Planners take the art of the party to the next level with bespoke celebrations that transport guests into a fanciful world.
By Lilibet Snellings
From “The Great Gatsby” to the Wild West, one only needs a quick glance through websites such as Pinterest to discover the ever-growing trend of elaborately themed events with intricately executed details. This craze, which was once only popular for children’s parties, is now permeating the world of adult affairs as well—a 60th birthday party is no longer just a small celebration but a “golf courses around the world”-themed soirée spotlighting the honoree’s favorite links; a wedding is no longer just a ceremony but a Paris-themed fête celebrating the city where the couple met.
In fact, the trend is becoming extremely popular in the world of weddings. One recent example can be found in the nuptials of Sean Parker, one of the social media barons behind Facebook, who married his bride in a fairy tale ceremony in Big Sur, Calif., in 2013—one of the most far-fetched themed affairs to date. The event—amounting to $4.5 million—featured an enchanted forest setting, a 9-foot tiered wedding cake, a pen of rabbits, and guests who donned Tolkien-esque attire by “The Lord of the Rings” costume designer Ngila Dickson. Today, parties are no longer just an opportunity to gather with friends and family; they’re a special occasion to showcase individual personalities, passions and penchants.
Alison Rinderknecht of Alison Event Planning and Design has been designing events for more than 15 years. During her career, she’s synchronized soirées across the country and beyond—from her home base in San Francisco to Florida and even international destinations. “We get the clients that say, ‘We want to have a really fun party with attention to detail … but we want it to feel like we just threw it together,’ ” she explains. Spontaneity is a key element of the design, but no detail is forgotten.
At Sea Island, themed events are commonplace and, regardless of the number of attendees, never less than breathtaking. “People are making their venues into something their guests have never seen before,” says Elizabeth Killgallon, associate director of catering at Sea Island.
When Rinderknecht organizes an event, every detail is perfectly in its place, although getting all parts to come together seamlessly can be tricky. When planning events at private homes or other unique venues, part of the challenge is starting with a blank slate. “I enjoy working at hotels because it makes my job easier,” she explains. “They have heating and lighting, power, staff and food. … For us [planners], it’s fantastic.”
In collaboration with its decor partners, Sea Island’s event and design team is a another resource to help with every detail, including food, music, lighting, cocktails and decor, to transform venues into any scene imaginable.
Sea Island has props and furniture at the team’s disposal, helping to ensure visions are accurately portrayed. “From draping a tent with chic, custom fabric to mixing and matching various light fixtures, it is about taking a gorgeous space and tailoring it to your style, theme and color schematic.”
Killgallon says, adding that these details can elevate even the smallest gatherings.
Melissa Ippensen, event design manager at Sea Island, helps create themed weddings of all sizes. For a couple that met in Italy, she conceived a family-style food tour through Tuscany. Likewise, for a couple with a passion for art collecting, guests strolled along an “art walk” on The Cloister’s terrace. Meanwhile a watercolorist painted “en plein air” and fireworks display lit up the sky over the Black Banks River.
Themes not only provide a memorable experience but also give insight into hosts’ passions. “A lot of event themes are dictated by lifestyle trends and hobbies,” Ippensen says. “In our wedding world, couples are using what they like to do together as a theme for their big day.”
Brightly colored drapes brought the lobby of The Cloister to life while actors filled the air with a chorus of foreign languages as they partook in Cuban dominoes, poured rum and played pingpong.
Jason Russell, Sea Island’s executive banquet chef, works with the event team to create culinary presentations that bring themes to the next level. For this dinner, he designed each course to represent a different part of the globe, with Cuban cocktails to start, Chinese dim sum for dinner and African desserts to finish.
Even the most aspirational concepts have been executed with flying colors. In an event that recreated life on Mount Everest, The Cloister Ballroom’s temperature was dramatically lowered to 50 degrees.
In addition to changing the climate, the space was turned completely white—the carpet, the walls, everything—to create the “white-out” conditions atop Mount Everest. The foyer and cocktail space were designed to feel like base camp, with servers dressed in Sherpa hats. On their way into the ballroom, guests walked through a tunnel with lighting that twinkled like stars. Tables were adorned with antique cameras and vintage photographs of previous climbers at Everest.
Just as easily, The Cloister’s Black Banks Terrace was transformed into Havana, Cuba. In a collaboration with Garden & Gun magazine, Sea Island hosted “An Ode to Havana and Key West,” a weekend-long celebration that paid homage to Ernest Hemingway’s time in these cities. It featured tarpon fishing, cigar rolling, and Cuban music, food and cocktails. “Any great theme needs a surprise factor and full buy-in, in terms of entertainment, smells, sounds, lighting and even temperature,” Ippensen says. “To pull off the Cuban-themed party we needed the sultry, humid air with a hint of cigar smoke.”
In addition to locales and hobbies, history often serves as festive inspiration. For the 100th anniversary of the Titanic in 2012, Sea Island presented “A Titanic Night” with guest speaker Bob Ballard, the oceanographer who discovered the shipwrecked oceanliner. The Cloister Colonial Lounge was converted into the ship’s foyer, where actors portraying aristocratic families of the era—the Astors, the Guggenheims—mingled with guests donning their finest early 20th-century black-tie attire. After guests received “boarding passes” (seat assignments), an actor playing Capt. John Smith emerged on the balcony to grant them “permission to come aboard.”
Once in the ballroom, attendees had a meal inspired by the original Titanic menu, then danced to a symphony orchestra playing songs from that final night aboard the ship. “Some guests wore life jackets over their black-tie or period costumes,” says Marcie Maddox, membership manager at Sea Island. “They really got into the theme.”
Rinderknecht also knows the ins and outs of events with historic flair. For a wedding that took place in an art-deco mansion, she channeled the gilded details of the 1920s. “That castle really set itself up easily for that kind of a theme,” she explains.
Drawing from the literary and cultural styles of the time period also helps Rinderknecht transport guests back in time. “We took some quotes from the writers and poets of that era and incorporated them into the paper materials,” she says. The guests ended the event on a sweet note—on the pillows of their turned-down beds, a customized message thanked everyone for being a part of the special day with the words of Mae West, an icon of the glitz and glamour of the era. “There [was] a little custom chocolate on [each] pillow that said, ‘Too much of a good thing can be wonderful.’ ”
Sea Island guests also fancied a “Downton Abbey”-inspired weekend with Allen Leech, who plays Tom Branson on the series, and Jessica Fellowes, author of companion books, “The World of Downton Abbey” and “The Chronicles of Downton Abbey.” A two-sided pub was the backdrop for show trivia. The pub’s British station was adorned with old books, the Union Jack and various containers of popular British foods, while an American bar was decorated with the American flag and mini cheeseburgers. Sunday evening saw guests dressed in “Downton Abbey”-inspired attire, a formal dinner and dancing in the ballroom.
Whether a party transports attendees back to the Roaring Twenties or a wedding is inspired by an exotic locale, themed events turn imagination into reality. “Sea Island will always have a sense of childlike play,” Ippensen says. “You arrive and immediately feel like you are on vacation. I think that is [important to] the art of what we do. People come relaxed and open to whatever experience we lay out for them.”