July 01, 1998
Meetings & Conventions: Money Makers - July 1998 Current Issue
July 1998
To the Nines

How to plan a black-tie affair to remember


If you've ever doubted the power of the words "black tie" or "formal attire" on an invitation, think of Fred Astaire in the movie Top Hat; his character was so bowled over by an invitation to a formal affair that he burst into a spiffy song-and-dance routine.

While few recipients of invitations to gala events are likely to express their excitement with quite the same level of enthusiasm, they'll anticipate an evening that will be extraordinary, elegant and, at the very least, a cut above the typical rubber-chicken business dinner.

What's the secret to arranging a fancy fête that lives up to lofty expectations? Heed these tips from some of the country's top special events pros.

"Elegance," "pizzazz" and "cache" are adjectives event specialists use when describing the proper setting for a black-tie event. "The venue should generate excitement," says Tim Lundy, owner of Atlanta-based Distinctive Design Events.

After taking into account the basic criteria (Is the room the right size? Is there a dance floor?), your choices are wide open. Consider symphony halls, museums, art galleries, stately homes, castles, private clubs, yachts or historic buildings. "Tents are fine, too, as long they're decorated appropriately," notes John Daly, owner of an eponymous special events firm in Santa Barbara, Calif.

Hotel ballrooms also may fill the bill, but "if the event is part of a meeting or incentive, it's great to go off-premises to give the evening some extra pizzazz," Lundy points out. When your event is off-site, get attendees in a party mood en route with entertainers and champagne, suggests Rochelle Steinberg, director of special events for Viewpoint International, a New York City-based destination management company. "And make sure the arrivals are well-coordinated. You don't want the guests arriving all at once and having to stand on the coat-check line for 10 minutes."

"The invitation sets the pace for the event," says Steinberg. "That's how the guests will know how formal and exceptional the night will be."

There's no cut-and-dried formula. Invitations can be as traditional (white or ecru paper engraved with black) or as showstopping (say, a black top hat design with silver lettering and metallic confetti) as tastes dictate. Printers and stationers can hire graphic designers to create more elaborate or unusual invites.

No matter which style you choose, the invitation should cover the basic information (date, time, place), the purpose of the event and, at the lower right-hand corner, it should say "Black Tie." If the invitee may bring a date, address the invitation to "Ms. Suzy Smith and Guest" on the outer envelope. If an inner envelope is included, this is the place to use the words "and guest," according to the late, well-known etiquette expert Emily Post.

For an event that's not tied to a meeting or incentive, Vince Steffan, director of George Trescher Associates, a New York City-based special events firm, recommends mailing the invitations six weeks before the date of the event. "They should be hand-addressed and hand-stamped [not metered], no matter what style invitation you use," he says. "It shows [invitees] that you think they're important."

If the black-tie affair is part of a multiday program, the invitation doesn't have to be mailed (although participants should be informed prior to the trip that a black-tie event will be on the agenda). "It can be placed in their room at the beginning of the program or the night before the event, tied to a bottle of champagne or pillow gift," says Steinberg.

Avoid gimmicky themes. The ambiance comes instead from a seamlessly coordinated decor scheme: tablecloths, napkins, china, stemware, flatware, centerpieces, chairs and lighting. If the room has mottled walls or a cracked ceiling, drape them in coordinated fabric.

From there, it's a matter of individual taste. Lundy likes to "dress" up a room to match the ultra-formal level of the guests' attire. He suggests using tablecloth and chair covers in brocade or velvet, overlays of organza, chargers and base plates in silver, gold or crystal, and table settings of fine china and silver.

"Centerpieces should be tall and opulent," he notes. "We use stands to raise them up to three feet above the table so the guests can see through and around them." Finally, to make the silver shine and the crystal sparkle, Lundy likes to pinspot all the table elements with light.

Daly is another fan of decorative lighting. "For formal events, my favorite lighting scheme is low, with a pink wash. It's flattering light for most people, and when people look good, other people compliment them and everyone ends up having a good time," he observes. Yet sometimes, he takes a lighter approach to his decor schemes. "For events that are part of an incentive program at a beach resort, it's fun to do a Ôblack-tie and barefoot' theme using beach balls as centerpieces and have a sand dance floor," Daly says.

When guests are decked out in their finest threads, sitting at an exquisitely laid table in an elegant room, they're not going to be satisfied with a run-of-the-mill meal. A black-tie event is the time to "wow" their palates (and their eyes) with an exceptional repast.

Black-tie dinners are typically five courses: appetizer, salad, entrée, dessert and coffee. "Always do a tasting beforehand so that you can see exactly how the food will be presented, as well as how it tastes," says Dee Seline, owner of a Houston-based special events firm, The Seline Company.

Both Steffan and Lundy like to serve seafood or an easy-to-eat pasta like ravioli for the appetizer course. Steffan recommends beef fillet for the main course, although lamb is gaining popularity as a chic alternative. "Stay away from chicken - it comes off as cheap," he warns.

Lundy suggests a duo entr}e (a small veal steak and a four-ounce piece of salmon, for example) to add a bit of panache. Both planners believe in having an upscale vegetarian alternative on hand to accommodate guests who don't eat meat or fish.

Another tip: Avoid messy foods - spaghetti, lobster in the shell and soup.

Dessert should make a statement. It should be as visually stunning as it is tasty. "It's the crowning jewel of the meal," says Lundy, who likes to use coulis and "graphics" made of sugar and edible gold leaf. For a special finish, coffee should be served after dessert, accompanied by trays of petit fours or cookies.

How food is served at a black-tie function is almost as important as what is served. Most planners prefer French service, where waiters hold large platters and distribute individual portions tableside. "I strongly recommend two waiters per table for French service," says Steffan. If your budget's tight, you can get away with three waiters for every two tables, he adds.

Seline, however, prefers "plated" service, where the plates are brought to the table completely arranged. "This way you have more control over the presentation, and everyone's dish will look the same," she points out. This also allows every person seated at a table to be served at once (using four waiters - each carrying two plates - for a table of eight).

Is a buffet out of the question? Four of the five planners interviewed say they'd never do a black-tie buffet. The lone holdout is Daly. "The rules have changed - on the West Coast, anything goes. The key is to have only one or two tables go the buffet station at a time; then the guests make their selections and a waiter carries the dish back to the table."

What's the appropriate way to fte these tony troops? Two factors are key in determining the type of entertainment you select for this night of nights: the purpose of the event and the age of the participants.

"If the emphasis is on an awards presentation, we use background music like progressive jazz or classical during cocktails and the meal," says Lundy. "If it's a celebration, without speakers or an awards presentation, it should be more entertaining, with a featured performer or musical revue (good for events where spouses aren't invited) or a dance band (when attendees are accompanied by guests)."

Steinberg recommends hiring a "name" performer to give the affair an extra level of exclusivity. "Some stars aren't as expensive or as hard to book as you might expect - they may be in town for another event," she notes. Also bear in mind the average age of the attendees. Very different "names" will appeal to twenty-somethings versus fifty-somethings.

Age also comes into play when selecting a dance band. "Go with a band that can play a bit of everything, from swing to disco, so that everyone's happy" says Seline. But Steffan prefers using a deejay. "Very few bands are good at playing all types of music," he says.

Last on your checklist, but essential to the evening's success, is a time line for each element of the event. Cocktails should last one hour. The exception is when VIPs are in attendance and security checks are necessary; then 90 minutes should be allotted.

If there will be speeches or awards presented, schedule them to take place before or after dinner. "Time them [during a dress rehearsal] to make sure you know exactly how long they'll last," suggests Steffan.

The seated dinner should be kept to two-and-a-half or three hours. If a dance band is part of the evening's entertainment, instruct the musicians to play only between courses, for intervals of 15 to 20 minutes (the same rules apply to a deejay). "You don't want the waiters blocked on their way to the tables," he notes.

The serious entertainment follows dinner. When a performer is on the agenda, keep the act to a maximum of 30 minutes.

"The attendees want to enjoy, not endure, the performance," says Steffan. Dance bands and deejays, however, can go as long as your guests - and your budget - are willing.

SOIRÉE SOURCES Council of Protocol Executives, New York, N.Y.
(212) 675-1688; fax: (212) 633-6934
COPE publishes The Protocol Directory, which lists recommended event suppliers in major U.S. and international cities.

International Formalwear Society, Chicago, Ill.
(312) 644-6610; fax: (312) 245-1081
This group's Web site has a useful page called "How to Plan a Black-Tie Event."

International Special Events Society
Indianapolis, Ind.
(800) 688-4737; fax: (317) 571-5603
ISES is the largest organization of professional event specialists and suppliers. L.G.

Caviar Taste, Tuna Budget? Dressy affairs generally require a well-heeled budget - typically running between $150 and $300 per person, says New York City-based event specialist Rochelle Steinberg. But experts say you can still manage to trim costs without sacrificing pomp and style. The following are among their best cost-saving tips.
  • If you choose a venue with a great view, you can cut back on decorations and lighting.
  • Creative lighting (colored gels, uplighting tables, etc.) can make a simply set table look elegant.
  • Pick a venue with an in-house caterer. Food costs rise when an outside caterer is brought in.
  • Use only one tablecloth (minus the overlay) per banquet table.
  • When renting plates, flatware and glasses, go for the standard items.
  • Forego the little extras that will never be missed: ribbons on napkins, exotic imported flowers, bows over the chair coverings, and so on.
  • If the group is small (under 100), choose a hotel or facility that charges a per person fee, rather than a mansion or historic home, which will also charge for rental of the facility.
  • During cocktail hour, serve wines that are less expensive wines than those served at dinner.
  • Don't hire "name" entertainers; many excellent performers and groups can entertain your guests for a fraction of the cost.
  • L .G.
    Back to Current Issue index
    M&C Home Page
    Current Issue | Events Calendar | Newsline | Incentive News | Meetings Market Report
    Editorial Libraries | CVB Links | Reader Survey | Hot Dates | Contact M&C