In Any Event 

Event planners had year to forget but remain thankful

The year 2020 can’t end fast enough for event planners, but they adapted to a pandemic, salvaged some fundraisers and emerged thankful for everyone’s support.

The last large-scale, in-person event of 2020 was L’Amour du Vin in March. After that, events steadily got postponed and then canceled or converted to virtual gatherings. Planners had to get creative to stay connected to donors, change events on a dime – and protect themselves from COVID-19.

We asked event planners for their biggest challenge in 2020 and what were they most thankful for this Thanksgiving. The answers ranged from being appreciative for Zoom, to people actually being home to answer the phone, to how the Knoxville community rallied to help.

Carla May Paré

Carla May Paré, director of fundraising events and special projects at the Knoxville Museum of Art, is thankful for timing.

“My largest annual event, L’Amour du Vin, is a fundraiser for the Knoxville Museum of Art that takes place the first weekend of March,” she said.

“This year, that was just one week before the pandemic was declared by the World Health Organization and things began to change rapidly. We were able to hold an amazing night of celebration and generous support for the KMA just in the nick of time!”

Paré also gave thanks “for great partners who are willing to lend a helping hand during a time when we need it most.”


L’Amour du Vin at the Knoxville Museum of Art in 2020 – two weeks before a pandemic upended planners’ events. (Blue Streak photo)

The timing wasn’t as perfect in her personal life as she had planned to get married last April. That wedding has been postponed because of the pandemic.

“As an event pro, I’ve learned to expect the unexpected, but this year has taken the cake,” Paré said. “It’s also presented opportunities to explore new event concepts, find new ways to connect, slow down, learn to cook and appreciate coworkers, friends and family.”

Becky Hancock, the executive director of the Tennessee Theatre – which had to cancel all of its scheduled events – said she had to come to terms with the enormity of what has happened.

“My biggest challenge was wrapping my mind around the fact that the Tennessee Theatre could not be used for its main purpose – to gather lots of people together,” Hancock said. “After a few months of thinking we would turn the corner and things surely would go back to normal, I just had to accept that this would continue much longer than we all hoped. I had to learn to let go.”

Hancock is grateful for the moral support that came from connecting with her colleagues as everyone navigated the pandemic.

“I have been so thankful to meet regularly (and virtually) with other historic theater directors and large venue operators throughout the city, across the state and around the nation,” she said. “We listen to each other, learn from each other and reassure each other.”

Tennessee Theatre Executive Director Becky Hancock, right, with Michael and Judith Foltz, at a fundraiser concert for the theatre in 2018. (Blue Streak photo)

Here are more responses from event planners, the troupers of 2020.

Jessica Langer, senior director of development and marketing, Positively Living & Choice Health Network

Jessica Langer

The biggest challenge was being new in this role – I came on board in February 2020 – and wanting to meet with supporters around the community in person like I would normally do to begin to build relationships. That was mostly off the table this year because of COVID-19 – we even had to cancel our two popular annual events, Summer Swing and People of Courage! – but luckily I was able to hold a few outdoor meetings safely with some really passionate people to help keep the ball rolling.

I’m most thankful for the health and well-being of my family and friends, and myself! Being pregnant during a pandemic is pretty anxiety-inducing – I’m due in February – but thankfully the majority of people we surround ourselves with are educated, thoughtful and taking this thing seriously, which is helping to keep us all safe.

Eddie Smith, director of development, ChildHelp of Tennessee

Eddie Smith

Without a doubt, 2020 has been an interesting year. For us, fundraising when having to cancel all fundraising events, has been one of the many challenges we faced. And while that is a challenge, we are also grateful for the hundreds of donors who have stepped up to ensure that our mission of helping the at-risk, neglected and abused children does not suffer. When you compare the struggles of fundraising against the backdrop of child abuse, and the severe abuse that we’ve seen this year, so many of our other challenges all fade away by comparison of the kids that we serve each and every day.

I am thankful to live in a community that, despite a global pandemic, has rallied around the most vulnerable to ensure that they continue to have support and receive help. From the hundreds of community members that found new ways to safely deliver mobile meals, continuing to make donations to support nonprofits like Childhelp, and to the generous donors that continue to support funding organizations like the United Way, this community has stated loud and clear that the ‘Least Among Us’ are cared for each and every day.

Anna Moseley, branding and messaging coordinator, United Way of Greater Knoxville

Anna Moseley

Our biggest challenge was keeping donors and the community engaged with our mission and our work while everyone was remote. Through virtual events and social media campaigns, we have been able to keep the community informed about our work (especially our COVID-19 response work) and stay connected with our neighbors.

We at United Way are most thankful for the health of our team and their families during this time, as well as the support and goodwill we’ve seen from the community during this crisis. Times like these show us what we’re made of, and Knoxville is made of compassion, dedication and kindness.

Mary Sue Greiner, development director, Knoxville Symphony Orchestra

Connecting and staying engaged and relevant to our friends, donors and sponsors has been a big challenge, as has planning anything in advance with COVID changing day-to-day and learning to use more virtual mediums and new programs. However, the “good” thing about the virus is that people are at home, so when you call, they usually do answer. Reaching out via phone, text, email, whatever works best for each individual is helping.

From left, Chuck Kocal, a marketing consultant, and KSO staff members Mary Sue Greiner and Amber Mullins at an early 2020 event. (Blue Streak photo)

Our friends that have been so supportive and kind in so many ways – contacting us to see how we are doing as well. And, actually, I am thankful for Zoom, so we can still see each other and connect, albeit through a screen.

Nicole Taylor, special events manager, Covenant Health Office of Philanthropy

My biggest challenge this year has been finding safe, new and exciting ways to engage with our donors to raise awareness and critical funds to better serve the patients and families assisted by our foundations.

I am most thankful for the local businesses, individuals and committee members that have supported our foundations and by providing much-needed donations, insight and leadership during this challenging time. They are truly making a difference.

Nicole Taylor, right, with Patrick Birmingham and Max Taylor at the Covenant Health table at the Knoxville Area Urban League’s 50-year anniversary gala in 2018. (Blue Streak photo)

Linda Billman, Legacy Housing Foundation, interim executive director (retiring at end of year)

Our biggest challenge in 2020 was how to continue to serve residents of affordable housing when many of the communities had restricted access to outside organizations. People still needed the products we deliver so we solved that by pre-packaging the most popular and most-needed items such as toilet paper, laundry detergent and disinfecting wipes (when we could still get them). The property staff delivers the bags to residents. What we didn’t solve and continues to be a challenge is the in-person gatherings that brought neighbors together for fun and fellowship. It’s just not possible at this time but our event coordinator, Dean Parker, waves from a distance when he delivers bags to the communities.

Linda Billman, left, and Adina Chumley at a 2011 reunion for WBIR in a blast from the past. (Blue Streak photo)

We are most thankful to affordable housing communities and property staff who continue to stay in touch and let us know we’re appreciated and needed, even if it’s from a distance. Personally, I am most thankful to the board for having hired Gwen McKenzie as the new executive director. She has a strong vision for the future and will do great things for the organization.

Patrick Hollis, director, Mabry-Hazen House

Like probably everyone our biggest challenge has those leviathan questions of how to engage audiences and keep them safe, how do we safely stay open, what events can pivot to a virtual experience and which ones must remain in-person, and if the event/program is in-person, how do we do it responsibly? We met these in various ways depending upon the program: house tours and other education programs transitioned to virtual – some for a set period of time and others we’ll likely continue in a virtual capacity into the future.

Patrick Hollis during a “dinner at the Hazens’ ” event in 2017. (Blue Streak photo)

Our Halloween programming was in-person but with numerous precautions taken, new policies implemented and capacity limited – and it raised more this year than 2019. But some programs and events were straight up canceled due to their size and scale.

I am thankful for the health of my family, friends and colleagues.

Lila Honaker, director of marketing and outreach, Tennessee Theatre

Navigating toward an ever-changing horizon proved to be challenging and, in some ways, exhausting. Projecting when we might be able to have activity again, even if tours or photoshoots of a very limited nature, when the status of the pandemic in Knoxville was ever-changing, certainly provided me with the opportunity to exercise nimbleness. You know that phrase “best laid plans”? It has never rung more true than in the year 2020.

From left, Kelly Absher, Kim Henry and Lila Honaker at a fun outdoor event in 2019. (Blue Streak photo)

I am most thankful for great partners who are willing to lend a helping hand during a time when we need it most.

Dana Hart, president, Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame

The biggest challenge that I have faced this year has been making tough decisions without having all the needed information to make the decisions. I am sure this challenge has been shared by many this year.  Our annual Induction Ceremony was scheduled for June, and we made the decision in April that we would need to postpone the event until 2021 due to the pandemic. This decision impacted our business, budget, our team and, most importantly, our inductees.

Patience has been the word that I have used so much this year, even saying it to myself numerous times.  We do not know what will happen tomorrow so we must be patient and plan with a variety of scenarios in place. It is no longer have a plan B prepared, but more necessary to have a plan A, B, C and D ready.  Be flexible and positive while understanding that everyone is going through some of the same struggles.

From left, Joan Cronan, UT women’s athletics director emeritus, Lady Vols Basketball Coach Kellie Harper and Dana Hart, at an event in 2019. (Blue Streak photo)

I am most thankful for my faith and my family. My family is my rock, they are the ones that are always there for me and are my biggest supporters. My family also includes my work team whom I spend a significant amount of time with each week. We celebrate the big wins and small losses together, but we always know that there is strength when we work together.

Kristen Sanders, director of operations, Shangri-La Therapeutic Academy of Riding (STAR)

Kristen Sanders

STAR’s biggest challenge was making up the revenue that we generate at two of our larger fundraisers – Bridles & Blue Jeans and Songwriters in the Round – which we had to cancel. We didn’t completely solve it, but we did an online auction with the items that we had already collected for Bridles & Blue Jeans. We also held a socially distanced drive through in the summer where our volunteers and participants got to see their favorite horses and STAR staff which was a big hit.

I am so thankful for the support that STAR gets from the community. It has been so nice to see people not only reach out financially to help, but also just the calls asking how we are doing. Also, it has been wonderful to see the smiles on the faces of our participants and volunteers when they come out for lessons which we were able to start back late this summer. We cannot safely bring everyone back, but it is nice to have a little bit of normalcy.

Kathryn Hemphill, special projects director, Friends of the Smokies

Kathryn Hemphill

Friends of the Smokies relies heavily on revenue from special events to fund projects and programs in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. From the Evergreen Ball and Greenbrier Barn Party to the Smokies Stomp and Cades Cove Loop Lope, we have a longstanding tradition of gathering and celebrating the Smokies. This year, our biggest challenge has been reformatting our events in light of the pandemic to keep our guests, volunteers and staff safe. Our creative staff and volunteers have come together to create amazing experiences in the tradition of our annual special events.

All of us are overwhelmed by the support of our generous donors and “Friends.” This year has been challenging on all fronts for everyone, but our supporters have truly stepped up to allow Friends of the Smokies to give more back to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. For that, we are incredibly thankful!


Maria Cornelius, a writer/editor for Moxley Carmichael, populates the EventCheck Knox calendar. Her event world is sports, so she also is ready for 2020 to end (and grateful for any games). Email her with any EventCheck Knox questions at [email protected].


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