SHOWCASING THE BEST of the Big Easy may sound like an easy job. After all, New Orleans is known for its irresistible food and music, and its irrepressible party spirit. Putting together the perfect bash to pitch the city to 6,500 potential buyers attending the International Tourism Association's annual Pow Wow convention in May, however, proved a trickier proposition. But with only $375,000 in cash, a year of planning and a massive Rolodex, event producer Kellie Mathas did exactly that. The special events director for DMC USA Hosts New Orleans says a “huge cooperative effort” among vendors and a clever suggestion from a client helped her overcome obstacles along the way.
Sponsorships are important to many major events, Mathas says. But in the case of the Pow Wow Mardi Gras Extravaganza, the standard practice took a few unexpected twists.
For starters, the specter of terrorism drove away a number of previously committed cash donors, according to Mathas' client, Kim Priez of the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau. “American Express was the only national sponsor that stayed with us post-9/11,” she explains.
Mathas credits Priez with making up for lost budget dollars by suggesting the sale of new sponsorships for a series of full-scale floats planned as part of a mid-party Mardi Gras parade.
With the help of Mathas' design sense and vendor contacts, sponsors branded the floats, which they then rode on with their own select clients. Participants including Delta Airlines, Allied Tpro and the Palm Springs Desert Resorts Convention and Visitors Authority “totally got into it,” Mathas says, noting that float riders tossed customized Frisbees, logo-imprinted beads and other branded items to the thrilled crowd. Besides the event giving sponsors great exposure and an exciting interactive experience, “the amount we were able to recoup from that idea [about $100,000, according to Priez] paid almost entirely for the parade,” Mathas says.
WORTH THE WAIT
A Memorial Day event date further threatened mathas' budget by raising union labor costs to double-time, she says. That is, until venue the Louisiana Superdome suggested a plan allowing crews to set up starting almost a week before the holiday.
Without the Superdome's support, Mathas says, she might not have been able to create the “virtual ceiling” she had designed to minimize the sprawl of the 166,000-square-foot venue's interior. With ample pre-holiday time, though, her team set up the 75 rigging points required to hang huge inflatable sculptures fabricated by designer Ashley Ramage of Bristol, England-based Flying Objects. The result, Mathas says, was an overhead menagerie of brilliantly lit shapes ranging up to 35 feet in length, drawing guests' focus away from the vast concrete floor.
But Mathas' labor-cost woes weren't over yet. While her team had five 12- to 14-hour days to set up the party, an incoming Superdome event forced a seven-hour strike time. Despite the crunch, the facility came through once again, Mathas says. “Instead of starting to unrig the ceiling immediately, they let us wait an hour and do everything else,” she says. Once the clock struck midnight — and turned over into a non-holiday — the union labor crew completed the bulk of the takedown.
GIVE AND GROW
If the Pow Wow Mardi Gras Extravaganza suffered planning and setup crises, the event's thousands of guests definitely didn't know it, both Mathas and her client say.
With highlights including Ramage's sculptures, plus stations for mask-making, custom tattoos and caricatures, not to mention two Mardi Gras-themed stages and a rain of confetti from a sky-tracker cannon, “the decor made the Superdome look cozy — which is impossible,” Priez says.
Mathas says an abundance of food and drink kept guests in a festive mood. Again, she cites vendor flexibility as key. She notes that exclusive Superdome caterer Volume Services America “wanted to make sure we got the best product possible and that they showcased the best they could do.” The company not only did their share at cost, but allowed Mathas to bring in select sponsored food, including 5,000 shrimp, 6,000 portions of gumbo and a variety of specialty desserts.
While Mathas' company provided all its services and more than 400 man-hours free of charge, and the event took up a year of the producer's time, she insists she wouldn't change a thing if given the chance to do it again. Well, maybe one: “After the parade left, I needed about 40 more sweepers than I had,” she says. “But, I suppose,” she adds, “what is a true Mardi Gras experience in New Orleans without any trash?”
USA Hosts New Orleans 365 Canal St., Suite 1400, New Orleans, LA 70130; 504/524-8687; www.usahosts.com
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