The delight and inspiration that a beautiful event evokes can linger for days, months, even a lifetime. But in an age when most event-goers have seen it all, whether in person or on the Internet, impressing them demands more innovation and attention to detail. So how do the pros do it? They know what elements enhance a space and what detracts, the rules to break and others to uphold, details to splurge on vs. easy savings that will go unnoticed.
Following are seven rules the nation's top event designers and caterers follow to create magical experiences that thrill even the most jaded guests.
1. Use color to set the mood
It's called "mood lighting" for a reason: A wash of color is one of the simplest and most budget-friendly ways to transform a space -- and blue is the most calming and pleasing of shades. "Blue makes an event feel special," says Brian Tovar, co-founder and creative director of Livesight, a lighting-design company in New York City. "It's a gift to lighting designers." Different blues create different effects, he notes: Mix in a little purple, and the space feels risqué, or blend blue with white light for a futuristic ambience.
"Lighting alone can turn a conference into an experience," says Nicky Balestrieri, co-founder of The Gathery, a Los Angeles-based creative agency that develops branding and designs events. Balestrieri and co-founder Luigi Tadini used pink lighting to marvelous effect at the first Girlboss Rally in 2017, a conference organized by Sophia Amoruso, CEO of fashion retailer Nasty Gal and author of the best-selling autobiography #Girlboss. When attendees arrived at the Girlboss Rally, they rode up in an elevator flooded with pink light, and when the doors opened onto the conference floor, that too was bathed in pink from neon signage. This simple lighting trick set a high-energy, feminine mood for the event and generated Instagram bait without a lot of décor.
"People get excited to see neon signage," Balestrieri says. "It doesn't cost much more than printing a flat sign."
Monochromatic events make a bold statement, and while it's important to eliminate contrasting colors, the one-color effect can be heightened by slight variations in hue. "If a client wants a flower arrangement to be green, we can pull in some teals and a pop of blue," says Nelson Pitts, owner of The Other Half, a Los Angeles-based company that designs and styles events, and creates large-scale floral installations.
Balestrieri and Tadini prefer to limit the color palettes for their events -- which can be a challenge when working with sponsors. If a dozen sponsors plaster the space in their company colors, the result is visual chaos.
"We don't say, 'Here's a 20-by-20 footprint and do whatever you want,' " Balestrieri notes. "Then you're killing the narrative and cheapening the experience." Instead, they set a stripped-down color palette -- maybe black, white and one other hue -- and require that sponsors stick to it. Logos, specifically, must be black-and-white (all companies should have a colorless version on hand).
"A guest should understand visually what they're seeing, right off the bat," says Carla Ruben, president and creative director of Creative Edge Parties, a catering and events company based in New York City and Miami. "When there's a clean, organized look, it makes for a satisfying first impression."
2. Play with contrast and texture
"If something's all the same texture," says Nelson Pitts, "the eye scans across it and moves on to the next thing." At flower markets, he searches for unusual species with contrasting textures: big, soft blossoms; spiky little buds, and mossy fans of greenery. Sometimes he creates visual interest with varied colors, and he's not opposed to spray-painting blooms for a compelling hybrid of natural and artificial.
In this social media age, some of an event's most powerful marketing comes through Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter. Beautiful setups encourage attendees to snap and share. "Design isn't just nice to have -- it actually has a huge purpose," says Nicky Balestrieri, co-founder of The Gathery, a branding and event design firm in Los Angeles. "Guests are your advertisers. If you are designing your meeting or conference thoughtfully, you are creating a self-generating sales tool."
Brian Tovar, co-founder and creative director of Livesight, a lighting-design company specializing in events, consciously creates social media moments. Before finishing any room, he takes a picture with his phone to make sure the photo looks share-worthy. "Guests will find my composition," Tovar says, "if I create it for them."
Instead of insisting on fresh, orderly blossoms, Pitts lets the softer textures of decay express themselves in his installations. "Nature isn't perfect," Pitts says. "I like a leaf that's a little brown, a flower that's almost dead: There's a beauty in the full life cycle of flowers. A lot of times, the silhouette we're trying to create is almost as if a tailored arrangement was left to its own devices for a month." Sometimes that means breaking the integrity of a typical arrangement and dropping flowers on the table.
Juxtaposing unlike objects also can encourage the eye to linger. A recent composition combined large, soft blossoms with assorted greenery, a painted animal skull and welded metal sculptures. Hard and soft, alive and dead, representational and abstract, the arrangement evoked a rush of feeling.
Another of Pitts' floral installations, a living chandelier for the bold cosmetics brand Urban Decay, included both real and silk orchids, along with satin ribbon. When lit from inside, the glowing floral spray looked otherworldly. "There was almost a heartbeat to it," he says. "You felt like it was alive, even though it felt synthetic."
Carla Ruben of Creative Edge Parties believes texture is more effective than color for making mouths water. "I'm kind of done with the idea that you need a red, a green and a white on the plate -- that's very 1980s to me," she says. "I love a monotone plate with all the different movements coming from the different textures."
For example, Creative Edge serves a "Brussels sprout forest" with white bean puree, pancetta, pomegranate seeds, cipollini onions, sautéed Brussels sprouts and fried Brussels sprout leaves. Though the colors aren't striking, the dish combines creamy, chewy, crispy and crunchy textures -- and it's a huge hit with guests.
Pinch Food Design, an innovative caterer based in New York City, sets out Jell-O shots -- fun but often seen as juvenile -- on a long amorphous tray in a gradient of colors from pale pink (lychee-lime punch) to red (sour cherry margarita), elevating the boozy bites into art.
3. Develop a focal point
Whether it's a spotlit hors d'oeuvres station, an art installation or a stage, attracting guests' eyes is almost always accomplished with lighting. The reverse is true, as well. It's possible to transform a hotel ballroom by focusing the lights away from sliding partitions and busy carpeting and onto the room's more exciting design elements.
For an opening party and concert at the W Hotel Bellevue (Wash.) last September, The Gathery placed the stage in the middle of the ballroom and directed spotlights at it. This kept guests' focus on the stage, rather than the walls, floor or ceiling. They anchored the stage with well-lit birch trees that reached to the ceiling, emphasizing the impressive ceiling height and giving guests the impression of being outside.
And for a promotional soirée for Cointreau, The Gathery assembled a tree inside a New York City warehouse using real orange branches. The key to the event's success was steering eyes toward the foliage and away from the raw elements of the space. Brian Tovar of Livesight lit the tree with carefully placed spotlights, keeping the trusses in the dark.
"If you minimize the lighting equipment that people can see, then it's just magical," Tovar says.
Tovar also hung atmospheric string lights to add warmth and familiarity. In general, this "practical lighting" makes guests feel at home and keeps them from paying too much attention to the more powerful theatrical lighting that's necessary to illuminate a large space.
4. Embrace transparency
We live in an age of transparency. Just as the Internet reveals our secrets, the predominant material used in our built environment -- glass -- emphasizes visibility and openness by harnessing the beauty of light.
For the Fashion Future Graduate Showcase, a trade show featuring the work of fashion-design students, The Gathery chose not to cover the street-facing windows in banners or decals. Leaving the windows mostly bare brought in more light and, Balestrieri says, "created space for optimism and creativity. It welcomed people into the space instead of putting a wall up."
"People get excited to see neon signage. It doesn't cost much more than printing a flat sign."
Nicky Balestrieri, co-founder of The Gathery
When planning any daytime event, Balestrieri and Tadini often choose transparent and translucent materials. "As the light quality changes over an entire day, the space will transform," Tadini explains. "You don't want to hinder the light into the space."
Transparency also is important for presenting food. Clear trays and dishes let guests see what they'll be eating -- which is crucial when the cuisine is at all unfamiliar. In Creative Edge's floating dim-sum shelves, glass containers show off brightly colored voodles (vegetable noodles), charred shishito peppers and edamame. When they see this unique setup, Ruben says, guests are "eating with their eyes before they take that first bite."
5. Go big or go small
People love huge things, and they love tiny things, and special events are the perfect opportunity to showcase both.
Last fall, The Gathery was tasked with designing a launch party for H&M's collaboration with Canadian/Turkish fashion designer Erdem. Baz Luhrmann had shot an expressive commercial against the backdrop of a decaying, overgrown mansion, and Balestrieri and Tadini wanted to replicate that in H&M's Fifth Avenue flagship store in Manhattan. But simple props wouldn't change the character of the glossy, intensely lit store. The Gathery covered the entire space in wildflowers, reminiscent of an English garden. The scale of this feat astonished even the fashion editors in attendance.
Conversely, items in miniature are attention-getters. Creative Edge crafts petite ice-cream sandwiches that are adorable and delicious. Varied flavors of the tiny treats are displayed in separate compartments of a Lucite tray, and guests often try every flavor without overindulging on dessert.
TJ Girard, co-owner and creative director of Pinch Food Design, also dabbles in the minuscule with quail egg on a mini English muffin. The tiny eggs and a hint of truffle upgrade the familiar, comforting dish.
6. Let details tell the story
Sometimes beauty wallops the attendee with a grand tableau, but it often makes itself known more subtly as an accumulation of well-considered details. "In our business, it's not the big message," says Carla Ruben, "it's the little ones that show you've thought it through." Smart staff uniforms, artfully designed trays and even a friendly greeting can make an outsized impact.
The Gathery often custom-fabricates event furniture, such as tables, chairs and displays. Creating such staples in large quantities is not much pricier than renting, the company finds. Even if attendees don't realize that everything is custom-made, these details make a difference in their overall perception.
7. Create elements of surprise
It's happy surprises that attendees remember long after the night ends. TJ Girard of Pinch Food Design sprinkles in unexpected culinary moments -- not spectacles that derail the event. For example, a server appears with white chocolate bark dangling from an umbrella. The bark, dotted with edible flowers and pomegranate seeds, is beautifully colorful, and it appears in a charmed way
Pinch specializes in serving methods that surprise and delight, whether it's vintage flatirons that cook a grilled cheese, raw tuna served in a glass cloche filled with smoke, or a cocktail that changes color as it's poured through dried flowers. Most surprising of all are Pinch's floating trays, suspended by helium balloons and carrying airy pavlovas.
"We create those moments so that people will say, 'Holy cow, I've never seen this before,' " Girard says. "And then they remember that party for the rest of their lives."