Meetings & Conventions - In Excess? - September
These big spenders were challenged to plan over-the-top
events and then prove their largesse paid off
By Sarah J.F. Braley
you are handed $500,000 to plan an
evening for 100. That’s $5,000 a person. What would you do? Rent
out the White House? Serve caviar, fois gras and Dom Perignon? Hire
Jerry Seinfeld to emcee or Luciano Pavarotti for the cocktail hour?
While planners are reluctant to reveal exactly what they spend
on each over-the-top detail, the ballpark numbers can be
staggering. Of the big spenders who shared some numbers with
M&C, one spent $70,000 on an evening for 30 people.
Another told of a $2 million tab for a company celebration for
about 250 guests.
Planners can be at their most creative when planning lavish
events. "If you have the money to spend and you’re going to spend
it, it should be wonderfully fun to plan," says Tracy Bloom, vice
president of event management for Creative Parties in Bethesda,
Md., who once helped the chairperson of a nonprofit organization
spend six figures on a 100-guest event in Washington, D.C. "You’re
literally creating a fantasy. It’s no-holds-barred."
What makes many events lavish is the quality of the goods: filet
mignon instead of chicken breast or fireworks instead of sparklers.
Janet Elkins, president of EventWorks in Los Angeles, says she puts
money where it will create the most memories, such as upgrading the
food presentation and decor at a gala.
pocketbook, however, also can add pressure. "Often planning is
more difficult when money is no object," says Louise
Felsher, CMP, who is working on several launch events for her
company, Redwood City, Calif.-based Certive Corp. For the series of
parties, a significant portion of the budget will be spent on
building an interactive attraction that will showcase Certive’s
services through a live Internet connection. It will take up about
10,000 square feet of space. "The process is especially hard if you
are trying to get the pole position against the competition.
Planners still must account for the dollars spent. In retrospect,
these splashy events prove to be positive or negative
In introducing its new site to the world, Salesforce.com took the dotcom
launch party to new heights on Feb. 22. Spending six figures on the
event at the Regency Ballroom in the company’s hometown of San
Francisco, the message was "the death of software," promoting
Salesforce.com’s offerings of business applications and services
via the Web. The company decided to use a revolution theme, and
everything from the fatigue-linen tablecloths to the main
entertainment rock group, the B-52s played right in.
"The party had a guerrilla warfare feel to it," says Mike
Noonan, who was working for production company In-Vision
Communications at the time. He got a new job as a result of the
party: Noonan is now director of promotions and events for
To set up the event, a mock protest was held that morning
outside the Moscone Center, where competitor Siebel Systems was
hosting a user conference. "A lot of Siebel’s conference
participants attended our launch event as a result," says
The event at the Regency was held on three floors, each with its
own take on the theme. The 1,400 guests walked in through a
constructed hallway, where three prison cells held actors in
tattered business attired trying to sell software ("Buy my
worthless upgrade"). A local band entertained in the ballroom on
the first floor. In an adjacent room, guests won carnival prizes
playing such games as "Burst a Software Bubble" (trying to pop a
balloon bearing the word "software.")
On the second floor, waiters bearing trays of drinks and hors
d’oeuvres greeted attendees saying, "Welcome to the Software-Free
Zone. You’ve made it!" Adds Noonan: "We wanted a heavenlike feel.
We used blue lights and made the room light and airy, not raucous
and loud like the ground floor." Two rooms showcased Salesforce’s
products. "The nice thing about the third floor," says Noonan, "is
that it was sealed off, untouched, for 30 years or so. It is an
absolutely beautiful theater. We didn’t theme that room just set up
a bunch of tables and booths, a couple of bars and the dessert
stations." Music was provided by a torch singer, cabaret-style.
The main challenge and the high-ticket item of the night was the
headlining act. The Grammy-nominated, 22-piece Cuban salsa group,
Los Van Van, was scheduled to play. But the Friday before the
event, the group pulled out. Luckily, the event’s producer had
personal ties with a number of talent managers and had worked with
the B-52s who had been on the original list of desired
entertainers. "Through divine intervention, the entire band was
available," says Noonan.
The event led to a partnership with IBM, which Noonan says
justifies the entire evening. "I still get calls about that party,"
he adds. "Enough synergy was created to make it all
In March, Chrysler introduced what is now the must-have vehicle:
the PT Cruiser. The Auburn Hills, Mich.-based automaker hosted
about 200 journalists in Del Mar, Calif., over a three-week span.
The writers came in at their leisure, spending about three days
attending events and taking the vehicle for a drive.
"The marching orders for each launch is to make it the coolest
thing we’ve done," says Jan Zverina, senior manager of product
communications for DaimlerChrysler. "We don’t want them to feel
they spent the two or three days working."
The main activity was a sort of road rally, allowing journalists
representing such publications as Car and Driver, USA
Today and local newspapers to drive the Cruisers. "We’re out
there months in advance, scouting the route usually 180 miles or so
with some time on the highway, and twists and turns."
The meal stop was a white-glove luncheon at the Truck Motor
Transport Museum in Campo, 60 miles east of San Diego, where old
trucks from the 1920s and ’30s sit in the desert sun. Sparkling PT
Cruisers were parked near the trucks to emphasize its
classification as a "light truck." "To most people, the museum
looks like a junkyard," Zverina says. "Some people thought we were
insane, but this was the exact type of choice that sets us
Was it the coolest launch ever? Journalists who enjoyed the
Seattle party for the 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee in September 1998
might argue. They were flown in sea planes to an island north of
the city and then got to drive the SUVs on-road and off. A clearing
was turned into a Jeep playground, with an obstacle course, mud
bogs and a log bridge.
To celebrate 20 years in business, a consulting firm to many
Fortune 100 companies spent around $2 million on four days of fun.
The 250 guests were from the company’s offices in New York City,
San Francisco, Paris and London. Nights were spent partying
together; during the day, people went on tours or played golf. Home
base was the Ritz-Carlton, San Francisco, and the details were
handled by Los Angeles-based EventWorks.
Why was so much money set aside for this one-time event? "The
CEO of the company was rewarding himself for putting together a
fabulous business," says EventWorks president Elkins. "It was so
much fun to have somebody give us carte blanche. Unfortunately, it
doesn’t happen often enough."
The four days in July 1999 started with a welcome party at the
Ritz-Carlton, where part of the budget was spent upgrading the
flowers and buffet displays to complement the ballroom and the food
the hotel was providing.
The next day, guests attended a private carnival held in two
large pavilions at Fort Mason Center. "At an event like this, if
you have the money, you want to bring in the big rides," says
Elkins. "Personally, I thought there would be an overload of games.
We set up what I would do for a 1,000-person party. I suggested
cutting back a little bit, but that’s not what they wanted to
Night three was held at the Filmore, where everyone was
entertained by opening act John Lee Hooker and main event Aaron
Neville; the party continued at a nearby club after the
The final night’s black-tie gala took over City Hall not an easy
venue for the vendors, since they had to come in before 8 a.m. to
set up the dinner and were not allowed back in to finish up until
after 5 p.m. In spite of the logistics, a seven-course meal was
served; entertainment alternated between a chamber group and a
"We paid money for the details: beautiful napkin rings and
settings, candelabra centerpieces," says Elkins. An adjoining room
was turned into a nightclub, and the Beach Boys performed as a
CROWD CONTROLAny event held at a
is likely to attract uninvited guests.
Planners often learn the hard way to keep the masses from
infiltrating a private event.
For the launch of its new deejay section called
The Booth, iCast.com sent out 1,000 printed invitations, assuming
half would come with a guest to the March 30 event at Space 550, a
high-tech venue in San Francisco. Those who RSVP’d received a
confirmation by e-mail.
"About 2,500 people showed up," says Bill
Golden, a spokesperson for the Woburn, Mass., company. What
happened? The e-mails were passed around the technology community,
and people used them as invitations.
Mike Noonan of Salesforce.com says his
company invited about 4,000 people nationwide to its coming-out
party. Bad weather held the crowd to a little more than 1,400, but
a number of people without invitations tried to crash the event.
"If it was obvious that a person did not have any business being
there, we tactfully asked them to leave, and that usually happened
before they entered the building," says Noonan, director of
promotions and events for the company.
Leave the dirty work to experts, suggests Janet
Elkins, president of EventWorks in Los Angeles. "You have to hire
the necessary security," she says. Another smart tactic: "People
have to have name badges," says Elkins.
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