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2001-2011: 6 Up-and-Coming Event Pros to Watch in the Next 10 Years

These six up-and-coming event pros just might influence the next 10 years of events.

Photos: Ysa Perez for BizBash, Courtesy of Fiction Events, K&K Photo

The Indie-Minded Producers
Through event marketing and production firm ExtraExtra, Drew Elliott and Nicky Balestrieri combine a downtown sensibility with years spent in the corporate world working for brands including Kodak, Coty Prestige, and Zappos. What sets them apart is that ExtraExtra is the events arm of Paper magazine, a longtime arbiter of what’s cool in indie culture, fashion, art, and music.

Originally launched in 2002, the division was reignited in 2008 with the addition of Elliott, the magazine’s vice president of creative services. Together with Balestrieri, ExtraExtra’s director of events, he plans events for the magazine’s advertisers and other companies looking to capitalize on the Paper name, such as Lanvin and HP.

The magazine partnership may be unusual, but Elliott says ExtraExtra’s editorial approach to event planning only helps its clients. “Our office is half-filled with editors whom we can ask, ‘What do you think? Is this exciting to you?’” Elliott says. “As [guests] become journalists, we have to deliver authentic social media moments that they will write about.”

During the 2011 South by Southwest music festival, they used brightly colored customized RVs to create a pop-up mobile home park. The area had live performances, a daily happy hour, a “print-cierge” station where attendees could retrieve photos from mobile devices, and several bloggers who documented the festival on site. For the launch of Absolut Glimmer, ExtraExtra produced an intimate seated dinner with a surprise performance by Cee Lo Green and a custom, oversize chandelier made with Absolut bottles. “We use builders, not rental companies,” Balestrieri says.

The company’s services also extend to marketing strategies involving print, social media, and video. “When we’re hired to do an event, it’s not just set decorating,” Elliott says. “We help with strategy and connect clients with the right people, be it a DJ or bloggers.”

The Adventurous Planner
It takes a certain type of person to see an old, abandoned building—without electricity, air-conditioning, or restrooms—and think, “What a cool event space.” But Monica Varner, owner of Tampa’s Elan Event Studio, says she’s always up for a challenge.

For the Gasparilla International Film Festival’s closing party in March (one of 12 festival-related events Varner planned), she enlisted a team of vendors to transform a dilapidated 1920s-era department store into a stylish indoor carnival, complete with roaming entertainers, custom bars, a circus-inspired stage, and a “haute dog bar” (as well as ice, portable bathrooms, and power from a generator). “I like unexpected locations, like rooftops, abandoned buildings, empty storefronts,” Varner says.

A former paralegal, Varner got into the event industry after her brother started a wedding videography company. She joined his business in 2004 and discovered she loved working with clients and brides. In 2005, she launched her own full-service production firm, where she aims for a “tasteful yet a little edgy” approach. “I’d like to take local events up a notch and push other vendors and [event] professionals out of their comfort zones a bit,” she says.

While she maintains a busy roster of social events, Varner attracts a diverse range of clients, including the Lance Armstrong Foundation and the Taste of South Tampa festival, a benefit with tasting stations from more than 40 local restaurants. She will also be working on several events with Washington-based William Milligan Events during the Republican National Convention in summer 2012.

The Cutting-Edge Caterer
Combining a lifelong love of food with a background in theatrical set design, T.J. Girard is rethinking buffet stations and passed hors d’oeuvres, as part owner and head designer of New York’s Pinch Food Design. “Like catering, set design is visual but also functional. You have to solve problems but tell a story,” she says. After working at Creative Edge Parties for five years, Girard teamed up with the firm’s former chef/partner, Bob Spiegel, to launch Pinch in April.

Girard’s focus is presentation—from designing and sourcing unusual utensils, to creating branded items, to fashioning catering trays that double as showpieces for Spiegel’s modern fare. “We use cabinet knobs as pedestals; I’ve created trays that have little cubbies for hors d’oeuvres,” she says.
“Sometimes Bob’s food inspires my designs, and sometimes my designs inspire Bob’s food.”

But it’s not just about plating. Girard works with Spiegel to create “food experiences.” One concept, which Girard calls “sharings,” has two people receive bowls of edible items that go together—caviar and blinis, for example. The recipients interact with fellow partygoers to share the food. Pinch’s chefs also prepare dishes on a silicone-cloth-covered table in front of attendees. “Food is such an incredible way to bring people together,” Girard says. “And we want to help clients create unique and memorable experiences.”

The Floral Artist
Although The New York Times recently called her “New York’s surprise floral designer du jour,” Emily Thompson has been quietly yet steadily gaining clients and fans since opening Emily Thompson Flowers in 2006. Thompson’s work reflects her love of wild, unspoiled nature (she grew up in Vermont) and her M.F.A. in sculpture. “I like my arrangements to feel like a garden that is really established, not something that’s just been put in the ground. Like a better, more magnified version of what nature does on its own,” she says.

In addition to working with seasonal blooms and foliage of all kinds, she often forages for special materials and incorporates unusual items such as pods, feathers, and porcupine quills. “I like working with elements that are kind of exotic but still come from living things,” Thompson says. “I combine these items in ways that emphasize the meandering way each flower grows.”

For a vendor event at the Ace Hotel, she filled cast-iron urns with dramatic sprays of spirea branches (one of her current obsessions) contrasting with delicate poppies. Flowers aren’t Thompson’s only medium. For a corporate holiday party, she topped tables with handmade boxwood topiaries studded with kumquats and elegant arrangements of sugared fruit in silver bowls.
While her creations have a decidedly artistic feel, Thompson says she aims to find more corporate work and enjoys working with marketing teams on creative projects. “For corporate events, I like to draw heavily from branded materials,” she says. “I use that combined with my art and historical knowledge to build something inspired that feels as if it’s always been there.”

The Architect-Turned-Event Designer
Jose Zaldivar began his career designing buildings, but his architecture degree ultimately led him to events. After meeting Miami-based designer and producer Karla Dascal through fellow architect Rene Gonzalez (who designed Dascal’s event venue, the Space), Zaldivar joined Karla Conceptual Events and spent three years creating custom furnishings and environments for clients such as Bulgari and Harry Winston. He moved on to Touch Catering in 2007 and helped the company expand the production side of its business.

In 2009, he launched his own event design and production company, Fiction Events. “Walking through the Miami design district, I came upon a table of books with a small sign labeled ‘fiction.’ The idea of events as a fabricated, imagined world stuck,” he says. Zaldivar quickly attracted big-name clients, including NBC, Microsoft, and Reebok, and grew a reputation for his modern aesthetic and ability to provide most services in-house.

During Art Basel in 2010, Zaldivar worked with Lauren Taschen to produce Maybach Night, the first event held inside the New World Center. The evening included cocktails and dinner for 400 and a “Lost Havana”-themed rooftop after-party.

Zaldivar describes his style as “minimalist and on the cleaner side,” but says well-crafted design is his biggest trademark. “We are committed to quality regardless of the look. We care about the small details, such as the tailoring and pressing of linens, and the flowers looking their best. We want to nail everything from the ground up.”


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