11 August, 2016

My Year of Living Dangerously: Event Planning In Austin

Best Welcome Amenity ever
The Omni Barton Creek
Austin is a place I would love to plan an event.  It's central.  It's awesome.  And as I discovered on my #goingrogue Women Wine Writers Weekend, there is delicious wine and food in those TX Hills.  So in the spirit of my theme, here are five event planner lessons I learned

Be prepared to reconsider
I had travelled to Austin many years ago early in my career and had attended events at the Barton Creek Resort.  A lot has changed since then, all for the good.  The resort has grown and improved.  Now in addition to the golf course, there is a great fitness center as well as a full spa.  The Welcome cocktail alone was one of the nicest amenities I have ever experienced.  Everything was fresh and local and hit just the perfect note to welcome, relax and sweeten your journey. The staff was friendly and always helpful.  The rooms were comfortable including a princess bed. Many venues that put "resort" in the name don;t seem to get the concept.  However The Omni Barton Creek pays attention to every detail to make your visit relaxing, and comfortable.  I felt cosseted, so will your attendees.  I even felt cosseted when I wandered off the Nature Trail and onto the golf course.  Right when I was wondering if I was in danger, Steve Johnson, a former news reporter turned hospitality expert came and rescued me.  No rescue would be required from the meeting facilities here.  Elegance and convenience blended seamlessly.

If you feed them, they will come

Golf is great and the spa is luxurious, but the Fine Dining program here is reason enough to attend, event or no event.  The 8212 Wine Bar and Grill boasts "wine pairing".  I am in general a skeptic,  Was I pleasantly surprised! When this venue says Wine and Food pairing, they really have the team to make spectacular dining.  Our visit included  previewing a monthly dinner program .  First we were tested on wines and tried an Edna Valley Gruener Veltliner, an Oregon Riesling, and a lovely Rhone Syrah Grenache blend.  We were feeling bold blinding these successfully, then they threw in a Susumaniello. After the wine hazing, I mean orientation was complete, they brought out five perfectly paired dishes. These expertly seasonal and delicious plates showcased the kitchen's style.

While they are currently offering fun Burger Pairing and Tequila tastings, the staff , especially Chef Andre Natera have the range to really knock the socks off your guests.  Andre came from
Dallas and  is now the  regional chef for Omni.  His fine dining flair and focus on rich and surprising flavors are shining in Austin.  The Wine and Dine event happens about once a month .  It includes four to five courses and is designed to help you unwind with your family and enjoy destination dining.  At about $95 per person plus $35 for the skillful wine pairing it is affordable luxury.  There is also an 11,000 square foot gym to help you work off those delightful calories.  The Omni Barton Creek thinks of everything. More on the current offerings here

Life is better when you can explore snacks, booze and fire

Viewing Austin from an event planner's eyes, I was impressed with all the city has to offer in terms of great entertainment planned or on your own.  The food was amazing, the bar scene lively and there was a pronounced sense of place.  The mantra to "Keep Austin Weird" meant that guests would have a chance to explore an authentic place with a distinct identity.  Another wonderful thing about the knowledgeable staff at the Omin Barton Creek was when we asked for entertainment tips, they came through,  We took the reco to visit Rainey Street and ended up having a super fun time exploring the drinkity spots that were once disused bungalow-style housing. People watching, cocktails and snacking were a great way to spend an evening and come away with a sense of Austin.  We also got up close and personal with some Barbecue.  That could be a whole exploration on it's own.  Snacks, booze and fire.  Does it get any better?
Actually it does with a tour of Texas Hill Country Wineries, but that deserves a post of its own.  Event planners, people will think you are crazy but will come away thinking you are a genius if you select the right Texas Wineries where delicious fine wine is being made.

Have a good exit strategy

Some of my favorite people in the worlds have an Austin connection,  It seems like a lifetime ago that I visited often,  A lot has changed.  I found it all for the better.  One thing stayed the same, but I didn't have time to indulge on my whirlwind #goingrogue weekend.  Amy's Ice Cream has been keeping it weird and fresh and wonderful in Austin since 1984.  I was so thrilled to see an outpost at the airport where I could get my Mexican Vanilla and Irish Coffee on,  Those bold bright flavors were with me when I boarded my flight back to California.  It might fly in the face of the credo "Life is uncertain.  Eat dessert first", but it was the perfect sweet exit to a wonderful event.  And I am most grateful that I didn't have to plan it!

Photo Credit: DallasWineChick
Many thanks to 8212 Wine Bar and Grill and the Omni Barton Creek for hosting me.  As well as Dallas Wine Chick, Melanie Ofenloch for planning a spectacular Wine Writer's retreat.  Y'all got me to enjoy Texas and hope I will be able to return to share the wine and fun again

10 August, 2016

My Year of Living Dangerously: Event Planning in New Orleans

Who rules the world? #Girls
Life lessons are fueled by wine.  If one event was tough, could I do a second simultaneous and competitive event?  My wine fueled answer, as always, was yes.  Degree of difficulty is nothing when you have a cockeyed, optimistic belief in yourself and your colleagues.  Was it easy? No.  Did I learn a lot? Yes.

Here are a few lessons I learned event planning in the Big Easy, New Orleans:

Lean on Your Team
Having seized control, mostly because everyone else was off fighting different fires, I quickly rallied my wonderful folks at TMN Events to see if they thought they could help us with an additional event.  This time we would have  less time, less money and expect the same level of guest experience.  Talk about optimism.  Their answer was yes. Napa was easy for me as I knew my way around and had a vision. New Orleans was a completely different beast. Leaning on the team in this case meant to leverage TMN Events's experience and trust that they would manage.  Quality shines through as they had already done several events there and had minimal set up time to get us up and running.   After a few rounds of back and forth we were in business.  We had to deal with delays, budget and even family emergencies at our vendor partner, so making sure the team was solid meant success.
Trust, but verify.  Yes, this Jordan wine is delicious #harvest

Count on brands you can trust
One of our key factors was relying on brands we could trust.  When picking a venue, we picked the Ritz Carlton.  When ordering wine, I picked Jordan.  Jordan Winery  is a producer in the Alexander Valley whose name is synonymous with quality.  They focus on luscious Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay elaborated with a sense of place.  Their focus on knowing what you can do best and executing perfectly is a philosophy we can all emulate.

When making decisions a bunch at a time, I realized that trusting in a brand makes your decisions easier so you can go off to the next.  And it is so gratifying when the menu you selected (Barbecue Shrimp with Jordan Cab) is mentioned several times as the guests favorite thing

Typical Tuesday Night in the French Quarter

Take people out of their day to day
Now my task was to help shape the event.  Midweek is an appealing time to attend a work incentive trip, because what kind of incentive is it to "work" on the weekend? New Orleans sounded like the perfect destination because of its history, its culinary arts and its entertainment wow factor.  We knew finding entertainment would be easy.  The Ritz Carlton gave us great walkability.  And the city spread out like an amusement park for adults.  Our guests loved it.  We had a wonderful private dining event at Arnaud's Touted as a "French Quarter Classic" Arnaud's confirmed that classic happens for a reason.  This delicious venue with an amazing bar staff was an event in itself.  We enjoyed the period correct dining salon, the Mardi Gras museum, and innumerable perfect Sazeracs. Getting to observe a typical Tuesday from an authentic French Quarter balcony was awesome.  However, I do still want to know what makes Strawberries Arnaud so delicious.

Learning is great especially when it involves snacks, beer and fire
To make the guest experience memorable, I asked for excursions that would have cultural relevance. Partying at a night club is fun, but you can do that at home.  Part of the allure of a destination like New Orleans is capitalizing on the opportunity to learn.  The Cooking Class at  the New Orleans School of Cooking fit the bill.  Not only was it a delicious lunch, but we learned about the history and culture of New Orleans.  Part of the process to become a certified guide in NOLA, involved knowing and communicating the history and culture.  We got more than recipes from this experience.

Appreciate the natural beauty
Reataurant August
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  New Orleans offered us so much more than the usual venue.  We worked to make sure our guests could choose what suited them.  Or choose simply to relax and walk around enjoying the bar scene, the jazz scene and of course the restaurant scene.  My particular guests don't drink alcohol.  However we had the most delicious dinner at John Besh's elegant  Restaurant August You can order a lot of foie gras and cookbooks when you don't have to spring for booze.  We revelled in the ambiance with brick and crystal, the leisurely yet attentive service and mostly the food.  With an eye to what is uniquely his own within the the local tradition, John Besh's menu delighted us at every turn.  This was bucket list for me and I was thrilled to accompany my hard working winners to this luxe dinner.

 Not everyone is fancy.  Another super fun activity was a boat tour through the Bayou where we got up close and personal with some denizens of the water.  Riding through the Spanish Mos laden cypress trees with our Cajun guide amid 18 foot alligators was an amazing and particular experience.  We loved this trip that allowed us to appreciate the natural beauty and charm of the area.

With the meetings all completed and our activities finished, we went home rested and relaxed to start the process again for another year of hard fought wins, collegial conflict and work.

New Orleans came through for me as a destination.  This process helped me learn valuable lessons, the most important of which is of course:

Laissez le bon temps rouler!

09 August, 2016

My Year of Living Dangerously: Event Planning in Napa

Scott from TMN Events
Ever take one of those assignments where you learn a lot but more than anything else live the maxim: "What doesn't kill you.."? Well, at least I can say I am stronger now and I came away with some very good advice.  Here are five life lessons and some nice Napa travel planning you can use if you find yourself tasked with event planning.

Don't say yes till you have a team you can count on 
The smartest thing I did was select a vendor I knew I could 120% count on to create a wonderful event no matter how inexperienced the event planner was #ME.  TMN Events could make a five star happening in the break room of a Wal-Mart if they had to.  So, it was a piece of cake (well, maybe closer to an eclair from Bouchon) to make our event magical.   At every step of the way, I had a partner I could count on.  And unlike, say brides,  I actually got immense enjoyment out of the event itself because this awesome team took care of the nuts and bolts. One of their secrets is that their staff members all came from other lives that enrich the event talent pool.  One member is a CIA (think culinary not Langley) trained chef, while another is a golf pro. Awesomeness on many levels.

Invest in the best
Photo credit TMN Events
My first executive decision was to tweak the budget to get our group into the Bardessono Hotel and Spa.  We toured several other venues but the combination of walkability, amenities, and overall luxury tilted us easily to this wonderful spot.  A modern venue that has constructed a place where every touch, literal and figurative, feels comfortable, planned and artful.  The Bardessono is one of only three LEEDS platinum hotels in the US; all that luxury is sustainable.  They helped us with garden tours, welcome cocktail contest and at every step of the way, let our guests create a memorable experience tailored to their needs.   Mornings in Yountville are a world away from my day to day and something I will always remember.  Cool points for seeing so many of my east coasters out and about too.
The Bardessono Pool will uplift you but you have to be a guest #memorable

When in doubt choose bacon 

Photo: TMN/ On fleek t=me
Photo Credit TMN Events
Napa throws a plethora of world class experiences into your lap.  My biggest problem was narrowing down the choices.  Two added degrees of difficulty were that we needed to let the guests choose onsite and I loathe anything  that requires large busses.

 Peju rewarded my indecision with an amazing Bacon Bacon Bacon experience that kicked off our adventure with an elegant  snack and pairing lesson in their vineyard.  Having an outing with universal appeal made the people on our excursion happy they picked us instead of indolence by the pool.  And even people who were Peju Wine Club members felt like they received a special discovery of something wonderful at a familiar spot

People will remember coming to the mountain top

Photo Creidt TMN Events
Photo Credit TMN Events
But which mountain do you pick?  I reached out to someone I knew was familiar with my type of guests, an expert on Napa and an overall lovely human being: John Corcoran.  He provided me with some wonderful recommendations, one of which was Robert Craig Winery.  My Day 1 excursion covered the Napa Valley floor.  Touring Howell Mountain was a great contrast and was the extra step that many attendees had never experienced.  This brought everything together and ended up being the most memorable part of the trip for many of the guests. Many had never spoken to a winemaker, or felt a windy vineyard first hand.  To get to try this amazing wine on the top of Howell Mountain in the vineyard was worth the adventure of scaling it.  We field tested the theory that there are six ways to get there. Each SUV felt that their way was best. Great advice and an amazing staff at Robert Craig transformed the visit.  We were all grateful to  Lori Reed, Director of Retail Experiences, who  knocked it out of the park for my guests. Anyone can make a rez at the tasting salon, which I am sure is lovely, but taking it  to the literal mountain top makes memories,  However everything we planned after that fell a little flat, so my lesson was really plan the rhythm of the day. I see you experienced planners nodding and smiling

Be two steps ahead
Dinner at Flora Springs
Looping back to the first item, having a great team on your event makes life worth living.  Attention to detail meant that our final gift was a copy of the Wine Bible.  In addition to being the perfect gift for novice and expert alike, author Karen MacNeil took the time to hand sign each and every copy.  These delighted our guests, but suddenly the prospect of carrying home all their loot loomed.  No problem. We had a checkout process that included our staff packing any items small or large and Fed Exing them back to their final destinations.  It allowed us to include a thank you and make sure all those amazing fluffy robes, bottles of wine, fragile candles, etc got home in one piece

This event  was the cherry on top of a firecely tough fiscal year and adding the stress of managing this entire process nearly killed me.  However, the relationships we fostered and pulling it off made it all worthwhile.  I think fondly of the event when I wear my fluffy Bardessono robe and my hope is that so do our guests