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Mon 19 Oct 2009 04:00 AM

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Dressing for dinner

Middle East venues have played host to some spectacular gatherings over the years; but now, without the bottomless budgets of pre-crunch patrons, how can events hope to pack equal punch? Top events organisers share their decorative expertise and tell Lucy Taylor why the devil is in the detail.

Dressing for dinner
Salt & Pepper’s Escada Ocean Lounge.
Dressing for dinner
Airstar lights up chefs at work.
Dressing for dinner
Artaaj’s Desert Dream corporate colours set-up.
Dressing for dinner
Fawanees restaurant at Al Faisaliah, A Rosewood Hotel.

Middle East venues have played host to some spectacular gatherings over the years; but now, without the bottomless budgets of pre-crunch patrons, how can events hope to pack equal punch? Top events organisers share their decorative expertise and tell Lucy Taylor why the devil is in the detail.

From weddings to cocktail parties, from corporate gatherings to private soirées, over the years the Middle East has established a reputation for throwing spectacular events.

There are numerous reasons for this — not least the high standard of the region’s chefs and the array of attractive venues.

But on the big day, when the client enters the room, there is one element that will ensure they are bowled over by what they see: the décor.

Dressing a venue has become an art form — and in a region where competition is rife and you are only as good as your last success, only the best accessorising will do.

As Al Faisaliah Hotel, A Rosewood Hotel director of sales and marketing Khaled Al-Idrissi notes, the setting and décor “really make all the difference; the success of the event hinges on the atmosphere we create”.

At Dubai World Trade Centre, a venue that hosts a huge number of weddings every year, the manager for weddings and OSC, Najah Al Mulla, says that décor is one of the central elements of her role.

“It’s part of our job to make sure the wedding exceeds the client’s expectations by 200% — but of course this has to be achieved by following their wishes as well,” she notes.

“Right at the start, I will sit down and really talk to our clients to find out what kind of tone they want to set.

“I will not use the word ‘no’; anything our clients want, we will find for them,” she emphasises.

Jaya Java, director of Artaaj — a full service agency which handles events and promotions, integrated marketing communications, strategic business events and exhibitions — agrees that the right décor is vital to ensuring client satisfaction.

“Setting and décor go a long way toward reflecting the client’s message and are opportunities for us to show that we think through every last detail,” she explains.

“While impressive stage sets, special effects, lighting and branding are decorative highlights, customised menus, linens, table favours or centrepieces are the finishing touches that bring the theme together for the guest.”

Salt & Pepper managing director Philip Westphal agrees: “Anyone can put a stage in a ballroom and play some music, but we want to take guests to a different world the moment they step into the room.”

Five minutes with… Zweigart and Sawitzki hotel department director Manfred Belz

Tell us a bit about the products you supply.

Zweigart’s product range includes an exclusive selection of jacquard damasks, structural fabrics and plain table linen as well as terry towels, bed linen and kitchen linen. Our service includes creating new designs as well as weaving-in and embroidering logos. We also dye and size items according to customers’ wishes.

How important is décor for an event?

Setting and décor are key issues to a successful event. They create the special atmosphere and glamour that cannot be crated by anything else. Exclusive banquet linens make people feel comfortable when talking, acting and dining — and that is the first requirement for successful conversations and events. Décor shouldn’t be in the middle of the event, but creating the atmosphere. Therefore operators should look out for traditional but exclusive décor at the table for example.

Which of your products would you recommend to operators looking for eye-catching décor?

Our classic Dots range offers glamour and elegance. Shining like stars, this table linen will give you and your guests a great deal of enjoyment. Or there is our Paris range: fine cotton, fully twisted, colour-fast and boil-proof.

Event agency D’Events’ managing director, Lucy d’Abo, says the aim behind dining décor must be “to ensure that the personality and key messages of the host in question are interwoven seamlessly through the event”.

“This doesn’t mean that if we were working with British Airways, everything would have to be blue and red,” she emphasises. “The essence is to translate the features of the brand into the elements of the event.”

At The Oberoi, Sahl Hasheesh on Egypt’s Red Sea Coast, the most frequent events are personal parties, says executive assistant manager Attia Ali — celebrations for anniversaries, engagements or birthdays.

“We play to our strengths in order to deliver precisely the atmosphere required for the occasion,” he says.

“The design of the hotel enables us to create wonderful romantic settings in open air areas, such as Peer, the lower level peer leading to the beach, which means nature and the sound of the sea forms part of the decoration and sets the tone. We accentuate this ambience with candlelight, table decorations and even a carpet of flowers.”

Of course, F&B plays an integral part in the vast majority of celebrations — but to what extent does it impact the décor?

According to Salt & Pepper’s Westphal, this depends hugely on the client. “F&B is an important element and can have a big impact on your environment and subsequently the décor you can use there,” he notes.

“For example, if a client wants to serve alcohol, they will automatically have to go to a hotel, which then limits you to involving what their in-house team can offer in terms of catering, set-up and staff.

“But we always make sure the F&B elements correspond to the overall theme,” he emphasises.

Artaaj’s Java adds that food and beverage items themselves can play a part in the decorative effect.

“When a client wishes to give their guests a holistic experience, it becomes important to include every sense, from the tactile and audio-visual right through to flavours,” she says.

“Whether it’s an organic juice bar for an event promoting a beauty product, or a signature cocktail in brand colours at a huge gala dinner, the possibilities are endless.”

DWTC’s Al Mulla explains that although the venue has the food and beverage team and the separate decorations team, their roles “come together when we want to make decorations from the food itself”.

“Our team does all sorts of displays with food; it can form something really beautiful and special,” she says.

Five minutes with… Airstar managing director Hicham Lalmi

Tell us a bit about the products you supply.

Our company provides original and innovative products, combining shapes, colours and light to create fantastic unique effects. These are available in lighting, décor and signage, customisable through printing or embroidery.

How important is décor to an event?

The most important aspect of any event is to create a lasting memory of the event, and of course the right décor helps enhance the ambience and achieve this.

Which of your products would you recommend to operators looking for eye-catching décor?

I’d pick out a few: there’s the Crystal Lighting Balloon — an air-filled balloon with halogen lights inside; then there’s the Towair range of self-inflating decorative pieces, and the Lunix range of helium-filled balloons with halogen lights suspended inside. And finally we also have The Dome, which is an incredible, supernatural-looking space.

D’Events’ d’Abo agrees that F&B can work as “a wonderful creative element within an event to create an atmosphere and set the tone”.

“We have seen the trend evolve from the ‘90s, when food was just being used as a decorative tool, with a large amount of carved fruit and ice sculptures,” she comments.

Food and beverage options can also be served “in keeping with the branding and décor of the event theme”, adds d’Abo.

“This can include the style of food and drinks, the colour of the serving dishes or indeed the uniform the waiting staff are wearing,” she suggests.

When trying to transform a lawn, ballroom or other venue into a client’s vision of what they want, there are certain challenging aspects — one of which is of course budgets, notes Artaaj’s Java.

“When it’s a toss-up between whether to have a more fulfilling event program with speakers, performers and so on, or spending that extra bit on the little touches, unfortunately décor takes a back seat,” she admits.

“And sometimes, when you’re working with a team of people, it’s difficult to cater to everyone’s tastes.”

Fitting in with such a variety of guests and expectations can be tricky, agrees DWTC’s Al Mulla.

“We have such a variety of different people and different tastes to deal with — and you are just one person dealing with that, so you have to be very open and adaptable,” she asserts.

Salt & Pepper’s Westphal says another issue that is a common occurrence in this region is having enough time.

“In one of the first meetings with our clients we tell them anything is possible if you have enough money and enough time — those are the things that limit you,” he explains.

“With money, this region is generally quite fortunate; but time is frequently an issue. We do get requests to pull off an event for 1500 people within three weeks.”

But for those looking to create a truly spectacular event, with precisely the right accessories — be they food-related or merely decorative — good supplier relationships are the key, notes Oberoi’s Ali.

“We have a complete list of local suppliers and we know what they can offer, so we ensure the event plan involves items these companies can deliver — not only in quality and quantity, but also within the specified timeframe,” he expands.

Five minutes with… Giles & Posner director Darren Giles

Tell us a bit about the products you supply.

The most popular products are the chocolate fountains, chocolate for chocolate fountains and our Popcorn Carts, mainly for the professional market.

How important is décor to an event?

Extremely important — which is why we take great time and effort making the perfect accessories for the Giles & Posner range.

Which of your products would you recommend to operators looking for eye-catching décor?

Chocolate fountains, especially our new CF2 Cascade. It’s such an eye-catching piece, with two different types of chocolate flowing, to create double the impact.

Artaaj’s Java adds: “Our resourceful operations team has a wealth of suppliers on speed dial.

“Besides which, delving into Dubai’s markets always yields a multitude of interesting accessories from all over the world — and if something is not available, there’s always a friendly craftsman, whether a tailor, a carpenter or a Styrofoam artiste, who can put something together in a jiffy!”

Salt & Pepper’s Westphal says that operators in the Middle East are “very lucky, in the fact that they can build anything here”.

“It’s important to remember that it’s not always about the most expensive option: you can build ancient Rome in a ballroom out of Styrofoam if you want,” he points out.

“Admittedly, if you have a client who wants every table covered in Swarovski crystals, then there’s not other way round it but to get those.

“But for a theme, there are a lot of cost-effective options,” he continues.

“For example, we did a 1920s-themed party, and got an original ’20s-style car to have outside the venue.

“All we had to pay to use that was the cost of transporting it to the venue, because the Sharjah Auto Museum where it came from is a good contact of ours.”

D’Events’ d’Abo says the company’s motto is “to go beyond the obvious” in their search for the right decorative touches.

“We hunt high and low to source just the right accessories for our events. Over the last five years we have sourced everything from handcuffs and army dog-tags for the launch of MBC Action for the MBC Group, to 600 mother-of-pearl shells as serving dishes, monogrammed towels and blue gold fish for an upcoming event,” she reveals.

“We find these items in a range of places: we have vendors who source items for us, we go overseas, we use the internet and of course source elements locally from all the local malls and souks.”

At DWTC, there is a huge existing range of decorative items to choose from, explains Al Mulla.

“We have a range of items in stock: tables, chairs, linens and so on. All this I select from the catalogue of one of our local contractors.

“From my experience, I know what colours and styles people go for; so each year, I select pieces that are durable and can be used for a long time.

“But if we need a particular item, like an elaborate top table or chairs for a VIP wedding, then we can have them specially made,” she adds.

There is clearly a delicate balance to be found when it comes to dressing a venue up — one which takes into account guest preferences; food and beverage options; maintaining supplier relations and forming new contacts; and making sure the décor underlines the host’s message while simultaneously creating that wow-factor that will impress the guests.

The demand for high-impact events is still there; so for those who can correctly marry all these elements of food and décor, and who have enough creativity to bypass any issues of budget, the extremely profitable world of events is their oyster.

Five minutes with… Desert River co-owner and managing partner Claudia van der Werf

Tell us a bit about the products you supply to the Middle East events market.

We are famous in the market for our original and funky event supplies. If you need illuminated bars, furniture or other objects you will find them in our portfolio. Where else would you find inflatable bars, or an original 1963 Volkswagen camper van named Lola, which has been converted to a bar and DJ booth? In addition to seating and display systems, we offer a great selection of mobile bars.

How important is décor to an event?

The décor makes or breaks an event! Especially for corporate events, the client will want to project a very specific image about who they are and what they represent.

Which of your products would you recommend to operators looking for eye-catching décor?

Our Slide illuminated objects are very popular; it’s a modular and flexible system — all units can be placed together in unlimited variations, then personalised by branding and coloured lights. Our other best selling equipment is the battery operated LED range, with illuminated cocktail tables that change colour to match the events theme.

And last but not least, our showgirl Lola will rock any event!

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