A successful event isn’t just about the exquisite venues, inspiring presentations and scrumptious food that guests enjoy. There’s a seemingly unseen team of people at work that helps ensure the party keeps rolling and your job is easier. Short a few centerpieces? No one but you will notice. Short a few portable toilets? Things just got real.
These unsung heroes may not get the spotlight and the accolades when things go right, but as much as anyone, they are the ones who make sure it does. These dirty jobs also come with some dirty secrets, and we’ve got four members of this behind-the-scenes crew ready to dish the dirt.
DIRTY JOB: EVENT RENTAL PICKUP
The crisp table linens and sparkling glassware that can make a banquet or reception seem elegant and inviting don’t look nearly so enticing when the rental crews come to pick them up.
“The amount of food, garbage and confetti in the linens you end up with can be impressive,” says Jill Christner, logistics manager for Barclay Event Rentals and Design in Milwaukie, Oregon. “You can tell when someone’s cake maybe wasn’t good because you end up with more of it in the linens.”
Clients can also be a lot like teenagers faced with cleaning up after dinner. “They’re sup- posed to rinse the dishes, but often that does not happen,” she explains. “So then we have to bring back to the warehouse dishes and items that have been sitting dirty since two days earlier.” The worst dirty dishes usually served Italian fare, like lasagna, Christner says. The cheese and noodles form a tight bond with the plates over the weekend after an event.
Table linens take a lot of abuse, she says, including everything from burn holes and candle wax to wine spills and more. “Kids will take a pen to them every now and then and we’ll pick them up with little pictures on them,” she says. But between their in-house washers and an industrial laundry service, Barclay Rentals is usually able to get out stains. “Unless somebody’s left them wet in a bag all weekend, then the mildew tends not to come out,” Christner says. It provides an olfac- tory assault on whoever gets to open the bag. “The smell ... it’s ... lovely,” Christner jokes. “Especially if they served fish.”
To try to save those linens—and save clients the cost of replacing them if they are beyond repair—the team at Barclay will wash them before sending them out to the laundry service. “You end up with 500 to 1,000 linens coming back to you on a Monday and you have to hope you can get it all out on Tuesday and that it gets back on Thursday,” Christner explains.
Of course, crews coming to set up are usu- ally greeted enthusiastically. “We get a lot of help on setup, maybe not as much on teardown,” Christner says. “I can’t blame them.” But she urges clients to come back for the pickup, if just to make sure the rental crews can get back inside. “We’ve had equipment in places sometimes up to a week because we were unable to get ahold of anyone,” she notes. The flip side is when planners arrange for late-night pickups because they have to clear out of a venue that night. “Guests are still there having a good time and you’re picking up the place settings and the linens,” she says.
And although they train their crews to carefully go through a checklist so they don’t inad- vertently pick up something they shouldn’t, some mistakes are difficult to avoid. “We’ve had someone call and say, ‘Oh, I had six of my grandmother’s flatware in that bucket of yours,’” Christner says. “So then we have to go through 1,000 pieces of flatware to find them.”
DIRTY JOB: RECYCLING
Some people toil away at a job for years in pursuit of a trophy or a plaque. Nathan Dickie, senior operations supervisor at the Oregon Convention Center, gets them all the time, along with flowers, televisions and the occasional wig. Collecting such detritus at the end of a big event at the convention center is just part of Dickie’s job coordinating the removal and, whenever possible, recycling of the junk that’s left behind.
“The amount of stuff people leave is amazing,” he says. “A lot of times when people move out, they don’t want to deal with packing it or shipping it.” So they leave behind things like mannequins, card- board cutouts and, increasingly, electron- ics. “That’s a big one now because they’re becoming cheap enough to not bother shipping back,” he says.
And that’s just the items left behind by event organizers. Attendees leave behind their own unwanted treasures, including a surprising number of trophies or plaques. “Umbrellas are almost a disposable item in the Northwest,” Dickie surmises, based on the number left behind by guests. He also gets to see all the cool “giveaways” that people don’t seem to take away when they go home. “If you’ve been to any kind of event, you know you get the little bag with the pamphlet and the stress balls and squeezies,” he says. “We have boxes of bags and stress balls left behind. It’s staggering.” Dickie has a collection of some of the more interesting ones on his desk, “but that’s just because I think they’re kind of funny.”
All of this is a challenge for conven- tion center crews dedicated to improving sustainability and diverting as much trash from landfills as possible. So whenever fea- sible, leftover things in good condition are donated to an organization that can make use of them.
The convention center also uses a front-of-house recycling program that allows visi- tors to sort their own waste into recyclables, compostables or landfill-bound garbage. “When people seem confused, standing in front of the three options, it goes to land- fill,” Dickie says. “That seems to be the path of least resistance.” To help out, the conven- tion center has event custodians to assist attendees with making the right choices. Even with that, many times recycling and compost bins end up contaminated and have to be sent to the landfill.
Dickie understands it can be confusing. One of the toughest calls is coffee cups. “On-site we have Portland Roasting Coffee and they have a compostable coffee cup with a compostable lid,” he says. “Starbucks does not.” But people usually don’t know the difference. To be good stewards, they toss their paper coffee cups or soda cups into recycling. “Anything food soiled, if it’s not compostable, is garbage,” Dickie says. Crews will pick out a few errant cups using pick sticks, but it’s too dangerous to have them dig deep into the waste. So if they spot too many coffee cups or soiled cardboard in a recycling or compost container, the entire load has to go to the landfill.
Given those mistakes, it’s all the more impressive to note that the convention center manages to divert an impressive amount of its waste away from the landfill. “We’re hovering around 70 percent right now,” Dickie says.
DIRTY JOB: LIMOUSINE DRIVER
“You’re pretty much a rolling freak show,” Seattle-area limousine driver Roberto Hogue says when asked to describe his job. “There’s madness happening in the back, people driv- ing around being stupid and you’re just trying to keep the car on the road.”
After 16 years behind the wheel of every- thing from traditional limos to stretch Hummers, Hogue, who drives for Blackstone Limo, says he’s learned more than just safe driving techniques. He can sense when a pas- senger is about to get sick and usually pulls over to save everyone a mess. He can diffuse a fight between friends. And he can keep a party rolling safely.
The hardest part of driving a limousine is dealing with the curiosity of other drivers. “Our company was first to have stretch Hummers in the Northwest,” Hogue says. “When that first happened, I couldn’t change lanes. People would get right next to you on the freeway, looking at your car and not letting you move at all.”
In terms of clients, Hogue says there is “kind of a formula” that most groups follow. “For a bachelor party, at some point, they’re going to try to beat each other up in a parking lot,” he says. “Then they’re going to hug it all out, get more drunk and then call each other names all night.”
For bachelorette parties, he says, there are usually two or three women screaming all night. “Then there are two or three who will ask to ride up front at some point, always apologizing for how crazy their friends are,” Hogue says.
He’s had his limo stolen when he went to retrieve a drunken client’s cell phone, and she returned the favor by crawling through the window and trying to drive away. She didn’t get far, but she also didn’t avoid hitting several parked cars. At the end of the night, regardless of who he was driving, the back of the limo is often kind of a mess. “If you’ve got feather boas or any sort of cake involved, that’s all over,” Hogue says. Frequently clients like to grab fast food at some point, “so there will be fries ground into the carpet.” (And don’t get him started on the glitter—lots and lots of glitter.)
The limo company has detailers who clean the vehicles, but drivers have to help out with the initial efforts. “It’s kind of a jerk maneuver to just leave it in there, especially if the detailer isn’t going to get there for a day or two,” Hogue says.
Despite all of that, Hogue says he loves his job and helping to make people’s nights memorable for all the right reasons. “The thing with being a driver is you are part of the fun, you are a puzzle piece,” he says. “You have to kind of be willing to say yes to everything— within reason.” He also feels good about keep- ing people safe. “I can keep three carloads of drunk people off the road,” he says. “You can get plastered and I am your protector and overseer. Bad things don’t happen when you’ve got a sober person there.”
DIRTY JOB: PORTABLE TOILETS
Ron Inman knows you don’t want to use his product. “The goal of most people is to figure out how not to use them,” the vice president of Washington-based Honey Bucket says. But, as the saying goes, when you’ve got to go, you’ve got to go. And sometimes a portable toilet is your only option. “If you can pro- vide people with a pleasant and comfortable experi- ence,” he says, “they will stay around.”
In other words, a clean and pleasant portable toilet can make sure guests stay even if they have to “go.”
To that end, Honey Bucket offers portable toilets fit for a king—or at least a president. For those most important of VIPs, including at least one visiting U.S. president, Honey Bucket offers its luxury trailer rest- rooms. “They’re like bathrooms on wheels,” Inman says. The trailers have floor-to-ceiling stalls, wood paneling, high-end sinks with running water, lights, art on the walls and, yes, toilets that actually flush.
Next up are the solar-powered VIP units. You can get those in standard size or extra large—spacious enough for a bride to turn around in, Inman says. Those feature sinks, flush toilets, lights and garbage containers. Honey Bucket will even provide tuxedo- clad bathroom attendants for high-end events.
But for all the upscale options, the standard, plas- tic portable toilet is the most requested unit, Inman says. “That’s the lion’s share of what people are will- ing to pay for,” he says. And those units are pretty much a seat over a 90-gallon tank of bleach.
In addition to a little water, the waste reservoirs are “charged” with a solution that includes a surfactant that spreads over the surface and helps hold odor in, a fragrance to mask odor, and a biocide to kill bacteria, Inman explains. So which of those is responsible for the deep blue color? None. They add the dye as a “visual barrier” to the waste.
Inman says one of the toughest jobs was providing restrooms for the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. The units had to be pumped empty and recharged daily. “Some of those locations were 300 feet, around corners and through tents to where we could get a pump truck,” Inman says. At one venue, the units were on snow banks 600 feet away and 200 feet above the nearest spot they could get pump trucks. “We had to figure out how to run pipes under snow, then hook hoses up in the dark and cold on top of the mountain. We had 150 units there and we did that nightly,” he says. For another, they mounted a waste tank on a skid mount and used a snowcat trailer to get it 9,000 feet up the mountain. The distance was hard enough, but they also had to figure out how to keep the tanks from freezing.
Inman says his company works with planners to help figure out the right number of units. They cal- culate based on the number of attendees, the length of the event and whether there will be alcohol served. When there aren’t enough units on hand, “we don’t look good and they sure don’t look good,” he says. Despite the calculations, sometimes planners are surprised with a larger crowd. “We’ve mobilized and gotten more units in,” he says. “But we try to help them not get in that position.”
As he enters his 40th year in the portable toilet business, Inman admits it wasn’t always his dream. As a kid, “I didn’t say, ‘Someday when I grow up I’m going to run a portable toilet operation,’” he says. But with challenges like the Olympics, visiting presidents and demanding brides, it’s turned out to be a more exciting career than he could have imagined.