With her decade of event-planning experience, Cate Liverman (Col ’08) has learned that anything goes during a UVA Reunions Weekend—even being pressed into sudden service as a bartender. So there she was on a Saturday afternoon in June: big smile, sunglasses perched atop her head, inquiring about wine and beer preferences.
Despite a gloomy forecast the sun had appeared, and hundreds of alumni were amassing on the Lawn. What better way to spend the gorgeous afternoon?
But there was a bigger backstory.
Weather is Liverman’s nemesis. As director of alumni events for the Alumni Association, she helps orchestrate the back-to-back summer reunion weekends—class dinners and band parties along with smaller gatherings, workshops and seminars. Whenever possible, she knows, the revelers want to be outside, especially for dinners on the Lawn, surrounded by summer breezes and twinkle lights under a starry sky.
Yet unpredictable thunderstorms plague Charlottesville every June. Last summer was Liverman’s own 10-year reunion, and the forecast did not look good. “I had friends on Friday night saying, ‘I know the weather stinks tomorrow, but don’t do it, Cate. Don’t move us inside,’” she says.
“You can imagine my disappointment when the climatologist was saying, ‘Once those skies open up, it’s going to dump down. It’s going to dump, dump, dump, dump, dump. You really would be better off moving inside.’”
So Liverman gave the OK Saturday morning to prepare the alternate sites—giving caterers time to set up tables, chairs and decorations for six dinners and thousands of guests that evening.
Then the storm threat passed, and the sun began shining that afternoon. It was too late to change the dinner plans, but Liverman knew there was plenty of wine and beer on hand from other canceled afternoon events.
So she and her team quickly organized and, using a mobile app, got the word out about a pop-up gathering on the Lawn in 30 minutes. And hundreds of alumni poured in.
UVA Reunions Weekends succeed on the basic premise of time with friends in a space of shared memories. But what might seem like a simple recipe for success relies on thousands of small details falling into alignment—and then the ability to call an audible when any number of them don’t.
Here is a glimpse behind the scenes of what goes into staging an event for 5,000 people, split between two adjacent weekends. Think of a wedding and reception for, say, 200 guests: Planners must consider everything from flowers, tables, chairs and linens, to hotel accommodations for out-of-town guests. Now multiply that by 25. Toss in severe weather, or even just the threat of it, and use your imagination.
18 months in the planning
These days, wedding planners aren’t shy about advocating more than a year to plan for the Big Day. So it’s no surprise that the Alumni Association’s reunions team takes a full 18 months—with the debrief for one year’s gathering overlapping with the planning of the next.
But they don’t do it alone. First, the team begins lining up committee chairs from the five-year-mark classes who will soon be celebrating, who then invite other classmates to serve with them. The more diverse each committee (representing different clubs, schools, cultural groups, Greek life and sports), the stronger the connections for fellow alumni to attend the reunion.
“’Cause people want to come to the reunion if their friends are there,” says Laurie Lindsay (Col ’78), co-chair of her 40th-reunion committee.
With a budget in mind, those committees then voice their desires regarding everything from dinner menus to special events, resulting in myriad choices when the weekend rolls around: wine-tasting and calligraphy workshops; seminars on the Virginia sports experience and on Twitter politics; 5K group runs and morning yoga on the Lawn.
Until 2016, each year’s reunions occurred on the same weekend. Several factors drove the move to two consecutive weekends: Growing class sizes meant that Charlottesville could no longer accommodate all 12 classes—and the attendant lodging and parking—on the same weekend. And with increased programming, more space was needed all over the Grounds, especially for backup rain locations.
Essential to two weekends of successful reunions is a paid seasonal team of 25–30 students and recent alumni. Some serve during the final three weeks of the countdown; others are on call for just the weekends themselves. All of them hustle to make the magic (on very little sleep).
For reunions assistant Jen Flores (Col ’21), that meant arriving at Beta Bridge at 6 a.m. to start painting, and then not leaving until flower arrangements were put away after late-night dancing. “So we get a lot of comments [from alumni] of, ‘Oh, you’re everywhere today,’” she says.
Oh the logistics!
Numbers don’t tell the full story, but they sure provide an interesting take on things. Here are a few revealing numbers for the 2018 Reunions Weekends.
When things go awry
Despite the attentiveness and hustle of the full reunions team, surprises still happen. Every year. An out-of-town alumnus’ car is towed, so an assistant is dispatched to retrieve it. A flower delivery is mistakenly placed in an industrial freezer, and new bouquets must be assembled from any not-frozen blooms. A caterer doesn’t show up with the alcohol for a dinner, necessitating a mad scramble to keep the beverages flowing.
Still, the biggest challenges are always, always related to weather.
On the second alumni weekend in 2018, a Friday that had been 85 degrees and sunny at 1:30 p.m. began to take a turn. It was the dreaded surprise thunderstorm—this one threatening the 5 p.m. president’s welcome reception, outside the chapel.
Scott Stroney, sales director for Virginia Catering Company, directed his team to pull the tablecloths and centerpieces under cover just in time. Dressed in a red rain jacket and tall rain boots, with a stack of towels under her arm (thinking ahead, she is), reunions team member Mary Elizabeth Luzar (Col ’02, Educ ’09) conferred with Stroney and with her weather app. When she gave the signal, linens and flowers came back out, people scurried to dry off the tables and chairs, and the show went on.
“I don’t think the alumni even knew we had just torn down a whole party and then reset it within five to 10 minutes,” Stroney says.
It’s just part of the job. Event planners can be “twitchy”—constantly on the alert for potential chaos, says Jason Life (Col ’94, Educ ’96), vice president of alumni engagement at the Alumni Association and Liverman’s boss.
Although no one can fully prepare for the unexpected, every good event planner tries. (According to CNBC, the role is the fifth-most stressful in the U.S.—behind that of enlisted military personnel, firefighters, pilots and police officers.)
Liverman’s team captured details for the 2018 reunions in a 267-page Google doc, outlining every single detail for every single event over both weekends. Every object, from a floral centerpiece to a garbage can, had a place to be at every moment of the day—and a named point person to get it there. Nothing was overlooked.
“I thought of myself as someone who’s very detail oriented,” says Joshua Leidy (Educ ’17), one of the reunions assistants, “but this is just a whole other level.”
During one reunion back in the mid-’90s—no one remembers exactly when—a microburst downed a power line on Emmet Street, knocking out power to most of the University for the entire weekend. Reunions were smaller occasions then, not requiring meeting spaces all over the Grounds. So the reunions team brought a generator into Alumni Hall and carried on.
Another year, caterer Stroney remembers, temperatures were in the 90s, with heat indexes close to 115. Medics were alerted to be on hand, and indeed people were fainting. Now, extreme heat will move events indoors as quickly as a storm forecast.
In 2010, the Friday night class dinners had been moved indoors when rain threatened. When it didn’t rain after all, Liverman’s team was determined to serve meals outside on Saturday night if at all possible, despite a questionable forecast. “We kept the Saturday dinners outside,” Liverman says, “and the skies opened up and it poured.”
People huddled under trees, the Rotunda colonnades or any available overhang. “Drenched to the bone,” Liverman says, “the catering staff and I ran around and handed out wine glasses, filled up glasses, kept it going, brought plates of half-drenched chicken to people in all different areas. At the end of the night, we were finding plates and utensils sitting on bushes and all over the place.
“That was the class of ’75,” Liverman says. “They specifically laughed it off because they were one of the classes that had to graduate in U-Hall because of the rain. And so they thought, ‘You know, this is just typical.’ ”
The reunions team never wants to move an event indoors, but sometimes it just has to happen. “The alumni activities, they’re supposed to be fun, not just grueling tests of your ability to stand there and put up with crummy weather,” says Jerry Stenger (Col ’77, Grad ’17), the UVA climatologist whose advice often drives the decision. “So if it’s pouring down rain in your spaghetti, that’s not good.”
Stenger has been serving with the Climatology Office for 35 years, and he also gets called to offer weather predictions for the grand-daddy outdoor event of them all: Final Exercises, which have not been moved indoors since 1976. For that event, Stenger is on the phone “every one to three hours straight for a 72-hour period.”
The reunions team “takes it a little easier on me,” he says. “I do take it very seriously and sometimes wind up second-guessing myself to death.
“Many times, I’ll spend hours watching every sweep of the radar to see what, if anything, might develop, so that I can give a call at the last minute to the people running the event: ‘Have they gotten to dessert yet?’”
Creating a happy place
The last reunions weekend finally came to a close with a farewell brunch featuring Larry Sabato (Col ’74), professor and director of the Center for Politics. Reunions Weekends 2018 couldn’t yet be deemed “over”—too much still to debrief—but perhaps the twitchy event planners could relax before helping the next set of alumni committees dig into planning for 2019.
Did it matter if everything hadn’t gone quite according to plan? Conversations with alumni (as well as official surveys) seemed to indicate that both weekends were a success, despite the weather.
Maybe only Liverman compares event planning to theater, but the parallels are obvious, she says. “You rehearse and you practice and you think through every detail leading up to the weekend, and then the weekend comes and nothing goes according to plan. … Ultimately, you do whatever you can to make sure that the audience doesn’t notice that anything bad has happened.
“But truly, the audience doesn’t care. They’re leaving that theater with a big smile on their face, because the reason they came is to be entertained and have fun.”
Too true. As one alumnus told reunions assistant Rachel Clark (Col ’19), creating a reunion is like pulling off Disneyland every year. “If we could be the happiest place on earth for a UVA alum for a weekend,” Clark says, “I would say we did our job.”