by Morton D. Rosenbaum | November 01, 2004

Winter white theme

White open spaces:
The winter-themed
upstairs lounge at
SummerLights ’04

For planners expecting to throw a good old-fashioned theme party for their next event, a word of caution: Themes aren’t what they used to be. With an increasingly shrewd and seasoned crop of attendees to impress, the faux beach parties of yore hold diminishing charm. The same goes for the luau, safari, pirate party and other zany, prop-heavy hits planners might have pulled off a few years ago.
    “I think we’re moving past the point where people are looking for the classic theme,” says Franny Andahazy, event designer for Boston-based Party by Design. “You’re not walking into events anymore and saying, ‘I get it, this is a ’50s party.’” Or, in the harsher words of industry veteran Mary Micucci, president of Los Angeles-based event design firm Along Came Mary, “The prefab theme party is dead. Buh-bye.”
    Today’s forward-thinking planners are trading in old standby themes for new motifs and atmospheres that will truly surprise and stimulate their attendees. And their methods of bringing older themes to life have come a long way from plunking a netting-loaded pirate ship onto the ballroom stage.
    M&C interviewed planners and event designers for sage advice about fashioning the next generation of “un-theme” parties. Here’s how to invent them, how to execute them and how to rein them in when called for.

Choosing the theme
Invent something new. Many planners are moving away from familiar replications of a specific time or place and hatching more abstract ideas. Next month, Los Angeles-based Eventworks Inc. will theme one event around the sights, tastes and sounds of tribal drumming. And don’t be afraid to design a theme that is not immediately recognizable. Increasingly prevalent are concepts that allow attendees time to piece the inspiration together themselves, such as a recent affair, designed by the Chicago-based Experiential Agency, that led guests through a series of unnamed dreamscapes.

Theme around the client. “Knowing what the client is about always comes first,” wisely notes Monica Antola, senior account executive for Eventworks Inc. For a Novartis event celebrating an orange cancer pill, Antola parlayed the color into her theme, dousing centerpieces, linens and (some) food in the signature shade. She held the event outdoors on the grass to prevent orange overload.

Play off the locale. If the client requests a more conventional destination-inspired theme, i.e., a Caribbean party, the classic can be rejuvenated if the party is actually being held in the celebrated region, at an appropriate venue.
    San Francisco-based Woodberry Events offered up a 15th-century Venetian masquerade ball for a client’s corporate incentive this year, with one critical touch: The event was held in Venice. Set in an antique ballroom at the Excelsior Hotel, the ball thrilled the client and guests. (It didn’t hurt to have the costumier from the movie Elizabeth design evening wear for all, to be left in their hotel rooms the night before.) Says president Sarah Woodberry: “I think a theme party that doesn’t connect to where it is or who it’s for loses its bang.”

Transport them far away. Alternately, some obvious tension between the theme destination and the actual destination helps to freshen up the old schtick, à la the delightfully wishful thinking of the Hyatt Regency Lake Las Vegas: The property recently put on a series of rainforest-accented luncheons. In other words: Throw a beach party in Alaska. Throw one in Florida, too, perhaps, but hold it on the actual beach. If in St. Louis, abstain.

Be specific. With a regionally themed party, specificity is always a good idea, advises Darren Andereck, executive vice president and creative director for the Experiential Agency as well as president and creative director for its subsidiary decor supplier, Alice’s Garden. In other words, rather than arranging a generic Mexican theme, consider pinpointing one lesser-known spot within the destination a small town within Mexico, such as Todos Santos, for example and grounding the event in real local flavor rather than vague national references.

Mix it up. “The newest trend is to arrange for different rooms with various atmospheres,” notes Paula Cardoso, vice president of marketing for Tampa-based Grand Events of Florida, LLC. The company’s “Evening of Extremes” event filled out five separate areas of a large Ybor City venue with drastically disparate moods, with colors ranging from deep and decadent reds to pristine whites. The difference between the spaces and their immediate proximity became a theme of its own for an event with attendees from Africa, Europe and the Middle East.