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GONE IS THE flashy theme for theme's sake, event-makers say. Instead, smart, subtle themes are becoming key to entertaining guests and building brands.


When it comes to theming corporate events, it's not enough just to decorate. You also have to communicate, event pros insist.

“Everyone who does any type of entertaining is selling something,” says theme expert Charles Banfield of Los Angeles-based Charles Banfield Productions. “Events are promotional.”

According to Banfield, a theme should both develop from and reinforce an event's marketing message. As an example, he points to the opening of the Paseo Colorado shopping center in Pasadena, Calif., which he produced earlier this year for client TrizecHahn. Because the event had to promote the center as a premier visitor destination as well as a cultural landmark, Banfield built his theme on the city's most identifiable icons: art, architecture, and roses, roses, roses.

Highlights included a ribbon-cutting featuring a dancer suspended on a rose-red swath of fabric, live-model figures of famous artworks housed in local museums and a performance by musicians from the Pasadena Symphony.

But it was the little things that counted most in making a meaningful message, Banfield says. “We wanted to show that [the shopping center] would be breaking the mold, breaking the norm. The norm in this case being a whole rose, breaking the norm would be petals,” he explains. To implement his idea, Banfield orchestrated a near-constant shower of petal-shaped confetti.


For a theme that speaks volumes, sly wit can add necessary decibels, according to Constance Sherman.

The owner of New York-based Wink Studio Eventful Design says clients come to her for events brimming with whimsy and irony. She explains that a Jewish-Scottish bat mitzvah with yarmulkes patterned in the family tartan is an example of her sensibility, as is a “danger”-themed opening of a controversial art exhibit for which she topped tables with gas cans and matchbooks.

Among her recent favorite events is a gala she created to celebrate the video collection of cutting-edge arts foundation The Kitchen, based in New York. “I thought, video is the image of something, not the actual thing,” the designer explains. Taking her concept to the next level, Sherman opted to use photographic images of flowers, rather than the decor staples themselves. Affixing “psychedelic” photos she shot of flowers onto 300 fresh tulip stems from which she removed the actual blooms, she created a tongue-in-cheek centerpiece sensation that had the room abuzz. To round out the theme, guests received gifts of “flip books” that depicted the transformation of a simple line into a television set featuring The Kitchen's logo at center screen. “This is why I love what I do,” she says. “I totally get to use my sense of humor.”


While decor still reigns supreme when invoking theme, an interactive element is bringing vitality to theme concepts.

Besides the burlap, native plants and uplit silk “faux flames” he uses to evoke the Australian outback — a theme made popular by reality-TV hit “Survivor” — David Granger, CSEP, of Dallas-based Designs Behind The Scenes will bring in traditional didgeridoo players to interact with guests at outback-themed events. “Companies are wanting guests to be part of the event, rather than spectators,” he says.

“A lot of our events have activities included,” adds Michelle Lend of Atlanta-based DMC Atlanta Arrangements. For instance, she says, a sports-themed event she creates may sport not just great signage and centerpieces, but virtual reality games and professional athletes brought in to sign autographs for guests.

“When a client chooses to go with a themed event, it's a complete commitment,” adds Tom Peacock, general manager of Boston-based Creative Gourmet. For Peacock and other caterers, that means supplying action stations that combine food flavor, presentation and decor for a total guest experience. With Asian themes running hot right now, he says, curry stations, Indonesian satay bars and, of course, sushi stations are great bets. He notes a recent 800-guest event his company catered that featured chefs rolling sushi inside a pagoda set beside a calligraphy station where guests could have their names scripted in elegant Japanese text. “If you're going to do a themed event, it needs to be done legitimately and to completion,” Peacock reiterates. “It can't be a partial attempt.”


Even when you dream up a perfect theme, it's often best to hold back from sharing too much with your client until the time is ripe, event planners say.

Event manager Becky Nance, of Los Angeles Party Designs in Los Angeles, suggests that it's best not to set too much in stone during a theme's initial planning stages. It's something she says she's learned from her experience doing such intriguing themed events as an “Art of Food” party featuring cooking utensils as decor, and a “Hip Hollywood” event decked out in velvet-covered beds, suspended Lucite bars and light bulbs wrapped in metal grids. Most important, she says, is steering clients away from pre-event renderings, which can be expensive for clients and restrictive for the designer. Especially with themed events, she notes, “We like to be flexible in our design, and renderings really limit that.”

“All budgets start out big and they go down from there — and the first thing that goes is decor,” Banfield adds. He suggests offering clients an overall theme concept, but supplying details on specific elements gradually. Not only does this give the planner a chance to develop a theme that will best suit the client's specific needs, but also, he adds, “When a client has too much time to ruminate, they will start in on it on their own, and research things they think will be cost-effective for them. But you get what you pay for, ultimately.”


Atlanta Arrangements, 404/443-5932; Charles Banfield Productions, 323/934-4445; Creative Gourmet, 617/783-5555; Designs Behind The Scenes, 214/747-1904; Los Angeles Party Designs, 310/836-5273; Wink Studio Eventful Decor, 212/980-1739

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