By Jenny Berg Posted May 1, 2012, 2:19 PM EDT
CHICAGO In the days before the American Cancer Society's Discovery Ball, which was Saturday night at the Radisson Blu Aqua Hotel, director of distinguished events Lee Kite was in pretty high spirits. “We're looking for this to be an incredible year for us financially,” she said. Then she shared a few of the tricks that helped the event net $2.7 million, making it the most successful Discovery Ball to date.
First off, it never hurts when corporate titans have your back. This year's event chairs were Motorola Solutions Inc. chairman and C.E.O. Greg Brown and his wife Anna.
“This particular C.E.O. is a man who made time to have meetings with us every single month,” Kite said. “He's been clearing his calendar so he can commit to this event and run his company. Both he and Anna have been very personally touched by cancer, and they've really put a lot of time and energy behind this one.”
The mission chairs were JPMorgan Chase Midwest chairman Glen Tilton and his wife Jackie. The couple also chaired the ball together in 2008, when Tilton was C.E.O. of United Airlines. “They've been an extremely important part of the American Cancer Society family” for years, Kite said.
In addition to the work they did before the event, all the chairs put their paddles up high during the live auction. At the end of the night, Greg and Anna Brown left with an 8-week-old silver Labrador Retriever they won for $35,000. They also won a dinner for 14 guests to be prepared in their home by celebrity chef Bobby Flay, who was present.
The Browns won the Bobby Flay package for $74,000; then, due to the room's clear enthusiasm for the dinner, Flay offered to triple down on his offer and replicate the once-in-a-lifetime meal for other guests. Ultimately, two other guests bid $72,000 apiece on the lot, and it raked in a combined total of $218,000. The crowd rose to its feet and cheered when the third dinner was sold.
Other lots in the 10-item live auction included a day of golf with three-time Masters champion Phil Mickelson, a stay at the Ritz Carlton Portugal, and a yellow diamond ring from Tiffany & Co. “This year, we had a Super Silent section that's just extraordinary,” Kite said. “It was almost challenging to pick the best of the best for the live auction.” In all, the silent auction had more than 200 prizes. Super Silent lots included trips to Singapore and Hawaii, with airfare provided by partner United Airlines.
“Because we've had these tremendous, global corporate partners that have stepped up to be the chairs of our events—the likes of Motorola, United Airlines, Boeing, Aon, ITW—the people we're attracting now are not just coming from Chicago,” Kite said. ”I think we've taken over at least a third of the hotel this year, maybe more. We have guests coming from all over because our partners are global partners that have positions all over the country. So we're certainly a Chicago-based event, but we're proud that we've kind of grown in our scope and stature.” This year, around 1,000 tickets were sold, though with giveback tables closer to 850 guests were actually seated.
Kite and her team have also benefited from carefully stewarding their relationships with those global backers (Kite shared some tips on that in 2009). “Motorola, Boeing, Aon, ITW, and United Airlines have been with us every single year,” she said. “This is our sixth year, and all of our presenting sponsors have continued with us as strong supporters. We're extremely grateful not only to them, but to everyone who continues to step up to do the important work that we do. It's not easy to maintain these partnerships and keep them engaged in this gala-rich community.”
Other divisions of the American Cancer Society have taken notice of the Chicago chapter's success. This year, the society's national director of distinguished events, the Jacksonville Beach, Florida-based Lori Ann Whittington, attended the ball along with Kite's counterparts from six other major markets. “In all, ten people are coming to receive a backstage training that begins Friday and goes through the event on Saturday night,” Kite said. “They're coming to see what we do so they can replicate it in their markets. This is the first time we've done this at American Cancer Society, and we're incredibly proud to have been selected for that honor."
Apart from the serious fund-raising that went down, the event had its share of fun and whimsy. HMR Design Group set a relaxed, summery tone with decor inspired by East Coast beach houses. Decorative touches included candles in hurricane glasses, blue and white hydrangeas, and images of swaying beach grass.
Celebrity guest Kevin Nealon did a stand-up comedy set toward the start of the program, and at the end of the evening a late-night after-party had games, live dance music from Spoken Four, and sweets tables plied with desserts including red velvet cupcakes, pink macaroons, and mini mugs of coffee-flavored mousse served with chocolate-glazed doughnuts.