Authenticity tends to come from unique perspectives, and Bryan Rafanelli brings both in spades. Over the years, he’s headed events at the State Department, redecorated the White House, and worked with an A-list of private clients.
“I went to a really extraordinary event outside of London at Elton John’s house. As I pulled up, there were three incredible things that happened that just sealed it for me. It was in July and there was snow all over the ground. A hot air balloon was hovering over his mansion. And then there was an ice skating rink in his garden that made Rockefeller Center look like a puddle.”
Bryan finished his story with a little smile. “You got the fairy tale.”
He was describing the most powerful first impression he’d ever had as a guest. And why, whether it’s at Elton John’s house or for a New York charity gala, “wow” moments come from authenticity.
During the photo shoot for our First Impressions art project in New York this summer, we chatted with Bryan about what it takes to make events authentic, and how to get there as a team.
Foster creativity with your team
Just like athletes train for physical performance, creative teams can (and should) train for creative performance.
“I need to be challenged as a creative person myself, so I’m really invested in understanding how you can take a creative team, supersize it, and make people think creatively all the time.” said Bryan.
It’s not about money. It’s about taking something you know–an idea, a story, a narrative–and then whipping it into something incredible.
But, he was quick to add, it’s not about money and eye-watering budgets. “It’s about taking something you know–an idea, a story, a narrative–and then whipping it into something incredible. And that can be done every single day.”
Creativity is about embracing limitations. Finding limits, whether it’s with resources or time or options, helps spark ingenuity. Take one exercise Bryan runs with his team at Rafanelli Events: decorate an entire venue for a high-end event – but only with materials found in a dollar store.
Even if that isn’t the specific limitation you run into with an event, there will be others. So train the ability to discover creative solutions like it’s any other muscle.
Program wonder into the run of show
One might think that wonder needs to be spontaneous to be authentic – so trying to plan it in feels like a contradiction.
Bryan and his team disagree. “As a basic standard we have to have 3 to 5 wow moments at our events. I put it in the DNA of the creative team.” The pedigree of parties and galas that Rafanelli Events has under its belt is testament to that being a working solution.
He added that first impressions are key moments to that kind of success. And impressions, plural, is part of it – in his view, there are 10 or 20 first impressions at any great event, and each one is a capsule that can be infused with its own moment of wonder.
I know intuitively that what makes a great celebration is when as a guest you walk away and say ‘wow’ like you understand them.
For those moments to be effective, they should add up and say something meaningful. An event’s story, and how that’s executed, is the make or break puzzle piece. “Everything has to have a story, and I know intuitively that what makes a great celebration is when as a guest you walk away and say ‘wow’ like you understand them.”
See your work with fresh eyes
When you rehearse the same thirty seconds of dramatic reveal hundreds of times, the novelty tends to fade. That kind of fatigue can matter for more than just you and your team – it can lead to making choices about a guest’s first experience based on you having the same experience a hundred times before them.
“If you’re working so hard on making an impression but you’re still taken aback by the whole thing, that’s fantastic. I’ve designed and produced over a thousand parties in my lifetime but I still can walk in and feel like ‘whoa, this clicked’ and know how these guest are going to feel.”
It’s moments like those that help dispel rehearsal fatigue. And, like training for creative problem-solving, it’s a skill to train.
We are the best we can possibly be for our clients when we listen to them over and over again before we get it right.
Getting there takes dedicated, active listening, according to Bryan. “We are the best we can possibly be for our clients when we listen to them over and over again before we get it right. It’s not just a brand book, it’s a story inside a story. If we get that right, then you’re going to feel that. That’s authentic.”
But it also takes prioritization. Even in an era of intensely shared experiences through Instagram stories, streaming, and other social media, Bryan cautioned against losing sight of who matters most.
“I am not at the mercy of social media. My philosophy is we need to design this overall giant experience for the people that are going to be sitting in that room that night. What will come of it, if it’s really good, is we don’t need a photo wall because the design itself is the backdrop of the party.”
After all, if there’s an authenticity to the experience, Bryan says, “it’s right in front of you.”
Want to hear more from Bryan? Listen to the full podcast with him we recorded in collaboration with GatherGeeks, and check out the rest of the First Impressions project.