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They're the best in show

At the BizBash Awards, the event planners who create a buzz for people and products -- Q-tips, anyone? -- turn the spotlight on themselves.

June 02, 2007|Paul Lieberman | Times Staff Writer

New York — GIVEN the job of promoting Meow Mix, Matthew Glass came up with what he called "the first-ever reality show for cats."

His crew first salvaged 10 "Cat-testants" from animal shelters around the country, thus winning heartwarming media coverage in those locales. Then they carted the critters here to cavort around a human-looking "Cat House" built in a storefront, complete with miniature kitchen and living room. People could see them live there or on the Internet, where the public got to vote on which felines to evict, one at a time -- for adoption, of course -- until there was a "pick of the litter."

"Look, we come up with all sorts of crazy ideas," Glass said.

Crazy, perhaps, but his stunt to promote cat food put him in contention for a BizBash Award, in the best event/PR strategy category. That's what brought Glass to the Nokia Theatre in Times Square, along with other men and women who make their livings transforming museums into fantasy spaces for charity galas or cooking up entertainment for conventions of dental surgeons or figuring out how to create buzz for ... if not Meow Mix, then Q-tips.

Glass would have to wait to see if he'd won a "Big B," for coming up first were the awards for best tabletop, best gift bag, best use of tent design ...

BizBash, which puts out trade magazines and websites for event planners -- "don't call us 'party planners' " -- was the brainchild of David Adler, the son of novelist Warren Adler, who wrote "The War of the Roses," the tale of divorce as deadly combat. The younger Adler previously worked for Primedia, where he decided to liven up a Los Angeles party for Soap Opera Digest by inviting drag queens. Problem was, he didn't know where to find reliable drag queens in L.A., so he had to fly some in from New York.

It struck Adler then that event planners could use a better way to advertise themselves and find services they needed, whether lighting technicians or entertainers, however they were dressed. BizBash estimates that the nation's 15 leading markets host 875,000 "special events" a year, accounting for billions of dollars in spending.

After starting out in New York in 2000, it expanded into Florida and Toronto and last year held its first event in Los Angeles, hosting a panel on the "gift bag issue" -- the IRS' attempt to tax celebrities who collect lavish giveaways at, say, the Academy Awards.

And speaking of the Oscars ... why couldn't planners have their own such honors? Adler said it was time for them to follow the lead of chefs, who used to be hidden away back in the kitchen, but "now they're the stars."

So he launched the BizBash Event Style Awards to spotlight planners' work as an "art form." This spring's awards ceremony was BizBash's sixth in New York and it drew 800 industry insiders to the Nokia, where the guests came down escalators and found models lounging on two oval beds in a lobby -- a "decor element," explained Adler, 53.

At a VIP reception, the vice president for special events at HBO, Eileen Rivard, chatted up caterer Joan Steinberg, who was up for an award for her work on the cast-and-crew party for that network's marquee show.

When "The Sopranos" premiered in 1999, the cast celebrated in a Manhattan pizzeria. But by last year's completion of primary shooting on its final episodes, the party drew 1,000 to Roseland Ballroom, where Steinberg's Match Catering re-created a Little Italy street fair by bringing in vendors to display bushelbaskets of walnuts, figs and flatbreads; stuff cannoli by hand; and fry up dough. "And afterward, the cast still went to the pizzeria," Rivard recalled with a laugh.

Nearby, well-wishers gathered around the elegant David Monn, who was just back from Venice, Italy, where he was planning an artist's opening party for the biennial contemporary art festival there, and from London, where he was working on an event for "I can't say who."

Like many in the field, Monn followed an unlikely path into event planning. By his own account, he was a "very poor" boy in small-town Pennsylvania, and fat -- 235 pounds in eighth grade. So he'd retreat into fantasies of pretty things, "the consummate make-believe daydreamer." On weekends, he'd go to a drugstore that let him leaf through House & Garden and Architectural Digest magazines as long as he didn't bend the covers.

Before he turned 20, Monn headed to New York to work in a sewing factory, then got into the jewelry business and soon was throwing unusual parties, such as one at Easter for which he covered his dining room in sod and had guests arrive barefoot. He was befriended by two society women who had him work on charity affairs, including the Library Lions gala at New York Public Library in which attendees were greeted by mists of Monn's own fall fragrance -- part of his philosophy that "all five senses have to be engaged for an event to be magical."

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