Odds and events

December 15, 2013

Odds and events

Nasir and Tania Khan’s daughter is getting married exactly a year from now. They have already shopped for the person who will execute the "vision" they have in mind for what they say will be the "most important event in their life".

But unlike many in Karachi, who pay through their nose to have such events to be etched in people’s memories for years, and become the "talk of the town", all Tania wants "is someone to organise it" for her.

With weddings getting more and more elaborate with a lot of attention paid to the smallest of detail -- from the kind of flowers and chandeliers, to dinnerware, and stain-free linen, carpets and chairs and how the space is built up, to the guest list and if it should include celebrities to fake as your old buddies, the DJ and choreographer, how big or small, discreet or conspicuous the bar should be to the giveaways and the gift wrappings-- Pakistani weddings of the rich is no more a family affair. It has gone to the next level with the event managers having jumped into the fray and ever so delicately, taken it away from the hands of the amateurs -- and put price tags to their service.

Little wonder then, Frieha Altaf says, ruefully: "In Pakistan we do more crisis management than event management!" Her biggest nightmare, during events are blockade of cell phones or if the city comes to a halt due to some strike. 

"In our time the entire family pooled in their expertise. We seldom needed outsiders to help us pack gifts or giveaways. Relatives would, themselves, offer their help for this or that," points out one grandmother, whose grandson is soon to get married. Fun-loving and still active, she dismisses the idea of a choreographer teaching her steps of a Bollywood number! "Where has the luddi gone and why do we have to make every mehndi a Bollywood item song!" she says with open resentment.

"No one has the time; each one of us has a hundred and one other comittments; many women are now working full time too," her daughter-in-law, points it out to her, adding: "I want to come properly dressed and look rested when greeting and meeting my guests, not hassled and haggard."

That is why Tania Khan says, it is the price you pay to be "stress-free".

But event management, today, has come a long way from just planning and executing birthday parties and weddings. Today, says Shabnam Abdullah, who has been in the event management business now for 13 years, it also encompasses corporate and public events and events managers are dime a dozen -- "under every stone lurks an event manager" but few have the academic qualifications to take match.

Abdullah, who is among the pioneers and who began organising huge consumer/trade shows, herself learnt on the job. Her hallmark was Dawn’s annual Lifestyle events in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad. She not only organised conferences, but executed cultural events for corporations, "But my favourite are still the public events like the music conferences", which she thinks are a great social leveller and so very important in Pakistani society where there is a "huge disconnect between classes".

While some events have whittled like pop music concerts, and even multi-nationals corporations have tightened their belts around mega events, event management is still one business or profession that has not really seen a downturn.

"When recession hit in 2008 and 2009, we were affected as work from multi-nationals budget-wise ran low," points out Frieha Altaf of Catwalk Productions, a company now in its 25th year which specialises in organising corporate launches and mega shows like the popular Lux Style Awards, numerous fashion weeks and big sound and light cultural shows along with weddings and store openings. "But we compensated with weddings which happen no matter what!" she adds.

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Abdullah can vouch for that. Having done all kinds of events, Abdullah has ended up doing more weddings too. The only problem is, she says, those in the catering business have stolen some of their sunshine. "They are our biggest threat and competitors. They have the space and the furniture and can offer better rates. They also copy our stages and our floral arrangements," she laments adding: "Only those who are very selective will come to us or we will soon have to change our ways!"

But what irks her about clients is that they are not straight-forward. "After we have painstakingly worked on a customised design, they tell us it’s way beyond their budget. It is almost always the case!"

Therefore, says Altaf, the secret to successful business is to: "Get a clear brief on what the client wants and budgets. Close chapters early because last-minute additions affect everything!"

Interestingly, Abdullah finds a distinct difference between clients in Lahore and Karachi. "In Lahore clients like flamboyance; they like everything to be showy and are willing to spend for that; Karachi people, on the other hand, are more aesthetically inclined and sensible with not going overboard. But this, also has a lot to do with prevalent security situation, or lack thereof in the city which makes it necessary to have low profile weddings."

At the same time, event management comes with its own set of risks, especially in Pakistan and especially in a volatile city like Karachi. Abdullah can never forget December 27, 2007, Benazir Bhutto’s assassination and how the city came to a standstill for three full days and all the events she had organised had to be called off.

Little wonder then, Altaf says, ruefully: "In Pakistan we do more crisis management than event management!" Her biggest nightmare, during events are blockade of cell phones or if the city comes to a halt due to some strike.

But Abdullah has, over the years learnt to bow down to weather, which is becoming more and more unpredictable. "You can’t underestimate the power of the wind and the rain," she chuckles and adds.

She has learnt that "wherever physics is involved, we will not take the risk but hire professionals". For example, if they are building a space outdoors, they will seek the help of an architect always.

Because Abdullah has been organising public events, she says, they have to take cognisance of factors like fire exits, and emergency exits. "The importance of these escapes can never be emphasised enough!"

Over time, says Abdullah, at the time of planning, they have developed strategies to mitigate many risks and strengthen the weak links. "Event management is a team effort and our reputation is on line and the success depends on many others who we rely on. Over time we have developed the confidence that people will pull through on their commitments," she explains adding: "By and large people deliver on time!"

But then event management cannot be everyone’s cup of tea.

"You have to be super organised, very creative and into detail with up-to-date technology and a substantial knowledge of field of entertainment, television production," says Altaf.

To that list Abdullah adds: "You must be sociable, be a people’s person, know how to network, be energetic and innovative."

Odds and events