As event pros know too well, the risks are high with outdoor events—but so are the rewards
By Sara Perez Webber
There’s something about the open air that energizes an event, giving it an intangible quality that can’t be matched in an indoor setting. Yet outdoor events come fraught with logistical challenges, not least of which is the weather. Nevertheless, caterers and event planners take these challenges in stride, staging unforgettable events under sunny and starry skies—and even cloudy and rainy ones. Following are five examples of outdoor parties that went off without a hitch, thanks to expert planning and a little help from Mother Nature—with tips from the pros who made them possible.
Harvested With Love
Catering by Seasons, based in College Park, Md., specializes in farm-to-table catering and events. One such wedding was a particular labor of love for Dave Evans, owner of Catering by Seasons’ parent company, La Prima Food Group. Not only did the wedding take place at his daughter’s farm, it was his daughter getting married.
Evans’ daughter Margaret Brown and her husband Kevin own Groundworks Farm in Pittsville, Md., a CSA model farm that supplies produce, eggs and meat to its members, a local restaurant and La Prima Food Group. When the couple decided they wanted to be married on their farm, a number of logistical challenges needed to be solved—primarily where to hold and stage the event. Determining an existing greenhouse wouldn’t suffice, “we decided to put up a new one, which they needed anyway,” says Evans.
After the outdoor ceremony and a cocktail hour accompanied by a bonfire, the 150 guests entered the new greenhouse, which featured draping for a homier feel, a window hung at the entrance, a table lined with family photos, plywood covering the dirt floor, and lights strung from all the supporting structures. The kitchen was set up in a tractor barn adjacent to the greenhouse.
Despite the lack of heat in the barn and the need for many extension cords to provide lighting, Executive Chef Kyle Vermeulen created a meal on site from what was grown and raised on the surrounding fields. “That’s kind of status quo for us,” says Evans. “We often find ourselves in cold or not-such-great environments, and we just have to deal with it and be prepared for it.” The dinner buffet’s roast pork and braised chicken came from the farm’s pasture-raised pigs and chickens, while the farm also yielded the produce for the beet salad with arugula and roasted root vegetables. Only the grilled polenta parmesan and wheat berry salad featured ingredients not from the farm. A local orchard that’s part of Groundworks’ CSA provided the apples for the apple pie dessert, based on a family recipe beloved by the bride.
“For the centerpieces on the buffet, someone went out in the field and pulled root vegetables,” says Evans. “The service staff was extremely creative. We brought along cylinder vases, and sent them out to see what they could gather and utilize. Everything came from right out of the ground.” lllcateringbyseasons.com
- You always hope for the best but plan for the worst—that means not only rain, but high heat and humidity, bees buzzing all over the bars, wind. You’ve got to be prepared, and you’ve got to have a plan.
- Start communicating the risks involved with an outdoor event from the very beginning. In the initial phone call, you don’t want to be the voice of gloom and doom, but when the bride tells you about the wonderful outdoor venue where she wants to have her wedding, you say, “That’s great; it’s beautiful there. However, what do we do if it’s raining?” It’s better that I, as the educator, rain on their parade, then the rain comes and ruins their event.
- Find out who you are going to speak to at the event when you have to make a last-minute decision because of the weather. The bride doesn’t need to be bothered when she’s getting ready. Is it the best man? The maid of honor? Get their cell phone number.
- I always tell people that tent companies would not be in business if they only provided tents to people in bad weather. A lot of people think they can call a tent company a couple of days out, but it doesn’t work like that. They’re not going to get what they need at a price they can afford.
—Dina Silnicky, director of special events, Catering by Seasons/La Prima Food Group
- Check, and then recheck your equipment. Sometimes, I swear our ballpark is haunted. Electrical cords somehow manage to unplug themselves, water lines magically turn off, or multiple breakers mysteriously close overnight. Remember, if you’re hosting an outdoor event, you’re in an open space that’s accessible to many people, not just you and your staff. Accidents and mistakes do occur.
- Consider the maybe-not-so-obvious. Hosting a special event outside can be an incredible experience, but don’t forget that you are, in fact, outdoors! Weather is, by far, the biggest concern when planning an outdoor event, but there are other details to consider. Always ensure that your guests are comfortable. Pest control, restroom accessibility and temperature regulation should be considered. And also remember, even if your event is in a private space, it’s still open air. Prior to the event, be sure to check your surroundings for potential disturbances. Passing trains, loud traffic, construction and other public events in the area have the ability to drown out music, important speeches, or even “I Do’s!”
—Courtney Trawitz, director of catering and events for the Rochester Red Wings/Diamond Catering & Events
Home Run Wedding
Frontier Field in Rochester, N.Y., transformed into a field of dreams for a baseball-loving couple that held their nuptials there in June 2013. The ceremony took place at home plate prior to the start of a home game for the Rochester Red Wings, the top minor-league affiliate of the Minnesota Twins. The wedding party joined the team for pre-game batting practice, and the bride and groom lined up with the Red Wings during the National Anthem and threw out the ceremonial first pitch.
The reception was in The Hardball Café, the stadium’s largest open-air suite, which is covered in case of inclement weather. “In case of rain, our plan was to relocate the ceremony and host it just inside the ballpark main gates, a covered area, which still had a great visual of the playing field as the backdrop,” says Courtney Trawitz, director of catering and events for the Rochester Red Wings/Diamond Catering & Events. “It was a game day, but if the ballgame was canceled for any reason, the reception was scheduled to go on as planned.”
The menu complemented the sporty atmosphere—classic cold hors d’oeuvre displays, and, once the ballgame started, an upscale picnic menu complete with barbecue pork ribs, crispy Southern fried chicken, fresh corn-on-the-cob and quarter-pound Zweigle’s hot dogs, a Rochester and Frontier Field tradition. The décor included pennants, decorative baseballs and Red Wings ball caps.
Frontier Field is on a winning streak when it comes to hosting events, says Trawitz, who notes the challenges that come with a venue not designed for such purposes.
“Who would have thought, 18 years ago, when Frontier Field was being built, that we’d be hosting a wedding, a trade show, and six ballgames within a 10-day span? We’re really forced to think outside the box, and not just in terms of décor and menu options,” she says. “Event layouts can be tricky. Depending on the part of the ballpark we plan to use for an event, we always need to consider questions like, ‘Do we have enough power in this location? Where is the closest water line? Is this space accessible enough for the number of guests we’re expecting?’ And, my personal favorite, ‘Why did they have to put this lamppost RIGHT here? If it was just two feet to the left, I could fit a 40’x60’ tent perfectly!’ It’s a challenge, but anyone in this industry will agree, it’s just part of the job. It’s overcoming these challenges that makes the job so rewarding…and so much fun!” lllredwingsbaseball.com
Lunch For a Cause
ConshyGirls Catering, based in Conshohocken, Pa., catered a fun outdoor lunch for about 200 Philadelphia-area sports figures and other guests for the Claddagh Fund’s Third Annual Celebrity Golf Tournament at Woodcrest Golf Club in Cherry Hill, N.J. ConshyGirls donated the lunch and bar station for the event, which raised money for the Claddagh Fund, a charitable organization run by the band Dropkick Murphys.
Kim Strengari and Marianne Gere are the co-owners that put the “Girls” in “ConshyGirls,” yet they were able to create an event that delighted the all-male guest list, which included current and former players from the Philadelphia Flyers and Philadelphia Phillies, sports announcers, and Ken Casey of the Dropkick Murphys. The décor for the luncheon—held on a veranda overlooking the sprawling greens of the golf course on a sunny September day—was designed to complement the scenery while not overpowering the overall aesthetic. The “Southern Chic” atmosphere included long tables topped with white linens and crisp burlap runners, accented with vibrant wildflowers and turquoise-colored Mason jars. Old burlap-trimmed frames displayed the ConshyGirls logo and signage, and pieces of burlap tied together the utensils, which were held in vintage woven baskets.
The down-home feel extended to the food. ConshyGirls served up their famous homemade mac ’n’ cheese, fried chicken, grits and pulled pork sliders (a huge hit, especially among the Philadelphia Flyers players in attendance). Although the lunch was meant to be a sit-down affair, the relaxed vibe made everyone so comfortable that they stood and mingled while they ate. Strengari and Gere even brought the party to the golf course, driving up to the players in carts and handing out their version of the John Daly cocktail in fun, colorful cups. lllconshygirls.com
Always have a plan “B” when planning an outdoor event! Anything can happen, and we’ve probably seen it all. I’d suggest having a rental tent large enough for the party on stand-by, as well as either heat lamps or portable air conditioners, depending on the time of the year. The fastest way to ruin an event is to make your guests uncomfortable. Also, always (and I mean always!) have enough comfortable seating for guests. There is nothing worse that attending an event and not having anywhere to sit.
—Marianne Gere, ConshyGirls Catering
You should love your plan “B” as much as your plan “A.” If this means tenting, be sure to factor the tent costs into the budget from the beginning. I have had clients that want to be naïve about the potential for poor weather, as if it isn’t a possibility. This is the worst mentality to take, because ultimately they are setting themselves up for unwelcome surprises and potential heartbreak.
—Danielle Couick, CPCE,
Magnolia Bluebird Design & Events
Elegant Dinner Al Fresco
A Washington, D.C., couple took advantage of the longest day of the year to treat their wedding guests to an elegant outdoor dinner designed and planned by Danielle Couick, CPCE, principal at Magnolia Bluebird Design & Events in Columbia, Md., who was recently named as one of the best wedding designers and planners in Washington by MODWedding.
The June wedding took place at Anderson House, a Washington, D.C., mansion built in 1905 that’s now a museum. After the indoor ceremony and cocktail hour, guests proceeded to the outdoor Hoyt Garden, where they dined at long tables surrounding a reflecting pool. Honoring the couple’s multicultural background (she is Indian, while he was reared in the Midwest), the dinner menu from Occasions Caterers featured a fusion of flavors, including chicken tikka masala dosa or saffron-grilled chicken kebabs for the first course; branzino filet with grape verjus and sea bean salad, summer jasmine rice, or miso-glazed beef petite tender with lemongrass-black peppercorn sauce for the main course; and a lavish dessert buffet with such selections as champagne crème brûlée, cinnamon churros, mango cheesecake bites and red-velvet cupcakes.
While the gilded setting didn’t need much enhancing, Couick and her team utilized lush florals and a combination of textures to complement the space. “We selected a palette of raspberry, cream and gold, and combined textiles in wood, mirror, silver and gold to achieve a layered and sophisticated look appropriate for the occasion and the venue,” says Couick. “Our favorite detail was the white lily ceremony backdrop that we repurposed later in the evening for the dessert buffet. Silver urns punctuated wooden farm tables with cross-back chairs, while gold-beaded chargers and gold-rimmed glassware kept the look from swaying too casual.”
Although inclement weather could have prompted the dinner to be moved indoors or tented, the skies cooperated, with one small exception—the late-setting sun prevented dining by candlelight, as the bride would have liked. Yet bulbs strung overhead added a festive note to the sophisticated, peaceful outdoor space. lllmagnoliabluebird.com
Corporate Garden Party
The Wild Thyme Company in San Diego—which recently expanded by merging with Peartrees Catering, now Peartrees by Wild Thyme—catered a 1,000-person event earlier this year at the Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens in Escondido, Calif. The party, Team Stone Winterfest, is an annual event celebrating the past year for the staff at Stone Brewing Co.
To highlight the natural beauty of the grounds, the Wild Thyme team incorporated natural elements into the décor. The food stations were themed, including mangos stacked in glass cylinders surrounded by pineapples decorating a fresh fruit display, and a taco station enhanced with such touches as dried peppers, interesting vases and serape blankets.
To serve alongside the craft brews from the Stone Brewing Co., the Wild Thyme team created food stations that utilized ingredients, spices and herbs that paired well with beer. They included a large, eye-catching paella spread; an upscale taco station, with such unusual ingredients as squash blossoms; and an interactive cheese table brimming with a variety of cheeses, fruits, bread, jams, pickles and smears.
The event came off without a hitch, and Wild Thyme benefited from two strokes of good fortune often missing for an outdoor event—the use of an on-site commercial kitchen, and the nearly-always-perfect San Diego weather. lllthewildthymecompany.com
Always conduct a walk-through first. This allows you to see and understand the layout of your space, and any challenges you may face. For instance, where will you be cooking and setting the kitchen up? Is the ground flat, or will you be on hills? It’s better to know this ahead of time to prepare, as well as have back-up plans.
—Keith Lord, director of operations and culinary, The Wild Thyme Company