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Ted: Why It's Smart to Fill the Summer Gap

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By Ted Kruckel

Years ago the conventional wisdom was that nobody threw parties that matter in August. The thinking was, variously, that no one is in town, that it's hard to get media to show up, that it's just too damn hot.

I learned that was all rubbish when I did the launch event for Elle Decor almost 15 years ago. I can't remember why, but a variety of circumstances forced us to have a mid-August party to celebrate the magazine's United States debut.

I'd love to say it was due to our inventive efforts that a cast of hundreds showed up. After all, the event boasted a gallery of rare furniture, fashion models amid tableaux vivante, and carton after carton of moss.

But the truth is, we were the only game in town. The party crowd—you know who they are, they show up for everything, regardless of whether they have a legitimate connection or not—acted like guppies .phping for air at the open bar. These people are addicted to going to parties. And the truth is if you cater (literally) to them, you can have a packed and successful event.

It surprises me, years later, that so few people capitalize on this. Travel & Leisure did at its recent World's Best awards event in the back area of Lincoln Center, where an often overlooked set of fountains and pools form a Mies-esque setting. I was amazed how many people turned out. It was a swelteringly hot night, and the invitation seemed clear that the party would be en plein air, meaning no air-conditioning. But there they were, more than 600 well-dressed advertising types milling about, waiting for Savion Glover to bring in da noise, or da funk, or whatever it is he brings in—I had to leave before he came on. (You can also read BiZBash's full coverage of the event.)

Travel & Leisure always does imaginative and well-produced events, and this one was no different, but in all honesty, I think they could have gotten away with serving beer and Italian ice out of paper cups and the place would still have been mobbed. People are party-starved in August. If you build it they will come.

Besides Travel & Leisure, there seem to be two types that are capitalizing on the late summer party guest bumper crop: politicos and charity kickoffs.

I am obsessed with kickoff parties for charity galas, prefer them to the actual galas, so I'm going to save my obsession there for another day.

But I'm also a sucker for political fund-raisers. For me, like a lot of people, I think, it feels like I'm fulfilling some civic duty, and it's better than volunteering at the library.

I lived in the Georgica Pond area when then-President Bill Clinton came for a weekend at Steven Spielberg's compound (where the primary behemoth structure tries to compensate for its bulk with a cutesy-homey moniker, "Quelle Barn," engraved and poked in the grass out front like everybody's). With all the glad-handing and name-dropping that went down that season, I guess I thought I had seen it all.

But this year's appeal from Friends of Hillary for "An Evening with Hillary" left me speechless yet giddy. The event was to be held at the home of Susan and Alan Patricof, and the invite promised not only a special guest (guess who? Hint: Like the missus, he too has books to peddle), but painstakingly pointed out the benefits of subscribing to the event at various levels:

For $2,000 you got a copy of both Clinton tomes, signed.

For $10,000 you got the books signed and personalized.

For $25,000 you got dinner (a steal, I thought).

Now, I am a stickler about fund-raising invitations being clear, but this was just a little too clear. Basically, Bill and Hill will write your name for $4,000 each. Putting aside the propriety of having a Hamptons power broker cash grab while her fellow party member is 10 weeks away from a desperately close election (well, if you can put that aside), I said out loud after perusing my options, "Hillary, call me for an invite reality check any time." The fact is, for $40 at any of the zillions of Barnes & Noble stores where they hawked their doorstop-size works, you could have had a personalized copy.

And while the invitation makes clear that political donations are not tax-deductible (many political invites don't, and I am amazed how many people don't understand this) and that corporate donations are illegal, it does not point out that the legal maximum donation is $2,000 per candidate per election (primaries count). People get around this by writing checks from their kids, their aging relatives, etc., and talk openly about it. In fact, at big-time events like this, if your donor level isn't painfully clear from your color-coded wrist tag, then people go out of their way to tell you how much they gave. One female fashion designer once told me her donation three times in one evening.

To be fair, I think I should point out that both Clintons seem to work the room without financial prejudice. The shame is that I think they don't need to act this way and that they've learned nothing from past criticisms.

I'm sure I sound a bit bossy-trousers on these points (OK, a whole lot), but I tell you these things 'cause I know. I come from a politically active family; we had backyard fund-raisers for a congresswoman, a senator, and a presidential candidate, and I saw firsthand how these things used to work.

The idea was that there was a "suggested" donation amount, but that because our nation's well-being was up for discussion, no invited guests were refused entry. Once, when the low-key punch bowl collection method didn't work so well, one volunteer suggested a "roll call," which my father would not allow. (They're everywhere, these political volunteers—often I wish they would help out at the library.)

For donations beyond the legal limit, you were referred to a campaign volunteer, I guess to quietly learn the loopholes.

These events were always off the record, so people could speak their minds freely. This occasionally still happens. These distinctions matter because they implied you were supporting the process, not just the candidate.

But in the Summer 2004 Smackdown Champion—Hamptons Conference goes without a doubt to Eliot Spitzer. When you opened his invitation, you were confronted with dueling get-togethers, one a Saturday cocktail party and the other a Sunday brunch, each at a lovely (one assumes) private residence.

Now, I suppose this could be a good idea, trying to eliminate the "I'm busy" excuses, but when I saw the volume discount for attending both, well, let's just say I'm glad I wasn't chewing.

If these events were at a public forum or hired hall, I might have been OK, but all I could picture was the poor couple who yielded fewer donors, and the tension and humiliation they must have undergone in return for letting the lawn be trampled.

And finally, at a smaller political fund-raiser, with a hundred people at most, guests were asked to use portable bathrooms, which just makes me crazy. Hamptons hosts do this all the time. They always tell you that they are afraid of their septic system's overflowing.

Here's my rule. Don't invite people to your home for a private event and have them use a rented facility. Ever. It is so tacky.

For a benefit or public event, it is OK to supplement your own facilities with portables, if need be. The truth is, an event with 200 people for two hours will result with at most 40 flushes, and any decent plumber can tell you what your system can hold. Sealing your house off like a tomb negates the whole spirit of being a host. So many times I hear politicians thank the homeowners for "opening up their home" while a guard behind them makes sure not one soul enters their private domain.

Posted 08.19.04

Columnist Ted Kruckel is an experienced and opinionated former event and PR pro who ran events for 20 years for high-profile clients like Vanity Fair, Elle Decor, Christian Dior and Carolina Herrera. He shuttered his firm, Ted Inc., in 2003. You can email him at [email protected].

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