Planner Spotlight: Down Mexico Way

It was four P.M. and Harith Wickrema, president of the Willow Grove, PA-based Harith Productions, and his event team had just arrived at the marketplace in Tonala, a town not far from Guadalajara in Mexico. The market closes at six, which gave the team just two hours to find the props that would help them turn the ballroom at the Westin Resort & Spa Los Cabos into a Mayan temple.

Fortunately, in Tonala that's plenty of time. Any Mexican event planner worthy of the name knows that if you're looking for "ancient" Mayan artifacts—freshly made this week—you've got to go to the marketplace in Tonala.

"The market is incredible—you can literally find anything pertaining to Mexican culture there," says Wickrema.

In fact, within moments of arriving, Francis Drillion, the head chef at the Westin, found the perfect place setting for the gala awards dinner for the President's Club of Endo Pharmaceuticals, a Chadds Ford, PA-based company that was hosting the leadership meeting the team was producing. It was a nine-inch diameter recreation of the Mayan calendar. There were only a few calendars at the stand where two little girls were in charge, so Drillion asked them: "Papa—phone number?"

They got the phone number and called the father who gave Drillion directions to the family home that doubled as their manufacturing facility. It was a small, dingy place. The team had to walk through the family bedroom to get to the back room where the plates were produced. "That was a great order for them, and it really helped the group make a connection with the destination," says Wickrema. "That's a goal whenever I bring a meeting to a destination. I want to give the attendee an authentic experience and I want to make a contribution to the local economy."

For Endo's leadership meeting of 60 attendees, Wickrema spent $15,000 locally on agave honey, mango marmalade, coffee, pewter trays, and a local dance troupe. In addition to Tonala, Wickrema and his team went to the towns of Tlaquepaque and Chapala to hunt down Mayan artifacts and other items for the event. "This type of detail creates an emotional connection. It's the authenticity of the decor that resonates with the attendee even if they have no idea what went into the creation of it," says Wickrema. "If you find that emotional connection, you add a little bit about the destination into your event—even if it is inside the ballroom of an elegant hotel."

That emotional connection not only affected the attendees, but the wait staff as well. When the waiters set down the appetizers on the place settings, the attendees gasped softly. When the wait staff returned to the back of the house, they enthusiastically told Drillion how well it went. "It's very rare when you get that kind of feedback from the wait staff," says Drillion. "It was really a bonding experience for the whole kitchen staff."

Originally published July 01, 2007

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