The ultimate immersive parties

Visionary party planners are taking special occasions to the next level by putting their guests at the centre of the action. Ming Liu reports

Immersive Cult’s Day of the Dead Halloween party at Loulou’s in Mayfair
Immersive Cult’s Day of the Dead Halloween party at Loulou’s in Mayfair | Image: Cooper Brown

Would you like your friends to be served chilled cocktails from a tank of live fish by a suit-clad lobster? Fancy a finale to a fabulous travel-themed dinner that whisks your guests away in a 737 parked on the asphalt right outside? Enter a new genre of party planner who, having created such wondrous alternative universes for A-list clients from film and fashion, business and politics, is now catering to select private individuals.

Bryan Rafanelli is founder of Boston- and New York-based Rafanelli Events, which has organised state dinners for the Obamas, and was behind the much-scrutinised wedding party for Chelsea Clinton in 2010. “There is huge value in taking a party to the immersive level – where everyone will have fun and experience something they never have before,” he says. “It’s a way for a host to give back and say, ‘Thank you for your time.’”

“The more people buy into an event, the more it will be a success,” says Garrett Moore, who, with Francesco Pastori, is co-founder of London-based Immersive Cult. Moore and Pastori met six years ago when they were working at Secret Cinema, the event company that combines live interactive performance with cinema screenings, and they have since put on some of the capital’s most imaginative shindigs.

An Immersive Cult party at Christie’s, described as “a rave in front of half a billion pounds worth of art”
An Immersive Cult party at Christie’s, described as “a rave in front of half a billion pounds worth of art” | Image: Eleonora Cecchini

Take the one they organised at Christie’s in 2014 – which Moore describes as “a rave in front of half a billion pounds worth of art” – where 400 guests were invited to come not to the auction house’s grand King Street entrance, but to the door to a nondescript rear storeroom. “It was like Mister Geppetto’s workshop,” says Moore, who came across the cavernous space during a recce trip to the venue. “There were gigantic magnifying glasses on paintings and amazing rooms with restorers and cataloguers working away.” It gave him the idea that each guest should be treated as a work of art, he says. “As they arrived at Christie’s we photographed, scanned and catalogued them, noted any faults, and had face-painters restore them.” The guests were also valued before being shuttled into the goods lift, which opened onto a bar made from the wooden crates used to transport artworks, and a DJ booth that had been decorated to look like an enormous, exuberant Basquiat painting.

Immersive Cult is known for its no-holds-barred soirées (from £100,000), especially at Loulou’s, the Mayfair club owned by Robin Birley, where it held its first event, themed around Alice Through the Looking Glass, in 2013. (“Birley really lets us tear his club to pieces,” says Moore.) A Day of the Dead Halloween extravaganza pitted sombrero-wearing, gun-wielding cowboys against towering transvestites dressed in full La Calavera Catrina finery, and was ghoulish, dreamlike and satirical in equal measure. A sit-down dinner at another venue, meanwhile, saw the marquee open to reveal a samba-cum-Japanese drum band dressed in flashing neon costumes beating out the rhythm of Michael Jackson’s Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough. Elsewhere, Immersive Cult organised a Great Gatsby-themed evening where all the guests were loaned a vintage car in which to drive to the venue.

Planning an event can take a year, says Moore. The company has 15 separate departments and works with some 150 freelance contractors, from actors to costume and lighting designers. “It’s important to plan each guest’s journey in the minutest of detail and to know what they are doing at every point,” says Moore. To this end the client receives a book that maps out every aspect and stage of the event, from animated digital invitations to what is taking place in each room on the night.

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Also working with an army of collaborators is Rafanelli, who founded his business 20 years ago and now employs 35 full-time staff. He says a successful event is one where a client walks away thinking, “They really got us.” His modus operandi is to “zero in on a theme – and multiply it by a thousand”. So a prom-style party that traditionally features balloons and punch would, in Rafanelli’s hands, translate into a 50ft-long tunnel of inflatables and a colossal champagne fountain. And for a client who had long wished for a roller disco birthday, Rafanelli constructed a lounge with sofas and a DJ booth in the centre of a vintage rink, and hired champion skaters as star “guests” who would suddenly break into incredible jumps, flips and spins.

Besides private parties (from $10,000), Rafanelli has made a speciality of charity events – which are, he says, the toughest to get right. “They not only have to tell a believable story and be a kick-ass celebration, they need to respect the guests’ time and be successful at raising money.” For the annual Storybook Ball, which supports Massachusetts’ MassGeneral Hospital for Children, Rafanelli bases the evening on a children’s story – this year it was AA Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh, and featured a giant beehive and animation to bring the Hundred Acre Wood to life – while providing carnival-style booths in partnership with luxury brands, where guests pay to play games to win prizes (one year these included a $50,000 Chanel watch). The 450-person gala raises about $2m a year, while also being “fun and competitive. One of my favourite memories is of watching a finance-industry titan in his tuxedo walking through the party with a mountain bike that he’d won on his shoulder,” says Rafanelli.

Shuttlecock, a London-based immersive production company, focuses on culinary experiences (from £19,200). “Food has an amazing ability to transport and tell stories,” says Ed Templeton, who, with his brother Ollie and two cousins, started out with a series of immersive culinary pop-ups in London. One travel-themed pop-up, named the Great Indian Peninsula Railway, simulated seven train stops from Rangoon to Kashmir via a seven-course tasting menu. Designed around a colonial-style dining car, the meal was presided over by a vivacious ticket inspector – an actor who went on to star in the TV series Indian Summers.

Immersive Cult has also arranged a Great Gatsby-themed evening where all the guests were loaned a vintage car to drive to the venue
Immersive Cult has also arranged a Great Gatsby-themed evening where all the guests were loaned a vintage car to drive to the venue | Image: Aitor Santome

Shuttlecock has since put down roots in Marylebone, central London, in a three-storey property that can be transformed for any event, whether a beach-themed bash for a car launch, or a mash-up of Moscow, Hong Kong and New York, with matching cuisines for a birthday celebration evoking the cities in which the host has lived. The space includes a 50-cover restaurant, Carousel, which hosts guest chefs every two weeks, most recently from San Francisco, Paris and Berlin. “Carousel is effectively a laboratory where we can experiment with fusions and menus to suit a client’s theme,” says Ed. “For us, food has to go way beyond the expected.” He believes that more than ever party guests expect to actively participate in the event rather than sit back and observe.

Oslo-based Off Piste, founded by former Norwegian Olympic and World Cup skier Odd Sørli, has used tailormade costumes to surprise guests and make them central to the theme of the party (from €50,000). For a 60th birthday in St Moritz, traditional Alpine costumes – lederhosen, dirndl et al – were put in the rooms of the 80 guests while they were out skiing with a fellow former World Cup champion. For another client’s party in a 1,200sq m chalet in Courchevel, downhill skiing suits were made for the 16 guests – with a helmet dress code for dinner. “Costumes can make guests more extrovert and lift the whole atmosphere,” says Off Piste managing partner Jan Axel Syberg. “They also help to connect guests by giving them something in common.”

And the perfect client for an immersive party planner? “One who is fully committed to their celebration, open-minded about ideas and upfront about their budget,” says Immersive Cult’s Moore. And ultimately there must be trust. As Rafanelli puts it, “They come to us and say, ‘Show us how it’s done.’”

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