Parties Perfect

By staff September 1, 2004

Great cooks know you can't get out of the pot what you fail to put in. Quality ingredients matter. Add chef creativity, and you've got a dish that harvests raves. It's the same with charity fund-raising parties. The right ingredients paired with chairmen of flair produce a showstopping event that collects bravos long after the last Lexus has left the lot.

We assembled a panel of seasoned partygoers, winning chairpersons and behind-the-scenes professionals and asked them to share their secret ingredients for successful charitable parties. They quickly ticked them off: the right chairperson and committee, the perfect setting, an imaginative theme and decorations, eye-catching invitations, generous sponsors, delicious food, and a minute-by-minute timeline for how the event will unfold on the big afternoon or night. We also asked them to name some of the events that scored high in those qualities this year.

Across the board, our panel told us, charity events in Sarasota had a good year. "The season started a bit slowly and then just charged ahead," says Phil Mancini, one of Sarasota's premier caterers. "As far as I can determine, everyone met and exceeded their numbers; and events that pulled more than 1,000 guests were on the increase. Our town had a very successful season."

To make sure you succeed in the upcoming season, here is our panel's guide to putting together an event to remember.

What's in a Name?

"A great name as the chair or honorary chair is frequently the beginning of a successful event," notes Sally Schule, assistant general manager at Saks Fifth Avenue Sarasota. A good name attracts other good names, and a powerful chairperson can call in favors from all the other committees on which she's served. An experienced chair will sometimes co-chair the event with a gal pal or a less experienced person who wants to learn the ropes. This widens the event's draw even more. An honorary chair, one closely identified with the presenting organization or someone known for philanthropy, can give great cachet to an invitation. Finally, frequent chairperson Margarete VanAntwerpen notes, "You want a working committee that can fill those tables, committee members with plenty of friends."

Jocelyn Stevens, who organizes events for SARASOTA Magazine, advises a chairman to get a loose-leaf binder with index tabs. "Maintain sections on sponsors, committee, food, budget, decorations-every aspect of the event big and small," says the voice of experience. "The night of the party, leave the book in your car and rely on a master timeline to keep everything on schedule. Have emergency phone numbers and a cell phone in your evening bag. A good notebook is a template for the next event you chair."

Our panel singled out several events this season that demonstrated great leadership and expert organization: the University of South Florida's Brunch on The Bay, the Pug Parade (Lakewood Ranch) and the Mad Hatter Tea Party for the Florida Center for Child and Family Development. "That tea party impressed me because the committee had to deal with a cold day for an outside event, a silent auction and a lot of children," remembers Stevens. "Everything went off beautifully, and guests had a wonderful time. The committee did it right."

How Inviting

A successful invitation should be an engaging visual tease that's cleverly packed with useful information. Mary Lou Wingerter, events guru at New College Foundation, cautions, "Make sure the invitation takes a regular stamp and is of conventional size and weight. Otherwise, your postage costs go up, and that's a bad last-minute surprise."

Betty Sandhagen, a frequent chair and committee member, cautions, "An invitation too glamorous might put people off." If people think you're spending your charity's money on expensive invitations, they may refuse to support your cause. And the best invitations remind you of the organization's mission. "I loved the Goodwill T-shirt invitation this season," says Sandhagen. "It tied the invitation to the charitable organization successfully."

Other invitations our panel admired? The invitation for Great Pairs Avant Garde (Ringling School of Art and Design) enlisted the design talents of the school to turn out a document so clever it became an instant keepsake. Other standouts: Night of a Thousand Orchids (Marie Selby Botanical Gardens), Safe Sax at the Casbah (Planned Parenthood), Mad Hatter's Tea Party (Florida Center for Child and Family Development) and Flight of Hope to Shangri-La (Wellness Community).

Corporate Cash

The average ticket price for an evening gala is approaching $200. Yet the ticket price never pays for the event. You want to get the costs of putting on the event donated by businesses or individuals, so the proceeds can go entirely to the charity.

Betty Sandhagen warns that the competition for underwriting is increasingly fierce: "It's work getting underwriting in this town, so you want to start asking early."

Corporations finalize their annual budgets long before many events are planned. Be an early bird if you need a corporate monetary favor. Stevens reminds all committees to determine in advance how sponsors will be recognized on invitations, programs, banners and other supporting material. Some companies just want their names mentioned. But increasingly, corporations want their logos worked into print materials for the event as well, which can affect the design of the invitation and is another reason to nail down commitments early.

You've Gotta Have a Theme.and Decorations, Too

Ideally, our experts stressed, decorations should reflect some aspect of the organization. This is easier for some groups-think of the gorgeous orchids that decorate Selby Gardens' Orchid Ball, and all the film and movie-star memorabilia the Sarasota Film Festival can use for its events. This year, children's science museum G.WIZ was able to brilliantly highlight its butterfly habitat with stunning faux butterflies at its first-ever Butterfly Ball.

Decorations can transform a familiar setting while expressing the theme and setting the tone for the evening. Pay attention to the guests' sense of arrival. Should there be an arbor or flowers, red carpet, lights, champagne, receiving line? A thousand small details create the overall impression.

Our panel praised interior designer Anne Folsom Smith, a co-chair for the Florida West Coast Symphony's 55th season opening night gala, for details that made the night wow and wonderful. Smith started three months before the event by commissioning a local nursery to grow grass. The day of the event, the grass was transferred to containers that ran the length of the black-draped tables. Then the designer "planted" fat red roses in the fresh grass. Smith's attention to this decor detail helped transform the Van Wezel Grand Foyer into a dramatic Spanish garden where the guests bloomed with glowing good cheer.

Mary Lou Wingerter says it often pays to "think creatively instead of costly." Case in point: "The little wrist corsages we gave each female guest at our Big Band Bash highlighted a nightclub ambience and put everyone in the right frame of mind for the '40s-style event."

Events that lived up to their decorations and theme? The Community AIDS Network's CAN Goes Hollywood certainly stands out as one of the best costume parties of the year. A Dog's Night Out (Animal Rescue Coalition) seemed to bring out the best in everyone, human and canine. And Wendy Mann Resnick's Pajama Party for UCP, attended by guests clad in their nighties, was talked and gossiped about for weeks.

The Favor of Your Company

Table favors have become important at both galas and luncheon events. Some chairmen opt for a "goody bag," usually full of cosmetic and perfume samples. Other events have seen guests go home with umbrellas, note pads and pens, a CD of the music played at the party or long-stemmed red roses.

For those high-octane, socially prestigious nights that benefit the Ringling Museum, Sarasota Opera or Florida Winefest & Auction, with guests paying up to $500 to be wined, dined and professionally entertained, the issue of what's the proper favor engenders a lot of committee discussion and corporate begging.

"When the ticket price is high, guests expect a special table favor," says Sally Schule, whose employer, Saks Fifth Avenue, is often asked to contribute party mementos. "The Jay Strongwater jeweled picture frames provided for the third annual Opera Ball retail for $125, but the gift was compatible with the tone of the event and ticket price." Party favors are getting more elaborate and creative, but the best ones, says Schule, "still fit into one's evening bag."

Food, Fabulous Food

Phil Mancini believes it's a sound strategy to avoid a buffet at a black-tie gala. "People in ball gowns and tuxedos prefer to be served," he says. "The exception is something like the UnGala, Avant Garde or Safe Sax, where people want to network, nibble and dance all night. Then they don't want an established time to dine."

Betty Sandhagen speaks with the wisdom of many wives: "Men don't want to spend all evening over a long, drawn-out meal. Serve it and get it over with-an hour is tops. Otherwise the husbands just get fidgety."

Mary Lou Wingerter believes it's wise to avoid exotic entrées. "It sounds intriguing to make the food fit the theme, Spanish, Asian, whatever. But Sarasota is a traditional town when it comes to eating at a gala. Quality beef works, and maybe a piece of fish or shellfish on the plate. Phil [Mancini] got Sarasota used to eating lamb at galas, but it took a while."

In spite of all the dieting that's going around, Mancini insists gala guests still want a gorgeous dessert. "They don't eat all of it, but they want it just the same," he says. Also, the list of vegetarians, vegans or guests with severe food allergies seems to be increasing. The menu committee needs to pay special attention to where these guests are seated and make sure they're served the meals they require.

Going, Going, Gone

The silent and/or live auction is an integral part of the Sarasota charity event, day or night. But it's a challenge to get and keep the attention of rowdy guests, who sit through a stream of similar events every season. Jimmy Dean, SARASOTA's publisher and the town's best-known volunteer auctioneer, says the secret is keeping an auction short and sweet. "There should be ideally, no more than 12 items," he says, "and nothing during dinner. That's when guests want to talk to one another." He notes, however, that the average number of live auction items is usually closer to 25.

"Doing a live auction between the entrée and dessert at a luncheon event is a disaster," warns Mancini. "People leave long before the dessert ever arrives." And party photographer Rebecca Baxter advises auction committee members to "make sure you have a quality sound system and big screens to show off the auction items as eye candy."

For power charity auctions, it's hard to improve upon the formula refined by the Sarasota Family YMCA, which raised upwards of $600,000 with its 2004 Going for the Gold event. "It's a long, long auction night but people know that's what they are there for and it always works," says Dean. "There's such electricity in the crowd and the cause is compelling." And staging the dinner auction in the Y facility underlines the cause and adds to the excitement and fun.

Private school auctions continue to gain in status as they polish their events and target their audiences. "They tug at your heartstrings," observes Betty Sandhagen. "I still have a lizard I bought at one." Items such as class-made quilts or babysitting services from the head coach are generally winners. New Gate School's auction evening and the Out-of-Door Extravaganza are the ones to emulate to provide a good time for guests while earning big bucks for school improvement projects and scholarships.

Trends of Tomorrow

Sarasota is beginning to embrace the "after party" phenomenon, such as the one at the Ritz-Carlton after the UnGala, the rowdy assembly after regularly scheduled Film Festival events (Steven Tyler of Aerosmith showed up and played two years ago), and this year's new Mistletoe Ball post-event at Michael's On East. These exuberant affairs don't kick in until 11:30 p.m. and can carry on until dawn. Some feature breakfast fare, and they're mainly for the young and intrepid.

Mancini notes another trend among young people. "They want a cheaper ticket, say $25, which gets them a live band, cash bar and a nice place to dance and socialize," observes the caterer. "Food is optional. There are plenty of young partygoers in Sarasota who want to socialize differently from the older age group, and we need to tap into that crowd."

Sally Schule agrees. "We already have enough black-tie events. Some of our restaurateurs, such as Paul Mattison and Jaymie Barrie at Pattigeorge's, have stepped up with creative new events; and more are going to do likewise."

And Mary Lou Wingerter concludes, "There is a whole group of smart young professional people who have been serving on committees and are ready to take on the chairmanship of some events. The list of chairs and committees on invitations is going to change as these new leaders announce they're ready to take charge."

Thanks to our panel:

Rebecca Baxter, photographer

Jimmy Dean, publisher, SARASOTA

Phil Mancini, co-owner, Michael's On East Catering

Betty Sandhagen, fFrequent chair and committee member

Sally Schule, assistant general manager, Saks Fifth Avenue Sarasota

Jocelyn Stevens, director of promotions, SARASOTA

Margarete VanAntwerpen, frequent chair and committee member

Mary Lou Wingerter, vice president for events, New College Foundation

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