Special Events

The Powerhouse Open House

That marketing stalwart-the open house-is alive and well at rental companies. But these open houses aren't modest meetings; instead, they sport the distinctive spin of special events.

The open house staged seven years ago by Panache Party Rentals of Pompano Beach, Fla., started out small, with 80 guests. It has since grown to 600 guests, including special event professionals from as far away as Texas and New York. "People joke that if a bomb fell on Panache the night of our open house, the party industry would be dead," says Panache president Kelly Murphy.

The Panache open house began as the local chapter meeting for NACE. But Panache has always put extra spice into the event.

"One year, we had competing celebrity chefs making dishes out of mystery boxes," Murphy notes. "Two years ago, we did a culinary fashion show, with catering chefs walking down the runway dressed by a uniform company. They carried a presentation plate of their specialty dish."

DRESSED TO DINE Last year, Panache staged a fashion show of tablecloths. "A dresser draped the tablecloths as ball gowns, with napkin rings and chair ties as accessories," Murphy says. Models were volunteers from the industry along with mannequins stationed throughout Panache's 65,000-square-foot warehouse.

Guests pay $15 to attend; the funds go to NACE, which donates a portion to charity. Last year's take was $8,000, Murphy reports.

The guests include Panache's client base of caterers, decorators, and corporate and social clients. "It gives us the opportunity to showcase the products that we have in stock and to introduce new ones," Murphy says. "We can show people things that they wouldn't see by sitting in their offices. Also, it reinforces the professional relationships that we have and builds teamwork among the people working on the event."

Murphy has proof of the power of her open house: "We hold it in August, the hottest month in Florida, when it's 95 degrees in our warehouse-which isn't air-conditioned-and people come in spite of the heat."

Deborah Borsum, owner of The Meetinghouse Com-panies in Elmhurst, Ill., is a staunch believer in the power of the open house: "It ranks second only to our ad in the yellow pages as our best marketing tool."

Meetinghouse, which provides props, decor, and event production and services, staged its first open house in 1995. The event became so popular that it now draws 600 guests over the course of two days to tour the com-pany's 32,000-square-foot warehouse, review more than a dozen striking vignettes and sample the fare of local caterers.

Although the event has become so elaborate and expensive that Meeting-house stages it every other year now (the retail value is anywhere between $500,000 and $750,000, Borsum estimates), the payoff is worth it, she says.

Borsum ensures that every aspect of the open house serves as a marketing tool. "We make the invitations themselves interesting, showing the benefit of coming to the open house," she says. The invitation goes out to a mailing list of more than 3,000, so even those who don't attend are reminded of the company's services. Contact information from the RSVPs serves to update the database.

REELING IN RECRUITS Besides bringing in new clients, the open house brings in new employees. "We have a staff member who learned about us through our open house," Borsum says.

Staging the open house also strengthens the company. "We work with a sophisticated audience, so we always want to come up with something new to show them," she says. "The open house gives our designers a chance to flex their creative muscles and builds teamwork. Besides that, it makes us clean the warehouse!"

Los Angeles-based Classic Party Rentals is taking a different tack, turning the open house format into a refined meeting of the minds.

At press time, the company is about to kick off its "Classic Consortium," a series of monthly four-course dinners hosting about 30 guests from various aspects of special events.

"Our guest list will include event professionals from the studios, DMCs, event production, catering, corporations, public relations, media, sites and nonprofits," says Kristjan Gavin, vice president of operations. "Some are our customers and some aren't. Our goal is to stimulate discussion. With this group, we'll be able to come up with ideas for all of us that none have ever thought of in everyday conversation."

Guests who want to may take a tour of Classic's facility, "but we're not pushing our product," Gavin says. "We're there to talk and have a good time."

Resources: Classic Party Rentals, 310/202-0011, www.classicpartyrentals. com; Panache Party Rentals, 954/781-5335; The Meetinghouse Com-panies, 630/941-0600, www.meeting house.com

Open house expert Deborah Borsum, owner of The Meetinghouse Companies in Elmhurst, Ill., offers these tips:

Schedule your event carefully. Take the season into account. Is your warehouse sweltering in summer or an icebox in winter? Are you competing with a three-day weekend, when potential guests may be on vacation? Is a big industry trade show in town at the same time?

Partner with other vendors. Maybe a catering company will supply the food in exchange for your equipment at one of its events.

Document the event in photographs. Not only will the photos make great marketing tools, but they also help you avoid repeating yourself when designing future events.

Don't expect an instant payoff. "We've had new clients call us who visited our open house as long ago as four years earlier," Borsum says.

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