Gala awakens minds of hospitality management students

A group of East Carolina University hospitality management students gained real-world experience as part of a project, but the personal experience they gained may far surpass any grade that they earned.

Students in the Hospitality Management 4040 class designed table settings for the A Night at Awaken gala.

The School of Hospitality Leadership partnered with Greenville-based Awaken Coffee to help plan the A Night at Awaken gala and fundraiser on April 16 at Harvey Hall. The event celebrated Awaken’s first year of business and was attended by employees, board members and local community members.

Awaken Coffee is a nonprofit dedicated to employing adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, promoting their skills, confidence and dignity.

The collaboration between Awaken and the School of Hospitality Leadership began last summer at a Greenville-Pitt County Chamber of Commerce event. Awaken co-founder and president Carol Preston met Dr. Craig Marshall, an ECU professor and also the owner of Nothing Bundt Cakes.

“While at the Coffee and Connections event Dr. Marshall asked me if we had any upcoming events and I mentioned our gala that would take place in the spring,” said Preston. “He felt that a partnership between Awaken and the students in the program would be beneficial to everyone.”

Marshall connected Preston with Dr. Jacqui De Chabert-Rios, teaching assistant professor in hospitality leadership. De Chabert-Rios incorporated the gala into a pair of her event management classes.

Planning for the event began in the fall as students in the Hospitality Management 3400 – Meeting, Event and Convention Planning class researched venues, catering options and themes, and developed a budget to pitch to Preston toward the end of the semester.

Once given the expectations that Preston, De Chabert-Rios and the Awaken employees had for the event, the class went to work.

“The 3400 class learned the basics of planning an event,” said De Chabert-Rios. “They initially developed a theme, searched for locations that could fit 250 seated guests, looked for caterers, chose decor and other services such as a DJ, and presented the budget for the event. They presented their ideas to Carol Preston and Trey Quinn, a board member.”

While the students were full of ambition, some of the people they contacted didn’t share their same youthful exuberance.

“Students had to cold call local venues, caterers and other vendors to get information,” said De Chabert-Rios. “Most people they contacted were extremely helpful, while others were more challenging. They had to navigate this new experience.”

The students found that locating a venue to meet the size of the event proved challenging.

“Some parts of the pitch were easier than others,” said ECU student Hannah Billings. “It was tricky to find a venue that fit that many people plus finding a caterer who could handle that many people in the venue that you choose. It was fun to play around and make sure that we had a piece of everything in our plan.”

In addition to the challenge of finding a big enough space, classmate Brooke Stephenson added that staying under budget with décor and food costs along with balancing opinions were obstacles to overcome.

In the waning days of the semester, the class made their pitches to Preston and Quinn. Along with the winning theme of A Night at Awaken, additional themes that were presented included Dancing Under the Stars, Spring Fling, and A Starry Night.

Students in the Hospitality Management 4040 class discuss plans for serving and clearing tables prior to A Night at Awaken.

“We liked some aspects of each presentation but the group that presented A Night at Awaken had everything we needed in their proposal,” said Preston.

A few weeks after the pitches, Preston made her selection. Billings and her classmates then developed possible food ideas and other elements that fit with the selected theme.

In January, the baton was passed to the Hospitality Management 4040 –  Producing Meetings, Events and Conventions class to complete the event. This class, filled with many students who took the fall semester course, was responsible for finalizing the event layout, table designs and color schemes, and collaborating with the caterer to fit the movie-driven theme.

“When I came back in January, I didn’t know that we were continuing with the Awaken Coffee project,” said Billings. “When I heard that we were, I was excited because I’d spent so much time with the planning process and now would have the opportunity to execute and manage the event doing the things we had talked about.”

Early in the semester, the students first worked to find a caterer who could provide food for the event based on a menu that they developed and Preston revised. They then worked on developing the décor for the event while staying within budget. Their efforts and contributions impressed Preston.

“The class took the lead on table décor, photo booth creation, setup, table service and clean up,” said Preston. “It was so beneficial to our organization to depend on capable students who share great ideas and bring energy to our event.”

As the date approached, the inevitable obstacles of planning a major event arose. This allowed students to work on their problem-solving skills.

“The students weren’t used to the back-and-forth revisions working with a client,” said De Chabert-Rios. “My answer to them was the client is who we work for, and the client sets the vision. It’s our job to execute and keep the client happy and wow the guests.”

“Nothing goes exactly how you planned it,” said Billings. “About a month out we had the décor picked out and started hand-making the centerpieces. It was a lot of work and a bit stressful to get that done in time.”

On the night of the gala, a group of students led by Billings arrived at 2:30 p.m. to begin arranging the event space.

“Setup for the event wasn’t a breeze but wasn’t super hard,” said Billings. “A few items were added to the centerpiece that weren’t originally planned. It took a bit of trial and error to see how everything would look. Once we were satisfied with how one table looked, we had to duplicate that for the 22 remaining tables. I knew the people that I was helping manage and that they could do it.”

A second group of students arrived at 5:30 p.m. to help with the service aspect of the event.

“We had several groups working together and had to figure out who would work best in each area,” said ECU student Mary Grace Lassiter. “We determined who would be good with setting up as well as who had service experience and would be able to put forward the best face for ECU.”

The dinner was provided by Aramark and consisted of chicken tender, nacho and potato stations.

During the event, students stood against the walls of the Murphy Center at the ready. Some wore gloves and carried empty paper plates and utensils to the trash while others held pitchers of water, lemonade and tea, ready to refill empty cups. Following the event, linens were folded, tables broken down and chairs rearranged as months of planning came to a close in the span of a few hours.

The opportunity to work with Awaken on the project was one that De Chabert-Rios feels was beneficial for her and her students.

“Experiential learning is a win-win for the students and the faculty member,” she said. “The students gain valuable hands-on experience, faculty keep their hands in the industry, and we provide a service for the community.”

The on-the-job training saw students apply classroom concepts along with strong personal growth.

“I gained a lot of experience in the management aspect,” said ECU student Madison Pearson. “I learned how to control different variables and develop problem-solving skills.”

“I hadn’t done an event on this scale before,” said Billings. “I learned a lot about myself and having to work with different groups of people. I enjoyed every single moment of it, and this is 100% what I want to do with my life.”