In Excess?

Meetings & Conventions - In Excess? - September 2000

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September 2000
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In Excess?

These big spenders were challenged to plan over-the-top events and then prove their largesse paid off

By Sarah J.F. Braley

  Imagine 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.

In their face:’s faux demonstration An open 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 benchmarks."

Grand entrance
In introducing its new site to the world, 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’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 Noonan.

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 worthwhile."

Joy ride
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 apart."

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.

Happy anniversary
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 do."

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 concert.

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 harpist.

"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 surprise ending.

Any event held at a public place 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, 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 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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