Meetings & Conventions: Money Makers - July 1998
To the Nines
How to plan a black-tie affair to remember
BY LISA GRIMALDII
f 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
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,
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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 fte 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
"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
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
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,"
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
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
International Special Events SocietyCaviar Taste, Tuna
(800) 688-4737; fax: (317) 571-5603
ISES is the largest organization of professional event specialists
and suppliers. L.G.
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
Back to Current Issue indexM&C
| Events Calendar
| Incentive News
| Meetings Market
| CVB Links
| Reader Survey
| Hot Dates
| Contact M&C