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Ask catering directors and special event planners at hotels and resorts around the world what it takes to wow guests and they will say: It's a sophisticated world out there, and clients today expect the best. Events must be spectacular, and they must be compelling.

"There's no such thing as an easy event at The Waldorf-Astoria," says Jim Blauvelt, executive director of catering at the New York luxury hotel. "New York has gone the route of spectacle, and every event has a special hook. People say, 'Oh, that was the party that had the sun, moon and stars floating from the ceiling,' or 'That was the event where the venue was transformed into the Viennese opera house'-which, incidentally, we are doing for o pening night of the Vienna Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall."

GRAB THE GUEST "We strive to do something that hasn't been done before," says Andrea Bakus of The Wigwam Resort in Litchfield Park, Ariz. Director of the resort's destinations and production department, Bakus says that custom-design reflecting the client's message is a big part of keeping events fresh.

Last December, for example, an executive of a New York-based corporation rode into the Wigwam ballroom on a horse to address his staff. But that was not all. "About midway through his speech, he referred to his regional managers, saying they'd do anything-even drive a herd of cattle through a ballroom," Bakus relates. "Boom-the doors open and here are the managers herding 20 head of cattle through the ballroom."

The stunt involved a lot of work. Besides bringing in the cattle and scheduling rehearsals, "we had just spent $200,000 recarpeting the ballroom three days before," Bakus says, "so we had to take extra precautions. We covered the new carpet with plastic, put carpeting over that, and then covered everything in hay and straw."

MAKE IT AUTHENTIC "Authentic, educational, interactive events" are trendy in Hawaii, according to Kimberly Svetin, public relations director at The Ritz-Carlton Kapalua on Maui. The property has done major revamping of the traditional luau.

"Before, it used to be that you get your drinks, you eat, you watch entertainment," Svetin recalls. "Now we feature artisans and crafters. Attendees can make or purchase something, rather than going straight to the dining table."

And what about those plastic leis? "It's true-when people think luau, they think 'cheesy,'" she laughs. "It used to be all about cellophane grass skirts and glitz. But the trend we see now is making the luau more authentic and traditional." This includes bringing guests to the imu pit, where the pig has been roasting wrapped in palm fronds and banana leaves. "Guests see the pig as it's coming out of the pit," she says. "It makes luaus more interactive, rather than just showing the finished product."

To ensure authenticity, the Ritz has a Hawaiian cultural adviser on staff who shares indigenous culture, arts and history with guests and staff.

LOCAL CHARM Regional theme events form a strong attraction at the Jekyll Island Club Hotel on Jekyll Island, Ga., a National Historic Landmark where the Rockefellers, Vanderbilts and Pulitzers once relaxed. "We tie in the Southern area and the food-we'll have clambakes, oyster roasts, Southern barbecues," notes Patty Henning, director of sales and marketing.

At the Windsor Court Hotel in New Orleans, events reflect the genteel charm of the city. "We do a lot of dessert receptions, serving everything from pecan pie to bananas Foster to truffle cake to tiramisu to petit four," explains Amy Odinet, director of catering. The dessert events attract conventioneers more readily than standard dinners do because with the French Quarter just two blocks away, many guests choose to go off-site for dinner. Because the dessert receptions start at about 10 p.m., people have had a chance to do some exploring on their own and show up in greater numbers, she explains.

Sometimes, these dessert gatherings are part of what Odinet calls "dine-arounds"-another trend in New Orleans, where dining options abound. Instead of having the entire meal at one venue, guests go together "from site to site in one night," she says. "They'll have appetizers in one place, dinner in another and desserts in a third."

BRINGING IN THE BUSINESS Even busy properties are working to keep event clients coming in.

At the Sheraton Boston Hotel, "we stage chef's tables," explains Charles Kirschner, director of catering. "We'll invite the city's top meeting planners and put out the red carpet. We impress them with a five-course dinner to give them an indication of our service and our culinary expertise."

Lansdowne Resort in Leesburg, Va., stages a Halloween event open to the public that draws "thousands of people," notes Dianne Murphy, public relations manager. "It's a way to show prospective clients how creative we can be for their functions. We transform our outdoor pavilion into a haunted house with different rooms, each using a Halloween movie theme such as Scream or Dracula." The bash also includes carnival games and booths, hayrides and an eerie haunted graveyard.

The Westin Stamford/Plaza, located in Singapore, recently launched a "Weddings at Westin" program to attract potential customers. For added attention, the hotel wooed the media, sending four invitations over four days reflecting a something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue theme.

"As a result of our unusual invitations, we had an overwhelming response from the media for the event," explains Annie Choy, marketing communications manager. About 200 guests attended a five-course meal and a mock wedding that the hotel staged with the local English theater company, including toasts, speeches and slide shows. "It was really hilarious," Choy says, adding, "through it all, we also managed to introduce our new wedding service concept."

MILLENNIUM MIXERS >From the industry buzz, this New Year's Eve will make past end-of-year bashes look like slumber parties.

"We have a $3.5 million budget for the millennium event," says Andy Rosuck, vice president of sales and marketing at Atlantis, Paradise Island, in the Bahamas. With 2,300 rooms, it's the world's largest island resort destination. Entertainment for the night includes the Steve Miller Band, Tito Puente and the Cherry Poppin' Daddies. "We're also doing a $300,000 fireworks show by Grucci."

New Year's Eve 1999 at Four Seasons Hotel Toronto will feature "parties of past years and a glimpse into the future of parties," according to Robert Hatt, director of catering. Guests can visit a "Studio 54" lounge with disco music and go-go dancers-"the excesses of the '70s," Hatt says-as well as the "Court of Louis XIV" and the "Cotton Club" complete with torch singer. The foyer and ballroom will feature a futuristic theme.

A "Back in Black" New Year's Eve party is scheduled at the Sheraton Boston Hotel, where guests will experience New Year's Eve in three cities: Boston, New York and Las Vegas. Each of the hotel's four ballrooms will be themed, and up to 4,000 guests can indulge in upscale food and cocktail stations, cigar rollers and musical entertainment. "Gathering the champagne was a challenge because allocation is slim, but we got a nice stash," Kirschner notes.

At the Wigwam, the resort's prop and production department is busy preparing the "Millennium Milestones" theme decor for its New Year's Eve gala celebration. Props will reflect inventions and people of the last millennium, including a model of a Wright brothers biplane hanging from the ceiling.

The Waldorf-Astoria stages a lavish New Year's Eve ball every year. "And this year will be an extravagant version of that extravaganza," says Blauvelt. "We'll have three simultaneous events": a traditional 1940s swing orchestra in the Grand Ballroom; a "Copacabana" theme in the Jade Room; and a 1950s rock 'n' roll party in the After Salon. "It's 'one ticket, enjoy all,'" he says. Guests can also expect a "spectacular countdown with special effects"-but what exactly these entail is a secret. "You have to have at least one big surprise," Blauvelt says.

Contacts: Dante Alexander, Starwood Hotels & Resorts, 914/640-8189; Andrea Bakus, The Wigwam Resort, 623/935-3811; Jim Blauvelt, The Waldorf-Astoria, 212/872-4757; Annie Choy, The Westin Stamford and The Westin Plaza, +65 431 6653; Robert Hatt, Four Seasons Hotel Toronto, 416/928-7310; Patty Henning, Jekyll Island Club Hotel, 912/635-2600; Monica Hole, The Waldorf-Astoria, 212/872-1273; Sue Kavanagh, Scottsdale Princess, 480/585-4848; Charles Kirschner, Sheraton Boston Hotel, 617/236-6033; Dianne Murphy, Lansdowne Resort, 800/541-4801; Amy Odinet, Windsor Court Hotel, 504/523-6000; Andy Rosuck, Atlantis, Paradise Island, 954/713-2500; Gary Sims, Sheraton Braintree, 781/794-6200; Kimberly Svetin, The Ritz-Carlton Kapalua, 808/669-6200.

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