Turning Challenge into Opportunity



When Bridge Housing invited us to plan their 800-person fundraising gala, we lept at the opportunity. As Californians, we are all too aware of the housing crisis in our state, particularly in the Bay Area, and we love to be able to support an organization that is working to create sustainable housing solutions. This amazing event presented many challenges, but at Kennedy Events, we thrive on turning them into opportunities to delight.

We Love a (Venue) Challenge

Because we love to use venues that are unique, especially for an evening event that doesn’t require a block of hotel sleeping rooms, we chose the San Francisco Cruise Ship Terminal; a notable event space and working cruise ship terminal.

We chose this venue for its size and capacity. Also because it would provide a memorable experience for guests with its dramatic floor to ceiling windows that showed off the San Francisco skyline.

However, while this space is a truly beautiful venue, it was built to host cruise ships, not galas. So working with this venue involved lots of careful planning to transform it into something warm, inviting, and logistically feasible. We brought in big trees to warm up the stark white-walled space and included lots of draping, signage, and furniture to create zones within the venue.

To ensure that we made the most of this venue’s beautiful view, we monitored sunset timing and planned the schedule accordingly. This provided the guests with the opportunity to enjoy the sunset before dinner (and not be blinded by evening sunlight streaming in behind the stage).


Saving Money While Raising Money

Perhaps most important, we saved the client a significant amount of money by not requiring an extra load-in day. As the cruise ship terminal is an expensive venue, we sharpened our pencils, so to speak, to run every cost scenario before presenting the best option for our client. We determined that it was far more cost-effective to pay union overtime for an 18-hour day versus adding the cost of a two-day rental to our client’s budget.

On our load-in day, we created a plan more detailed than a state visit so that we could be sure that we were loading gear and supplies in a logical order. First up, the lighting crew whose enormous equipment would take up most of the floor space during setup. Once that crew was done and equipment stored away, we could begin setting up the 80 tables, allow catering staff to work their magic and, then start installing registration. All of this had to be completed by 6 p.m. with only two elevators! Getting this done was like a highly choreographed dance that required being able to see around multiple, proverbial corners and anticipating problems so that we could avoid them.

Let’s not forget that our crew needed meals during this labor-intensive, 18-hour work day. We organized five different food deliveries solely for staff meals during set-up; in addition to the catering that was coming for the gala dinner.

A First for Our Client: A Live Auction

On top of saving our non-profit client a good portion of their budget thanks to our load-in day planning, we guided them through implementing their first ever live auction. This was something the client had never done before, and they were understandably nervous about doing something new.

Yet, this client hosts this fundraiser only every five years, so we knew we had to do everything we could to raise as much as possible. KE Events Manager Robin Smiley (as happy a person as her name sounds!), is our resident fundraising expert, and having her expertise on hand was a major asset. Robin recommended the best system for connecting paddles to payments, ensuring that all payments were organized—and accurate; the hardest part of a live auction. We chose to do a “fund-a-need” style auction using an auctioneer. In the end, this client was able to raise record-breaking funds.


Serving Dinner—Seamlessly—to 800 Guests

The real challenge of this venue and the large guest count was timing dinner service. The mission was to make sure that all 800 guests would get their food within just a few minutes, all hot, and all on the same course.

Yet, due to fire restrictions, the kitchen in this venue had to be outside, on the ground floor, while the guests awaited their meals on the second floor. All this in a building with only two elevators.

So prior to the event, we worked with our fantastic partner, Foxtail Catering, to time how long it would take to walk from the kitchen to EACH table, so that the servers would know when to start walking to deliver food to each table, ensuring that each guest was served hot food—all within minutes. We were able to serve each course in under 20 minutes thanks to our detailed planning.

Making VIPs Feel VIP

As this was a non-profit fundraiser, one of the goals was to make the VIP experience feel truly exclusive. To achieve this, we created a separate reception for the VIP guests that was smaller, more intimate, and most importantly, had no line at the bar. This area had more food available per person and guests had the opportunity to meet all the speakers, including keynote speaker and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ronan Farrow.

We made this section more lush than the already comfortable general admission area. There was more plush seating and the reception was situated on the upper level with floor-to-ceiling windows; providing guests with a picture perfect view of the San Francisco Skyline.


Creating a Great Guest Experience: No Lines at Registration

Creating a smooth plan for checking in guests with great speed also required logistical planning. How do you process 800 guest in a narrow space built for an information station for cruise ship travelers?? Lots of planning! Before the event, we walked and mapped the space to create detailed maps (with lots of arrows) of the registration area; which allowed us to provide a smooth experience for guests. We divided up the alphabet to decrease the lines and had plenty of helping hands to guide people through quickly and efficiently.  All of our planning paid off with no lines; proving once again there really is no overthinking when it comes to event logistics.

Behind the Scenes: Details Guests Never Needed to Notice

At any event, there are countless behind the scenes details that guests will never notice, but they are details essential to ensuring that everything runs smoothly. As corporate event planners and managers, it’s our job to ensure that no detail is overlooked. We pride ourselves in handling those details so that the guest never notices and our client doesn’t have to touch a thing.

Our biggest goal for behind the scenes details?

Making this Herculean-sized amount of work seem absolutely effortless to guests.

Here’s just a sampling of the behind the scenes details from this event:

  • We worked with the exclusive A/V team to create perfect scenarios, such as illuminating the entire room so the auctioneer could see the bidder paddles and bringing the house lights down again to make it dark enough for the speakers. Another key detail was setting lights at just the right level for ambiance at dinner; with enough light to see the meal, yet dark enough to create an elegant atmosphere. We planned everything in advance and left nothing to chance so that we could make it flawless and keep the focus on the event.

  • The challenge of those two elevators we keep mentioning. This impacted both load-in and catering so we had to create a carefully orchestrated plan for both. Due to restrictions from the fire marshall, our caterer had to be set up in a tent outside for cooking then navigate the limited elevator space to get it upstairs while the food was still hot. Of course, all of this required advanced logistical planning and ample communication between all teams.

  • Parking for 800 at a venue in downtown San Francisco; you can imagine… We knew from experience that this would be no small feat so we partnered with a valet parking service to create a smooth guest experience

  • As this is a cruise ship terminal, there isn’t dedicated trash service as there would be at a more traditional event space, like a hotel. We had to contract with a trash removal service as part of the load-out. Thankfully, we do this often, as we love to use creative spaces, and we have vendors we trust to handle trash disposal, recycling, composting…all up to San Francisco strictest codes. .

  • Perhaps one of the most challenging elements of organizing a large dinner event is creating the floor plans. The layout needs to be both aesthetically pleasing and create a guest experience—while also passing the fire inspection. We use a CAD designer to create multiple iterations of floor plans to meet these needs. Event Producer Marianne Jackson spent a painstaking amount of time redoing floor plans to get fire marshall approval. As she was going through this process, headcount fluctuated up and down. Even at registration, table counts changed, but we have plans in place to keep up with these last minute additions and changes by keeping our team’s communication on pointe by using walkie-talkies from registration to our event producers on the floor.

  • Training a crew of volunteers to help with various roles on-site (usually day-of). At this particular event, over 30 employee volunteers showed up to support the cause and the KE Team had to train them to help run the auction. Roles included spotters, runners, and recorders; all of which helped make our event a major success. (P.S. If you’re not sure what those terms mean, give us a call! We’ll be happy to fill you in over coffee.)



This event was absolutely fantastic, and we were honored to get to be part of it. In a kind note from the client, she said she’s “actually looking forward to the 40th-anniversary gala!” Event planning on this scale takes a major effort, and hearing feedback like this shows us that we’re doing our jobs well.

At Kennedy Events, we love supporting great causes, especially when it comes to housing. Kennedy Events Partner and Chief Strategy Officer Paige Buck is on the board of Hamilton Families, an organization working to end homelessness. Anything that helps the housing crisis in California is something we’re delighted to be part of.

Onward to More Corporate Events in 2019!

This event was a huge success; for the client and for Kennedy Events as well. Looking ahead to 2019 (our 19th year in business!), we’re excited to take on more event challenges. If you’re not on our calendar yet and want to be, we recommend getting in touch today—we can’t wait to hear from you!


Maggie Kennedy is the co-owner of Kennedy Events; a large-scale event management company based in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York City. Our team creates stress-free conferences and events with a positive impact, which allow our clients to resonate with their audience. Kennedy Events specializes in producing flawless product launches, award ceremonies, fundraisers and multi-day conferences while keeping our eye on retention and engagement goals.

maggie kennedy