Business Cover

The Party Boys

by Lisa Hanchey

Whether it's a business pow-wow or a spectacular blow-out event, this group of men really knows how to pull it together.

Move over, Martha Stewart - the boys are taking charge. In Lafayette, the guys are the ones planning the big bashes, the kind that people buzz about for months, or even years. When locals really want to impress clients and colleagues, they call the "Party Boys" - among whom are Frank Gerami II, Ted Viator, Richard Young and Jim Clark. Whether it's a business pow-wow or a spectacular blow-out event, they really know how to put it together down to the finest detail. Here's a behind-the-scenes look at how they make it happen.

Move over, Martha Stewart - the boys are taking charge. In Lafayette, the guys are the ones planning the big bashes, the kind that people buzz about for months, or even years. When locals really want to impress clients and colleagues, they call the "Party Boys" - among whom are Frank Gerami II, Ted Viator, Richard Young and Jim Clark. Whether it's a business pow-wow or a spectacular blow-out event, they really know how to put it together down to the finest detail. Here's a behind-the-scenes look at how they make it happen.

Just after the holidays, Super Bowl and Mardi Gras, local planners are recharging for the next flurry of activities. On the day I met with Clark, owner/president of Clark Services Audio Visual & Exhibit Inc., he was in the midst of a five-day conference for the Society of Petroleum Engineers at the Lafayette Hilton. One of his company trucks was loaded up with lighting, projection screens, backdrops and draping from Mardi Gras balls the weekend before. Another was hauling equipment back from a WWE event in Alexandria the previous night. After the SPE conference, Clark would have to gear up for the Xanadu, Triton and Gabriel balls. To make all of these intertwining events come together, Clark has to plan meticulously. "The devil is in the details," he says matter-of-factly.

Clark worked in the audio/visual business for five years in Washington, D.C., before moving to Acadiana in 1980. At the time, Lafayette had no major event venues, and Hotel Acadiana (now Crowne Plaza) was just being built. Clark stopped by the hotel to ask who was supplying its audio/visual equipment for meetings or conventions. By chance, the hotel was looking for someone to do just that, and Clark got the job. As new properties opened around town, Clark nabbed their work, too. After the Hilton asked him to recommend an exhibit and tradeshow provider, Clark expanded his business to include that as well. Today, Clark's company owns seven vehicles, two warehouses and tons of equipment, and provides services from Texas to Florida.

For the SPE conference, Clark had to juggle space for 102 presenters and 16 exhibitors, breaking down the smaller rooms for a party in the main ballroom mid-session. Prior to each lecture, Clark's team loaded the lecturer's Power Point presentation onto a laptop, set up projection screens and rigged microphones. "We try to maintain a flow of where to take equipment out and put it in for the next event," Clark says.

Describing his company as an "invisible business," Clark works behind the scenes of most major events in Lafayette. For shows like LAGCOE and Tinsel & Treasures, he runs electricity to hundreds of vendor booths. At Mardi Gras balls, he provides the backdrop for the glitzy d├ęcor, using video screens, projectors, lighting, draping and skirting.

While Clark concentrates on conventions and trade shows, Gerami is the consummate party planner. For the past 16 years, Gerami, along with his son, Frank III, has owned Party Central of Lafayette, a one-stop shop for everything to host a private party or corporate event, including tents, tables, chairs, linens, table covers, china, glassware, flatware, napkins, centerpieces, chandeliers and lounge furnishings. Three years ago, Gerami formed a sister company, EventSolutions, which provides heavy duty equipment such as portable toilets, bathroom and shower trailers, generators, air conditioners and heaters. He boasts that he can do any size job. "For the minimum, we only need one chair," he says with a chuckle. "The maximum is as much as you can imagine or afford."

For a recent wedding, Gerami used equipment from both of his companies. The huge event took five days to set up about 9,000 square feet of tenting, 8,400 square feet of flooring and carpeting, seven chandeliers, staging, backlighting, wall and ceiling draperies, lounge furniture, bathroom trailers and generators.

But, things don't always go smoothly at outdoor gatherings. Last year, Party Central planned a company event at a new facility in Lake Charles. While the day started off clear, winds started blowing from Texas as the event got closer. With 300 to 400 guests on the way, Gerami and his staff stayed on site to make sure that the tents remained secure. Throughout the nighttime event, strong winds kept pushing in the sides of one of the tents where water started gathering, "We had to have people in that area to make sure the water stayed off the tents and kept them tight," Gerami recalls. "We also had someone just watching the electrical, because we had a phenomenal amount of water coming down. But, the client never had a clue, other than knowing there was a lot of wind and rain. We had enough people, and didn't have problems."

Dealing with Louisiana's searing summer heat is also an issue. This past July, Gerami had a client who wanted to do an outdoor event in the middle of the day. To make the party tolerable, he used 70 tons of air conditioning for a 4,000-square-foot tent. "A lot of people said they weren't coming because it was in July," Gerami recalls. "The host had to give guarantees that they would be comfortable. And, he had a tremendous turnout."

Another tricky part is setting up and taking everything down while trying not to interrupt a business' operations. With some companies, Gerami's crews work into the wee hours of the morning to remove all evidence of a party the night before. "We normally bring more people to get it out, because it goes faster," he says. "It can take five days to set up, and only two to take down. The biggest job that we have is getting what the customer needs in a timely fashion, and doing it as seamlessly as possible. We don't want them to know that it was a problem or difficulty."

Throughout the year, Gerami plans gatherings for several oilfield companies, with events ranging from casual crawfish boils to formal cocktail parties. Because of the wide range of Party Central's services, Gerami actively covers events along the I-10 corridor in Beaumont, Orange, Port Arthur, Lake Charles, Mississippi, Baton Rouge and New Orleans, and I-49 in Alexandria, Shreveport, and Morgan City.

For events like LAGCOE, Party Central sets up tents for companies to display their tools or feed customers. This past year, Gerami arranged a Christmas party for a utility company and designed the entrance, centerpieces and a photo op area. The client has already booked Party Central for next year's event.

Once the basics are in place, it's time for the decorator to step in and do his magic. Ted Viator, owner of Viator and Associates and the Gardenaire, uses his special touches to transform a blank space into a magnificent showplace. "As a landscape architect, I design spaces for people like patios or plazas," he says. "It's kind of the same thing with parties or events - you create gathering spaces for people to mingle or visit more cozily on a one-to-one basis."

Growing up in New Iberia, Viator learned party planning at an early age from his mother, an active garden club and Mardi Gras participant. He put on his first wedding during high school. After graduating from LSU, Viator expanded his repertoire to include Mardi Gras balls, UL functions, dinner parties, fundraisers, wine auctions and more.

Using his creative flair, Viator has transformed warehouse-type spaces like the Cajundome and airplane hangars into visions of wonder. He incorporates colored fabric, dramatic draping and precise lighting to camouflage bare walls and concrete floors. "Lighting is probably one of the most important things," he says. "You can dim the ceiling and throw some light in some key areas, and you don't see that you're in a warehouse. You can play up a whole lot with very little decoration, like hitting spotlights on an arrangement at the food table or at a big display at the entrance." One of his favorite events was the first UL Spring Gala honoring Herbert Heymann. The university asked Viator to develop a theme showcasing Heymann's fondness for gardens. So his crew fabricated cardboard cut-outs into "iron" gates replicating those at the Heymann center entrance. From an initial estimate of 200, the guest list snowballed to a sit-down dinner for 800. "That was a fun thing, because it was the first time that something like that was done for the UL alumni," Viator recalls.

Recently, Viator faced a challenge when he had to plan a three-day party around a wine auction in Naples, Fla. First was a welcome party, followed by a sit-down dinner and the auction itself. He did a similar turn-around for the D.C. Mardi Gras, where he converted the same room three nights in a row from a welcome party to a sit-down dinner to a ball. Viator relished the pace. "When you are converting things like that, it's fun," he says.

For local Mardi Gras events, Viator has used an all-gold color scheme, as well as the traditional purple, green and gold. He once made a border from canvas painted to look like scalloped fabric. But because Lafayette socialites sometimes go to the same events, he is careful to pack up certain items and put them away for a long while.

When the big day arrives, Viator typically shows up at the venue early in the morning with a truckload of supplies. He works the room from top to bottom, decorating the ceilings with fabric or chandeliers, hanging drapes, assembling arbors, positioning backdrops. Next comes the placing of tables and chairs, allowing enough room for guests to walk around and view everything. Finally, the table decorations, centerpieces or flower arrangements converge.

"It's a lot of preparing to make sure that you have enough equipment, enough fabric and pipes to hang the drapes, and to handle problems if there's enough time," Viator says. "You keep your cool and try not to blow up, but things happen, and you just try to deal with any problems that come up."

While Clark, Gerami and Viator are veteran local party planners, Richard Young, owner of Event Rental, is a relative newcomer. But after only a few years here, he has made quite a splash on the Lafayette social scene. While Young, who has a decade of experience in the special events business, primarily does weddings and festival events, he is also a competitor for company parties.

Recently, Event Rental hosted the Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce's Business After Hours at its warehouse on Bertrand Drive. Young modeled the layout after Blaine Kern's Mardi Gras World in New Orleans, pulling out his most unique props, including a 200-pound Buddha, fiberglass jesters, a 6-foot pair of dolphins and cotton bales, and creating vignettes with them. His staff placed the bar at the end of the warehouse so that the guests had to filter through the entire building before they could order drinks. "We were told that it was one of the best events that the chamber had ever had," Young says.

Back in November, Young's company converted Schilling Distributors' warehouse into a Parisian paradise for the PASA wine auction gala. PASA Executive Director Jackie Lyle asked Young to create a sidewalk bistro theme. Using a tall, black velvet drape, he sectioned off part of the warehouse, creating a more intimate, acoustically sound setting. On the other walls, he projected images of scenes from Paris. In the middle of the room, Event Rental built a platform with an impressive-looking 12-foot Eiffel Tower made from gold metallic cardboard. After adding tall foliage, small tables with umbrellas, park benches, and even a bicycle leaning against a fire hydrant, Young captured the feeling of being in France.

This past Mardi Gras, Event Rental produced a party for an old-line mystic Mardi Gras krewe. Young transformed the entrance tent into a metallic gold tunnel. "It looked like you were walking through a solid gold tunnel; it was fantastic," he says.

For Super Bowl Sunday, Young planned a private party for Hub City Ford's grand opening celebration. His props department built life-sized football character flats of Saints football players. They also put up a 10-foot projection screen, and dressed it out like a theater. The seating area was bottomed out with green turf over the beautiful marble floors. To flank the screen, Young's sewing room made a customized gold skirt and drape.

A party planner extraordinaire, Young has some simple, but valuable tips: Have a well-functioning bar so guests don't have to wait too long for a drink; make sure the food's good and plentiful; and most important, don't run out of either. Of course, it helps to have a fun crowd. "Sometimes it's good to invite some outside guests, called party mixers - people who like to dance and like to talk," Young says. "And, it doesn't hurt if they're attractive."

Other tips include making sure that you have enough electricity, lighting, heat or air conditioning, parking and bathrooms. His last recommendation: hire security. "I did a party where someone's very expensive curling iron disappeared," he recalls. "The host felt violated because it happened in his house. A lot of parties end with somebody losing an iPhone, digital camera, jacket or purse, so it's important to deter that from happening."

Viator says that it's important to add an element of surprise. "We did a ladies' birthday party at IberiaBank where we had sparklers going off outside," he says. "When we did the inauguration for Dr. Savoie at UL, we had fireworks going off in the Cajundome as he finished his speech. An element of surprise - people will remember that. Sometimes, it's not the most expensive thing, but just a little gimmick, and that's what people remember the most."

While each of these experts has his own specialty, some also work together on occasion. On Mardi Gras weekend, Clark set up the projector screens around the Convention Center for the Xanadu ball, while Gerami put up the background drapes, leaving the krewe members to apply the final frou-frou. Clark has also worked with Viator on projects such as Tinsel & Treasures.

"It's not just us - it's kind of like a puzzle," Gerami says. "Maybe the venue needs to do something, then the outside florist or decorator needs to do something. So, it's about coordinating everything so we don't hold each other up."