Breaking Through the Designer’s Block: a Designer’s View of Event Planning (part 1 of 3)

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Breaking Through the Designer’s Block: a Designer’s View of Event Planning (part 1 of 3)

By Ken Swyt, Creative Director, Wilsonwest

If you’re a regular reader of the Wilsonwest blog, then I’ll assume you’re into event planning and event marketing. I run into a lot of people in this business who are geniuses at lining up the who and the what of corporate events, but when it comes to the where and the how, they get a little intimidated.

These are folks who would notice if something at a corporate event looked a little “off,” but they wouldn’t necessarily notice every nuance of what went right.

Don’t fret, that’s why people like me also work in this business! And I’m planning to share some event planning best practices from a design perspective in these next few blog posts.

So, what exactly does the Wilsonwest team shoot for when we design events? It’s hard to encapsulate it in just one phrase, let alone one word, but I’d have to go with sense of place.

While always keeping the client’s goals top of mind, we also want to be sure that their guests really have a sense of being somewhere whether they’re at a meeting, gala event, or conference.

One way to accomplish this goal is to focus on maximizing the unexpectedness of the venue and its design. Now, this of course doesn’t mean we do anything over-the-top to shock and thrill the guests. No world’s-largest ice sculptures or receptions held on decommissioned aircraft carriers. It simply means we strive to avoid clichés in our venues and design. After all, you can’t get a strong sense of place if you’re in a place that gives you no sense of anything!


You could say our event design begins at the macro level when we scout and select a venue. We start by looking for under-the-radar venues—places that haven’t been “booked to death” in recent years. Case in point: we 

recently planned the Leerink Healthcare Leadership Summit at Quintessa Estate in Rutherford, California. Now, thousands of tourists each year flock to the beautiful Napa Valley wine country and many stop by the Quintessa winery to do some tasting. But not many have visited the owners’ private residence.

That’s what made it the perfect spot for the Summit—it says “Napa Valley elegance,” but it also says, “intimate and personal.” With a beautiful house, a terrace, and an adjacent pond this was the ideal place to give visitors a unique perspective on a favorite event destination. Wilsonwest’s 20+ years of relationship building makes finding these unique venues possible.

Once we’ve found an unexpected venue, we try to arrange the event so that guests will have a certain level of unexpectedness in their experience. At Quintessa, that meant putting some thought into how guests would arrive at the event. We planned it so they would pull into the property through the private driveway of the owners’ house, welcome the guests at the door, and escort them through the house to the rear terrace – giving them a sense of having arrived at an intimate gathering of friends much like any dinner party at a friend’s home.

Once they walked through the house, they were greeted by an upper area where the reception took place, and then a few CM1_5157-2819946243-Ostepsdown, an open lawn. Guests began in a smaller space where it was easier to strike up an initial conversation, but then moved out into a larger area that gave everyone room to mingle and socialize.

We were able to pull off a similar effect at a recent event at Meadowood. Something about the Napa Valley just cries out for this kind of event planning.

Here are the Meadowood seating and reception areas:




So here we are at the event. What happens next? How can your event planning strategy use design to continue “romancing” each guest and leaving a lasting impression? I’ll address that topic in my next post.

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