rhythm to large events, both in terms of timing and physical space. Sometimes the flow is determined by the agenda. If you’re hosting an all-day event, for example, it’s a good idea to schedule a midmorning break with coffee and breakfast snacks to keep participants energized, just in case they haven’t had anything at all.

“Timing is very important,” says Angela Williams, a Manhattan office manager. “I don’t want anyone to be stuffed before they go to lunch.” When afternoon rolls around, she advises refreshing the coffee and setting out more snacks by at least 3:00. “People like the indulgence of cookies and brownies, but savory things are also pretty appealing: cheese, pretzels, nuts.” Try serving whole or sliced fruit as a lighter option.

For main meals, consider the space and timeline you’re working with. Panera Senior National Sales and Events Manager Kelly Lauenstein, who assists clients with organizing large events, says these two factors are key. “How much time will guests have to eat? Are they going to be sitting? Or is it something where they’re going to be standing and networking and need to talk? Because if that’s the case, the way we order and what we order may be different,” Kelly says.

Boxed lunches are ideal for seated events or breakout sessions, allowing participants to grab their lunches from a pre-organized area and go back to their seats. For events that call for mixing and mingling, individual plates and separate food stations may be a better option.

“I like to see beverages in one place, desserts in another, sandwiches in a different corner, etc.,” says Angela. “Otherwise you end up with a traffic pileup.”

The Food

When you're arranging catering, plan ahead as much as possible. Kelly recommends giving caterers a heads-up eight weeks before the event, although it’s not crucial to provide too many details that early in the process. “A lot of the planning does weigh on RSVPs,” Kelly says. “The head count can change dramatically, and then your ordering changes dramatically.” Finalizing the plan closer to the date—think one to two weeks out—can be a smart move.

It can also be helpful to ask attendees about food allergies, sensitivities or preferences as part of the registration process beforehand. “I always recommend having a gluten-conscious item on the menu because there are so many dietary restrictions,” Kelly says. Finding a menu item that spans a variety of categories—vegan, vegetarian, gluten-conscious, etc.—will cover more bases and help control costs.

As the event date approaches, consider previewing the venue space with the catering team. “I’m a big proponent of walk-throughs a day or two before,” Kelly says. It’s an ideal time to work out unloading, parking and staffing details with everyone who will be there on the big day.

The Fun

Finally, don’t forget to set out a little something for attendees to take with them. “Giveaway items don’t take a great deal of effort, but it can make it seem like a huge amount of attention was put into your guests’ experience,” says Angela.

“Placing giveaway items at the center of the table can help promote interaction among participants,” says Des Moines office manager Becky Brame. During long presentations, this can be a very good thing. Try arranging bowls of small candies, after-meal mints or individually wrapped desserts on tabletops for easy reach-and-grab access.

For nonfood giveaway items, consider earbuds, hand sanitizer, palm-size stress balls or office supplies—bonus points if items are branded with your company’s logo. Just take care to only give what’s useful, and stick to small, lightweight items that are easy to stash in a carry-on bag.

Keeping everyone well-fed, well-hydrated and forward-thinking can be a challenge, but it’s achievable. The most-repeated piece of advice? “Leave yourself plenty of time to plan,” says Becky. “You don’t want to forget something until the last day, because then it’s a scramble.” The more planning you do in advance, the more free time you’ll have to monitor the action on the day of the event.

In the end, try not to stress. “As long as the guests feel cared for, it’s a success,” Angela says.