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Here & Now: Creative Gala Décor

Shoe optional: The Barefoot Violinist entertains at a Naples Winter Wine Festival vintner dinner.Visualize, if you will, a balmy January evening. The limousine that was sent for you glides through gates opened by lithe dancers in top hats and white tuxedos. Lovely ladies in emerald velvet gowns usher you to an elevator to the private penthouse residence, where ethereal ballerinas beckon you with a swish of their white ostrich feather fans into their shimmering, candle-lit crystal forest where other guests mingle. To your amazement and delight, the world-famous Barefoot Violinist, Malcolm Watson, chassées and twirls, sending beautiful notes through crystalline trees and white calla lilies until magical dinner chimes entice you through crystal curtains for an elegant dinner accompanied by classical piano…

It’s too painful to continue, as I was not actually there for this fantasy, An Evening at the Floating Fair, one of the exclusive vintner dinners of the Naples Winter Wine Festival. Surely it ranked among the most enchanted fundraising evenings of the 2012 season. But enchantment isn’t always about ostrich feathers and barefoot violinists. Here on the Gulfshore, that certain je ne sais quoi permeates our fundraisers throughout the year, from the most stately to the downright boisterous.


Yachts and Stilettos

Who could forget Speakeasy Night, a hotsy totsy, rip-roaring, prohibition-themed affair complete with bathtub gin, gambling and Charleston-dancing flappers, which raised a tidy sum for the Laboratory Theater of Florida? Or the Yacht Hop for the Southwest Florida Symphony, at the Fort Myers Yacht Basin?

In the very creative Stiletto Sprint, hundreds of women (men, too) actually sprint down Fifth Avenue South in high heels to benefit the Garden of Hope and Courage and Susan G. Komen Southwest Florida. I skipped this on the chance that it might also benefit my local orthopedic surgeon.


Two very different book benefits

The Friends of the Library of Collier County hits the jackpot with their wildly popular Red, White & Roulette Casino Night. The Vegas-style tables, with professional croupiers, also include blackjack, slots, craps and Texas hold ‘em.

First Book-Collier County takes the opposite approach. “Instead of getting dressed up for a traditional gala,” says First Book chair Joanne Wyss, “guests can enjoy our Stay at Home and Read Non-Event. For Dr. Seuss’s birthday last year, we sent our patrons a copy of Cat in the Hat, Green Eggs and Ham or another Seuss classic and invited them to stay home and read it to a child they love. We suggested they donate the money saved on a dress and a gala ticket to help provide books to young children in our community who have no books. They responded beyond our expectations, and encouraged us to do it again this year.”

Oh yes, Dr. Seuss would definitely approve.


Black Tie NOT an Option

Another way we skip the tuxedo here is the Bootstrap Boogie Barn Dance, held annually on-site at the Naples Equestrian Challenge arena. You’ve got your line dancing, your mechanical bull riding, your lassoing and your cowboy vittles—and my personal favorite, Pony Pie Bingo. It’s ever so much classier than ordinary cow bingo, as the manufacturer of this particular equestrian “pie” is Pick A Spot, the NEC’s own leopard Appaloosa.


Signature Themes

What? You’ve never sipped a Shoetini? A “no” answer reveals the scandalous truth that you’ve missed nine glorious years of If the Shoe Fits, a lively shoe and fashion sales gala benefiting the Education Foundation of Collier County. Every year features a different flavored martini. This year’s has not been revealed, but last year’s was a yummy pink pomegranate. And oh, those shoes!

How about an evening in Old Havana without the bureaucratic red tape? Or an exotic journey to India without suffering 18 hours in a cramped airline seat? The David Lawrence Center feels your pain, and attending their annual exotic travel-themed galas can help relieve the pain and suffering of so many others.

Traveling foodies get a chance to re-live (or preview) the fabulous cuisine and ambience of exotic countries, thanks to the Guadalupe Center’s themed “A Taste of…” gala series. “A Taste of Cuba,” followed by “A Taste of Spain,” were grand preludes to last year’s spectacular “A Taste of China.”


Merging Theme, Venue and Mission

How should one celebrate the Ronald McDonald House Charities, which provides, among other things, a home away from home for seriously ill children undergoing medical treatment? With whimsy and fun, of course! Each season’s much-anticipated Storybook Ball transforms an ordinary ballroom into a fanciful children’s world. From Alice’s Wonderland to Dorothy’s Oz, it’s always upbeat, perfectly matching the mission of Ronald McDonald House Charities.

The Conservancy of Southwest Florida and the Naples Zoo both walk their talk with their annual fundraisers. The Conservancy hosts its eco-friendly Magic Under the Mangroves on site, while its neighbor hosts Zoobilee, “the Wildest Party of the Season,” beneath the watchful eyes of wild lions, hyenas and giraffes. This year, a diamond Florida panther pendant brought in $105,000 for the Conservancy, and among last year’s Zoobilee auction items are tickets for a Zoo-led African safari. Dress code? Zoo chic, naturally.


Targeting Passions

Some people prioritize their social calendars based on the charities they support. But a few sharp event planners choose to appeal to narrowly targeted patrons. Like a fishing or golf tournament, they lure us in with our passions, knowing that once we hear their story, we’ll be inspired to become patrons. It works, too. Just ask Avow Hospice, the beneficiary of the Naples Bach Ensemble’s spellbinding annual concert at Moorings Presbyterian Church.

For 16 years, Project Help has also cut to the chase with its annual Chocolate Extravaganza. Sure, Champagne and hors d’oeuvres are specified on the invitation, but chocoholics see only five words: “Chocolate, Chocolate and More Chocolate.”


Rocking the Calendar

It’s crucial to have a fundraiser in prime season for best ticket sales, right?

“Not necessarily,” says long-time Southwest Florida society observer Suzy Dorr. “Event calendars are jammed from January to March,” she says, “but in October there’s not as much going on. By hosting its annual Hospital Ball in October, NCH has the opportunity to dominate the social scene and maybe get extra media attention.”

The holidays are also challenging, she says, due to travel and family commitments. However, nothing evokes nostalgia more than Christmas at Palm Cottage or Holiday Nights at the Edison & Ford Winter Estates.

So what have we learned here?

  • Definitely go with tuxedos and top hats. Wait. Make that cowboy boots and 10-gallon hats. Or a khaki and zebra ensemble.
  • Don’t host your event during the holidays. Or do.
  • Have your event in a fine ballroom. Or on a yacht or a horse arena. No, just invite people to stay home and send a check.
  • Make your event glamorous. Or boisterous.
  • It’s best to surprise your patrons with something unique every year. On the other hand, maybe not. As Dorr points out, “When someone mentions hats, you know exactly what fundraiser they’re talking about.”

The point is, here on the Gulfshore we love the chance to dress up (sometimes), to act out some fantasies and to make a difference in our world. But frankly, there are no rules when you have that certain je ne sais quoi.

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