by Lisa Grimaldi | October 01, 2006

beautiful fruit presentationThe ways planners infuse luxury into their meetings, events and incentives today are far subtler than they were during the pre-Enron, pre-Sarbanes-Oxley, late-’90s heyday of outlandishly lavish gatherings. Indeed, low-key and understated are in, while splash, glitz and anything else that even hints of giddy spending are definitely out.

“Clients still want first-class events, but they don’t want them to be like something the Carringtons [from TV’s Dynasty] would throw,” says Greg Jenkins, founder/partner of Long Beach, Calif.-based Bravo Productions.

Not sure how to add luxury without drawing the ire of shareholders or budget watchdogs? Following are tips from industry pros who have mastered the art of creating stealth swank.


Fly commercial. When perception is everything, chartering private planes is a big no-no, says Charles Massey, CMP, president/CEO of West Hollywood, Calif.-based Synaxis Meetings & Events. A better option, he advises, is to fly participants business class. “It might cost as much as chartering a plane, but it appears less ostentatious.”

Lose the limos. Stretch limos are way too in-your-face, says Greg Jenkins. Other choices for subtly luxurious ground transit include an upscale SUV, such as a Cadillac Escalade; limo vans with “captain seats,” which resemble plane seats, rather than traditional bench seats; traditional sedans, and vintage cars.


Abstain from luxury chains. “Sarbanes-Oxley has made it hard for people to use Ritz-Carltons and Four Seasons,” says Nikki Nestor, president & CEO of Carlsbad, Calif.-based incentive firm World Class Travel by Invitation. “Branding backfires on these chains, even though some of the properties have good rates off-season.”

When Nestor needs a luxury property, she typically turns to Orient Express because “they’re very upscale but don’t brand themselves as a chain; the properties have individual names.” Charles Massey often selects properties that are members of Associated Luxury Hotels or Preferred Hotels & Resorts, both consortiums of luxury properties, because “they are not as well known to the general public but will achieve the same objectives” as a well-known five-star brand.

Choose chains with range. Greg Jenkins likes Starwood Hotels & Resorts because the chain has several upscale brands (i.e., Westin and St. Regis), but the name itself does not shout “wealth.”

Shop boutiques. To Vince Steffan, president of The Steffan Group Special Events, with offices in New York City and Palm Beach, Fla., smaller boutique properties bespeak quiet luxury without raising red flags.

Keep upgrades subtle. When rewarding top performers or housing VIPs, steer clear of fancy suites, advises Mona Meretsky, CSEP, president of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based meeting and production firm Comcor. Instead, select (or request upgrades to) junior or executive suites, which, Meretsky says, are “more spacious and special than standard rooms, but not too much.”

Food and beverage

Obfuscate prices. Serve Cristal champagne and Beluga caviar, and everyone will know you’ve spent a small fortune. Better to serve brands that bespeak quality, suggests Vince Steffan, such as Veuve Clicquot, which has several good champagnes at a range of prices, thus blurring the lines on how much was spent.

For cocktail fare, Steffan prefers to serve canapes made with extraordinary cheeses, truffle oils, etc., rather than caviar, to provide a fabulous taste without shouting “money.”

Pare portions. Think small, says Andrea Michaels, president of Sherman Oaks, Calif.-based Extraordinary Events. “Who really needs a 16-ounce piece of prime rib?” she asks. Rather, pair a perfect 4-ounce beef filet with a small portion of a lovely local fish for the perfect duet.

Beef up the classics. When you want to go low-key, home-style dishes are a good option. For example, consider a traditional chicken pot pie. The glamour can come from the serving dishes (i.e., individual copper pots) or the garnish (the organization’s logo emblazoned on the crust, or a soupon of shaved truffles). For an event that includes several evening meals, Nikki Nestor says to stick with traditional foods the first night. “People are going to be exhausted if they had a long flight, and they’ll be catching up with each other, so serve comfort foods. Fancy food is wasted on tired people.”

Keep it regional. There’s no need to have luxury food items brought in specially for the event if you’re in a destination with a distinctive cuisine, says Nestor. That goes for wines, as well. “So many destinations have great wines that are not well-known outside those countries: Greece, Portugal and New Zealand come to mind,” Nestor notes.