Big, Bigger, Biggest!

By staff September 1, 2008

A signature style that lures back regular donors and offers enough élan to attract new wallets—that’s always the challenge for charities that mount fund raisers. But when the economy is shaky and the party crowd gets selective, organizers must pull out all the stops to draw the numbers they need.

Human centerpieces, manmade snow, furniture that moved and breathed, white tigers and toga-clad men were among the innovative details that left guests gasping as Sarasota soirees rose to a new level this past season. Party planners took big risks. They bought furniture, braved the elements, staged strange new dances and surprised guests with unexpected elements.  

“With hundreds of competing charity events in Sarasota and the current state of the economy, you can bet people are picking and choosing these days,” confirms event planner Cheryl Frampton of Tinkerbell Productions. “I never want people walking away from my party saying ‘Well, I’ve seen that 100 times before.’”

By all accounts, Frampton’s White on State street party last spring to benefit the Child Protection Center achieved her desired effect. The evening kicked off with tribal dancers and the sounds of an Australian didgeridoo, and brought some guests to tears with a touching performance of Sinead O’Conner’s Thank You for Hearing Me, performed by the Booker Middle School chorus. The fashion show was an ever-changing tableau of chic interiors as models costumed as sofas, chairs, end tables and lamps moved among the crowd of 2,800 white-clad party-goers.

“We had white tigers, snow machines, a white hot tub bubbling and even a dentist making people’s teeth white,” says Frampton. “The effect was rather jaw-dropping. I think we were able to move people out of their comfort zone. That is what you want—a party that puts people’s emotions on a roller coaster and causes them to feel a bit wobbly.”

Indeed, one of our hottest trends takes fund raising out of the banquet hall and into the street. Take last winter’s Chillounge, an evening of entertainment under the stars to benefit the Sarasota Conservation Foundation. Palm Avenue merchant Rainer Scheer, of Design O’Fresco, dreamed up the concept. He purchased three containers of outdoor furnishings and created 40 chic outdoor lounges along Palm Avenue

More than 3,500 guests sampled food and drink from downtown restaurants. Entertainment ran the gamut from opera solos to tango dancers, with a Brazilian parade thrown in for fun. It was so successful that Scheer has been invited to take his concept to other cities.  

“I had a vision and took a big risk,” says Scheer, “and the result was fantastic. Every detail, from the acoustics achieved by attaching speakers to palm trees to the perfect positioning of the daybeds, was perfect. You have to do it right and if so, the people will respond.”

Airplane hangars are another newly popular party venue. Steve Patmagrian of New Atmosphere Productions dubs Rectrix Aviation awesome. “The space is cavernous and pristine, with gleaming white epoxy floors so clean you could eat off them,” he says. “We did the Ferrari event benefiting the Child Protection Center at Rectrix, with automobiles, motorcycles and even a Ferrari jet as part of the décor.” Days later, he transformed the hangar into a high-energy contemporary lounge called Club 40 for Forty Carrots’ annual gala. “The space became this really cool dance club, with music streaming and special draped-off VIP areas,” he says.  

Event planner Tony Falcone turned two Dolphin Aviation hangars into the Roman Forum for the Wellness Community Flight of Hope. “An artist painted immense panels to create a surround that looked like ancient Rome, and the interior was draped with fabrics in royal hues of plum and orange,” describes Falcone. “We had the full court with attendees seated in splendor in one section of the hangar and street performers entertaining the crowd in another. The site really worked.”

Dramatic decorations do give party-goers something to talk about, and people can’t stop talking about Galaxy Ball, the out-of-this-world rendition of this year’s YMCA Going for the Gold party. Glowing planets suspended from the ceiling, immense backdrops of moon and earth and black tablecloths with spiky silver centerpieces transformed the Euclid YMCA into an interplanetary disco. White pinpoint lights illuminated giant ice sculptures while moving constellations and planet orbits were projected on giant screens. After 17 years, you need something fresh and new to entice people to come to the party, says YMCA Foundation president Karin Gustafson. “If you are going to spend an evening somewhere,” she says, “you want to be surrounded by something that captures the imagination.”

Party-goers also buzzed about the custom-built gold pyramids made of fresh flowers weighing in at 50 pounds apiece that enlivened the G.WIZ Butterfly Ball. The science museum had played host to a King Tut exhibit all year, and Molly DeMeulenaere and Keren Shani-Lifrak of Rambunktious Productions played on the theme for the party decor.

The same team collaborated with furniture designer Jason Champion to craft a 100-foot-long fantasy tunnel for the Sarasota Film Festival’s Reel Experience party at The Lake Club in Lakewood Ranch. “When our clients start talking about decor, we do not take them into the warehouse and tell them to pick what they want,” explains Shani-Lifrak. “We ask them to describe their vision. And then we make it happen.”

Their nonconformist concepts have involved draping fabric over aircraft cable to create a sumptuous tent in the desert and building gargantuan, pineapple-shaped live topiaries. A current project for the Boys & Girls Clubs has Rambunktious hard at work on two- and three-dimensional city skylines and comic book characters for a Hometown Heroes theme. “Nobody wants to do just another gala,” says DeMeulenaere. “You must intrigue guests and give them something they have never seen before.”

Flowers in a vase are over, say experts—and you didn’t see any at the Sarasota Film Festival’s opening night gala. The Ringling Museum courtyard never looked more beautiful and celebrities were everywhere, but the buffet table centerpieces stole the show. Live “mermaids” smiled and fanned out their lovely fins as guests—more than 1,000 of them—reached around them for the sushi.

Jennifer Grondahl of Maestro Events took an entire year to research the sport of kings to develop a concept for the Sarasota Polo Return to Persia Ball, complete with belly dancers, tarot card readings and fire performers. “Polo originated in Persia,” explains Grondahl, “and we loved the idea of coming back to where it all began.” The Country Club at Lakewood Ranch became a giant tent with lavish fabrics in orange and orchid, day beds for lounging, roulette wheels and gaming tables. On the menu: couscous, shish kebabs and a signature “Persian Passion” cocktail made with pomegranate juice. Costumed guests danced, dined, drank and asked about next year’s party on their way out. “We sold out the event and had a waiting list,” says Grondahl.  Proceeds benefit the Sarasota Manatee Association for Riding Therapy, or SMART.

Guests were instructed to dress in “Bogart and Bergman chic”—white dinner jackets for the men and elegant gowns for the women—for the Casablanca at the Crosley party to benefit All Children’s Hospital Guild of Sarasota Manatee. A piano player named Sam, natch, greeted the 300 party-goers, and they enjoyed authentic Moroccan cuisine, tufted ottomans and lounging sofas and a 1940s-style big band. “We took a risk because we typically raise money through smaller events like Bunko nights and teas,” explains Morgan Gerhart, guild president. “We just rolled everything into one big effort and decided to work harder and smarter. Our debut was a hit, so we are looking ahead to next year, with a Moonlight Over Rio theme. And we are hoping for 500 people.”

Even live entertainment has been pushed to new levels. WUSF Public Broadcasting staged An Artful Intimate Evening at Mark and Jennie Famiglio’s Siesta Key home, complete with an elegant full-course dinner, an opera singer, the complete 100-member Key Chorale chorus, fireworks and manmade snow. Scot Kauffman of WUSF says guests were completely delighted. “The party made people feel that they belonged in a special way,” says Kauffman, “with a shared spirit for the cause.”

Come Together

Collaborate with another nonprofit on your next big bash? It’s an idea worth exploring.

What if benefit planners could ride out a turbulent economy in the same boat? Collaboration between causes is a concept the women behind Rambunktious Productions believe could work. “By joining together, you double your budget and halve your expenses,” says Karen Shani-Lifrak. “You increase your pool of prospective sponsors along with your guest list. You have a greater number of volunteers. And so many causes lend themselves to partnership because their mission is similar and their target audience is comprised of people who share the same goals and vision.” Charities for mental health issues, hospitals and medical research make a good fit, Shani-Lifrak and Molly DeMeulenaere say. Children’s services often mesh with human resources, education and the arts. “Collaboration ties people together in a common pursuit,” says Shani-Lifrak. “Partnering may mean that smaller committees and causes can combine their efforts and resources to create something really big.” 

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