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Galas: Top This

For the national sales meeting of one of his clients-a major pharmaceutical company-event producer Harith Wickrema of Oreland, Pa.-based Harith Productions created a five-day event at Mandalay Bay resort in Las Vegas, where each session topped the one before.

"In this era of a tight labor market, corporations know to use dramatic events to attract and keep top employees," he says. "People expect it now."

Six months of planning went into the project, held in February. The events included meetings, general sessions and 40 concurrent breakouts for the 450 guests, as well as recreational opportunities and awards presentations.

START WITH A ROAR The meetings started with a dramatic flourish: Live tigers and exotic birds greeted guests as they arrived at the hotel while a steel drum band beat out lively music. The name of the keynote speaker was kept secret from attendees-it turned out to be former President George Bush.

The first set of awards was handed out the second night, followed immediately by a lavish dessert buffet.

The buffet featured a fire and ice theme. Hotel chefs manned flambe stations to create the desserts. The ballroom displayed two white baby grand pianos and a harp perched in cotton wool clouds decorated with tiny white lights while mists of fog drifted by. The musicians played classical music and Broadway show tunes.

Neon-lit tabletops featured ice centerpieces holding glass cylinders in which candles floated. Intelligent lighting cast images of ice crystals across the walls.

At one point, a white drape was pulled aside to reveal a Jaguar automobile carved in ice, representing the prize for top salespeople. Ice Magic of Orlando, Fla., created the oversize ice sculptures.

"We had no speeches during the dessert buffet," Wickrema says. "The guests were simply awestruck."

SHOWSTOPPING CIRCUS The grand finale was the gala dinner on the fifth day. Using a circus theme, the evening began with a burst of fog and smoke in one of the ballrooms. A magisterial "voice of God" welcomed guests to an evening saluting the achievements of the corporation's salespeople.

Out of the haze appeared the "phoenix," a performer clad in 22-foot wings, symbolizing a new day for the sales team. With the aid of a pulley, the phoenix "flew" across the room into a 40-by-12-foot wall of white balloons, which exploded with indoor pyro. From behind the balloon wall appeared dancers who launched into a production number. At its crescendo, "the audience gave a standing ovation," Wickrema says.

The playful menu carried out the circus theme with dishes such as Flying Trapeze Salad. The menu itself was printed in gold on black stretch plate covers from Fancy Faces, Covington, La. Hotel executive chef David Kellaway oversaw foodservice.

To stave off the monotony of presenting 40 awards, Wickrema arranged to have them handed out in four sets interspersed with production numbers, including a pair of contortionists. The final act was a surprise appearance by late-night talk show host Jay Leno of "The Tonight Show."

"I wanted to put five elements into the evening: education, environment, aesthetics, entertainment and escapism," Wickrema says.

Sean de Freitas of Designs by Sean, Dania, Fla., was the event's decorator. Needleman Decorators of Philadelphia created the floral. Destination by Design, Las Vegas, arranged for rentals and decorated the dessert buffet. On the final night, Flying by Foy rigged the phoenix's flight, Pyritz Pyrotechnics handled pyro, and Balloon Effects of L.A. created the exploding balloon wall; all three firms have offices in Las Vegas.

A PRO'S TIPS His years in event production have taught Wickrema some strategies to ensure success. For example, he videotapes his events to critique later. "The tapes show me things I don't see during the event." He also digitally photographs menu platings to see how well the different elements work together.

In an era when splashy dotcom parties are beginning to irk some investors, Wickrema says that well-planned, well-executed events still play an important role for old-economy firms.

"The companies I work for are mostly Fortune 500 firms; they hold their event producers to work in a responsible manner," he says. "They don't want to hear employees saying, 'Why not give us a raise rather than throw the money away?'"

The trend in corporate special events, Wickrema says, is to boost employee expertise. "Besides having a good time, they want their employees to take home knowledge. That's why they make these investments."

TIGHTROPE RAGOUT OF LOBSTER Maine Lobster With Caviar Dumplings, Fresh Fava Beans, Braised Salsify and Butternut Squash Puree

FLYING TRAPEZE SALAD Romaine, Arugula, Winter Pears, Cucumber and Candied Walnuts With Lingonberry Dressing

INTERMISSION Orange Muscat Gelee With Floral Frosted Quince

ENTREE IN THE CENTER RING Filet of Beef and a Giant Sea Prawn With Whipped Potatoes and Asparagus

DESSERT FINALE Banana and Chocolate Charlotte

Harith Productions 222 Pennsylvania Ave. Oreland, PA 19075 215/517-5500 E-mail: [email protected]

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