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Lincoln Center's Mary Callaghan

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Title: Director, Special Events
What She Plans: Close to 100 events, including openings for programs like Mostly Mozart, the Lincoln Center Festival, and Midsummer Night Swing. She also oversees donor recognition and cultivation events, board events, sponsorship events and corporate events. A big upcoming fund-raiser is the Beverly Sills Tribute Gala, scheduled for April 14, 2003.
How Long She's Been at Lincoln Center: Since 1995
Staff: Two full-time employees and one consultant
Favorite Magazine: New York
Nights Out Each Week:?"At least four."
How Long She's Been in New York: "All my life. I grew up on Long Island."
College Major:?International Relations

What is the average size of your budget per event??

I can't say specifically. We're a nonprofit, so we're very cost-conscious. Since September 11, we've cut our budgets and scaled back. We also have the Lincoln Center Junior Committee, and there's no budget for those events. We ask vendors to either donate their time or do things at cost, or have them sponsored.

What is the most challenging event you produce?

It would have to be galas, because they're fund-raising-driven. They're much bigger in scale, with a lot of components, like dealing with chairpeople for the committees. You're working with high-powered, influential corporate people who support Lincoln Center and do this out of kindness. You're coordinating other people's time and activities.

What is your favorite event to produce?

Probably the Lincoln Center Festival opening. It opens the Lincoln Center summer season, which is our busiest season. It's a very festive, quintessentially New York event. Producing the event is challenging because it involves a huge, outdoor post-performance event, and the performances let out at different times. There's a lot of orchestrating. It usually has an international theme; one year we had Chinese dragons, another year it was African drummers.

What's the biggest challenge facing the special event industry right now??

Definitely a financial challenge. People are more cost-conscious, and getting people to buy a high-cost gala ticket is tough. It's a challenge to get people to attend events because there's so much [competition] out there. People have a lot of options to spend what little philanthropic money they have. Our junior group is particularly hard hit; they're much more affected by the economy. They're just starting to be philanthropic-minded, so it's tougher [to get them to events]. Our attendance numbers for that group have decreased.

Is it harder to justify spending money on events in this economy??

No, not for us. Because we are a nonprofit, we've always been very sensitive and cost-conscious.

How is your budget for events changing??

It's been trimmed since last year. We cut some of our events, and scaled back others. We definitely scaled back our Junior Committee events, from six to eight in the past to four or five this year.

Is the definition of a successful event changing? How do you measure an event's success?

I don't think it's changing. Because what we do is so specific—donor recognition events and cultivation—it's much more fund-raising-driven than anything else. So we look at membership levels, how many people we've reached, retention.

What do you think your guests are expecting at one of your events, and are those expectations changing?

I don't think they are. [Our guests] expect a very high-quality, artistically savvy event.

How do you meet those expectations??

We have access to world class performers for our events, and so most involve an artistic performance. And we have access to great spaces.

How do you see events changing now??

They're not as lavish. They're more purposeful.

What trends are you seeing in event style??

Style-wise, the look is scaled back. It's cleaner, more modern.

Do you have a preferred list of vendors who you work with, or do you constantly try out new companies??

There are some we work with on a consistent basis, but we don't have any in-house [vendors], so I'm always out there looking for new vendors.

What makes a vendor stand out??

Because Lincoln Center is such a complicated and big organization, it's someone who has a good understanding of how this organization works, and knows the performing arts.

What's your vendor pet peeve?

Being overly dramatic.

Where do you go for inspiration??

I just look at what's being performed in our halls.

Who do you look up to in the event industry??

She's not in the event industry, but Brooke Astor is the epitome of a philanthropist.

How did you start in the event industry??

When I worked at the United Nations, a lot of what I did was get the diplomatic community to events. So I started to see it from the other side and thought it would be a very interesting career move. I loved the chaos and the details.

What do you wish you had known when you started planning events??

That there's no such thing as a free weekend!

What's the best advice anyone has ever given to you???

No problem is too big to be fixed.

Posted 04.02.03

Photo by Anna Persson for BiZBash.

This story originally appeared in the Winter 2003 issue of the BiZBash Event Style Reporter newspaper.
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