After I submitted my latest column, in which I prognosticated with great relish about my visions for the upcoming year, my editors asked if I could do a year-end/year-ahead piece and, well, maybe this time ask some professionals. So I did.
Here is the landscape from the smartest event people I know (who still take my calls):
1. Liz Neumark, C.E.O., Great Performances, New York
Did you get a lot of holiday party business?
Our holiday party business was better, but not back. We had a few mailroom-to-boardroom parties from the financial industry, but that business is still way off from years ago. I’m not sure it will ever come back.
What’s strong? What’s weak?
All our business is better, except for corporate. Bridal is back, private entertaining is strong. A lot of companies deferred their holiday party to the first quarter. I did too. We’re bullish on the future, but that’s a reserved bullish. How would you feel after two years of being beaten up by the economy and shrinking profits for two years?
So what’s there to be bullish about?
Well bookings are ahead of last year, so that’s good. And Great Performances owns a farm, Katchkie in Kinderhook, New York, and we are launching a community-supported agriculture service this spring. C.S.A. and what it means—local, sustainable—is really all of a sudden hugely important to our customers, and we’ve been there a long time. We have a program where big clients—Edelman PR is one—can sign up for monthly deliveries of fresh seasonal produce, and we send in a chef to tell them what to do with it.
Sounds smart. How else do you use the farm to market yourselves?
When things quiet down in the summer, we do two huge dinners: one in the city in our courtyard for 160 people and one on the farm. We roast a pig. And we use all our own product and produce, and use the forum to explain how sustainable agriculture can be a real part of the business. This will be our second year. You should cover it.
I’ll think about it. What’s your plan for the holidays?
Reading and seeing movies. That’s it. Can’t wait.
What’s on your list?
Black Swan, The Fighter, Tron Legacy, everything. I haven’t seen a movie in so long.
2. Bentley Meeker, owner, Bentley Meeker Lighting and Staging Inc., New York
How did 2010 play out for you?
2010 started out O.K. Just O.K. But we ended up with a great year, up about 40 percent over 2009. 2009 was a drag. But budgets are back up. Our margins are being heavily squeezed, but volume is making up for it.
Impressive. How do you celebrate with your team?
We’ve been doing the same thing for 15 years now. We take over a friend’s restaurant in the East Village, Essex. All 40 full-time employees. No clients. It has brick walls and concrete floors, so we know the place will still be standing when we leave.
Give me a highlight of last year.
Well there were a lot, but the upfront party for Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim series was a standout. We projected a custom show, continuously in 360 degrees. It’s where we’re going for the last three years or so, mixing lighting with audiovisual services. We make video tapestries, immersive environments.
I also loved the work we did for the Food Allergy Initiative at the Waldorf-Astoria.
I heard that was good too. What distinguished your company from others in the last year?
First of all, we’re really the only major lighting company left that keeps all its inventory in New York. Big Apple Lighting got bought and moved to New Jersey. So we can solve a big problem in 20 minutes. Look, we like to think we run a tight ship, but we forget things and break things like everybody else. But the solution is only a cab ride away.
And we’re really trying to raise the bar in audiovisual services. So many companies show up with their bulky equipment and the standard pipe and drape. We either bring beautiful equipment, or we make the equipment disappear.
How are things looking ahead?
Things are really clicking now. It feels like a real recovery finally. Plus I’ve got a book coming out, Light x Design, in March, published by Glitterati. It’s a huge coffee-table book.
Congratulations, what are your launch plans?
Who knows? For us, March is a long way off.
3. Mary Micucci, founder and proprietor, Along Came Mary, Los Angeles
I remember you telling me about your great big holiday party. Doing it this year?
No, and I didn’t do it last year either. It just didn’t feel right. But next year, definitely. This year I’m staying home with my daughter and appreciating what we’ve got.
Better than last year. Thank goodness for that. People are a little less hesitant. There’s more on the books than last year. I couldn’t give you a percentage. It’s no gold rush.
What were the highlights?
Well we did the Museum of Contemporary Art event. That was a big deal this year; Eli Broad was the client. Then we did something called the Trevor Project, which I’m really proud of. And we christened a new cultural institution, the Valley Center for the Performing Arts, which is bringing culture to the valley.
Well we’re thrilled. They’ve already asked us back, and it’s a big new center, and I can see it becoming an important new player on the whole scene out here. We’re glad to be in on the ground floor.
How’s the premiere business?
Well it’s a passion of mine and will always be a part of this business. But it is still not what it once was. Not at all. So many movies now open with a party at a restaurant, or just do the red carpet. But we’re seeing some companies starting to get creative again. I should mention that the television industry is starting to get more active and we’re doing more of that. Lots of Emmy parties. The television business isn’t so backseat anymore. We’re doing stuff with CBS.
You’re known for clever presentation. Give me some new ideas.
We’re now doing passed meals lounge-style. Lounge furniture has been big at events forever, but now we’re grouping around a big low coffee table and serving meals there. We’re doing custom picnic baskets. Not a basket that you buy at the market, but really imaginative and carefully designed baskets with compartments. But then we learned guests like to walk off with them!
4. Carla Ruben, owner, Creative Edge Parties, New York
What is Creative Edge doing for the holidays?
When does this come out? If it comes out before December 22, I can’t say. But I’m taking everyone to trapeze school.
Don’t worry—it won’t. What about you?
I go to Turks and Caicos and do nothing but beach and sleep and relax. We just did 43 parties in one week, some of them huge, with 500 to 800 people, and still have like 18 to 20 to go.
Sounds hectic. How was your year, business-wise?
It has been a huge year for us. We’re up 30 percent. I know that is not the industry norm. And trust me, we’re getting squeezed on profitability like everyone else. But things are really in place for us. Oh, you should know that I just bought out my partner and am sole owner of this business, so that will allow us to do more things this year.
Congratulations on all. Any weak spots?
The fashion industry is still not what it used to be, and that makes me sad. We love the fashion business. They are tough clients in every way, but they make you do great work.
What’s working now?
Well I’m into mixing different ethnicities at events. Like if someone wants pasta, we’ll do it, but we’ll also do a Middle Eastern grain and maybe an Asian takeoff. Anything to get away from comfort food. Also, I love anything that is interactive. Getting the chefs out from a little tent and having them cook in front of the guests.
What’s not working now?
I’m so tired of specialty drinks, 80 percent of which are vodka. I mean, we’ll do them if we have to. But there are always new things to try. How about flights of sake? Or flights of beer? They’re bringing back moonshine—remember, from Prohibition? We’ll try it.
What’s the mood out there?
Clients are still very scared. There’s all this fear about “perception” and not wanting to appear ostentatious. Decor, for example, is down across the board.
5. Chuck Garelick, vice president of special event services, Elite Investigations, New York
Chuck, I’m taking people’s temperature for last year. What’s yours?
Our numbers aren’t done yet, but I think we’re 10 to 15 percent ahead. We love that. It’s very good compared with 2009, and getting better.
What was your most challenging event of the year?
Well, we love working on it, but the Costume Institute Gala at the Metropolitan Museum gets bigger and more demanding every year. There’s more celebrities, and more media, and more spectators who just show up. But there’s only so much space on those steps.
The problem is not the invited media—they get in and taped off on their spots like clockwork. It’s all the uninvited media. Everybody’s got a camera. And you have to handle spectators very gently. Plus now with the tweeting and Twittering, if there’s a good party, people are telling their friends to show up. Social media is not helpful to security.
I know you do a lot of celebrity security. Who were the best and worst to work with last year?
You won’t believe it, but this year everybody behaved wonderfully. We did the Rainforest Benefit Concert at Carnegie Hall with Sting and Bruce Springsteen and Lady Gaga.
How is Lady Gaga to work with?
A delight. You know, I should point out that the artists themselves and their management are usually not the problem. It’s the unannounced entourages that behave the worst. And half the time the artists don’t even want or need them there.
What’s big for next year?
Well, we’ve just signed on to do event security for the Setai hotel. Have you seen it yet?
No, I’m dying to.
It is amazing, on 36th Street, and the venues for events are the absolute best. It opened in November, and I expect we’ll be doing a number of great projects with them.
Let’s see, the M.A.C. at Milk Studios fashion shows are becoming a real alternative to Lincoln Center Fashion Week, and we handle all the shows. About 25 to 26 last year and their surrounding parties, so that is a really good project. Fashion events, as you know, keep security teams on their toes.
Oh, yeah. Well, good luck.
It’s gonna be a great year, I think. Clients are starting to do big things again, and that means more complex events and big-name entertainment. I’ve got a good feeling.