September 23, 2014

Adding Splash to the Social Season

Social movers and shakers have some downright daring ideas to liven things up for the new season.

Illustrations by Michael Crampton

Party after party. Benefit after benefit. The Southwest Florida social season can be one long blur of cummerbunds and check writing.

Though a few memorable highlights can always be counted on, the truth is that we could use a little je ne sais quoi to add some excitement to the season. But just what that might be remains to be seen.

Perhaps we need a little more of this and a little less of that and a whole lot of something none of us has even thought of. But it feels like if we don’t do something soon B.B. King’s The Thrill Is Gone might become the soundtrack to our season.

And so we decided to reach out to some of this area’s most plugged-in movers and shakers to see if there was one thing that they might suggest that could take our annual season in the sun from flicker to flame. What we learned might surprise you. It certainly did us. In fact, from what we’ve gleaned, if action isn’t taken soon, our season may begin to resemble a snooze bar on the clock radio that is Southwest Florida.

“More naked beach parties!” That was easily our favorite idea from woman-about-town Patty Baker (although she ultimately passed the idea off as her assistant’s). And though we aren’t prepared for the increase in sunscreen usage, the gist of that suggestion really did seem to resonate with our panel. In other words, we need an infusion of F-U-N.

In fact, our own Kellie Burns of NBC-2 laments the days when parties were over-the-top soirees that left guests’ mouths agape. Parties such as Shirlene Woods Elkins’ New Year’s Eve bash that welcomed the year 2000 in an airplane hangar and featured five bands (including the Miami Symphony Orchestra). Or the surprise birthday party at The Ritz-Carlton, Naples that coincidentally also featured the Miami Symphony Orchestra floating just offshore on a barge. A barge!

So should we be focusing more on throwing memorable parties on blimps? Or on yachts? What about hot air balloons or in climate-controlled bubbles? (Those are very hot right now.) How about a party in an airborne cargo plane? Seriously, what is it going to take to keep people interested? More celebrities? Fewer tuxedos? More karaoke? Gondolas? Sheesh.

We’ve even seen a benefit where guests bid on a mystery item frozen in a massive block of ice. It turned out to contain a high-end racing bicycle. (The concept also works perfectly if the swimming pool has been turned into a giant mojito.)

The aforementioned gondola idea almost worked to perfection last season at the 3 Wishes progressive benefit on the Caloosahatchee River in Fort Myers. That is until severe weather made sea travel a dangerous proposal the evening of the event. Guests ended up boarding a significantly more grounded party bus to get from one location to another.

“All guests want to be engaged and play,” Michele Eddy says. “If the host/hostess/chair person(s) embrace fun and whimsy, so will the guests. It is absolutely contagious.”

As co-founder of the 3 Wishes event, Eddy is somewhat of a groundbreaker locally for the concept of collaboration between needy organizations. A concept Shelia Davis applauds.

“I would love to see more inclusion with the arts,” Davis says. “Every night there is something going on: so many things that I would love to support. Perhaps the symphony, the ballet and the philharmonic all in one event. … Many people would love to do that.”

The truth is that people are realizing their time is valuable and life is too short to be constantly reaching for your pearls and your checkbook.

“We really are missing the fun factor,” Shelly Stayer says. “We do a lot of things: We have our jobs, we try to give back, we attend all of the fundraisers and sit on boards and that’s a great thing to do, but you get so caught up in all of those things that I think we are overlooking the fun. … Sometimes in Naples it gets pushed aside for all those other things. I plan to incorporate more fun into my life this year.”

To that end, she went above and beyond by recently throwing a birthday party for her husband Ralph at Skibo Castle in Scotland, where Madonna married Guy Ritchie.

“Simone (Lutgert) and I closed down a piano bar three nights in a row in Scotland,” Stayer says. “I’d love to have a really good karaoke scene in Naples. It’s a real happening in Asia. Even in other parts of the U.S. I’ll call my 21-year-old daughter in New York and she’ll say, ‘I can’t talk, it’s karaoke night.’ I’ll call my 25-year-old daughter in Chicago and she’ll say, ‘I can’t talk—I’m on my way to karaoke.’”

So either Stayer is really onto something or her daughters are in cahoots about how to avoid mom.

Of course, better parties don’t necessarily need to cost more or feature celebrity guests (although Martina McBride and Ashley Judd will both be making stops in the area this season).

“One idea is to invite a newcomer to the community or someone new to an event to make it more inclusive and to bring in some fresh faces,” says Phyllis Ershowsky of PKE Marketing & PR Solutions. “So many local events draw the same people year after year. That would not only liven up the event, it will also remove the perception of ‘cliquey-ness’ or elitism.

“One of the best parties I ever went to was in England, and the rule was you couldn’t sit with the person you came with,” Ershowsky says. “I sat next to Lenny Zakatek from the Alan Parsons Project. And my husband sat with (Zakatek’s) wife. I think it gives us a great opportunity to bring people into our circle who we haven’t met before and expand our network.”

Burns also thinks it’s time to look at the events from the inside out. “Shorten the program,” she says. “Guests want to enjoy themselves and talk to friends. They want to have fun and talk to people at their table or not even sit down. Find a short and interesting way to thank your sponsors.

“Spend your money on good food, great wine and a wonderful band, not on favors, cheesy entertainers or over-the-top decorations,” Burns says. “It makes people think their money is being wasted.”

Speaking of which, some of the people we quizzed offered utilitarian views on what constitutes a better season.

Though this may seem like an oxymoron, partygoers are looking for a better time AND more fiscally responsible organizations to support. They’re looking for their money to work harder. They want pragmatic transparency in an effort of making the season better for those less fortunate.

“We have gotten tired of the black-tie events where enough money is spent on the invitations they could provide a scholarship instead,” says Jacke McCurdy, a Bonita Bay resident since 1988. “People will give money to good causes, but should have a good time doing it.”

The Center for the Arts of Bonita Springs had an event last year called Artrageous, where casual dress was the name of the game and which featured lots of music, painting and fun. It was the quintessential anti-stuffed-shirt event. “It was so successful we are doing it again as the opening of our new Performing Arts Center of Bonita Springs in March,” McCurdy says.

Certainly for newcomers to the area, our social whirlwind still seems exciting if not overwhelming. A quick perusal of the Social Calendar in this issue will drive that point home. For example, there are 11 events listed for March 1 alone. No wonder we’ve become numb to it all.

You know there’s a problem when events that highlight the “stay-at-home” factor are getting serious attention.

“I think if I were new I would still find it fresh and exciting,” Ershowsky says. “But after five or seven or 10 years…”

“I really think they somehow need to reenergize and reignite and come up with new ideas,” Davis says. To that end, Davis has the well-being of her fellow singletons at heart. “The events really need to reach out and find ways to be more inclusive of singles. As a single woman, I might go to a black tie by myself, but many aren’t. And you have a very large group of philanthropic singles that aren’t comfortable going alone. … Naples is a very married town.”

For her part, Christin Collins of Lee Memorial Health System is working to make things smaller and more intimate.

“Less is more, big time,” she says. “We want things more intimate and relationship-based. … We are collecting a group of 250 hospital supporters, but not getting together with all 250 people. It might be five, 25, 30, plus spouses. Not only is the charity benefiting, but the people participating are getting so much more joy and getting to know each other so much more, making new relationships: a new client, a golfing buddy or lifelong friend.”

Then again, we might get to the exact same place if we just went with the naked beach party.

 

Let’s Take It Outside

Another common thread among our cosmopolitan crew was the desire for more physical activities, and opportunities to commune over more tactile options.

“I wish we could start focusing more on sports and athletics,” Shelly Stayer says. “I love to play volleyball, but I can’t find a volleyball league here. Maybe we could start something called ‘Camp Naples.’ You know, like you’re going away to camp. You’d learn how to sail, fish, play dodge ball, lacrosse. … I’m 51 and I’d love to learn lacrosse. … Let’s form a Monday night league! We’ll call them tavern leagues.”

“I’d join a softball team,” Patty Baker says. And Kellie Burns is on board for anything relating to physical fitness: “Mud runs are all the rage right now. … And we need more opportunities with children-friendly policies. … There are a lot of us who have kids who would like to go to fundraisers with their families.”

Sticking with the outdoors theme, Stayer and Baker would both love to see an outdoor movie theater find its way to Southwest Florida. “The older population would love it, and the younger generation has no idea how cool it is,” Stayer says. “Oh! Maybe on the beach with lawn chairs or blankets or whatever.”

“How about a place that shows old movies?” Baker says. “Classics like Dial M for Murder, Citizen Kane, I’ll Cry Tomorrow, Five Easy Pieces, that they don’t show on TV much anymore.”

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