Spokane Journal of Business

Re-creating Mardi Gras, more

Design Events Inc.

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Welcome to Holidays on Bourbon Street, said a sign affixed to a large, black triangular entryway that led party goers into the Ag Trade Center downtown.

Inside, guests were greeted by purple, green, and gold balloons hanging from the ceiling; a courtyard with six old-fashioned street lamps, park benches, and an 8-foot-tall fountain surrounded by ferns; a 12-foot Christmas tree decorated with feathered masks, and Mardi Gras beads; and a 40-foot-long wooden bar where drinks were being served. More decorationsincluding a streetscape and a stagealso filled the room.

Design Events Inc., of Coeur dAlene, created the Mardi Gras wonderland for Metropolitan Mortgage & Securities Co.s Christmas party last year.

Design Events, which specializes in planning and decorating for trade shows and themed events, doesnt rely on the usual streamers and other paper party products when it decorates. Instead, the 15-year-old company uses props it has made, which can range from an 8-foot-tall smoking volcano or a 6-foot-tall carved wooden Tiki god to a full-scale chuck wagon or smokestacks from a river steamboat, says Mary Weller Souza, who owns Design Events with her husband, Rick.

The company, which employs nine people full time, plus some occasional part-time help, plans more than 150 themed events and trade shows a year in the Spokane-Coeur dAlene area. The company typically helps plan events such as awards banquets, conventions, incentive dinners, and corporate picnics and Christmas parties.

Companies always seem to want to push the envelope, says Design Events President Rick Souza. They always want to do something thats bigger and better than the year before. So, were always challenged to come up with new ideas.

Rick Souza started Design Events in 1984 in Spokane. He had begun his career as an elementary school teacher here, but later worked for a company in Hawaii that planned themed trade shows for international companies. While he was in Hawaii, Souza married Mary, his sweetheart from Spokane, and the two returned here in 1980.

After their return, Souza hoped to continue the work he had started in Hawaii, but learned that themed events were quite rare in Spokane. So, he decided to pioneer the idea here.

Souza ran the company out of the couples Spokane home with the help of a part-time employee, while Mary Souza, who was trained as a critical-care nurse, began working as a clinical instructor at Spokane Community College. She brought home the bacon, until she quit that job in 1987 to raise their growing family, she says. The Souzas have four children.

It took a few years for the company to really get going, Rick Souza says.

In 1987, the Souzas moved the company to Coeur dAlene, where it was doing most of its work. He says that the Coeur dAlene Resortand specifically the international conventions it drewwas pivotal in helping Design Events get off the ground. After working with some of the international and national groups that were familiar with themed trade shows and conventions, Design Events was able to solidify its reputation and began to carve out a niche in the Spokane-Coeur dAlene area.

Today, Design Events has a long list of clients. Though most of the events the company plans are for private companies, for the past two years it also has been involved with the setup of the Bloomsday trade show, says Mary Souza, who joined Design Events full time in 1994 as general manager. The company also was involved last year with the planning of the Northwest Mining Associations annual trade show here, and has received a multi-year contract from the association, she says.

Most companies pay between $6,000 and $10,000 for Design Events services, which can include planning a theme for a party, decorating and setting up equipment, and cleaning up afterwards. Souza says Design Events doesnt rent event space and doesnt handle food.

Some companies have paid Design Events as much as $50,000 for its services, but that price tag usually covers the cost of building customized props and doing extra electrical work, she says.

Our clients budget goes much further if they choose a theme weve done before, Souza says.

Design Events keeps all of its props and backdrops at its office at 5039 Duncan Drive, in Coeur dAlene. The building, which the company moved into two years ago, contains about 4,000 square feet of office space and another 9,000 square feet of warehouse space. Heavy-duty cardboard containers filled with back drops and other graphics are stacked in rows in the companys warehouse. Written on each container is a description of the contents theme. Outer space is written on one box, Mardi Gras on another, and Holiday 20s on still another.

The Souzas say that some of the companys most popular themes include the Great Northwest, which can include a full-scale chuck wagon, a waterfall, storefronts, and a tunnel that is made to look like the entrance to an old mine; and Premiere night, which includes a red carpet and a specially designed entryway that makes guests feel like camera flashes are going off as they make their way into the party. Other common requests include beach parties, 50s parties, sports nights, and tropical themes.

Design Events nine-member full-time staff includes a graphics manager, who helps design and produce the customized graphics that the company places on the banners and other decorations it uses, and a carpenter-electrician, who builds most of the companys sets and props.

The company also employs five people part time. Those workers mostly are called in to assist with the setup and takedown of decorations. Setting up an event can take between six and eight hours for a larger show. At times, Design Events has called in as many as 30 additional workers to handle the task, Souza says.

The busiest seasons for Design Events typically are from about March until May, and from about September until January, with business especially picking up in December.

The Souzas are anticipating that New Years Eve celebrations will be an especially popular event this year because of the new millennium. Everybodys going to be wanting to do something, Mary Souza says.

The Souzas say that Design Events only will be able to plan and set up about six New Years Eve partiesthree of which already have been booked. The Souzas and their employees, however, have been searching through catalogs and working with samples to develop center-pieces and other party paraphernalia to incorporate into a party package the company can sell to hotels, restaurants, and other businesses for the occasion. Theyre calling the packages Party 2000.

Right now, if a company wants to throw a party, they can either go buy paper products or hire a production company, such as ourselves. There isnt much in between, Rick Souza says. A typical package, which is being designed so they can be set up easily by a customer, is expected to be priced at between $2,000 and $3,000, the Souzas say.

Customers will be able to choose from among six different options, which likely will include at least an elegant theme, plus a Jamaican, a New York Times Square, and a futuristic one, Mary Souza says.

All of the options will be unveiled at shows that Design Events plans to hold to promote itself, starting next month. The first show will be held at the DoubleTree Hotel Spokane Valley on Wednesday, Sept. 8, and Thursday, Sept. 9. The other two shows will be held in the Tri-Cities and in Boise at later dates.

This will be the party of the century, and most of the people weve talked to feel like they have to do something special, Souza says. But, were already past the midway point and there are some places that still havent finalized their plans. Were hoping to provide examples for them.

The decorations that will be included in the packages likely will include a customized 8-by-12-foot banner, a special entryway, table center pieces, and wait staff apparel, such as hats or glasses.

  • Lisa Harrell

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