It's hardly a stretch to say that the life of a busy event planner can be a whirlwind. But on the day I spent with Thea Pagel, we were dealing with an actual tornado. A particularly destructive one had touched down during a bad storm the night before, and in a nearby neighborhood, I stood with Pagel outside her client Randy Fertel's house at 9:30 the next morning, wondering why he wasn't answering the doorbell. Pagel made a quick call to Fertel, who soon came down to greet us. It turns out the whole area was without power. Electricity or no, the meeting to finalize the menu and details for the celebration of Fertel's upcoming wedding to Bernadette Murray went on as scheduled. Though he was a good sport about the whole thing, Fertel did seem a little uncomfortable that we had a photographer in tow. Pagel, on the other hand, appeared to be completely at ease, as if she were quite accustomed to being shadowed by two people she hardly knew for an article in a magazine that did not yet exist. (But then again, compared to the chaos that can arise at an event, the current situation probably didn't even scratch the surface of Pagel's reserve of poise-under-pressure.)
As for my part, I was just listening and trying to stay out of the way. But I couldn't help but think that, for a fly on the wall, I had pretty hefty expectations. Ears earnestly perked, I was sincerely holding out hope that if I listened closely enough, I would be able to glean some key nugget of information or insight that would reveal what made Pagel special and why her event-planning services are in such high demand around the city. But as the meeting went on (and on) and as the discussion went from first-course impressions ("You don't want to start off too big or too simple.") to lettuce aesthetics ("Does the salad have any color?") to specialty flatware ("I was looking at this great twig flatware that we can get from Chicago or D.C., but it doesn't come with a steak knife. Do we have to have a steak knife?") my mind began to wander.
My distraction soon led me to a disappointing conclusion: Even if I had been endowed with an attention span more hardy, the answer I sought would not be delivered to me succinctly on a silver platter. And just as I was about to ponder pewter, it dawned on me that the very same hourlong delineation of details that sent me headlong into a daydream was exactly where Pagel had made a name for herself. She was in her element. At that moment, I looked up at her face her mind churning with ideas, eyes focused intently on her client, a neatly typed multi-page checklist firmly in her hands and I realized: Minutiae is her medium. And by this I do not mean your run-of-the-mill, overused resumé staple "attention to detail." Orchestrating a truly exceptional event requires boundless energy, innovative thinking, a nose for nuance and the ability to expertly execute every aspect a combination rarely found in one person.
In Pagel's words: "The key to events is to create a dialogue with all of the guests' senses. If you can connect, stimulate and inspire through the senses, you will create memorable experiences."
She thrives on being part of the conception of an event and being able to look at it from every angle and perspective, and her main focus is connecting with her clients. "The synergy of how I work with my clients is so important to the quality of the event," says Pagel. "And being my own boss gives me the flexibility to make decisions based on my gut and intuition. It's hard to work that way when you're answering to a corporate structure."
Working in New Orleans is also a big plus for Pagel. "People in this city understand and appreciate good food and music. And there is an art to being a good hostess and for that matter, a good guest!" she says. "I have been to some really beautiful and elaborate parties in other places where status, business or politics drowned out all the fun! The events were soulless. It takes more than money to create a good party. People in New Orleans understand that."
Dinner Party 101 with Pagel
Cheap and/or easy ways to create ambience: Alter the lighting with votive candles, dimmer switches or by changing the wattage/color of your bulbs. Music really sets the tone. Choose music that will create or enhance the mood/environment.
Dressing your table-top: Use what you have in innovative, creative ways. For example, bring the outdoors in; look to your garden for inspiration. Banana leaves or sea grape leaves make beautiful placemats (the deep red banana leaves are especially dramatic). For a really cool different look, submerge leaves (ginger or curly willow) in the bottom of clear glass vases and then put your flowers in them. If you have a citrus tree, load up piles of citrus in bowls or glass vases; they look great on bars. Hollowed out oranges, lemons or limes can be cute votive holders. Or fill them with ice cream or sorbets and then refreeze them. Be Innovative.
Planning the menu: Stay seasonal. When you do, food is fresher and easier to buy and a better value. Don't serve everything one color. Balance out the textures and consistencies of your plate and menu (i.e. don't do everything with a cream sauce, and don't overload your menu with one item like bacon or shellfish). Avoid heavily scented candles or flowers for dinner parties. The food is the main star; let aromas tantalize the taste buds.
Pros and cons of having a themed party: If you don't have fun friends, it can be a flop. You can really create a wild night if you have friends with a lot of imagination.
Where a good host can go wrong: Timeline issues not doing enough ahead and choosing a menu that has too much last-minute preparation. (Hire some help if you are able.) It is no fun being so busy you can't enjoy your own party. It makes your guests uncomfortable when they see a hostess rushing, scattered, working and not enjoying their guests.
A polite way to let guests know the party is over: Pick a song that conveys that message; start to bring down the energy of the music. Serve an after dinner drink or digestif 30-45 minutes before the end of the party. Start bringing up the lighting. When you are through being subtle, closing the bar always works in New Orleans.
- Bryce Lankard
- Randy Fertel consults with Thea Pagel and his bride, Bernadette Murray (on the phone), about menu selections for their wedding reception.
- Bryce Lankard
- Pagel and Randy Fertel plan for the placement of tents and the dance floor for the big night.
- Bryce Lankard
- Never too busy to squeeze in a little shopping, Pagel tries on a Hussein Chalayan dress with the help of Shoefty Garb's Sarah Winston.
- Bryce Lankard
- On the go and on the phone, Pagel makes her way to lunch with Stephanie Dupuy, director of the New Orleans Office of Film and Video, and filmmaker Bennett Davlin to plan the party for the New Orleans premiere of his film, Memory.