Feature Article: Nightlife Issue
By Anne Bruno
Photographs by Jerry Hayes and Jared Tennant
NEW YORK IS THE CITY THAT NEVER SLEEPS, NEW ORLEANS IS WHERE TO LAISSEZ LES BONS TEMPS ROULER, AND AUSTIN? Well, let’s just say our town’s reputation as one of the best places to party has soared in recent years. Whether it’s around music, film, world-class auto racing or special birthdays and anniversaries, Austin’s “party season” lasts a full 12 months and when local hosts take a celebration to the next level, forget keeping it weird. They take it over the top — how else?— with ultra-creative Austin style.
We sat down for a chat with two veterans of Austin event planning and decor, Victoria Hentrich of Creative Consultants and David Kurio of David Kurio Designs, Austin’s florist to the stars. Together they form the cognoscenti of Austin’s party people. Both recipients of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Special Events Society, these friends and frequent collaborators have seen it all.
What do these two party powerhouses consider over the top? The stories they tell would make a Kardashian green. One event that’s likely frozen in guests’ memories included several tons of snow to create ice rooms with ice furniture for adults and a hill for kids to sled down. Then there was the time they transformed an airplane hanger into an aquarium-like party palace by upholstering the walls and ceiling and installing giant-sized screens of swimming goldfish for a client who loved the color orange. And who could forget the beach extravaganza inside the Austin Music Hall, complete with 35 dump trucks of sand? (How do you get rid of the sand when the party’s over? Conveyor belts, naturally.) “These days, over-the-top usually starts with a very high level of entertainment,” Kurio says. “Elton John, Rod Stewart, the Eagles. People like legends.”
And sometimes over the top means delivering on what — to a mere party-planning mortal — would seem an impossible request. “I received an email from a gentleman about his wife’s 50th birthday. I thought we were planning about a year in advance, which is typical for the scale he was describing,” Hentrich says. “Turned out her birthday was in a few weeks. He ended his email with ‘P.S. For music, I’d like Prince.’” (Yes, The Purple One played.)
As hosts look to wow guests with increasingly interactive experiences, standard bar service is passé when compared to unusual arrangements like bartenders suspended from the ceiling. Tolly Moseley, co-owner of Rapt Aerial Dance, says the combined artistic-athletic-alcohol-pouring proposition still requires something as mundane as TABC training and licensing. Bottles in hand and suspended from long pieces of colorful fabric, the professional aerialists chat with guests while serving, keeping the vibe lively. Moseley says the most fun comes when her troupe is asked to dress and serve in character roles — think James Bond-themed bar mitzvah or “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” milieu for a corporate event.
Exactly how interactive does it get? Has an “over-served” guest ever tried to join in the aerial experience? “Oh yes, it’s happened,” says Moseley, “but we’re always accompanied by some wonderful handlers who act as very polite buffers if necessary.”
While every host doesn’t have an over-the-top budget, modest spending doesn’t necessarily mean balloons and crepe paper. Cindy Lo of Austin’s Red Velvet Events says, “Much of the time, it’s not about cost, but about creativity.” Using common objects in innovative ways can make all the difference. “I once used hundreds of pairs of shoelaces [for napkin rings and table numbers] at a gala for a nonprofit that served the homeless,” Lo says. An unexpected sight, such as a shoelace, can transform a table and even an entire room. “Depending on someone’s budget, you might find just the right element at the dollar store; how you use it is what creates the impact.” Weddings fall into their own unique category. For many, a wedding is still the most special of special events. Regardless of size, as with all gatherings today, social media and technology take a place of prominence. According to Sarah Miller of Caplan Miller events, that can mean live-streaming a wedding to the world, or creating a separate lounge where boogied-out guests can leave the dance floor. While enjoying a breather or a round of bubbly, they can still watch Uncle Sammy and Aunt Coco do the chicken dance via coffee tables inlaid with hi-definition screens.
“You want to constantly build momentum throughout an event,” Miller explains. To do that at weddings, she’ll bring in multiple groups of live musicians to play at different points in the evening. It may start with a string quartet at the ceremony playing music significant to the couple (“Star Wars,” anyone? It’s been done), move to a jazz ensemble, then a big band, culminating in a boy band whose singers jump from the stage to the dance floor, teaching guests moves for a flash-mob-style finale. Says Miller, “Experience is the new luxury!”
Read more from the Nightlife Issue | August 2016