Oct 05, 2018 by Celia Hardick

Colin Cowie on Producing Events That Buck the Status Quo

When everyone is working their hardest to fit in, why not try to stand out? The South African event planner has done just that, creating one-of-a-kind experiences for Oprah Winfrey, Jennifer Aniston, Kim Kardashian-West, and many more.

“I came to the United States with $400, a big dream, one well-cut suit, and an ever-present suntan,” Colin says with a laugh, recounting his humble beginnings.

Once he arrived in the United States, Colin found a job at a catering company where he observed the ins and outs of event production. After a six month stint there, he left to start his own business, Colin Cowie Lifestyle.

That kind of confidence has become a hallmark of Colin’s career over the ensuing decades. His attention to detail and inventiveness have made a splash year after year, and cemented Colin Cowie Lifestyle as a trendsetter for the best-in-class.

We sat down with Colin as part of our First Impressions project, and he walked us through the techniques and thinking that it takes to step away from the status quo and produce events that make people pay attention.

Photo: Colin Cowie Lifestyle

Use every detail to tell a story

For some, an elevator’s sole purpose is to take you from one floor to another. But in the world of an event, ordinary objects – like an elevator – can be made extraordinary.

Consider which first experience you’d rather have at an event. Entering a bare industrial elevator with too-bright artificial light. Or entering an elevator with comfortably dimmed and warm lighting, a floral display with the fresh scent of roses, and a handwritten welcome note.

It isn’t just the luxury that makes the second experience stand out more, it’s taking a forgettable moment and making it into an unexpected pleasure.

By pairing different accents that please the senses and surprise expectations, Colin keeps guests immersed in the story – even during an elevator ride.

For Colin, embellishing has to do with perfecting every single detail of an event. Turning down the music to just the right volume when guests sit down to eat along with double checking the exact temperature of the food are a couple of examples Colin uses to describe the little touches that make a difference. Some may call them minute details, but to Colin and his team, getting these details right are just as important as the bigger picture.

When all the senses come together to complement one another, that’s how we seduce you.

“I’m continually looking for an opportunity to further seduce,” Colin says, “and when all the senses come together to complement one another, that’s how we seduce you.”

Photo: Colin Cowie Lifestyle

Find ways to stand out instead of fit in

With the introduction of highly visual social media platforms like Instagram and Pinterest, sharing content has never been easier. So, it’s only natural for producers to draw inspiration and ideas from one another. As a result, more and more events start to look and feel interchangeable.

However, Colin attributes his success to pulling away from the status quo. At the beginning of his career, when “everyone was doing California cuisine”, he recalls introducing different foods and dishes that people hadn’t tried before and weren’t accustomed to seeing at high-end events. The intrigue of a (well-crafted) outlier caught attention quickly.

My whole life, I’ve always looked for ways to do things differently.

Giving guests something they’ve yet to experience makes for an event worth talking about. And Colin makes capitalizing on that a key part of his event strategy. “My whole life I’ve always looked for ways to do things differently,” he says.

So where to go for inspiration when digital sources become more and more similar? Colin attributes his own inspiration to his love for travel, immersing himself into different cultures, and his drive to stay curious. “I have a very curious mind,” he says. “I have traveled close to one hundred countries, and wherever I go, I learn more.”

He suggests meeting the locals and attending local markets in a new place – his secret to uncovering unique ideas and bringing them into his events. “When your mind is in the right place, you’ll find the right things.”

Photo: Colin Cowie Lifestyle

Be a good listener

Every event begins with the client. They are the foundation for building a one-of-a-kind event, because their story is what makes it unique. “It’s our responsibility to listen deeply to the client,” Colin says. “To be a good storyteller, you have to be a good listener.”

“We are telling the story with their ingredients,” Colin adds. He and his team have cultivated a knack for gathering these “ingredients” by building rapport with their clients.

To get his clients in the mindset of passing along their real thoughts and feelings, Colin welcomes them into an entertaining, comfortable setting with drinks, food, and music to discuss the event. To help someone believe in the vision of an event, even the first impression of planning the event has to register on the same level of excellence. Once a client is comfortable and excited about the possibilities, then Colin says, “They start to drop little nuggets of gold, jewels, and pearls.”

To be a good storyteller, you have to be a good listener.

With the bulk of information gathered, it’s up to Colin and his team to “ruthlessly edit”, as he puts it, the whole array of ideas into a captivating story.

“It’s about knowing how to edit what they bring to the table,” he explains, “and you can tell when someone is excited about something.” By gathering the ideas that excite the client the most and working them into the event model, Colin and his team infuse the authentic essence of what each client brings to the process.

Later on, they consider other elements like season and occasion, but only after they have built the foundation through a client’s unique perspective and needs. “Every party has its own DNA,” says Colin, “and that allows us to tell a unique story every time.”

Want to hear more from Colin? Listen to the full podcast with him we recorded in collaboration with GatherGeeks, and check out the rest of the First Impressions project.