I aim for at least 3 WOW moments at each event, one of which should be as soon as guests enter.

Alison Silcoff

President

Location: Montreal, Quebec

Alison Silcoff Events (ASE) is a small and very dynamic full-service special events company headquartered in Montreal and in business since 1986.  The company has won 18 Special Events International Gala Awards (the “Oscars” of the special events industry worldwide) – more than any other company in Canada.

We have a reputation for producing top-tier events across Canada, the United States, and Europe, with anything from 10 to 40,000 attendees, for a long list of corporate, private, and non-profit clients.  We are known for sophistication, creativity, style, and attention to detail which make our events truly unforgettable. 

No event is too small. 

No detail is too minute. 

And no standards are too high. 

Our business philosophy dictates that every event – whether it be a week-long conference, an awards dinner or a creative theme gala – should really go the extra mile.

Our signature event is The Daffodil Ball, benefiting the Canadian Cancer Society, which we conceived in 1994 and have produced each of the 27 years since then.  It has raised $35.2 million net and won countless awards for fundraising, décor, entertainment, and cuisine.

What are some practices to follow that will help you to create the Wow factor that attendees seek with a limited budget?

I aim for at least 3 WOW moments at each event, one of which should be as soon as guests enter.

Rather than only using traditional rentals or building decor, we purchase décor, costumes, and tableware very inexpensively on eBay, Alibaba, Amazon, and at Dollarama.  

We use volunteers and staff in costume or with accessories to become human décor.  For example:

  • The wait staff wore John Lennon glasses for a Beatles themed gala
  • Volunteer hostesses wore silver gowns costing $15 each, found on eBay for a Silver Anniversary dinner
  • We staged a “Bed-in” scene at the entrance of a Beatles-themed event, with banquettes made up with sheets to look like a bed, copies of Lennon’s artwork on the walls, music playing Imagine and Give Peace a Chance and Lennon & Yoko look-alike volunteer models in the bed.  Many guests climbed onto the bed for photo-ops
  • Arabian head-dresses for wait staff at a 1,000 Arabian Nights gala
  • Striped navy T-shirts for wait staff at a Venetian Carnival event
  • On arriving at the Alice in Wonderland party, guests were greeted by a volunteer in a rabbit costume, crying, “You’re late, you’re late”

The meal should be a far cry from a standard chicken dinner!  Presentation creates the WOW, as much as taste. For example:

  • For an Alice in Wonderland gala, we served rabbit consommé from teapots into teacups, with a puff-pastry clock on the saucer
  • The appetizer at our On the Wild Side party featured a battery-powered butterfly circling each plate
  • At a Picasso-themed gala, each dessert plate was decorated with brush-strokes of coloured sauces, to look like a work of art

None of the above were expensive to produce, but all had high impact and gave lots of bang for the buck.

If you had unlimited resources, what would your dream client and event look like?

An experienced and knowledgeable client who has the imagination and vision to appreciate what we propose, the trust to allow us the latitude to do our best work, and the budget to pay for it.

How important are your relationships with vendors and what are some ways that you successfully cultivate and ensure good rapport?

Our vendors are absolutely crucial to our success; we consider them our event partners.  We treasure the good ones and have worked with some for decades.

We insist on high standards and that deadlines for proposals and execution are met.  On our side, we give clear and precise briefings, keep to our deadlines, get back with timely answers, and always pay on time.

After an event, we write to thank every single vendor and give gifts if we have them left over from the event.

We make every effort to give our vendors visibility in the programme, in the printed menu, the website, and in media coverage.

What advice would you give someone who needs to plan a fundraiser but isn’t sure where to start?

Start a year ahead recruiting the people who will raise the funds.  You need at least one high-powered and well-connected Chairman, who will spearhead the fundraising campaign.  He/she needs to be backed up by a Committee that can sell tickets, get prizes, and hopefully assist with fundraising.

Make realistic plans for the type of event, pricing, and expected attendance.  Make a budget with a contingency amount for unexpected expenses. Select and book your venue and key vendors.

Compile an accurate database of contact details for everyone who will be solicited, whether for cash or donations in kind.  

Compose a list of benefits (programme and website publicity, social media, tickets, etc.) to be offered for each level of contribution.  This will be included in every request for funding. 

Do NOT expect to send requests for funding and just sit back waiting for cheques to arrive.  The name of the game is to follow up relentlessly, charmingly, but relentlessly.

Negotiate for discounts and/or comp goods and services.

What’s the most exciting thing on the horizon for you personally or professionally?

This will be my last year of producing The Daffodil Ball.  I am looking forward to working on more corporate events and maybe another major fundraiser.

What’s the first event you can ever remember planning and how did it go?

I was working as Manager of Programmes at Bank of Montreal, planning their events in London, Paris, Zurich, Frankfurt, New York, and Chicago, as well as across Canada.  When my entire department was moved to Toronto, I decided to stay in Montreal and open up my own events company.

I was lucky to find my first client very quickly and the event turned out to be very high-profile, with 1,000 guests:

A Midsummer Night’s Dream gala fundraiser for The Study School.  It was a magical evening in Westmount Park, with candles floating on the pond, tents, barbecued hors d’oeuvres, dancing under the stars, a merry-go-round, fairground games, fortune tellers, and Shakespearean dancers.  Pierre Trudeau attended, we got lots of media coverage, and my career was launched. 

Do you have any advice for a company having a hard time choosing a theme? Is a theme necessary?

Themes actually make planning an event easier, because they provide structure.  The best themes can be interpreted throughout an event in the décor, menu, and entertainment.  Ideas for themes can be found everywhere:

  • TV shows and movies
  • Books – recent and classic
  • Countries
  • Fashion
  • Colours
  • Museums and art
  • Music & musicians
  • Dreams

I was inspired to produce an 18th-century French theme when visiting a Madame de Pompadour exhibition at a museum in London.  We called it “Pompadour & Circumstance”, hung crystal chandeliers from Home Depot over every one of the 68 dining tables, and lowered them while the orchestra played Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance.

Some of my favourite themes have included:

  • Alice in Wonderland
  • The Beatles
  • Venetian Carnival
  • 1,001 Arabian Nights
  • Picasso
  • On the Wild Side
  • The Great Gatsby
  • Russian Romance
  • Hollywood
  • Frostbite
  • Bastille Day
  • Mardi Gras
  • The Opera Ball

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