Planner Hollywood

As you flip through this magazine, in those rare free moments between making arrangements for your next "Big Meeting," did you ever wonder what it'd be like to work on, in the words of Ed Sullivan, a "really big shew"? To hobnob with Gwyneth and Halle at the Oscars, say, instead of the salespeople at your annual conference? To be making room reservations for Marc Anthony rather than your keynote speaker?

Turns out you needn't quit your day job, because what you do every day is more like what planners to the stars do than you think. Successful Meetings spoke to planners and producers of celebrity gatherings from New York to Hollywood, who shared their secrets, dished dirt, and revealed what it takes to put together a party for the Beautiful People. Their tricks and strategies, as you'll see, can be used to work with any VIP, whether it's J. Lo or your CEO.

Catching the Big Fish

Celebrities, of course, get nonstop invitations to parties and events, whether to speak or just show up and smile at the cameras. With so many demands on these V-VIPs' time, producers of such events -- barring the can't-miss-'ems like the Grammys or the Golden Globes -- have developed some time-tested techniques for approaching, and landing, the marquee names.

The first? Research, research, research. Celebrity wrangler Lori Levine, for instance, keeps an extensive database on all the stars she's worked with -- everyone from Kid Rock to Ozzy Osbourne -- that includes personal data such as preferences or idiosyncrasies (like Whoopi Goldberg, who won't fly, for instance), causes or charities they support or are sympathetic to, other stars they're friends with, even their pets' names. Next comes relationship-building, using the intelligence gathered -- say, naming a star to a charity's advisory board in order to get him or her to appear at the annual fund-raiser. Jane Pauley, for example, sits on the board of a charity promoting public education and regularly emcees its events. The final -- and most powerful -- technique is to use personal connections. How did Worth magazine get Dynasty villainess Joan Collins, of all people, to speak at its recent investors' conference? She's a friend of the company's CEO.

But even if your CEO isn't chummy with anyone on a par with "Alexis Carrington," or being named to your organization's board won't impress a big name, you can use these same tactics to land well-known speakers or attendees within your industry. These are people who, while unknown to the general public, are so prominent in their industries they might as well be celebrities. Build relationships and use personal connections and referrals -- it's how business gets done. Research your "stars," starting with them or their assistants, if they don't make their own arrangements. And keep a database, a la Lori Levine: Knowing that your resident bigwig has kids, for example, or likes cigars, will come in handy for choosing room amenities. Independent planner Joan Eisenstodt -- who speaks so often to meetings groups that she's booked into 2003 already -- says she appreciates it when an organization asks her what she likes. "One group said they couldn't pay me but would give me a weekend at a resort," she recalls. "I hate the sun, never swim . . . That was so not me."

Everybody's a Star

Picture the typical star-studded bash: red carpet, Klieg lights, lavish centerpieces, food arranged so artfully you feel guilty eating it. Think all this leaves the rich and famous open-mouthed with amazement? Highly unlikely: "These parties aren't held for celebrities, they're to collect celebrities," says a Los Angeles planner who used to produce Hollywood events. "The over-the-top decor and food are to impress the media, not them -- they don't eat anyway. They're just there to get their picture taken and talk to each other."

That's not so different from having, say, Jane CEO speak at the annual corporate meeting -- she's not there to toss back Cosmos and do the Macarena, but to be seen by the rank-and-file, to whom she is the biggest star in the room and who (like the reporters at Hollywood bashes) are probably far more thrilled by the fancy schmears and schmattes than jaded jetsetter Jane is. She flies in to deliver a speech and meet with key shareholders, such as investors, customers, and the press; contact with the little people is limited. The same is true of any large organization. "At our biggest events, we have over 70,000 people and a large number of them want to speak to the president or shake his hand," notes Linda de Leon, CMP, who plans meetings for the Seventh-Day Adventist World Headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland. She uses uniformed security to whisk her leader quickly through the throngs: "If he was to stop and shake hands with [them all], we'd never get him to his next appointment on time."

David Adler understands perhaps better than anyone the similarities between working with celebrities and organization leaders: Before becoming CEO of BiZBash.com, an online resource for meeting and event planners, he organized meetings for celebrities, politicians, and CEOs in both New York and Washington D.C. "Just like a celebrity at a premiere, the CEO is part of the decor," he notes. "He's there to create a moment that will inspire the audience to perform some action, whether it's buying something, feeling motivated, or forming a strong memory of the event."

That's why it's important to create a mystique about that top person: "You give people enough access to him to whet their appetite and create an experience, but you limit his exposure so he doesn't become just like everyone else," says Adler. He accomplishes this with big-screen TVs -- "not just so people can see, but to give the impression that the speaker is really important" -- and VIP rooms: "By bringing constituencies back to the VIP room, you limit access, and enhance the status of whoever's in that room."

Talent Is King

No matter how dull your company's annual meeting might be, you'd be sure to show up if you knew you'd be getting a 14-karat-gold Cartier watch. Everyone loves gifts and goodies, and celebrities are no exception, notes Rita Tateel, president of The Celebrity Source, a Los Angeles celebrity booking firm: "We list them in the invitations" to entice stars to show up, she says. (Lori Levine's firm, Flying Television Productions, goes even further: Her staff assembles the celebrities' gift baskets themselves.) You probably needn't go that far with your keynote speaker, but the personal touch of, say, sending him a basket of his favorite Granny Smith apples -- as Orlando-based destination management company ME Productions does for one of its clients -- will no doubt lure him back year after year.

When it comes to such perks, Tony Richards, who produces live events for MTV and VH1, has seen more outrageous "riders" (attachments to performance contracts spelling out stars' special requirements) than he cares to remember. "A case of Cristal champagne, this dish of Chinese food prepared just so, a case -- not a box -- of condoms," he groans. Of course, not all stars have outrageous demands, but with so many music channels and awards shows all fighting for the same few acts, he says, "You're in a seller's market. If you don't treat [celebrities] the way they want, someone else will."

Hmm . . . a bunch of show-offs insisting on royal treatment and goodies galore. Sound just a wee bit like your last incentive program? If so, it'd be no surprise to Katharine Hayes, CMP, executive sales and event manager for ME Productions in Orlando. "There's a definite sense of stardom at recognition events," she offers. "For the time [qualifiers] are there, they're the stars, and they expect to be treated as such." Hayes caters to these sensitive egos with personalized gifts "so their names are everywhere" and has even set up celebrity-style red carpets at nearby Walt Disney World, complete with "extras" playing screaming fans, autograph hounds, even paparazzi. "We escort attendees past the velvet rope and check them in by name so it's very VIP," says Hayes. "And they love it!"