How Event Design Brought the American Cancer Society Gala's Mission to Life
For its annual fund-raiser, the Chicago chapter of the charity had a theme party that was fun—yet anything but frivolous.
Photo: Barry BrecheisenCHICAGO—Though the American Cancer Society’s event planners couldn’t have predicted that Chicago would be hit with a snowstorm on April 27, they chose a gala theme that was ultimately the perfect foil to the unseasonable chill. Held at the Hilton Chicago, this year’s Discovery Ball had the feel of a lavish garden party—but wasn’t subject to any chilly temps.
From living garden statues at the cocktail reception to dinner tables decked with pots of lavender and rosemary, the “Where Hope Grows” theme infused nearly every aspect of event production. But the garden references had a meaning that went beyond aesthetics.
“Our theme is always centered around our mission,” said senior manager of distinguished events Brittany Johnson. “When we first started brainstorming for our 2019 theme, we focused on the phrase stronger together. Like the root system of a tree, our connections run deep, our lives intertwined, and we are stronger when we face challenges together. With the tree as our anchor symbolizing strength, we can grow hope for a future without cancer. ‘Where Hope Grows’ was integrated into every aspect of the event.”
Rishi Patel, chief executive officer of HMR Designs, kept the evening’s central phrase in mind while creating his design—and employed plenty of foliage.
During the cocktail reception, the 800 guests explored a touching installation dubbed the “Garden of Hope.” The candlelit tunnel of smilax vine showcased photos of the event’s honorees and those whom Johnson called “loved ones lost.” During dinner, guests sat under a massive chandelier made of willow branches.
Leafy photo ops abounded, with several living walls set up throughout the ballroom, and a video booth let guests pose on a swing in front of a hedge-like wall.
Even the cocktails got garden-inspired treatment. At one interactive station, guests could pick their own herbs and muddle fruits to create customized drinks. And, one of the evening’s specialty cocktails was an Old Fashioned with smoked lavender.
The addition of more interactive stations was part of planners’ goals to “elevate the guest experience,” Johnson said. However, she admitted that one the new elements proved logistically challenging.
“Rather than a typical photo booth, I wanted to create a video set. After brainstorming with our vendor Smilebooth, I came up with the idea of guests entering a set where they could swing in a garden. It was a challenge to find the space for this set-up, as we needed ample height for the truss to carry the weight of the swings, not to mention the timing of it all,” Johnson said.
“The set-up needed to take place during the tight flip of the ballroom space from cocktails to late night party. At one point, we almost abandoned the idea because it was proving too challenging logistically. I loved it too much to let it go, so we figured out a way to integrate the set-up into the cocktail reception solving the problem of how to get it set in a two-hour flip.”
The garden swing wasn’t the only thing that was ultimately successful: The event raised $2.1 million.
Scroll through the photos below to see inside the gala.
VENDORS FOR THE AMERICAN CANCER SOCIETY DISCOVERY BALL
Audiovisual Production, Lighting, Sound: Frost Chicago
Celebrity Wrangler/Talent Broker: Magnificent Events
Design: HMR Designs
Entertainment: Stage Factor (living garden statues); Maggie Speaks (band)
Furniture Rentals: Nüage Designs
Invitations, Signage: NiKnack Marketing
Photography: Francis Son Photography
Venue: Hilton Chicago
Videography: 11 Dollar Bill