When you’ve just finished a long day in a conference and when you’ve only just had time to get yourself washed and changed and when you’re finally back down in the bar just about beginning to relax, something rather special happens. You get called into dinner and the room that was previously serried ranks of chairs facing an impressive stage with a large screen has miraculously become an intimate, gorgeously decorated dining room for six hundred. And that, friends, is one of the greatest tricks of event organisers: the Gala Dinner.
Ideally there would be candlelight on every table for that intimate, classy feel but there’s a very good chance that would also lead to that hotel conflagration feel. That’s where a bit of very clever, subtle lighting design comes into play. Instead of all the lighting concentrating on one speaker sweating their way through a presentation on stage, you now have subtle mood lighting that makes everyone look good in their evening wear. Ever wondered what that man with the very long ladder from the production company’s doing? He’s putting you in your very best light.
There are old pictures of Victorian fishmongers in Billingsgate Market balancing twenty wicker fish baskets on their heads. The conference equivalent of this is banqueting staff removing twenty chairs at a time from the conference room on rinky-dink little chair trucks. This is a circus performance in itself and is then followed by the even more impressive sight of sixty round tables being rolled at speed into the room like giant hula-hoops.
Dressing a table is an art form. First on is the linen tablecloth, then the linen chair covers and then the linen serviettes often folded to look like a swan/dog/pterodactyl. Then the glasses go down, three per person which clearly means a lot of washing up but boy does it make the table look good, especially when the subtle lighting reflects off a thousand glasses across the room.
Possibly the most difficult and demanding exercise for the client organising the conference is the table plan. Any other thing, no matter how complex or technical, can be dealt with smoothly by the event organisers. But not the table plan. That’s because it is an absolute nightmare of company politics and personal preferences. When this is finally agreed the place name tags can be produced often in beautiful handwriting. Enjoy them when you see them because this will be the only time you see handwriting at a conference apart from the signature on the contract.
Centre of Attention
The centrepiece, normally a beautiful arrangement of flowers, is normally the crowning glory of the table. It has the added bonus of getting people to talk to each other. No-one can see the person sitting opposite them so they have to talk round the table rather than across it. Centrepieces are also a very good indicator of the healthiness of corporate budgets: in the good years the centrepieces are giant illuminated lush floral displays up to three foot in height; in bad years you might get a small pot plant or cactus if you’re lucky.
Food Glorious Food
With so much going on at a Gala Dinner it’s easy to forget that food is also involved. The menu card will tell you what it is, although you may have to translate from the strange chefese language: a quattroporte of tenderloin partouffed in plated delice of jus is in fact beef stew. The really impressive part of gala dinners is that eight hundred delegates can all be served something tasty, impressive and hot (and on time and budget). For event organisers, the feeding of the five thousand is an everyday miracle.
However spectacular, all gala dinners have to come to an end. When the last delegate has eaten the last chocolate truffle and the room is finally cleared, the client can go to the bar to finally relax. That’s when the rest of the evening starts for the event organiser. It’s called the breakdown. It’s where all the set and furniture is tidied up and put away. And it’s the only breakdown a good gala dinner organiser will ever allow.