Careful orchestration turned San Francisco into New Orleans for a night of surprises

Editor’s Note: For a behind-the-scenes look at planning an annual Christmas party for 2,000 people in San Francisco, we chatted with Billy Cook, executive designer, and Tina Hirshberg Novelo, event manager, for Taste Catering and Event Planning.

Business Goal: This was a chance to celebrate a productive year and thank employees for a job well done. It also needed to reinforce the sense of purpose for employees.

Challenges: Designers focused on breaking the cavernous Bill Graham Civic Auditorium into smaller areas with a lot of experiences that unfold as attendees move through the six-hour evening. The flow had to make sense, and new reveals had to take place every couple of hours to keep people engaged.

On the food and beverage side, more than 30 percent of attendees are likely to have food restrictions at any event in California, and traditional New Orleans fare does not lend itself to special diets—so chefs had to be creative.

Event Solution: Guests arrived through security check-in tents at a prereception area under the awning of the auditorium. A New Orleans jazz band, signature Bourbon Street-inspired cocktails and a make-your-own mask station set the Big Easy mood. Soon, a marching band arrived and led guests into the main stage area, which was filled with bayou swamp-inspired plants, vintage bird cages and antique wooden benches. Colored foliage patterns lit the ceiling, and moody up-lighting set the tone of an evening on the bayou.

Buskers offered entertainment throughout the night. Around the corner, a shadow lounge area was staffed with face painters, and a black-light photo booth was ensconced in the alcoves. Fortune-tellers held court on mismatched vintage furniture in a series of mini-boudoirs created with rustic, wooden wall flats, draped with black and mulberry-colored silks, tassels, beaded curtains and mirrors. At the back of the room, a silent disco appeared as the evening progressed.

In the center of the room, a large carousel canopy anchored a central bar, complete with carousel horses. The team presented lots of beverage-station options, some with wine and beer only, others with specialty cocktails or full bars. Separate water stations made grabbing a nonalcoholic drink quick and easy.

Multiple food areas presented themselves throughout the night, starting with a country picnic display that included gluten-free biscuits, deviled eggs like mom made and cauliflower etouffee with Soyrizo andouille (in other words, a vegan take on a Creole classic). This was replaced hours later with a sweet and savory beignet bar and a Voodoo Donuts wall shipped fresh from Portland.

Later, a caravan of food trucks arrived, creating fresh excitement and less expense than keeping catering staff until the wee hours of the morning.

Focal Point: After the marching band led attendees to center stage, the CEO of the hosting company addressed attendees and showed a video of a small-business owner in Louisiana who uses the company’s product to run her business, which transitions female parolees to life outside prison. That brought home the mission of the company, and gave everyone a renewed sense of purpose.

Cook noted the importance of having a big “group” moment everyone can share. That could be a toast, dance, giveaway or, in one case, confetti cannons that doused everyone in shredded paper.

Interactive Elements: At the end of the night, dessert was served at an action station outside—bananas foster on a stick set on fire. “Flaming food is always fun,” Hirshberg Novelo says. Food and beverage can be a compelling way to include attendees as part of the production.

Success Measurements: The team knew catering worked because there were no lines. Plus, surveys and buzz confirmed that everyone was thrilled.

Lessons Learned: Success requires editing to fit the budget and flow. A big event is like a major performance, with lots of scenery to be brought in and a set-up that lasts an entire day. Cook describes it as a choreographed ballet of loading lighting, audio, video, floral and custom furnishings. Work started at 8 a.m. for an 8 p.m. opening, and deliveries in the front and back of the building had to be carefully managed all day. Some great ideas not possible to execute within the time frame had to be re-thought, and many of those adjustments led to even better solutions, he reports.

Cook also stresses the importance of being culturally sensitive. For that reason, instead of creating something resembling a voodoo lounge, they presented a Bourbon Street shadow lounge vibe without the religious overtones.

Bonus Tip: Start planning a year ahead for something of this size. Space in a city such as San Francisco is tight, especially when large tech companies bring in global teams for annual bonding.