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Planning an Event Today Versus 20 years Ago

By Christina Green

Do you long for simpler times? Event planning in the 90s was anything but. Take a walk with us down memory lane, or don’t. Whatever.

For those of us old enough to remember the 90s, it would seem difficult to go back. From a nostalgic factor, there are plenty of fun things to remember – the television show Beverly Hills 90210, denim overalls, and VHS tapes. And who can forget the plethora of boy bands? But from a technology standpoint and running an event efficiently, someone in a time machine would have a hard time going back and wanting to stay. Here are a few things that have changed.

Planning an Event Today Versus 20 years Ago

Registration

Get out your shoe box and index cards. Badges were clipped to them and organized Rolodex-style. Remember those? No early check-in. No fast pass. Put your comfy shoes on. You’re waiting in line to get that badge and when you do, there are no lanyards. It’s going to stick on you or get pinned to you.  

We won’t even mention how every one of your clients required its own paper binder.

Attendees Had Phone Numbers and They Shared Them with People They Lived With

Remember home phones? Now you place a call to someone and you reach them because everyone seems to have a personal cell phone but back in the day we placed calls to their home and who knows who would pick up. Or you’d leave a message on an answering machine and hope no one erased it before the intended heard it. And sometimes you got a busy signal.

If You Needed Immediate Assistance You Used a Pager

Event professionals everywhere had these small devices the size of Tic Tac containers that vibrated and produced a phone number. You then had to find a pay phone <gasp> or bribe someone to allow you to use their business phone. This was a big risk on their part because they had to pay for long distance calls (and long distance could be the next town over).

If you’re really old you remember the predecessor to beepers, pagers. These items were even larger – the size of a very narrow crayon box – and all they did was vibrate. When they did, you had to find that dreaded pay phone again and call a service that would then give you the message.

Invitations

You sent them – on paper in the mail. You paid for postage and photocopies at Kinkos and you answered question after question on the phone. There was no website to refer them to, at least not for your average event. Large scale ones operated that way perhaps. And you asked for an RSVP that they either sent in wedding-invitation style or they called you to tell you whether they were coming or not. And you tracked it by hand, maybe in a Word doc on your computer if you were super sophisticated and technologically advanced.

Video Cameras Required a Very Strong Shoulder

If you wanted to record your event, you’d have to lug around a device the size of a toddler, although by the end of the decade they had shrunk down to the size of a large Chihuahua. You supported it on your shoulder and recorded your event straight to VHS tape. If you wanted to edit the tape, you’d have to call in a professional, unless you wanted to literally cut out pieces and tape them back together. You also had to be careful not to leave those tapes in your car during the summer.

Language

People aren’t going to like this one, but we were a lot less guarded with what we said back then. Political correctness didn’t exist. We worried about what was business appropriate (and no, tattoos weren’t in at the time, especially those on your face or knuckles). There were less hyphenated terms to describe special interest groups and fewer concerns about accommodating the individual and more about the whole group. Session leaders spouted their knowledge with little audience interaction until the last few minutes, if there was time.

Gamification

First of all, 90s video games progressed a long way from the 80s pixelated blobs but no one would’ve ever hosted an event for adults and included any kind of video game (aside maybe from an association for video game designers, if there was such a thing at the time). Gamification in the 90s was similar to leaderboards used in the classroom. Gold star sticker for you.

Urgency

In the 90s we had email but it wasn’t used as a business communication solution. If someone needed something they fully intended to wait a few days unless a faxed copy would suffice. People who needed contracts signed, drafted them on their computer or word processor, signed them, and then overnighted them to the other signee. That person hopefully lived in an area that could receive things next day before noon, otherwise “overnight” wasn’t really overnight. They then signed them and sent them back. Hopefully, they gave it to the Fed-Ex man when he stopped in before 5 or they found an office that might be open until 9. Today when we say ASAP, it means minutes. Not days.

Entertainment

If you didn’t have a live band, you hired a DJ who could play everyone’s favorite songs. It only took him three hours to set up and a conversion van to carry all of his vinyl or CDs. If he didn’t have the song, you were out of luck. No instant downloads in the 90s. And sometimes the music skipped, which was annoying until people started doing it on purpose and house music was born.

People who didn’t want to spend money on a DJ occasionally made a mix tape of songs for the event. This often included awkward noises in between songs as the record button was pressed and heard on the tape. If your budget was extremely limited you almost always played this mixed tape on a boom box with a mic nearby. The expensive boom boxes had “detachable” speakers that could be angled about six inches from the box, offering the best in audio quality.

Availability

Today, things are more urgent and being on call is an expectation. With cell phones and email not only can the individual be reached 24/7 but with social media, PR nightmares can occur any time of the day or night. Event professionals are accessible, or expected to be, all the time. This has added a layer of stress that didn’t exist in the 90s. But with that stress comes mobility. You’re not tied to a desk and you’re not annihilated with messages when you come in from a site. You can take a call while you’re on the go.

In Conclusion

After reading this you’re probably thanking your lucky scrunchie that you’re hosting events today and that the 90s are over. And I didn’t even get into what PowerPoint slides used to look like or the annoying paperclip/puppy in Word. We didn’t know how hard we had it. Party on.

about the author

Christina Green
Christina R. Green is a digital storyteller and writer for associations and businesses, including journals such as the Midwestern Society of Association Executive's magazine and industry blogs. She's a voracious reader but has been known to stop reading if there are too many exclamation points used.
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