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WASHINGTON, D.C. The Washington Humane Society’s annual Sugar and Champagne event at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center is known for its sugar-filled tasting format with more than 70 restaurants, caterers, and bakeries serving dessert bites at sponsored food stations. As the name implies, champagne and sparkling wines from well-known providers like Moët & Chandon, as well as local vineyards, accompany the sweets. In 2012 planners added a V.I.P. tasting room with a $150 ticket, but they knew they needed to up the ante again this year. That’s when the host committee, including event creators and local restauranteurs Todd and Ellen Gray, came up with the idea of the so-called Exclusive Experience, a private tasting and interactive reception prior to the main event limited to 50 guests.
“Guests have more fun when there is an opportunity to be interactive in some way,” says Emily Miller, director of special events for the nonprofit. “We wanted guests to be up close and personal with the participating chefs and not only can they taste the savory or sweet items, but they can learn to make them.”
For $250, guests learned how liquid nitrogen can be used in food with Todd Gray making Dippin' Dots-like ice cream, sampled cocktail recipes from Cava mixologist Glendon Hartley, and rolled their own truffles with the venue’s pastry chef. Co Co Sala also offered sugar-pulling demonstrations as part of the pastry-making process. The new offering sold out, and the entire event drew some 750 guests.
Here are Miller’s tips for changing up your event:
1. Think about what already works at your event and enhance it.
“What works is that we offer all these awesome food and beverage tastings that would take you weeks, or even months, to [try] on your own,” Miller says. “What makes it better is if you can learn to do it by yourself by adding an interactive element to the event. That is when we decided to create the extra ticket for the Exclusive Experience and make it more high-end to drive interest.”
2. Borrow successful ideas from local events.
“I always look at other animal welfare organizations to see how they incorporated their mission into their event and if it’s something we can do,” she says.
3. Research national events and see what hasn’t been done in your area yet.
“The West Coast events, namely the Los Angeles and Hollywood areas, do a lot that we haven’t in D.C.,” Miller says. “Planners there can be on a whole different scale than Washington events, so I find great ideas for sponsorship activations, lighting schemes, and even layouts. Where do guests enter and where do they go next once they’ve arrived? Pictures are a huge inspiration and key when bringing an idea for our events to life.”
4. Think about who you know that could add a new element at no cost.
“In 2012 we had to find a new venue that could host 1,000 people for this event that had grown so quickly over the previous few years. This is where the Ronald Reagan Building came into play. Ellen Gray brought forth the relationship, and the management team decided they wanted to host Sugar and Champagne annually as one of its signature events. The venue provides all the audiovisual, production, lighting, and equipment rentals that we would normally have to pay for, so it cut our expenses big time.”
5. Get creative with sponsorships.
“Our goals is to raise $100,000 from this event, which is one of the smaller of our annual event goals, so we are limited with our budget and would rather raise money then spend it. We looked for a sponsor to own certain aspects of the event, which we are starting this year with the Exclusive Experience hosted by the Grays. Next year it could be a sponsored check-in process. It’s often overlooked but it’s the first impression guests get of what is to come. Blow them away from the moment they step inside.”