Thursday, November 3, 2011

Tales From The WTU Banquet Trail

Tales from the Banquet Trail
By Jeff Davis

“It was your worst nightmare,” said Whitetails Unlimited Field Director Larry Yost. It was actually worse than that … because this was real.
Yost was in the middle of the Wymore Chapter banquet in Nebraska, and just found out that the caterer wasn’t going to show up. He was in front of a sold-out crowd of 220 people, 20 minutes before dinnertime, and he had no food.
At the beginning of each banquet everything is in order, and
there are no problems. After the doors open, the WTU Field
Directors need to be ready for anything.
“There are always problems that need to be managed at every banquet,” Yost said, in his typically understated manner. “But this was a little different.”
The problem was the caterer had multiple jobs that night, and somehow had scheduled the WTU banquet for the wrong date. “I had everything confirmed, just the way I do for every banquet, and as far as I knew, everything was fine. I’ve never had this problem before.”
There’s an old saying that says it’s better to light a candle than curse the darkness, but at that moment it didn’t look like Yost had any candles in his bag of tricks.
“This banquet was in a town of less than 1,000 residents, there were no restaurants, no grocery stores, and I had 220 people who had bought tickets for a banquet. It’s hard to have a banquet without food, but it didn’t seem like there were any alternatives.”
It was the resourcefulness of some of the WTU members that produced success from the jaws of certain disaster.
“We were talking over our options, which weren’t many, when WTU sponsor Chad Lottman and his wife, Courtney, came up and said they might be able to help,” said Yost. It turns out he had a butcher shop in Beatrice, 25 miles away, and could arrange getting steaks cut and ready for the grill. Rex Adams, the chapter event associate, said his wife, Jodi, and daughter Cami would run to pick up the steaks, and could also stop at Kentucky Fried Chicken and Wal-Mart for side dishes and supplies. Now they had a plan, but there was one last problem: cooking the steaks.
There is a lot of activity at every WTU banquet, including
raffles, games, auctions, and door prizes.
It was Chad and Courtney to the rescue again. In addition to owning a butcher shop, they also own C & C Processing in Diller, and they compete in barbeque contests in the summer. Chad had a huge portable grill, but it was next to his shop stuck in the snow and mud.
A friend volunteered to retrieve the grill and get it fired up, and the last piece of the jury-rigged solution was in place. The grill was dug out of the snow and extracted using a 4X4 pickup truck, it was then filled it with charcoal and pulled it back to the banquet site. Meanwhile, Jodi called KFC and told them what was going on, and they pledged to put together biscuits, potatoes and gravy, coleslaw, and vegetables. Jodi and Cami set off with a blank check from Yost to make the 45-minute round trip to pick everything up. The grill arrived and was ready to go as soon as the steaks got there, and volunteers pitched in to get the meat on the grill and the serving tables set up. In short order everyone was enjoying a great steak dinner.
The dinner, which was scheduled for 7:00 p.m., was served about 8:30, and Yost said, “We didn’t get a single complaint. I can’t thank everyone enough, both those that pitched in above and beyond what anyone could expect, and everyone else at the banquet. Everyone was fantastic.”
Yost said the one key ingredient was to keep everyone informed. “We told the crowd right away that we had a problem, and kept them informed through the whole process. We didn’t try to hide it, and after the night was over I didn’t get one single complaint. The crowd actually had fun with it. We kept the games going, adjusted the schedule for the night, and just kept everyone busy while Chad and Courtney and the instant volunteers got the food together. That disaster turned into a memorable night.”

No Two Banquets the Same

Lining up for dinner at a Wisconsin WTU banquet.
While Yost’s banquet disaster was unusual (no other WTU field director has ever had a caterer not show up), most banquets have problems of one kind or another. But all the WTU field directors stress that problems are just one more thing to manage, and their goal is to make sure the people who attend banquets, or other WTU events, never know there were any type of problems.
But there are things that are beyond any control, and can’t be fixed, like the weather. Snow or ice storms are a regular problem each year, but a really strange weather event can also happen.
One Nebraska banquet took place in a facility situated on a bluff overlooking a picturesque river valley. Bad thunderstorms are not unusual in Nebraska, so the severe thunderstorm warning didn’t have any effect on attendance at the banquet. It became a day to remember for those present, as they looked out of the huge windows of the restaurant while a tornado passed by in the river valley below them. Luckily, no one lived along the river in that area, and the tornado damaged only trees, no buildings.
A massive storm of another kind threw a wrench in the works for a Texas banquet, as the tail end of a hurricane dumped massive rain, and high winds knocked out power to the banquet hall just after the field director arrived to set up. He was able to secure a generator on the back of a truck, and they ran the entire night using the portable power source. And the record-setting rain from the hurricane? Didn’t seem to bother anybody; the entire sold-out crowd of more than 400 showed up, and everyone had a great night.
WTU VP for Field Operation Dave Hawkey helped solve
a plumbing problem while attending a WTU banquet.
It was a mess, but few of those attending the banquet
even knew there was a problem.
Power was the problem at another banquet, this time in Iowa, and the field director was once again Larry Yost. The entire town was out of power when he arrived at the community center in Anthon, Iowa, at 9:00 a.m. to set up for the event. They got some lanterns and flashlights to use until the power was restored. As the day went along, it became apparent that perhaps the power was not going to get turned on before the event started, or not at all. Craig Handke, the event associate, luckily happened to be an electrician. He had an idea to call a neighbor who had a large generator that would run off a tractor. The tractor arrived at 3:00 p.m. and the guys went to work wiring the community center to the generator. At 4:30 the lights went on and the crowd started to arrive. Yost had another sold-out event, with more than 350 people attending – and the entire night was run on a tractor that was parked out back behind the community center.

Just Another Day in the Office

These tales of woe seem pretty dramatic to me, but for the WTU field directors it’s just another day in the office. When I thought this might be an interesting story, I sent an email to all of them asking them to send me stories of disasters that have happened at banquets, and I got no response. None. So I called them on the phone, and uniformly they replied that each banquet has problems or challenges, and that it is just their job to handle them. “You wouldn’t last long in this job if you let problems get in your way,” one said to me.
Many youngsters attend WTU banquets with
parents and grandparents.
“The reality is, it doesn’t matter what the problems are, we have to fix them and produce a great event,” said Ohio Field Director Denny Malloy. “We’ve got people who have bought tickets, and are expecting an outstanding night. They shouldn’t have to care what happens behind the scenes, so we just have to make sure they have a great time. If things go wrong during the event, we try to be fair, honest, and work from good intentions. The old saying, ‘the customer is always right,’ normally works.”
When asked for an example, Malloy recounts the time he was running a card raffle for a gun, where a deck of cards are sold, the purchased cards are torn in half, and a winning card is drawn after the entire deck is sold. The winning card this time was the four of clubs, and a winner quickly presented himself. And then another winner showed up, also with a four of clubs, from the same deck. Everything was on the up-and-up; the deck actually had 53 cards in it, with two four of clubs. And that was the winning card.
“I could have tried to see which four of clubs was actually drawn by matching up the tear pattern in the card, but these guys had done nothing wrong – they bought the cards that we were selling – and so I ended up giving away two guns from that game, and everyone was happy.”
Malloy says that while each event is unique, there are also many similarities. “It’s like being in a band. You get there early, set up, the crowd comes in, and then it’s a roller coaster ride until the end of the evening. Then everyone leaves, you tear down, and head home, sometimes 22 hours after you left the morning before.” Malloy emphasized again that no one needs to know the behind-the-scenes nitty gritty. “The time from when the doors open until the last person leaves is the only time that’s important. Good fellowship, good food, good games, good times, and working toward a good cause; that’s what’s important, and that’s what we have to deliver. It doesn’t matter how many problems I had to fix, it only matters if everyone had a good time.”
Larry Yost told me the same thing. He estimates that it takes a minimum of seven hours to set up before the doors open on the day of a banquet, if he has enough people helping. “I can’t say enough about our volunteers. They’re fantastic, and we couldn’t do it without them. Our volunteers and committee people go far beyond what can be expected.” Yost says the volunteer corps varies with each event. “Sometimes it’s all guys, sometimes it’s entire families. Sometimes it’s the same people every year, sometimes it’s a new crew, sometimes we have too many people, and sometimes we barely have enough. But whatever it is, they do a fantastic job.”
Dinner is a centerpiece event at most WTU events.
In addition to the physical set-up the day of the event, field directors must coordinate many details far in advance. Arranging for the location to hold the banquet, organizing the meal, having hundreds of individual products and merchandise (from guns to can cozies) delivered, securing local sponsors, working with ticket sales, and a hundred other details take a great deal of time throughout the year. When asked about the time it takes to arrange a banquet, Yost replied again, “That’s our job. That’s what we do. It’s all so that people have fun at our event, and want to come back next year.”
All the field directors I talked to emphasized that same point. It doesn’t matter exactly what happens at each banquet, as long as the crowd enjoys it. “Our key to success is to be flexible. The night flows, and going in I have a schedule in mind, but you have to be able to adapt.” Malloy agreed. “I do things a little differently than Tim Powers does at his banquets in Iowa, or LeRoy (Schultz) does with his events in Wisconsin, or any of our banquets in Texas or Maine. But that doesn’t matter. Each banquet is unique because each region is unique. What matters is we’re raising money for a good cause, we’re providing a great night for our banquet attendees, and our volunteers are supporting their communities and their sport through their hard work.”

Easier to Remember the Good Times than the Bad

It struck me that when I talked to the field directors and asked them about interesting things that had happened at their banquets, they instantly recounted things that had happened that were fun, good, or uplifting. It took quite a bit of prodding to come up with problems.
A happy winner at a banquet in Fountain City, Wisconsin.
“A couple of sons brought their dad on his 90th birthday,” Malloy remembered, “and at another banquet one fellow introduced me to his 85-year-old wife, who got a deer that year. I’ve met World War II veterans, and a whole new crop of returning veterans in the past few years. One night we had to stop the auction as a bunch of guys were putting the top on an eight foot by eight foot pyramid of cups on one side of the room. At a banquet in San Antonio we had an auctioneer who arrived ‘in character,’ and changed costumes and characters at least 10 times during the night. I’ve never seen anything like it. He was running all over the room, and theatrically collapsed on stage after the last item was sold. It was a great show.”
Yost agrees – the banquet successes make you forget the problems. “If I remember a problem it’s because it was pretty dramatic, and I don’t remember a whole lot of problems. I do remember a whole lot of names and faces, and people smiling and going out the door after a great night. Some of these events are the biggest fundraisers in the town all year, and they do great things with the 50% of the proceeds that are returned to the chapter. I had a banquet in a town of 565 people, and we sold 420 tickets. That banquet made a real difference for that town.
Malloy summed it up best when asked if the job ever drove him crazy: “No. This is a great job. We produce good times, for a good reason.”

1 comment:

  1. It is very hard to manage a banquet. You have to care about all the peoples likes and dislikes. When you get success at that time, you forget all the struggle and other things.

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