We have a soft spot for our friends in West Texas; they have strong ties to the local scene while embracing a global world. Perhaps no one embodies this philosophy towards living more than Jennifer Ellison, Director of University Events at
Abilene Christian University. The ACU grad was hired at her alma mater in 2005 for a year of event planning for their Centennial celebration, followed by a stint at Aramark, and finally, her journey came full circle back to the college where it all began when the Director of University Events position became available. We love the amazing designs she and her team come up with (like this award-winning tablescape featured on Tabletop Tuesday), so we knew we needed to get inside her head and share her inspiration and planning tips with you. See why she's our kinda gal below.
1What’s the best aspect of your job?
I have a great team of coordinators that are exceptional. We also hire student interns who are interested in pursuing careers in event planning. I love teaching and mentoring our students and giving them real experiences that creates a great resume once they graduate. My job also allows me to be creative and to think outside the box. I love the challenge of events. It’s an ever changing industry that demands vision, imagination, and ingenuity; but my favorite part of event planning is creating a “wow factor.” That moment when guests walk through the door and gasp with amazement. The moment when a client says “The event could not have been better.” When guests are still talking about the concept and creativity six months later. When someone asks me, “How will you ever top this event?” That’s why I love my job.
What kind of events are held at ACU?
We’ve hosted everything from dinners, lunches, and receptions, to concerts, tailgate parties, car shows, carnivals, sporting events, conferences, weddings…you name it, we’ve probably planned it. However, not all of those events are ACU sponsored. We have a lot of community events on campus. We allow off-campus clients to rent our facilities, so we’ve had clients from all over the U.S. Our facilities include sports arenas, auditoriums, ballrooms and conference rooms. We also have multifunctional spaces on campus. For instance, Teague Special Events Center is actually three indoor tennis courts, but for large events, we bring in carpet, tables and chairs and can seat up to 1,400 people. One of our most popular event spaces is the Hunter Welcome Center which hosts over 200 events each year. The HWC was actually nominated two years ago as Event Solutions’ Event Site of the Year during their annual Spotlight Awards.
What tips can you give to brides or hosts holding events in your facilities?
Book as far in advance as you can. ACU’s venues book fast. Know your budget and have ideas about what you want but also be flexible. We can help you create a simple, tasteful ceremony or an extravagant reception…and everything in between.
What are the perks of an event at ACU?
A lot of our pricing is inclusive. The rental fee, for many of our spaces, includes tables, chairs, sound equipment, projectors and screens. Our on-campus caterer provides exceptional service, is familiar with our facilities, offers competitive pricing, and provides many amenities other caterers cannot.
Any memorable events you’d like to share?
One of my favorite events to plan is ACU’s President’s Circle Dinner. It’s an annual event hosted by our president to say thank you to ACU’s major donors. Each year, I’m in competition with myself to create something bigger and better than the last year—constantly trying to create a new, innovative approach to the event. Our exceptional creative partners, POSH, AFR, Ambient Stage Lighting, and Aramark work with my team to bring together an original concept each year. It’s a true collaboration. Not only do we plan a substantial number of events in Texas, but we also get to travel quite a bit and design events in places like Atlanta, Nashville, and Malibu. It’s tough to beat a reception overlooking the Pacific Ocean!
Any trends you see for the rest of 2013?
We’re still seeing a lot of color being used in events. Bright colors are highlighted in linen and china selections. Even the food service providers are using bright, fresh ingredients. Perfect for spring and summer! Bringing the outdoors in is also something we’re seeing a lot—using outdoor furniture indoors, creating picnic style dining with southern flare. We’re also still seeing the small bites trend sticking around with tasting menus rather than full, heavy meals extends the normal food station into an experience rather than a traditional buffet, encouraging guests to walk the room and interact with each other.
What are a few DO’s and DON’Ts you can give clients for working with ACU or other vendors?
DO go in with a budget in mind, but DON’T expect something for nothing.
DON’T be afraid to ask for help. Be honest and up front with your creative partners (vendors) about your expectations. Give them as much flexibility as you can and be open to their ideas. They often have the pulse on what is coming next. They go to market, they go to tradeshows. Take advantage of their knowledge. DO maintain good relationships with creative partners. It’s super important to have great contacts.
NOW for the fun stuff. Just to spread a little more West Texas love, these are more personal questions.
What inspires you?
So many things inspire me. There’s the obvious: Pinterest, blogs (love the POSH blog), magazines, etc. Fashion trends also provide a source of inspiration; what designers are sending down the runway, what’s being highlighted in the fashion world. I’m also inspired by places I visit. Architecture, hotel lobbies, restaurants, art, colors. I travel a lot and am constantly inspired by new places. My team is also inspired by other event professionals. We have great creative partners who share ideas, explore new looks, and research what is hot and what will be trending in the near future. We love going to conferences and trade shows and getting a glimpse into what the next creative concept will be. Then we bring those ideas back to Abilene, make them relevant to our audience, provide our own touches, and create a cutting edge event.
What’s on your playlist?
My playlist…oh goodness! Music is another thing that inspires me! I have playlists for pretty much every event, every mood, every trip and they’re all different. Currently, I’m listening to a little bit of Lana Del Ray, Muse, Sia and Phoenix. Throw in some Dolly, Pink and Rhianna for girl power. Toss in some Fleetwood Mac, Eagles, and The Beach Boys for my old soul, and I think I’m good to go!
What’s your favorite about living in Abilene, Texas?
Abilene has a great small town feel, but also has qualities of a larger city. The people are friendly and very family oriented which gives Abilene a great sense of community.
Give us insight into the local scene:
a. Favorite place to eat:
This is a tough one because I have so many favorite places! Perini Ranch Steakhouse, The Beehive, Los Arcos, Heffs. I love supporting the local restaurants. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have anything against chains. I come from a family who owns a restaurant in East Texas, so supporting the small, locally owned eateries is important to me.
b. Favorite place to spend a day off:
If I’m spending my day off in Abilene, I like to stay home. Catch-up on sleep, clean a little, cook a lot, spend time with friends and just relax.
c. Any annual events you look forward to?
I always look forward to ACU’s Homecoming and Sing Song. They’re two of the largest annual events at ACU that bring back thousands of alumni and friends. The Abilene community also hosts fun events such as City Sidewalks and the West Texas Fair and Rodeo.
d. Favorite weekend trip and what does it entail?
A lot of my weekend trips are spent in Dallas at a fun downtown hotel, eating at great restaurants, visiting friends, seeing shows, and enjoying the energy the city provides. I also spend a lot of time visiting family in East Texas and San Antonio. If I have a free weekend, you can bet I’m traveling somewhere!
Let's talk tabletop!
a. Favorite moments around the table
The phrase “around the table” brings so many memories to mind, all around my parent’s table in their breakfast nook. Memories of eating with my family, laughing with my siblings until I cry. Memories of playing games around that same table or dying Easter eggs, or feeding my niece in her high-chair, or wrapping Christmas presents or talking about the future. A table in my family is so much more than just a dining surface. It’s a place where we’ve laughed and cried and celebrated and shared. It’s where memories are made.
b. What’ your personal preference for setting the table at home?
I love to set a formal dining table for special occasions, holidays, or whenever the mood strikes! I think great china, stemware, and flatware is fabulous. It adds such life to a table. However, sadly, due to my hectic schedule, most of my meals are in restaurants, on the go, or are on plastic.
c. What kind of traditions (revolving around sit down dinners, brunches, etc.) do you uphold for family and friend dinners?
Holiday meals are always considered traditions in our family. Everything is homemade, serving dishes full of our favorite foods passed home-style around the table, with lots of laughter and chatter and enjoying family time. If you want to get a true sense of my family and one of our favorite traditions, you would have to visit us at Thanksgiving. My mother, an amazing cook, builds a buffet of traditional (and not so traditional) Thanksgiving foods that extends the length of the kitchen island. Plates are filled until they nearly overflow, and then we retreat to the living room where everyone finds a seat on a couch, recliner, or the floor and we proceed to watch National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Every Thanksgiving. It truly kicks off the Christmas season for our family. No elegant china. No formal dining room. We laugh every year as if it’s the first time we’ve seen the movie. And love every minute of it.
What are your favorite POSH pieces?
We’ve had fun with the Mottahedeh Tree Collection, love the look of the Jan Barboglio copper chargers, the elegance of the Silver Lace Glassware, and the flexibility of the Vintage Carnival Glassware. I could go on and on about favorite POSH pieces. We see something new every time we’re in the showroom!
Thanks, Jennifer! We had a blast getting to know you better.