"When financial services company CLSA asked Christy Bareijsza, owner of Jersey City based event planning firm The Red Carpet, to plan their annual party for 250 of their most important clients and top managers, neither she nor her client had any idea that that venue they were locked in to using was about to undergo massive renovations - three weeks before the event.
A veteran planner, Christy Bareijsza is used to dealing with the unexpected - it just comes with the territory. She is also used to one of her clients, CLSA, asking her to step in to play events for them on short order, so she was unfazed when the request came for her to organize the annual CLSA Chinese New Year party.
The client had already chosen the location and signed on the dotted line. For the second year in a row, CLSA wanted to hold the event at Fizz, a private Midtown Manhattan nightclub, mostly because of the look and feel of the venue. "With its red and gold decor, it was easy to transform the space for the elegant Chinese New Year party," Bareijsza recalls. "It made sense."
Little did she know that the place was about to undergo a major overhaul - a complete redesign and re-branding as a public restaurant and nightclub called Azza. "They never mentioned they were going to do serious construction at the walk-through," she said. "I did ask some questions when they told us they were moving the DJ booth and doing some renovations, but I had no idea how extensive those renovations were going to be."
Two days after the walk-through the manager of the venue called to tell the CLSA team that heavy construction was in the works and it was going to start right away.
That was a huge red flag for Bareijsza, "I had serious reservations about using the site at that point," she admits. "But it was a done deal. The client didn't want to change the venue. He liked the space and had a personal contact at the site. He wanted to make it work."
There were other factors too. "they had a great history of doing the annual event at Fizz and the client liked the fact that it was a private club. It's also right around the corner from the CLSA office."
BUSINESS AS USUAL
With both the venue personnel and her clients assuring her that renovations would be complete in time for the event, and just weeks to plan this after-work party, Bareijsza turned her attention to decor and entertainment. She headed downtown to Pearl River Mart in SoHo with her team. "This is the mecca for any type of Asian decor," she says. "We selected Chinese lanterns, bamboo and gold coins for good luck. Also, it was the Year of the Pig, so we searched for a lot of representations of pigs to go along with the Chinese New Year theme."
She then stared focusing on the venue itself. "Because the colors in the space are read and gold, we had to accent a lot of things," she says. One person she hired right away: A floral designer to put together bamboo and orchid-type arrangements along with larger tree shapes. "Our goal was to make the space feel like an Asian garden, not a New York nightclub," she says.
Finally, she wanted to dazzle guest with entertainment that was truly different. "In the past, the party always included traditional dragon dancers and it wasn't a big hit with the client's crowd," she says. "Also, at past parties the talent would come in and the guest would stop and look at them and not with expressions of awe - they definitely were not impressed. The entertainment just ended up interrupting conversation, which isn't good, since this is an event that is all about networking."
Bareijsza was left to her own devised to find another way to liven up the party. She presented her pitch to the client who loved her idea of adding two contortionists and a machete dancer to the mix. That was really something different, but not so intrusive. "they were basically part of the decor, spotlighted and backlit, and they performed for 15 minute intervals," she says, adding that she also hired a Chinese tarot card reader to offer readings at the beginning of the evening.
THE PARTY FARE
A traditional Chinese buffet was in order for the event - dumplings, spring rolls, sesame cabbage salad, vegetable lo mein, sesame noodles with peanuts, spare ribs, beef with oyster sauce, and a melody of almond cookies, rice pudding, and rice cake for dessert.
The signature drink was a real hit. "I came up with the CLSA Sunset," Bareijsza recalls. "It was a vodka martini with cranberry juice and a lit ice cube in each glass. The client loved it."
Bareijsza says the LED-lit cubes always get a lot of attention. "Guests love to swipe them," she says. "What they don't realize, though, is when they put one in their pocket, the light shines right through their pants!"
DOWN TO THE WIRE
Three days before the party Bareijsza and her client inspected the club again. They were taken aback by what they saw: a construction site. Despite the condition of the space, the club would not let her client break the contract. The client didn't want to add to the cost of the event by changing venues and paying a penalty for breaking the present contract, even though Bareijsza assured him that other places would do a great job and be glad to have the last-minute business - it was February after all. Once again staff at the site assured them that things would fall into place in time for the event. "We walked around with one of the owners, stipulated what need fixing, moving, etc. and he agreed to do it by the time we needed it done." Her client felt confident that they would make good on their promised. After all, he had connections with the site.
PARTY DAY SURPRISED
Event day arrived, and with all the pieces in place on her end, Bareijsza planned to get t0 the venue at noon, thinking she and her assistant would get to work on the decor, coordinate with the floral designer and when she arrived, hang up the huge fans she'd purchased for the party and help the DJ and photographer get situated. "We wanted to get an early start hanging the lanterns from the ceiling," she says. "We knew hanging 100 lanterns with fishing wire would be a project in itself."
When she and her client arrived at the site, however, they were in for a shock. Although most of the actual construction work was finished, the place was still a mess. There was sawdust all over the floor and a crew from the venue moving stuff around. Then, to top it off, she discovered there was no DJ booth. "The help that was supposed to be helping us set up the party and hanging the lanterns was cleaning the venue," she says. "I understood that the venue would be in perfect shape and ready to use when we walked through the door. That was the agreement." In addition, the building staff didn't seem to understand the urgency of the situation and they were definitely not rising to the occasion. Her client was beside himself, and the time was running out - fast.
"I have worked with this client before," Bareijsza says "and I was able to calm him down. But also in the back of my head, I knew that if the event was supposed to start at 6, a few people from the company were going to show up at 5:45. We needed every minute we could get."
Rather then scream, point fingers and waste time, Bareijsza calmed her client down then immediately swung into action. "I have a great staff and pulling in some reinforcements at the last minute. Some people who work with me live right in the city and they were able to get there in 20 minutes. In this industry, we all know we have to help each other out." Fortunately, linens and wall drapery covered many of the unsightly areas, hiding the fact that the place was still a work site, and the large decor elements Bareijsza had brought in covered up the rest. "There's really not much you can do on event day except mask the problems," she admitted.
A PHOTO FINISH
After a frantic afternoon, the space was almost ready. True to firm, though, a couple of guests arrived 15 minutes early. "We ere still sweeping up sawdust and stapling the leather to the the DJ booth within the first guest walked in," she remembers. "That was really tough for me," she says, "because I always want to make sure everyone is happy. It's perception - when you go to an event it's not cool for guests' initial impression to be that the place isn't ready. I want people to come in and have that 'wow' factor, not see all the hard work that went into it. We really needed those last 15 minutes to pull it all together."
Nonetheless, it did come together completely about five minutes before the official start time.
The guests ended up having a ball and most of them didn't even know about any of the last-minute stresses. "Everyone has so much fun that we extended the party an hour," she says. "in the end the event was a huge success. We got great feedback and my client was thrilled, because had had seen firsthand what we were up against and we fixed the problem." He was so thrilled in fact, that he hired Bareijsza to do several more events for CLSA, including this year's party.
In another vote of confidence, the client has also agreed to leave the contract negotiations for the upcoming events to Bareijsza. "By getting proper clauses into the contract, like a construction clause, like a strike clause, you can avoid situations like that," she says. An you can bet she will.