For most charity events, the place is simply the vessel for the good works and celebration. But for Denver Union Station’s Great Hall Gala, the place was the reason for the celebration as business partners of the historic landmark’s redevelopment organized a grand opening for the memory books. “Denver has a lot of galas, but this was a party,” says Kelli Kindel, owner of Kelli Kindel Events in Denver. And this wasn’t just any party—it was the party of the year and a career highlight for everyone involved.
Unlike other charity events with a theme and a big ballroom, this was different. “It was over-the-top spectacular,” Kindel says, but not for reasons you might expect. Typically when an event like this is being planned, the client steps back and lets the experts do the work. In this case, a cast of thousands, including Larimer Associates, Sage Hospitality, employees and even the construction workers at Union Station were involved.
Within hours of the event, construction workers were still putting the final touches on the new station and hard hats were still mandatory in some areas. “There was a big learning curve,” says Radhika Mahanty, marketing director of Larimer Associates. “We didn’t have the luxury of working in a completed venue. Some details about the furnishings and layout were finalized right on the day of the event. Kelli [Kindel] smoothed out the bumps and Ivan, well, he is my savior.”
That’s Ivan Littlejohn, the director of maintenance and operations for Larimer Associates, who was everyone’s go-to guy when questions about the building popped up. “We could have never done our job without the people who knew the new building inside and out,” Kindel says. “We even printed up T-shirts that said ‘Keep Calm and Call Ivan.’”
The first issue to decide early on was what charities to pick. Each partner had a charity they were involved in, so the question was which would be the charity of choice. Ferdinand Belz, a Union Station Alliance partner, says the answer came from his wife, Christie Belz. “She said we shouldn’t just pick one charity, we should open it up because Union Station is for everyone,” he says. “I give her full credit for the genius idea.”
It made perfect sense to give back to the community, says Ferdinand. Every dollar of the million dollars raised from each $1,000 ticket sold went directly to the respective 50-plus nonprofits. There were no comps—everyone who attended paid the full price to be there. Each nonprofit sold its own tickets, some more than others, and all expenses were donated or underwritten.
Once the charity decision was made, the planners had to decide how best to present Union Station’s makeover. “We knew that we were opening up Denver’s living room for all to see,” Mahanty says. There were a lot of pieces to put together up until the last second, but everyone knew they were a part of history, which made all involved want to make this event like no other. “We could only go huge with this event,” emphasizes Kate Davis, manager of public relations for Sage Hospitality, which manages The Crawford Hotel in Union station.
“We couldn’t bring in a headliner, so we refocused on wow around every corner with food stations, photo booths, seating pods and entertainment pop ups,” Kindel says. Every area had something to taste, do and see.
For edibles and drinks, it was as Colorado as possible. Epicurean led the culinary planning team with Wesley Guzman, Jessica Stapp and chef Jenna Johanson, and restaurants in the station such as Stoic and Genuine, The Kitchen Next Door and Snooze also assisted with food and drinks.
“We started planning in the fall of 2013,” says Guzman, the senior event designer. “We wanted to create a menu that represented the historic landmark, and we knew this would be a who’s who of Denver.” That meant craft beer and spirits, local meats and sausages, lots of local produce and attention-grabbing desserts. A big draw of the night was the pop-up steakhouse with brisket, coulotte steak and a bone-marrow luge. Guests scooped out the marrow and finished it off with a shot of Breckenridge Bourbon Whiskey that flowed down the hollowed-out luge. The Colorado colorful salad station was a live wall of vegetables that chefs used as a palette to snip fresh greens, which were served in cones and set in wheat grass. The chefs dressed in T-shirts with garden aprons and tool belts to carry out the local theme.
For dessert, bacon, sugar and bourbon doughnut holes were set aflame to create a warm caramelized treat. Epicurean also hosted a lounge so its chefs could connect with guests, share recipes and answer questions. Guzman says it was a great way for the chefs to meet guests, network with existing clients and gain prospects for new opportunities.
The acoustics in the Great Hall were not conducive to a single stage, so multiple entertainment areas were utilized. Each entertainer represented a unique aspect of the station and the city. For instance, Denver opera soprano Katrina Twitty sang while standing on the piano as guests entered the station. Denver’s First Lady Mary Louise Lee sang America the Beautiful as the American flag was unveiled and the ceiling was illuminated. Live art was also on the docket. Dressed in white winter gear, the performance ice company Fear No Ice carved a train and the Union Station logo with chainsaws. Eric Matelski painted his rendition of the new station while guests peered over his shoulder.
Other entertainers included Maestro Hughes, the Denver hip-hop violinist, and DJ Bedz, the official DJ of the Denver Nuggets. In the Buff, a University of Colorado a cappella group, sang in the downstairs speakeasy, along with the 2nd Hand Band.
Everyone who talked about the event emphasized this was a once-in-a-careerand- lifetime event. No matter how many times they walk through the doors at Union Station, they still get goose bumps from the thrill of remembering the event and the glory of the new station. Mahanty reflects, “As a Denver native, I am proud that I could make this come alive.”