Special Events

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THERE'S NO STATIC HERE. The message comes through loud and clear-people in the prime of their careers give off electrical charges that affect everyone around them. These are 20 of the special event industry's Current Assets.

A current-the flow of an electrical charge between two points-gives us light, power and energy. Life as we know it exists because of this flow, as does the special event industry.

The people we have profiled as our Current Assets are conduits between past, present and future. Sometimes shocking us with the sparks of creativity they give off, these high-voltage assets are super-charged for success, and we follow their bright lights for personal and professional direction.

Physics has proved that once energy exists, it exists forever. That being true, the energy of the Current Assets profiled here will touch a hundred more professionals who, in turn, will electrify another hundred. As we contemplate the flow of positive energy, it's obvious that our job of bringing all the assets in this industry to light will never be done. There are so many more (and only so many pages). Look for more Current Assets in upcoming issues.

PUTTING IT IN WRITING Joe Jeff Goldblatt, CSEP For 20 years Joe Jeff Goldblatt, Ph.D, spent day after day, night after night in the background of some of Washington's most elite parties and affairs. As an event manager and producer, Goldblatt dressed up the District of Columbia for many a presidential soiree-George Bush's inaugural celebration and numerous White House events for Ronald Reagan. But when it came to sharing his secrets, the good doctor turned to teaching and writing.

Now in his sixth year as the founding director of the Event Management Program at George Washington

University, Goldblatt oversees a student body of 2,000 and a faculty of 21. There, they offer a master's of tourism administration (with a major in event management) and a post-graduate professional certificate, the CSEP designation (Certified Special Events Professional). Classes are offered at the university or through distance education-the Internet and various video, computer and correspondence materials. Bound by a heavy research agenda, students participate in about 4,000 practicums annually, including the Olympics and major conventions.

Among the school's community service programs headed by Goldblatt are the Octoberfest Festival in Columbus, Ohio; the Island of Tonga Millennium Celebration; and a grant through the Environmental Protection Agency to develop its first green certification program for special events.

Goldblatt's one-of-a-kind leadership earned him the Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Special Events Society in 1996-the only time it's ever been awarded.

For all that he has taught us and continues to teach us, Goldblatt, or "Dr. Joe" as he is known to his students, truly is an asset to the special event industry.-T.C.

Marcy Blum The law on weddings was laid down last year when Marcy Blum and co-author Laura Fisher Kaiser came out with Weddings For Dummies, an edition of the popular series of books that helped all us dummies learn how to do everything from put on makeup to hook up to the Internet.

Blum is like her writing style-quick, irreverent and full of homespun wisdom (as much as a New York girl can be). But before she ever applied pen to paper, Blum was getting her message across through word of mouth as she consulted with an untold number of brides during her more than 20 years in business.

For her effort, she was rewarded with such accolades as New York magazine's "Best Wedding Planner," and Food Arts magazine's Silver Spoon Award. Even with such praise for her planning abilities, Blum chose to embark on the arduous path of putting it down in writing. "If writing is in your blood, you have to do it, no matter what else you are doing," she explains. "It definitely helps make me more viable. It has opened doors because I'm now consider ed an expert. Personally, writing is a thinking-through process and a learning experience. It helps me to see the connection between everything."

Certainly she's connected her life experiences to create a planning firm that can draw upon her many talents. An early career in the restaurant business and as a free-lance food consultant has given her the ability to design unusual menus and to communicate knowledgeably about them with the best caterers. The restaurant business led to a wedding consulting business, which in turn led to corporate planning.

"I have many irons in the fire," Blum says. "I'd like to do more writing as well as take my business toward more cohesive projects on a larger scale, such as yearlong event and marketing campaigns." In addition, Blum will be coming out with a line of event products under her name. Some are wedding-oriented, others are for the larger-event market.

As for her accomplishments up to now, Blum says: "I like to think that with Weddings For Dummies I am leaving behind a wedding bible of sorts, but I also like to think that, over the years, I've trained people to a certain standard. I think many of us have done the industry a great service by sending out 'ambassadors' to the future who have a high expectation of what should be done and a better way of doing it. Hopefully, we have taught these people how to be better special event professionals with a standard that is constantly being taken higher and higher."-L.G.

Linda Surbeck Linda Surbeck is proud to come from an entrepreneurial background. About 20 years ago, she and her husband owned an office products business. After attending a string of office functions and open houses, Surbeck came to an undeniable conclusion: "I was quite embarrassed for the hosts," she says. "We had to throw our coats in a pile; there was cheap wine and no signage. It was clearly evident these people needed a business to help them create a professional image."

A self-professed neat freak with a flair for flamboyance, Surbeck, armed with only her reputation in the business community, left her husband's operation in 1981 to jump feet first into producing promotional events. She created a system based on common sense and taught herself how to write a contract and what to charge.

Today, Louisville, Kentucky-based Master of Ceremonies focuses solely on the corporate market (please, no birthdays or bar mitzvahs) and includes lavish gala events for five major accounts during Kentucky Derby week at Churchill Downs.

Surbeck's entrepreneurial attitude has resulted in two subsidiaries-Master Publications, a publishing sector under which she has written two books: Creating Special Events: The Ultimate Guide to Successful Events and Positive, Powerful, Promotional Words: The Right-On Resource for Writers, Speakers and Creative Wordsmiths; and Festiva Internationale, created in 1994 to take on large-scale projects with critical liability issues.-T.C.

CORPORATE CULTURE Bonnie Siegel, CMP Don't try to pigeonhole Bonnie Siegel or her company, ASE Group of Overland Park, Kansas. When pressed, she'll call it a "boutique full-service event and meeting production company." However, even that title doesn't quite cover everything. "We are a bizarre company," admits Siegel. "We have a different product and a different twist on the industry." The company, which Siegel founded in 1985, is more about event management and event marketing, with an event division, a meeting division, a business theater division and a travel division. Full-service, indeed.

"About seven years ago, the company made a right turn," Siegel says. "We realized that it's not as difficult to do meetings as most event planners perceived. We wanted to retain that part of the business in-house. There was an opportunity for us to bring the creative side of events into meetings. Then we took it a step further. We realized we were missing out on revenue by not doing the communication piece of the meeting-the general session. So now we do that, too."

Teaching clients how to use the entire scope of the meeting agenda as a marketing tool is the goal of ASE Group. "Everything should be viewed as a marketing opportunity," Siegel says. "Even the logistics, such as why we would suggest a particular location or hotel. It's all integrated into providing a complete marketing strategy for the client, as opposed to creating just an event."

Once hired by incentive companies such as Maritz and Caribiner, ASE Group now competes with them. "We may not have the size of their markets, but we have the product down pat," she says. "They are wondering who this sore thumb is.

"I have always been considered a more 'out of the box' person, not only in the way I think, but in my vision for the way this business could grow," Siegel continues. "I have grown in the market in a very specific way. I am trying to recreate the box; not the party-the box. I am constantly looking at how the event industry is run and I am trying to put my mark on it."

The imprint is clear.-S.C.

Cameron James and Ken Mills It's been said that all business is show business. When you've assembled an audience of people you need to inform, entertain, honor or motivate, it's not just a meeting anymore. In fact, Cameron James and Ken Mills, founders of Columbus, Ohio-based Mills/James Productions, prefer the term "business theater."

Whether it's a small corporate meeting, Caribbean cruise or United Nations World Summit, the Mills/James Business Theater and Special Events group has won rave reviews, including the Best of Show Grand Award from New York Festivals, a Gala from Special Events Magazine and an Esprit from the International Special Events Society.

What was a two-person operation in 1984 now numbers 144 employees, and provides everything from concept to staging for electronic media, annual meetings, sales incentive trips, stockholder gatherings and satellite videoconferencing, just to name a few. CD-ROM and Internet projects dominate in the new Presentation Services department, but it's the turnkey commercial operations that keep the lights on. You need original music? No problem. Set design? Step right in.

If that's not enough, Mills/James' 47,000-square-foot teleproduction center will soon be big brother to a new audiovisual conference center. "We have a passion for the meeting side of the business," Mills says, "and very, very few places in the country offer the range of services that we do under one roof."

Meetings never looked so good.-T.C.

Mona Meretsky, CSEP When Mona Meretsky started her company, COMCOR Event and Meeting Planning, 15 years ago in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, she made a business decision that impacted not only the success of her company, but that of the entire special event industry. "From the start, I set a standard for myself that I hoped others would follow, and that was charging a professional fee upfront," she says. "So many [event professionals] don't set a fee-it's just absorbed within the budget. But then the client doesn't realize the value of your service. If you don't charge a professional fee, you will not be seen as a professional. And the client won't see the worth in working with a professional."

Clearly, Meretsky's clients see the worth in working with her. From the start, she immersed herself in the corporate market, establishing a niche in incentive events. Her clients take her all over the country-so much so that she is rarely in her native South Florida. "Last year, however, we spent more time in Florida than we ever have in the past," she says. "Florida is very hot right now."

COMCOR's South Florida location has enabled Meretsky to go after the Caribbean and South and Central American event markets, something she plans to pursue more vigorously in the coming year. Another avenue Meretsky would like to explore is working with hotel developers on a consultant basis, helping them to create properties geared specifically to the meeting and event markets. "If hotels were to hire meeting and event planners as consultants before the property is planned, they could save hundreds of thousands of dollars," she says. "If they could find out everything that we (event planners) need beforehand, they could build the space correctly."

Doing things the right way has been the basis of Meretsky's business. "I am a very ethical person," she says. "I believe in following the rules-that is important to me as a business owner and a person. In terms of ethics, the industry is evolving. It has a 100 percent better reputation than it did 10 years ago."

Indeed, Meretsky has had some influence on that.-S.C.

Paul Wolman When Paul Wolman says he has spent his life in the special event industry, he is not exaggerating. The owner of Baltimore-based P.W. Feats was just 10-yes, 10-years old when he started his first event company, Parties Unlimited. "When I was 9, I went to the World's Fair in New York," Wolman recalls. "I was enchanted. The amazing combination of magic and fresh ideas intrigued me. But what was really exciting to me was the way the audience responded to it." Fueled by the desire to entertain, Wolman started a small party business: He and a friend performed magic tricks for birthday parties. Eventually, their services expanded, and by the time he was in high school, he had a full-blown party company, which lasted for 15 years.

"I figured that I was having too much fun doing what I was doing, and there was no way I was going to make a living doing it," Wolman recalls. "So, I went to law school." After graduation, Wolman got a job at an ad agency where he learned marketing, which, like events, is about making an audience respond and interact.

"I wanted to combine the tools of marketing with the live experience," he says. So in 1985, he started P.W. Feats, one of the country's first full-service event marketing firms.

"I learned that by creating an environment that takes guests off the day-to-day treadmill, allowing them to shift their focus for a couple of hours onto what our client wants them to focus on-there really is no more powerful way to reach people," he says. "An event takes marketing to its highest level."

Though based in Baltimore, P.W. Feats produces events worldwide like many event companies that specialize in the corporate market. "As an event professional, you must evolve to help your clients communicate their messages wherever they are," Wolman says.

A message that he wants to communicate is the importance of developing and educating the next generation of event professionals. He is on the advisory board of the Academy of Travel, Tourism and Hospitality, a 10-year old program based in Florida that matches kids from performing arts high schools with shadowing programs within the hospitality industry. Wolman has established a P.W. Feats scholarship and is working to adapt the program to the Baltimore/Washington, D.C. area. "The event industry is one of the fastest growing industries today," he says. "If we want to find people who think beyond the daily grind, we need to think about training. We need to show the next generation that there is more to [the hospitality industry] than cleaning a room or flipping burgers. There are real careers in this industry. It is possible to find magic in every aspect of the hospitality industry. We need to show them that magic."

If anyone can perform magic, Wolman can.-S.C.

NEW YORK ATTITUDE Nancy Kitchen, AIFD The world needs its free spirits, as does the special event industry. Nancy Kitchen, AIFD, owner of The Flower Loft in Rahway, New Jersey, sees the big picture and her place in it-which means that she might be in Panama one week, New York another and Hong Kong the next, doing anything from helping a fellow member of the American Institute of Floral Design create the floral arrangements for an event during a presidential inauguration or teaching the mechanics of design at New York's Otis Parsons School to designing silk flowers in Hong Kong.

Simply put, Kitchen is a global asset. A person who understands that traveling is as much about personal discovery and growth as it is about giving back, Kitchen is always sure to give what she can of herself on the road and then bring it back to her community, art and profession.

"Doors open for me because I am curious," she says, when asked how she is able to traverse both the globe and the wide range of professions that make up the special event industry. "Being curious can sometimes be exhausting, but at the same time, if you are open, receptive and flexible, you can learn from anything."

She stands by her words. One example of her thirst for research and authenticity was her one-woman performance at the Kennedy Center for the National Symphony. Asked to design a show about flowers in the Imperial Court during Mozart's lifetime, she threw herself into that period.

And yet, when research is done, she understands the need for flexibility. "In the event business," she says, "you need a strong reactive personality. You can be proactive only up to a point." Which explains how Kitchen leads her life and why, when she is in Australia, her trip might extend unexpectedly to New Zealand. After all, she says, she was so close that she had to take the opportunity. Her travels may take her away, but lucky for us, Kitchen always returns to share the gifts of another culture by incorporating that knowledge, insight and beauty into her design work and seminars.-L.G.

Jaclyn Bernstein and Rob Hulsmeyer, CSEP There are certain people in the special event industry to whom one-word associations perfectly apply. Say the name Jaclyn Bernstein, and the word "spitfire" springs to mind. Mention the name Rob Hulsmeyer, CSEP, and you'll immediately think "cool" or "collected." Put the two together, which is what happened five years ago when the duo purchased Tour de Force Events, a New York-based destination management company where Bernstein had worked for seven years, and you've got Empire Force Events, one of New York's most formidable event production companies.

Bernstein's career spark was ignited when she was just 22 and an ambitious college graduate hell-bent on pursuing a career in the special event industry. In addition to cold-calling companies and sending her resume to almost every event company in town, Bernstein immediately got involved with the International Special Events Society, attending the New York chapter's first event, resume in hand. While there, she met another young event professional, Rob Hulsmeyer, who owned a technical production company. Two weeks later, Bernstein joined Tour de Force Events.

The friendship between Bernstein and Hulsmeyer grew over the years, and the two often worked together on jobs. "I knew that we would be an asset to the industry if we ever partnered," Hulsmeyer says. In 1992, Bernstein and Hulsmeyer began to seriously think about forming their own business. Coincidentally, Bernstein's boss wanted to sell Tour de Force, and approached Bernstein with an offer to sell. "The timing was perfect for us," Bernstein says. "We were able to slip in and continue on the same path [as Tour de Force] but with a more aggressive approach." Hulsmeyer adds, "It gave us a foundation and an opportunity to combine our expertise."

The combination, which now includes seven employees, has paid off. Empire Force Events is as powerful in the New York event market as its name suggests. "We have positioned ourselves as an event production company that provides a high level of DMC services," Hulsmeyer says.

Recent accolades include five 1998 Gala Award nominations-not too shabby for a first-time nominee. "Being nominated for those Gala Awards shows us that we have reached our first plateau of success," says Hulsmeyer "We spent the first five years rebuilding a company. We had a split focus; we were building a business while doing business. Now we have a good handle on it. We are going into the future with a strong foundation of processes, procedures and product."

Not to mention a strong partnership, proof that not only do opposites attract, but they also work extremely well together.-S.C.

L.A. STYLE Janet Elkins One word that truly describes Janet Elkins, president of Los Angeles-based EventWorks, is modesty. "I surround myself with people who are more talented than I am, who are smarter than I am," she says. "You need special talents and a certain genius to make an event wonderful. Everyone who works at EventWorks has a specialty and a genius, and they all overlap to create the full production. I love it when a co-worker makes a name for him- or herself in this business."

Notice that she says "co-worker" and not employee. That statement alone says much about Elkins. As much a team player as she is a team leader, she is the first to credit a designer for an idea or to sing the praises of those who work with-not for-her. "EventWorks is a well-oiled machine: Everyone is part of the engine; everyone works," she says. "We need all the parts to make the finished product."

All modesty aside, Elkins clearly is a talent in her own right. Her company, which she owns with Ted Bowers Jr., is one of Los Angeles' most prominent event production firms with corporate clients spanning the country. And to think that, for Elkins, it all started with a hot dog truck. In an effort to drum up some rental business for her father-in-law's hot dog truck, Elkins showed a photo of the truck to Ted Bowers Sr., owner of American Eagle Productions. He had no use for the truck, but hired Elkins to do sales. In 1982, Elkins and Ted Bowers Jr. bought out American Eagle and renamed it EventWorks.

Autonomy, Elkins believes, is the key to a successful company. Clearly, it has worked for EventWorks. Letting go of control is not easy for owners, especially the typical "Type A" owner whom the event industry breeds. Yet Elkins seems to have mastered it. "I want people to take full responsibility for an event, to take on as much as they can handle," she says. "Right now, I am in a position where I have the ability to nurture talent. I want to bring out the best in people."

As far as we can tell, she has.-S.C.

Andrea Michaels Something unusual has happened to Andrea Michaels. Ten years after she opened her event planning business as Extraordinary Events in Sherman Oaks, California, her client and market niche are in sync with the name she chose for her company. After all, it's not an ordinary planner who can say that, in a year's time, she has done at least five events at which the invitation list topped 3,000 people.

"I have become a specialist in the mega numbers of events," Michaels admits, laughing. "A friend asked me if I ever deal with groups of fewer than 500 because every time he sees me it's when I am producing an event of 3,000, 5,000 or 15,000. I do it because so few people can, and I love it. It's a specialty that we are becoming identified with. This is one area where most clients do not believe they can do it themselves, so it's a great area for me to go after."

In 1998, Michaels produced a public event for 7,000 people in Las Vegas during Comdex; she put together a week of seminars and events for 15,000 members of a computer technology business systems company, during which she produced a hospitality event for 4,500; and she also traveled to Scotland for the city of Los Angeles to produce an event for 3,500 travel agents.

All this does seem extraordinary, yet Michaels herself will admit that in the beginning, she was no different from any other businessperson-focused only on what is before her, rather than beyond. "I started my company with no vision further than continuing what I had been doing-booking headline entertainment and doing theme parties," she says.

To go from a limited concept of business to having an unlimited vision takes a shift in perception. For Michaels, this occurred when she found that by asking more questions of the client, she was able to move from being a vendor to a team member. "I found out that my talent is in finding out the client's objectives, instead of simply filling an order when the call comes in," she says. "Now, I'm a partner in their process." She finds clients all have something in common-an immediate problem (usually sales related) that needs an immediate solution.

"There is more short-term business than ever before because a company may realize that it needs to make its sales right now," she explains. "That is where my niche is. We find out how we can help pump up the sales force, promote the product and get visibility for the client.

"Dig beyond the surface," Michaels advises. "Don't just do something for the sake of doing it. Give the client what he or she needs, not what you want to give them. We are more than fulfillment companies, and we need to hear and use terminology such as 'partnering with the client to get market share.' Market share is what counts to them. We need to help them actualize it."

And to do so on such a large scale, a planner needs balance and objectivity. As a balance to all this talk of large events, Michaels is quick to add that she still likes smaller events. "These can be extremely interesting projects. I like the creativity and experimentation they offer. The reward is being up close and personal to the audience."

Those events help Michaels remember the golden rule of events-each person at an event is a VIP, whether there are 30 or 15,000 guests.-L.G.

THE ASSOCIATION SPIRIT Jerry Edwards Dream big. Start small. It's a time-tested formula perfectly choreographed by Jerry Edwards, owner of Chef's Expressions, a catering firm in the Baltimore area. The one-time ice cream-maker typifies the meaning of success, having used his last $2,000 to turn a fledgling sandwich shop into a 19-year-old thriving catering business. As president of the National Association of Catering Executives (after stints as a regional vice president and national treasurer), Edwards is at least partly responsible for monumental conference growth and charitable activities sponsored by the association.

On the business front, he has opened a second location at Scarlett Place, complete with two ballrooms and outside dining facilities for 700 people, and has hired chef Vito Piazza to allow himself more time for managerial details.

With 60 employees, Chef's Expressions has set a goal of not being the biggest or wealthiest- just the best, with a strength in quality. So far, judges for Germany's Culinary Olympics and the American Culinary Federation like what they taste, having bestowed Chef's Expressions with four gold and one silver medal for hot and cold food preparation.

Edwards likens his company's success to baseball ("Play the ball; don't let the ball play you") and proclaims his delicacies as "the best catering food I've had."

Hey, you know what they say: If you can do it, it ain't braggin'.-T.C.

Frank Puleo Frank Puleo may have been a foreign language teacher when he left for Italy to study Italian literature in the late seventies. However, when he returned to the States, he was a foodie. After all, who could live in Italy and not fall in love with food?

In 1981, Puleo left the textbooks for cookbooks and opened a restaurant in Manhattan called Framboise. After five years, he sold the restaurant, kept the name and, with a few well-heeled clients on his list, started an off-premise catering company called Catering by Framboise.

From the start, Puleo positioned his catering company to be different. He had an unlisted phone number and worked solely from referrals, attracting a mostly high-end social clientele, which evolved into a strong corporate clientele. Today, his clients take him all over the country.

"It's unique for a caterer to be asked to travel with the client," Puleo says. "But taste is so important to people. And we do food very well."

Another thing Framboise does very well is partner with other caterers. When Puleo was approached by an Olympic sponsor to cater some events for the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, he called on Maura Routh of Celebrations in Sarasota, Florida, and the two joined forces to create Celebrations by Framboise, enabling them to produce larger and more events. A recent Olympics-related alliance with Maxine Turner of Cuisine Unlimited in Salt Lake City has resulted in Culinary Expressions International, which will produce events for the Winter Games in 2002.

Puleo's success in partnering stems from two things: his involvement with the National Caterers Association, of which he is president-elect, and a philosophy that he probably learned back in kindergarten and never forgot-share. "As a company, we have always been open," he says. "We're always coming up with new ideas, so we are not afraid to share them with other caterers. It can only help the industry."-S.C.

Tim Lundy, CSEP They say it takes a lifetime for someone to really know oneself. But for every rule there are exceptions. In the prime of his life and career, Tim Lundy, CSEP, president of Distinctive Design Events in Atlanta, has reached an understanding with himself. "I am a hedonist," he says. "Not a total one, perhaps, but I live life to its fullest."

If he were a total hedonist, would he have found the time to start one of Atlanta's most successful catering and event design firms, raise a daughter, fulfill a year as president of the International Special Events Society and now, start a bed and breakfast in Highland, North Carolina? For Lundy, hedonism clearly means finding pleasure in work.

"It's taken me this much time to learn that I can be who I am, work in the industry, and still have a life," Lundy says. "So many people think work means giving up something. If I were to preach any message, it would be that there is a happy medium."

Lundy is practicing what he preaches. The bed and breakfast business he and his partner are opening in the summer of 1999 is a call for a quieter life. "It's more in tune with the philosophy I am trying to live by-enjoying and experiencing life through food and people."

The dream of doing so has been on his mind for years, but like so many business owners, he didn't feel confident he could continue the event side of his business while starting another at the same time. "I thought making the shift would be harder, but it wasn't," he recalls. "I went to my top clients, told them what I was going to do and asked if it would affect our relationship. They all said that as long as I was accessible and could meet them anywhere, they'd have no problems with it. They spend half a million dollars each every year, so that was a great relief."

Cynthia Shields, Lundy's longtime manager, will maintain and run the office in Atlanta, and Lundy will have an office in North Carolina. He plans on staying involved in the larger, corporate-based events, while Shields will take care of the weddings and smaller corporate work.

The direction in which Lundy is taking his business and life is not much different from that of other people and companies who are in this industry for the long haul. "All event professionals beyond the five- or 10-year mark think like this," he says. "They all would like to concentrate on only 12 primo events a year. I will always work. That's in my nature. But now, I don't have to take every event. Just those that please me."

What Lundy learned from both professional and personal encounters with his colleagues is the commonality in our dreams and fears. That lesson helped make this new transition easier. "What I got from my time with ISES is that we think we are alone," he explains. "Yet, when we start sharing, we learn we are all alike. We all experience insecurity and a lack of confidence at one time or another. By sharing, we learn the frailty of our humanity."-L.G.

THE MAIN COURSE John Svensson John Svensson knows a good thing when he sees it. A 25-year veteran with Hyatt Hotels -most of those years spent in the catering department- Svensson saw an opportunity eight years ago to build on Hyatt's reputation in Chicago's catering market by adding revenue without huge capital expenditure. The result: Regency Caterers, an off-premise division of Hyatt Regency, the first hotel to venture out of the ballroom and into unique venues.

Offering a customized feel for each event, Regency Caterers specializes in themed menus and goes to great lengths to establish a positive setting and ambience. Although this full-service division can provide linens, tables, equipment, music, flowers, even valet parking, Svensson is emphatic about the group's positioning in the marketplace. "We are not in competition with event planners. We work with a lot of them, as well as destination management companies, but we're not in competition."

One of the top caterers in Chicago, Regency Caterers does both social and corporate events, with guest lists ranging from 150 to 10,000. One of its specialties is what Svensson calls "fun food," such as interactive foodstations and on-site cooking presentations by chefs.

"It's all about meeting expectations of the total event experience," says Svensson. And that's a good thing.-T.C.

Ginger Kramer What they say about redheads is true. Ginger Kramer, owner of Coast Special Events & Catering in Sunnyvale, California, and a natural redhead, would be the first to point that out. Fiery personality and all, Kramer could light a stove with her energy alone. However, she has a staff to do that, and thankfully so. It leaves her free to roam the front of the house where she can plan for the future and network with myriad opportunities.

Kramer is a caterer who isn't all that interested in food. What she is interested in is business. And so it was fortuitous that she began her company in the heart of the hottest business of the century-the Silicon Valley, home to the computer industry.

She was 24 when she started Coast, and looking back, she recalls that her talent at business, planning and promotion had been honed early on. "I was always a big camper, making a list and checking it twice," Kramer says. "That's the bottom line of being an off-premise caterer. And, in high school, I was on speech and debate teams, always on the run. All those skills have been put to use here."

The key to success, she says, is to always have a long-range goal as well as a day-to-day plan. "I use each day as a template for the next," she explains. "However, I always have a five- and 10-year goal. For now, my five-year goal is to create a paperless off-premise catering office. In 10 years, I'd like to be a consultant."

Life, according to Kramer, is not worth anything unless every moment and every action are maximized. "Next year, I will have been in this business 20 years. I've got to remake goals. It's always, 'Where do we go from here? How do we stay on top?'"

That is where consulting comes in. Kramer has worked hard to make a name for herself as one of the top speakers on the catering circuit. She pulls no punches, gives out more information than a person can take in during two hours, and makes sure she's available afterward for phone calls and consultations. "I get the biggest reward out of sharing the information I have," she says. "I like that people listen, then take it back to their offices and make it work. The caterers who can stop what they are doing and fix it are the ones who succeed. Stubbornness and persistence got us here."

The concept of "here" doesn't last long with Kramer. "I've always assessed all my goals as early as possible," she explains. "I want to know what I can do this year that will put me past my goal. I want to surpass it, rather than just reach it. I know I'm an overachiever. That's what I want to be."-L.G.

Lisa Richards One of the definitions of a "current asset" is a person who has his or her finger on the pulse of business-not only his or her own, but business in the larger sense. A current asset is someone you can call every six months to ask "What's new?" and get an answer so full of excitement and forward thinking that it makes you wonder what you've been doing over the past half year. The above defines of Lisa Richards, president of Hospitality Inc., a 15-year-old catering and event firm based in San Diego.

In 1984, Richards began Picnic People. After subcontracting with caterers at picnics for three years, she captured those dollars for her own company by starting Festivities Catering and Special Events, and bringing catering in-house. An umbrella company, Hospitality Inc., covers both Picnic People and Festivities and other divisions. Richards hasalways been fearless in her business ventures. And the best thing is she is a firm believer that not only can she learn from her failures, but so can others. She talks freely of endeavors-those that worked and those that didn't. But the most important lesson she teaches is to have the stamina, energy and positive outlook to keep trying.

When we checked in with her last month, she was true to form. "The entire direction of the company has changed," she says brightly. "We've moved into a new 30,000-square-foot building and are growing synergistically."

In addition to the building, Richards landed what many believe is impossible. Or, rather, what many have yet to even consider, let alone think impossible. Hospitality Inc. was awarded the licensing agreement to market and sell Rubio's fish tacos, a popular product of a local fast-food restaurant.

Rubio's fish tacos are so much a part of San Diego culture that many of Festivities' clients wanted them served at their events. And as Richards began subcontracting Rubio's for events, she began to see a mutually beneficial opportunity. After working for roughly a year to complete the deal, Hospitality Inc. is now the catering arm of Rubio's Grill Baja Catering.

"I think we are the first caterer in the county to license a fast-food company in a catering environment," Richards says. "The trick to it is to start with a regionally known, 'craveable' product." The tacos are actually hard to produce, but with a million-dollar growth potential, Richards was more than willing to work hard to perfect the recipe. It's not unlike how she approaches her business.

Richards and her husband and partner Rick are chemists-mixing and matching the ingredients that make a successful and sustainable business until they get it right, which is now closer than ever. "In nine more years, we will have done everything we need to do to walk out the door," Richards says. "At that time, there will be more choices for employees. We are putting people in management positions in order to teach them how to take the risks. My entire job description now is 'maintain the vision and make the hard decisions.'" It's clear that in this position, Richards is the secret ingredient to Hospitality Inc.-L.G.

MORE IS MORE Michael Leventhal Perhaps Jack Nicholson's character in The Shining was right: All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. Michael Leventhal is an ardent subscriber to that notion. The owner of Ronsley, a prestigious Chicago-based full-service decor company, knows what it means to work hard, but he also knows how to play hard.

When he's not overseeing the design and production of more than 500 annual special events, Leventhal can be found behind the wheel of one of 12 vintage cars (Ferraris, Porsches, Aston Martins and Mercedes), racing somewhere in the United States, but perhaps in France or Italy. "When you're as busy as we are, I've found this is truly the pure escape," he says. "When you're lying on the beach, you're still thinking about business. But when you're going 180 miles per hour in a race car, you'd better be concentrating on the road."

Leventhal has always offered the complete package to his clients, whether it's a corporate meeting for Dr Pepper or the NBA Jam Session in Tokyo. He left Los Angeles- and neighbors John and Patrick Wayne- in the early sixties to pursue the design and production business. Today, 75 percent of his work still plays out in Chicago, where he operates nearly 100,000 square feet of office space just minutes from Michigan Avenue in the River North area. Five floors are shared by carpenters, electricians, designers, artists, welders, floral consultants, lighting and sound engineers, and special effects technicians.

"Some folks say they offer everything," Leventhal adds, "but we truly do it all. Business has never been better or stronger." And that's no playing around.-T.C.

Chris Hargrove and Carla Hargrove-McGill If there hadn't been a popular TV show in the 1960s with the same name, then Hargrove-an event design company near Washington, D.C.-could easily renameitself Family Affair. No fewer than six members of the Hargrove family keep tabs on the company's latest special event, trade show or exhibition.

Carla Hargrove-McGill, granddaughter of the company's founder, Earl Hargrove Sr., runs the special event division along with sister Cindy and brother Carey. Carla's other brother, Chris, is vice president of the newly created entertainment division, and her husband, Tim, heads the trade show division. Earl Hargrove Jr. is company president and CEO. Jack Bidez, vice president of the exhibit division, is the only one not holding a branch on the family tree.

Earl Sr. began designing window treatments for department stores in Prince George's County. Today, Hargrove is known for its fund-raising events, political galas and design contributions to presidential inaugurations. On a political event streak that dates back to the Truman presidency, Hargrove was named general contractor for the decor for President Clinton's inaugural balls and dinners-55 events in three days.

The Hargrove business philosophy is simple: "We always try to sell ourselves as a step above everyone else," Carla says, "but we've tried not to outgrow ourselves too fast." That part has been difficult, considering the company has doubled in size in the last five years to include 250 employees. "It is a family business, though," she adds, "and when you have family, you have commitment."-T.C.

Cheryl Fish A colleague used to say that one of his favorite things about attending the Gala Awards Ceremony at The Special Event was watching Cheryl Fish win a Gala. Her acceptance speech was always so full of raw, genuine emotion-shrieks, tears, smiles. Ebullient, excited and emotional, Fish would hold nothing back, whether it was her first award or her fourth.

Likewise, nothing holds Fish back when it comes to making a name for herself in the special event industry. "A dream is a wish your heart makes," says Fish, who has never veered off the path set by her own heart. "The impossible dream can come true if you keep hammering at it."

Indeed, it has come true for Fish, who began her career like so many others, producing bar mitzvahs and weddings out of her garage, eventually building one of Southern California's most prestigious event production companies, It's The Main Event, which she has since sold.

However, the dream of a lifetime happened about two years ago, when Fish approached Las Vegas mega hotelier Steve Wynn with a proposal to develop a special event division for Mirage Resorts. Wynn did more than that-he created a special event company, Mirage Events, and named Fish vice president. "They didn't know this part of the [hospitality] industry," says Fish. "They just knew they needed it."

Mirage Events produces events for all Mirage properties, including the new Bellagio. Business, says Fish, just keeps getting better. "There is a huge market happening in Las Vegas," she says. "Las Vegas isn't just a gambling town anymore. It's a resort town now. Everything we do here is big-it has to be."

The same goes for Mirage Events, which occupies a jaw-dropping 30,000-square-foot warehouse, filled with paint and props. "We have more cans of paint than a paint store," jokes Fish. In one year, the company went from having 15 employees to 38. This year it will add five new offices to accommodate growth.

As for her own growth, Fish, the former entrepreneur, has learned much from her new corporate culture. "If you get the chance to work for a corporation, do it. The benefits are great. You are able to do your craft the best you can," she says. "And, of course, to have someone like Steve Wynn behind you. ..." Say no more.-S.C.

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