WITH SO MUCH to celebrate — a new science building's grand opening, the creation of a scholarship, and the impending retirement of an esteemed university president — Jeannie Henderson knew that the University of San Diego's June gala would be both long on excitement, and just plain long. To give the evening momentum and accommodate the party's many elderly guests, the school's director of event management focused on pacing. Bringing in a pedicab or two didn't hurt either, she says.
HIT THE PAVEMENT
Creating a six-hour, multiple-segment event for 600 is complicated. Locating the black-tie gala in a campus parking lot brings in a new set of challenges. But, with no single space inside the new Donald P. Shiley Center for Science and Technology large enough to hold the festivities, taking the party to the adjacent pavement is exactly what Henderson had to do.
To transform the space into a site fit for a soiree, “a lot of things had to happen,” she says. During the week-long setup, crew members brought in a crane to remove a lamppost from the middle of the lot, then power-washed the lot's surface to ready it for a blanketing of black Astroturf. Next, installers erected a 15,000-foot open-sided clear-span structure as the evening's dinner venue.
Nailing down the extensive setup logistics did not detract from the event team's fun in planning the party's science-theme design. “We went to the San Diego Museum of Science, went through the children's exhibits, and looked at the gift shop and bookstore,” Henderson says. “We wanted things that were bright, moving, glowing.”
Among eye-catching decor elements were the party's centerpieces, which required, fittingly, a little science experiment of their own. After filling large garbage cans with water, Henderson and her team added a chemical powder — available at science and craft stores — that turned into gel-textured “crystals.” When ready, the crystals were dropped into tall hourglass-shaped clear vases, which the team topped with color-lighted silver spandex lampshades from Covington, La.-based Fancy Faces. “The light shone down through the crystals to create this illuminated color through the length of the vase,” Henderson explains.
ON THE MOVE
Joining the party's glowing centerpieces was a host of bright spots. As arriving guests made their way down the red carpet toward the outdoor cocktail reception area, gobos of DNA strands and cell-like shapes projected onto the Astroturf “looked like what you'd see through a microscope,” according to henderson. At the reception, bartenders manning an ice bar mixed luminous martini drinks — a nod toward the science of chemistry, she adds.
After cocktails, a dramatic voice-over accompanied by “space-age-sounding” electronic music directed guests toward the dinner tent. Once inside, attendees were surrounded by 12-foot-tall glowing blue Lucite columns. These — along with sleek silver-banded black spandex chair covers — provided a theme-enhancing backdrop for an evening of moving video presentations, scheduled between dinner courses to keep up a sense of anticipation, Henderson says.
After dinner, guests were once again prompted to move outdoors for a cirque-style show. Next, they could walk or be shuttled by pedicab to seats in front of the new science center. There, a light show by San Diego-based Meeting Services Inc. was followed by a ribbon-cutting complete with a blast from roof-mounted confetti cannons. In the evening's crowning moment, lab-coat-clad students simultaneously opened all the building's front doors, welcoming the crowd in for dessert, cordials and a tour of the center's state-of-the-art classrooms.
NEAR AND FAR
The gala didn't just mark several of the university's major milestones — it was a major milestone for on-campus event and banquet services. With only 4,500 students, “We're a pretty small school,” says Henderson. “This was the biggest thing we've ever done.” Noting that with high-end events, the university will often hire “a fancy event production company” to take the reins, “We were very proud of the fact that it was done with in-house event planners and our in-house catering department,” she says.
Thinking locally, Henderson says she called on alumni businesses including a nursery, which donated foliage, and a graphic arts company, which designed invitations and programs. But for specialty vendors, many of whom were located out of town, she relied on referrals. These included one from San Diego-based Classic Party Rentals, which pointed her toward Los Angeles-based Academy Event Services to help her get the exact tent she wanted. “I thought that was great,” Henderson says, praising her local supplier for its selfless service.
All in all, she says, she wouldn't do anything differently if she had it to do again — except maybe get volunteers, especially those unfamiliar with large-scale events, involved in planning a little earlier on. “It was such a big, splashy event, we had a lot of ‘deer-in-the-headlights’ going on,” she laughs. “Our volunteers were going, ‘Wow!’ and we were saying, ‘OK, back to work now!’”
University of San Diego 5998 Alcala Park, San Diego, CA 92110; 619/260-7889
Turn to page 65 for a list of resources for this event.
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