More than 550 guests were transported back to the Roaring ‘20s at the Big Shots Centennial Gala hosted by Big Brothers Big Sisters of Colorado (BBBSC ) at Sheraton Downtown Denver Hotel on May 12. The décor in the Plaza Ballroom was art deco and attendees dressed in fl apper and “Great Gatsby” attire, all geared toward one purpose: celebrating 100 years of positively impacting lives.
Big Shots raised nearly $400,000 through sponsorships, ticket sales, and live and silent auctions, surpassing goals set for the eighth annual gala. This and six other yearly fundraisers help support BBBSC, which has offices in Denver and Colorado Springs and annually fosters 1,800 one-to-one mentoring relationships between children facing adversity and adult volunteer mentors.
Reminiscent of the Prohibition era, a passcode was required for sponsors and VIP ticket holders to enter the VIP speakeasy area for appetizers and a signature drink, before a cocktail reception featuring music by Double Sharp Jazz Duo and auction viewing for all attendees in the prefunction space. A rosemary and peppercorn seared Wagyu ranch steak dinner was served and elegantly finished with a chocolate sangria cake.
The evening officially kicked off with opening remarks from Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper followed by hig hlights from the organization’s rich history and videos by Elevation Digital Media that shared touching stories behind several “Big” and “Little” matches, including the oldest living duo, Darth, 92, and Tom, 56. The 2018 BBBSC Match of the Year, Remington and Kadir, spoke about the importance of the Big/Little connection along with Remington’s mom, Phaedra, and eight-piece Syndicate Band and dancing capped off the evening.
“A theme brings a really different level of enthusiasm to the event,” suggests BBBSC Vice President of Development & Marketing Erin Henninger. “People are coming in with a fun, positive attitude that runs through the event, including participation in the auction and awareness of our mission in a really entertaining way.”
Last year’s theme centered around a vibrant and colorful Bollywood look. “We try to infuse a really rich theme to our gala because there are so many other events in May, and we need to stand out,” concurs BBBSC Events Coordinator Juliana Wierimaa. It must be working as Wierimaa and her committee have grown the gala by more than 200 attendees in the past two years.
Planning for Big Shots begins about a year in advance, especially in the areas of booking a venue and reaching out to potential sponsors. One of the hardest parts regarding the advance work for 2019 has been securing a venue for more than 500 because many conventions are planning five years out and there are other galas, graduation and prom to schedule around. “Next year in particular has been challenging to schedule,” notes Henninger. “We are hearing from hotels in Denver that it is going to be one of the biggest years to date.”
BBBSC was fortunate to secure May 11, 2019 at the Sheraton. In 2017, Hyatt Regency Denver at Colorado Convention Center hosted Big Shots, and The Brown Palace Hotel & Spa was the location for several years prior. “It’s all about convenience for our guests, and downtown is in the center,” she says. “It’s difficult because every nonprofit wants to grow and depends on availability of space.”
Another challenge is creating an auction that stands out. The Denver market “is so saturated in terms of soliciting auction items. A lot of businesses are over-asked,” Wierimaa says. “We try to ask very early but are seeing businesses making a selection of just a few causes.”
With challenge comes loads of opportunity, especially in a centennial year. For example, a “Share Your Story” campaign in conjunction with the anniversary resulted in many people getting in touch. “We were able to engage many of those people in a unique way,” Wierimaa says.
It also was a chance to reach out to millennials with a young professionals ticket that provides a price break for the gala and many of the organization’s other events. “Our associate board is engaging a younger demographic that is philanthropically motivated and will someday have the capacity to give at high levels,” Henninger explains.
Figuring out a good price point for all levels is always one of the trickier parts of gala planning as it involves making sure attendees have a great experience and ensuring significant funds are raised for the organization. Working with vendors that provide price breaks to nonprofits has helped create that balance as well. “For example, the Sheraton gave us several things that we could never afford … such as a champagne toast, which was a lovely part of the evening with the theme,” she says.
In addition, vendors that work with the Sheraton also helped. A conference that wrapped up the night before had a beautiful set in the ballroom that went well with the “Great Gatsby” theme, so PSAV waited to tear down until after Big Shots.
The 2018 gala marked the second year BBBSC worked with Imprint Group, a Denver-based event production and destination management company. This year was the first that décor was part of the assignment, and Joe Reynolds was the operations and entertainment producer on-site, handling all the moving parts.
“Imprint Group really worked with us on the theme, was really reasonable in cost and listened to our budget. They understood what we were working with and made it so much easier having a person there on-site all day,” Wierimaa says.
The bar and thematic furniture played off the Roaring ‘20s look along with centerpieces by The Perfect Petal. From an auction standpoint, One Cause ran the mobile part while Corporate Kickoffs procured Eric Goodman, a Denver radio personality, as the event emcee and auctioneer.
The Sheraton’s team also made sure every detail of the event was flawlessly executed. “We are so proud that the Big Brothers Big Sisters chose Sheraton Denver Downtown to have their 100-year anniversary gala,” says General Manager Tony Dunn. “It is an incredible organization that does so much for our community, and we are thrilled to have helped put on a celebration worthy of this momentous occasion.”
BBBSC CEO Dave Ryan also had high praises for the end results. “It was an elegant, fun, extremely professional and lucrative celebration that continues to raise the bar on our already stellar reputation for putting on world-class events,” he says. “We estimate that over the past century, this organization has matched and supported more than 75,000 of Colorado’s boys and girls, utilizing over 3.8 million volunteer hours. That’s just incredible to me—think of the impact!”
KEYS TO GALA SUCCESS
Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Colorado shared a few tips for planning a fundraising gala.
» It takes a huge amount of patience as you are going through the process.
» A gala is a lot of work, especially with an auction. Go in prepared and have the mind-set that you are going to be working many hours for a while.
» Have a robust event volunteer committee that helps secure sponsorships and brings in a new level of guest.
» Create a Pinterest board showing costume ideas.
VP of Development & Marketing
» The chairs of the event were Lynn and Andrew Coit. Lynn is president of Elsy Studios in Denver and the American Society of Interior Designers Colorado Chapter and encouraged several of her colleagues to attend.
» Find vendors that meet your price requirements and that you can work and communicate with and trust. Sometimes that takes years to find; when you do, try to steward that relationship for years to come.
» Work with an “A” team to beat your goal, showcase your mission and highlight the best parts of your agency.
» We were thoughtful to infuse our mission so it directly impacted the event and compelled people to give.