Spotting Kim Williams is easy, even in a hotel corridor full of corporate conferees scurrying from room to room and chattering like high schoolers between classes. Just keep an eye out for the face in the crowd that looks dazed and discouraged, for the body whose language seems to cry out, “Dead woman walking!” It’s 4 p.m. The party starts in three hours.
A producer with Fandango Special Events, Williams is at the Omni Shoreham in Washington, D.C., to transform a smallish ballroom into an eye-popping wonderland of theatrical sets representing street scenes from exotic locales. Her client is Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC), a San Diego-based high-tech research and engineering firm looking to make a social splash at this Data Warehousing Institute conference. Fandango’s truck is parked at the loading dock, and its dozen-strong crew awaits a call to action. But a scheduling snafu has a conference session just getting under way in the Congressional Room, so Williams will have only two hours to pull off the transformation instead of the six hours she would have preferred, or the three she’d expected.
She slouches against a wall outside the Congressional and begins checking her watch every few seconds. That’s how Fandango crew chief Jason Handlir finds her 45 minutes later. The two huddle briefly over a party blueprint that places Paris over here, Hong Kong over there and the Caribbean in between. As Handlir heads back to the dock, Williams shouts after him, “Don’t forget about all the muslin in the Safe House!”
The crew chief whirls and shoots her a glance that’s part perplexed, part withering. “Whaaaaahht?”
To no one in particular, Williams says, “I just have to keep telling myself it can only be really bad for two hours.”
Fittingly, the party’s theme is “Mission: Impossible.”
Yes, this is a story about people who work themselves silly so others can party well. It’s about that, and more. Because everything has changed since first P.W. Feats, and then Fandango, started adding just the right doses of hip surprise and juicy spectacle to our town’s social scene. You can get a taste of the transformation by calling Feats to say you’re writing a story about party companies. They’ll bristle so hard you can feel the shiver right through the phone into your ear.
“We’re not really a ‘party’ business,” they’ll say, pronouncing the key word as if it taints them by association with toppled keggers and passed-out frat boys. “We are a special-events company.”
And you’ll think to yourself, “Yeah. Sure. Whatever.”
Feats and Fandango are used to this. They understand that most folks in town judge them based on firsthand experience at local fund-raising galas and private soirees, even though Baltimore’s social whirl is no longer the center of their business universe. These days, they’re busy working up proposals and sweating deadlines for clients on the order of, in Feats’ case, L’Oreal, Campbell’s and U.S. Food Service; and at Fandango, America Online, Kodak and the aforementioned SAIC (just because you’ve never heard of it doesn’t mean it’s not on the Fortune 500).
“We still do local galas, of course,” says Paul Wolman, the P and W of P.W. Feats, “because the creative challenge is still there, because they’re fun for our creative staff, and because many of them are for really good causes. To be honest, I don’t mind that so many people in town don’t know about all the other things we do. That’s just the way it goes in our business.”
If anybody in Baltimore knows how things go in the special-events business, it’s Wolman. He started P.W. Feats 16 years ago on a shoestring, setting aside both his law degree and an advertising job with childhood pal Steve Eisner at the firm then called Eisner & Associates. It was an obvious measure of his determination to make a living out of a passion that dates to his childhood. As early as age 9, he and Eisner were organizing neighborhood events; by 12, they’d formed their own business, Parties Unlimited, which they kept running through their college years (Wolman at Washington University in Missouri, and Eisner at Hampshire College in Massachusetts).
“When we were throwing parties in the late ’70s, DJs were playing 45s on turntables,” Wolman says. He pauses, curious as to whether a pair of Feats interns sitting in on our conversation even know what a 45 is. When both confess that they don’t, Wolman heads off on a historical aside about LPs and RPMs before returning to his point, which is that his is a business where the more things change, the more they stay the same.
“The sophisticated digital equipment we have today,” he continues, “makes even something as simple as what a disc jockey does very, very different. But the psychology of motivating an audience at a party, of moving the crowd, of pacing the evening is not much different. It’s all about knowing who these folks are, what’s going to get them excited, what’s going to get them to think about what we want them to think about. It’s still Marketing 101: How do you affect people?”
Before Feats arrived on the scene, companies and party committees fended for themselves in a jungle of independent caterers and decorators and entertainers and so on. Wolman offered soup-to-nuts planning that delivered better spectacle minus all the aggravating details. And he used advertising and marketing expertise to make sure his events served his clients’ communications needs and image-building goals.
Because his company took off so early in the game— the national trade association for event-planning companies dates the history of the profession back only about a dozen years— Wolman ranks as something of a grand old man in his field, an odd position for someone all of 46 years old.
Today, P.W. Feats has more than 30 full-time employees and is one of the largest events companies in the Mid-Atlantic region. Its marketing material lists 19 different specialties, including event design, technical design, exhibit design, product launches and capital campaigns. (You’ll find “private and social celebrations” tucked way down near the end of the list.)
There’s no sign that the pace of the company’s growth is going to slow anytime soon. Feats recently created a separate division for its destination-management services, offering the same mix of nuts-and-bolts know-how and marketing expertise to companies grappling with the logistics of meetings and other events far from their home turf. (For this, Feats is integrated with an international network of independent destination-management providers in 30 different countries and a dozen U.S. cities.)
Next up is a move out of the building that Feats has called home for a decade. “Our little trailer park” is what Wolman calls the Russell Street facility, referring to the way its executive offices are housed in construction trailers installed along the warehouse’s interior edges. The company is renovating two structures— a warehouse and an office building— on a sprawling site along Ostend Street on the western edge of the Federal Hill neighborhood.
“That’s a very exciting project for us,” Wolman says. “It’s a much bigger facility than we need for our current business. It will allow us to think about bringing in other companies— tenants, actually— who will be offering services compatible with what we do.”
By establishing such a one-of-a-kind complex, Wolman is aiming for the best of both worlds— boosting Feats’ resources and skills for pursuing work on a national stage, and further burnishing the company’s reputation at home, where it has handled such high-profile events as a televised gala for baseball’s All-Star Game, the opening of the new cancer center buildings at Johns Hopkins, and (partnering with Weber Shandwick Worldwide) a series of events marking the 200th anniversary of the founding of Alex. Brown.
Wolman, himself, retains a high profile in town with his endless charitable endeavors. He estimates that he devotes as much as 40 percent of his work time to efforts on behalf of nonprofit boards and committees. “We all have responsibilities for moving our industries forward,” he says. “But we also have responsibilities to see how we can use what we do to make our community a better place.”
The Congressional room looks like a war zone. Kim Williams’ long wait finally ends at 5:10 p.m. Two and a half seconds after the doors to the ballroom open, a red-shirted platoon of hotel employees swoops inside to clear away the chairs, tables and equipment. Two and a half seconds after that, the black-shirted Fandango army sprints in and commences cluttering every inch of just-cleared space with stacks of walls and pillars and books and shelves and barrels and tools and paper flowers and signage.
It’s 5:30 p.m. when the hotel’s red army finally carts off the last of the audio/visual gear. The ballroom floor quickly becomes a knee-high mess of strewn props and supplies, and its walls are echoing with the back-and-forth bark of Fandango soldiers trading orders and advice. At 5:35, the first screwgun whirs into gear.
When Williams stops building a casino set for a second, it’s only to step into the center of the ballroom and shout out over the hubbub: “Twenty of!”
“Twenty of six?!” Handlir cries. With a smile of disbelief, he adds one other thing: “Pfffffffffft!”
Now it’s Williams’ turn to give her crew chief a withering glance: “Don’t laugh at me!”
When Fandango arrived on the scene in 1989, it came armed with a corporate legend similar to that of the older Feats. Erin Cermak started out as an accountant and eventually signed on to manage the books for an event company in her native New Jersey. The next thing she knew, she was producing parties and bringing her then-husband aboard as director of operations.
“We ended up kind of living there in the office and running the shop,” Cermak recalls. “We were working every hour there was, and we finally started to figure out that maybe we didn’t need to be making all this money for this other guy.”
That’s when Cermak called her sister, Dawn, who had moved to Baltimore, and said, “Let’s start a special-events company.” The career switch wasn’t that much of a shock to Erin’s family, who had seen her organize extravagant backyard carnivals as a child and had attended her Caribbean-themed wedding, which featured 200 decorative fish, each hand-sewn and hand-stuffed by the bride.
The new company’s first set— a ’50s diner— was built in Erin’s New Jersey farmhouse. “We didn’t have any clients,” she says, “so we decided to throw a party for my mother and my aunt, twins who were turning 50 that year. It took us three months to build that diner— we didn’t have any idea what we were doing at first. Today, it would take us a week, tops.”
Word about the project reached the ear of a Cermak sister’s boyfriend’s best friend’s mother, who happened to work for one of the biggest party planners in Washington, D.C. When she laid eyes on the Cermaks’ set, her reaction was, “You need to come meet with my company.” Fandango was off and running.
Like Feats, Fandango operates out of a warehouse in the shadow of PSINet Stadium. The company moved there in 1997 from the Bagby building, which it occupied before the Little Italy landmark’s well-publicized renovation.
By the time of the move to Paca Street, Fandango had grown to 20 full-time employees, and the Cermak sisters decided it was time to raise the company’s profile. They did what comes naturally and threw a warehouse party. “That’s what put Fandango on the map in this town,” Erin Cermak says. “A lot of our clients who’d been dealing with us from the beginning, even though we were showing up at their events with truckloads of different stuff and different crews every weekend, somehow they had never quite sorted out that we weren’t working out of a garage any more.”
This past spring, the Cermaks hosted another warehouse bash to introduce their latest endeavor, the Funkiture line of wild, lush, modernist pieces of rental furniture. Erin came up with the idea by accident— she wanted to justify buying an expensive sofa for her own home, so she told herself she’d rent it out a time or two to clients. That sofa turned out to be a high-demand item; likewise, early returns on Funkiture have been overwhelmingly positive.
Even as its clientele grows more corporate and more regional, the company has stayed close to its party-animal roots. In addition to producing events, the company uses its warehouse as a supply house for party planners, who can order everything from ceiling treatments and centerpieces to sunken pirate ships and a 1929 roadster convertible.
After all the changes she’s led Fandango through, there are days when Dawn Cermak, like Wolman, finds that the more things change, the more they stay the same. “The biggest challenge in what we do is the demands of the schedule,” she says with a sigh. “One day, it’s a two-hour setup. The next week, it’s three or four jobs in one day. And then you could finally be totally caught up and on top of your game, and that’s always the moment someone comes along and says, ‘I’m having this huge event next week… ’”
Even with the pressure, Erin Cermack still loves the business. “We try to be ‘out there,’” she says. “I just love seeing all these wild things we concoct come true.”
Just a dozen years ago, the special-events business was something entrepreneurial innovators like Wolman and the Cermaks made up as they went along. Today, their field is beginning to look like a full-blown profession, complete with trade associations, professional certifications and courses of collegiate study.
But the field hasn’t lost touch with its fun-loving roots quite yet, at least judging by the tours I took deep into the cluttered warehouses where these two companies store thousands upon thousands of props, from gold doubloons to giant gorillas to sprawling Bourbon Street sets. In the Feats warehouse, everyone will know just where to find King Kong: he’s stuffed clumsily inside Zoltan the fortune teller’s booth, of course.
On a recent Friday, Feats operations director David Hood sent out an emergency e-mail begging his co-workers to search for Nerf balls during their weekend shopping rounds. The magazine Modern Bride wanted to rent an oversized wedding cake prop from the warehouse, but only if it was expanded with a new bottom layer. It fell to Hood to figure out how the cake was originally made, and he soon discovered the secret to its realistic-looking decorative icing.
“Originally, they got these Nerf balls at the Dollar General Store,” Hood says of the Feats crew that first made the cake five or six years ago. “We ended up going through all this research to find the company that makes those balls and order more.”
Predictably, the staffs at both Feats and Fandango are armed with a library’s worth of war stories. If you’ve got an hour to spare someday, ask Dawn Cermak to list all the complications involved in throwing New York City’s exclusive St. Patrick’s Day Ball during one of those paralyzing snowstorms of the century.
Or ask Feats creative director Laura Amlie about the time L’Oreal wanted to throw a supremely elegant dinner party and Liza Minnelli concert for 1,200 CEOs from around the world on a sheep farm outside of Boston with no electrical power, no water supply, and a whole lot of sheep dung lying around. A crew of 500 worked full time for a week just on setup. “Let’s just say we all drank a lot of Scotch after we survived that,” Amlie confesses.
At 6:02 p.m., a faux-brick wall of the Safe House nearly tumbles to the ground in the Congressional Room. “Whoa-whoa-whoa!” goes the cry of alarm from the Fandango army. Not even a poor magazine writer is safe from this deadline dash, as black-clad soldiers aren’t at all shy about demanding that he pitch in with lifting and moving and holding.
By 6:10, the leader of the hotel’s catering staff has lost all patience and demands full and immediate access to the Congressional to set up food stations. Recognizing a lost argument, Handlir simply smiles, shrugs and says, “Sure. Go right ahead.”
The maneuvers of the white-jacketed troops force the Fandango army into even more complex bits of high-speed improvisation, like the moment when Handlir stops to address a quartet of Latino women who may or may not speak English. “Ladies! We are about to pick up this couch and move it. We are going to take it right over your heads, so do yourselves a favor and stay low!”
Paris is the first of the exotic fantasy locales to appear, its streetlight adorned with a hand-lettered sign reading “Rue de SAIC.” The blackjack table in “Monte Christy,” named after a SAIC employee, shows up next.
Then comes “Chong Kong,” followed by “Santa Costa,” which is delayed by the seemingly endless task of making sure dozens of paper flowers are positioned just so. Finally, that troublesome Safe House, with all its aggravating muslin and walls whose locations had to be readjusted at least three times, comes into full view.
Just 30 minutes ago, this mission really did seem impossible, but the Fandango army has managed it without meaningful mishap, without undue emotional distress, and with a little time to spare. It’s 6:45 when Williams pops her head into the Safe House to make sure of one last detail— that its Funkiture coffee table is adorned with a copy of John LeCarré’s “A Perfect Spy.”
Then she heads back out to talk with her very happy client and introduce Handler as the crew chief responsible for pulling off this setup miracle. On her way out of the Congressional, Williams pauses by the doorway and turns to one of her black-shirted soldiers. “I think our work here is done,” she says.
The soldier puts on his best exaggerated superhero voice. “Yep,” he says with a mock-serious nod. “It looks to me like there’s gonna be one rockin’ party here tonight.”
Jim Duffy is a Baltimore-based writer.