Seen one gala, seen them all. Or have you? This is the time of year when people start to get partied out. The food starts to taste the same, the music starts to sound repetitive, and just how many silent auction trips can you expect people to bid on? The challenge is creating an event that stands out from the rest. Meet four people who do just that. Their jobs are to make parties once-in-a-lifetime experiences. They’re the gala revolutionaries.
The Urban Decaydance show was a challenge unlike any other for an event planner. The point was to show the world without art. Pam Beckman of Bon Soiree teamed up with Marcus Jansen for the Alliance for the Arts benefit. They started it simply. No food, no music, no art. Bread and water were served as appetizers. Then, slowly, the event unfolded. The food became exquisite. The music started to play and at the end, the sheets along the walls dropped exposing the art. It was the perfect buildup, a chance to make a point through party. “They buzzed; they talked, which is what I hoped,” Beckman says.
Her intent is to give partygoers something to remember, and it’s kept her in demand for major fundraisers, including the vintner dinners for the Naples Winter Wine Festival. She keeps them clever but not tacky—a Harry Potter-themed wine dinner had crystal ball decorations and napkins in the shape of wizards’ hats. The dinners are a job she takes seriously, to the extent that she even took sommelier classes to understand the intricacies of wine. Overall, it supports her philosophy of getting everything perfect down to the minutia: “If you don’t have every detail right, you could mess up pretty easily.”
CaterMasters was in charge of coming up with a dessert for The Art of Lego event at Naples Botanical Garden. Jon Phillips and his team got an idea: edible chocolate Legos. The process found them creating molds and then pouring the chocolate four days ahead of time to get the treats all settled. What resulted was a chocolate mousse topped with eight delicious blocks. It was hard work, but hopefully the memory lasted long after the guests devoured the dessert. “If you don’t get pushed, you never get to your best,” he says.
Phillips bought CaterMasters eight years ago after stints as a food and beverage director at both the Naples Philharmonic (now Artis—Naples) and Marco Beach Ocean Resort. Now, he has found a passion for catering galas, often donating time and food to the March of Dimes or Golisano Children’s Hospital events. Along the way, he’s coming up with new ways to entice the foodies who set the tone for the gala season. Anyone can create a salad. So, he decided to introduce his seven-layer salads in mason jars that diners can shake and pour out themselves. It’s another way to make dining a little more memorable.
Donna McFarlane used to make the rounds at nonprofit fundraisers as a guest. After a while, she started noticing the quality of the furniture. It wasn’t, well, that nice. The chairs needed to be reupholstered. The tables were nicked. So she did something about it. In 2009, she started Niche Event Rentals with the intention of bringing something new to Southwest Florida. The look is clean and modern—a classy, South Beach feel that until recent years didn’t make its way over to Naples and Fort Myers.
Just the right seating arrangement can bring a whole new feel to an event. It has fit in well with the Naples International Film Festival opening night gala, which she’s been a part of for the past several years. The contemporary look came with matching white lounges and translucent chairs. Tables and stands glowed with fluorescent blue light. She admits: It’s just furniture. But the right look can set the event apart. To that end, she even has some pieces custom-made. “I try to have something that no one else has,” she says.
PJ Fuerstman Meyer
A table isn’t that exciting—just four legs and a flat surface. Most people just pick up a drink and go on their way. But what if the table were an experience? What if a model were essentially wearing the table like a giant, flat hoop skirt? That would be something to remember. And that’s what Pzazz Productions looks to achieve. PJ Fuerstman Meyer’s company is known internationally for its theatrical entertainment at galas. Performers and models become part of the atmosphere, hanging from the ceiling dispensing champagne or walking around on stilts. But there’s a point to all of it. It doesn’t have to be just eye candy. The ropers and cowboys at the Friends of Foster Children Forever event are fun, but they’re placed strategically. The cowboy by the motorcycle that’ll be auctioned off will draw more attention (and more bids). At another event, everyone will want to get a photo next to the woman dressed as a butterfly, not necessarily noticing that she’s also holding the sponsor sign. Then, suddenly the event sponsors are going viral in photos on Facebook. “It’s entertainment,” she says. “But it’s entertainment with a purpose.”