Behind the scenes Life and Times with Bryan Rafanelli, Celebrity “Event Producer”, “Imagineer”( if you will ) and how he got to his “Career of Celebration” & latest book “A Great Party” filled with stunning visuals and stories of his most acclaimed events. – Chortle with us as we confab about keeping party’s unique on a small and large scale for normal folks like us, the pivotal moments that launched him into celeb status and the three people he secretly desires to work with!
Named top “Event Planner” in Vogue, InStyle, Bazaar, Martha Stewart Weddings, BizBash & The Knot. For Your Own Personal Coffee table book visit: https://amzn.to/2OwhP9n
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Special Thanks to: Rafanelli Events, Reading With Robin, Kylie C. McCollough, Bois Doré & The Passion Fruit Media
Welcome to Newport Living and Lifestyles. I’m Christon and joining us today is Bryan Rafanelli who wrote a book, and he’s on book tour and in Newport now, called “A Great Party” and he’s, I would say, “a premier celebrity event planner”
but you do more than weddings, you do nonprofits, corporate, private, consulting and branding.
so you started in 1996 and have grown to become worldwide.
Even though I, you know, think I’m only a small company, I guess, perhaps, I’m not .
Well you now have over 50 people
50 employees, two offices, a full office in New York and a full office in Boston, and then in season, down in Palm Beach.
Right and you’re from Rhode Island.
Yeah I grew up in Rhode Island, right here in Warwick Rhode Island.
On Love Lane.
Which you Looove to say Love Lane…
I love to dine out on that all the time, because it’s cool right and
anybody in Rhode Island knows Love Lane. so yeah that’s where I grew up.
We just came from a fabulous luncheon
where you got to chance to talk about your book at a wonderful ladies luncheon
hosted by Kylie McCullough from the “Newport Ladies Book Club”.
Kylie was incredibly generous and actually everyone from the book club was amazing
and it got me a chance to tell my story which is so nice.
Shall we just call it Candy’s house
Candy’s house, that’s great! There is candy actually everywhere.
There is candy everywhere, that’s right.
We also have to thank Robin Homonoff from “Reading with Robin” who connected us both.
Yes, a friend, my best girlfriend in the world, who still lives here in Rhode Island, actually in Warwick Rhode Island
She told me about Robin and the rest is history
and this amazing lunch today, and The Redwood Library book event tonight, I get to meet you.
What is your favorite thing to do in Newport?
I am that kid who my sister got married at Rosecliff, my brother got married at Astors Beachwood mansion
so I get to kind of push my face through the hedges here and
I really do love that about Newport and I love architecture.
I studied architecture so to see these magnificent homes,
like Candy’s home, that is still a real home
with apparently the largest private Ballroom in Newport.
that’s what I truly love about Newport.
I grew up in Rhode Island so I love the water, I love the sailboats, it’s a all of that to me and
the scale of this beautiful beautiful seaside “village” really
is really what I like the most.
You have over 100 events annually at this point, that’s a lot to deal with.
A lot of partying, it’s true..
Do you prefer “event planner” or something more distinguished?
I love this question because I hate the title “event planner” not that there’s
anything wrong with all you event planners out there with that title.
I think it’s so much more than that, so I often will say “event producer” but maybe
that relates a little bit more to movies and film, right
I don’t like when I read “celebrity event planner” I am not drawn to that
A friend of mine actually who did work for Disney said, “We should call you an “Imagineer”
so I tested that out but that sounds weird too…
Did you feel like you needed to where Mickey ears when you said that?
You know what, I’ll accept “event planner” or “event producer” that’s fine.
all right, well, Chelsea Clinton wrote you’re forward in your book.
and she’s attended numerous events, as a speaker, as attendee and bride
She states, “Nothing ever felt superfluous or repeated.”
How do you keep it fresh?
I have built a business off of this idea that everything should change all the time.
The business of party designing or party planning is all make-believe.
It only lasts maybe maximum 5 hours.
So think about that, this house hopefully will be here forever.
My party’s *snap* gone.
But they last in here….
Well sure, they last they’re lasting memories forever.
I love that idea that it’s really only a short period of time.
so then you create the fairy-tale right
because the fairy-tale does not have to last a hurricane or
or you know anything like that.
Which you have gone through on one of the weddings in your book.
Yeah my Istanbul wedding in my book.
I hope you all look at this wedding because
I think you’re going to be like, “You’ve got to be kidding me. “
We do this 5 day event. This magnificent wedding
that was built out on a 22,000 square foot platform on the Bosphorus.
We found out that 24 hours before that the largest hailstorm at the time in Europe
was coming up the Bosphorus and therefore would drown out our wedding.
That’s a lot to deal with.
Now we can fast forward to the end of the story. It actually didn’t rain until 10 o’clock.
By 10 o’clock we had moved everybody inside the palace. They went to the after party
and never looked back, never knew that this like crazy thing was gonna happen,
and the party went so late, so they come out at like 4:00AM or 5:00AM in the morning
and it is down pouring, but after partying from 4:00PM in the afternoon to 4:00AM
nobody cared. In fact, I think they liked the idea that hey got drenched walking back to the hotel.
There’s some really great stories in your book and it’s really fascinating to read.
You’re such a nice, authentic, real, kind guy.
Just watching you throughout this whole luncheon has really been a great pleasure.
I think I know the answer to this question because I spent some time with you.
Why do you repeat clients like Alex Schuster, the Obamas and countless others keep coming back for more?
I love the question because this is a great part of my story.
The first state dinner I ever did for Mrs. Obama.
I thought was my going to be my last state dinner.
I say that with affection, that I had the luckiest moment to do this amazing party or this amazing state dinner., it was for China.
There’s so many incredibly talented people out there in the world right
so I thought well I’ll get chosen for this and then someone else will get the next one and
that will be this sort of place of honor, but this funny thing happened
so the answer to your question is
just like all of us, we are human, we connect with somebody,
we love the service that they provide, they’re honest,
they have character, the things that you just talked about, that you think I offer,
and I appreciate that. It becomes a relationship, so that’s why
I went to Istanbul and The Hamptons and Talum.
It’s really because my clients bring me there.
Much like you’d bring your interior designer, your architect, your lawyer.
If you trust someone and you love what they’re presenting to you, you bring them along.
What was the pivotal story or moment that launched you into the next realm?
I’ve had several of these situations where, and I love to tell this story,
the very first wedding I ever did, was at the Four Seasons Hotel in Boston, with a very very sizable budget, by the way
but that story is really extraordinary because
the parents of the bride, that were throwing that wedding,
they were chairing a non-profit event, I actually produced that nonprofit event, they liked what we did.
And they said, “Oh we want you to plan our daughter’s wedding!”
And I said, “Well I’m not a wedding planner.”
And they’re like, “No you’re a wedding planner.”
They allowed me with no experience to do this wedding.
Well I stepped in it, right, it was this pivotal moment that happened where
they were highly regarded in the community.
We did this wedding, it went off flawlessly, and by the way,
It was because the mother of the bride was so patient with me,
teaching me the way of the wedding, and that was literally 25 years ago.
She brought me into her circle and then their friends were like
who’s this guy Rafanelli and one thing led to another.
They own 54 malls across the country they have lots of amazing friends and so the story just took off from there.
Those moments created other moments.
Another couple that I met soon after that, that attended that wedding, they happen to be friends with the U.S. president.
They would entertain that president in their home.
I was doing their parties, so I ended up meeting this family,
this family later, soon many years later, when their daughter, their only daughter, got engaged
called and said we’d like to talk to you because we trust Elaine and Jerry, and therefore we want to talk to you.
It all compounded.
This whole thing started because you were doing fundraising.
Right, I was doing fundraising and nonprofit and
I was actually a volunteer and I was volunteering on the special events committee.
Often when young people come to me, now, right out of school, they’re like, “Well what should we do?”
I’m often saying, “Well you need to get experience, so work on a political campaign or go and work in a non-profit.”
They need you, they need your work.
They can’t afford to have these giant staffs, but actually it’s a school for them.
You learn registration and auctions, how to ask for money, how to create a marketing plan and it goes on and on and on.
That’s my story because I ended up falling in love with the organization for the good work that they did first.
Then secondly, I got to actually teach myself how to do this
with really talented people around me, that were all volunteers.
and we did every kind of nonprofit event you could imagine.
We did, of course, the awards dinners, and the Black Tie things,
but we also did a aerobathons, and walkathons, and swimathons, and radio-a- thon’s.
I mean, it’s kind of crazy, now I don’t do those kinds of things anymore
I certainly do giant you know ten thousand person events, for let’s say, an inauguration
or we do a lot of work with sports teams, like the Patriots and the Red Sox, when they win a World Series,
which they seem to do all the time, thank you very much!!!
so we do get to be part of those giant events and to this day.
And events on a large barge!
hahaha! Your like a “barge”?
I love that story, because the mother of the bride came to me,
We did the first daughter’s wedding, on their compound, in Cape Cod, it was spectacular.
The second daughter’s wedding, she came back to me and said,
“I want to invite all my friends from New York City, my love, I want them to come to Boston, I want them to see how sophisticated Boston is.”
and this is what I want Brian, it cannot be in a hotel, it cannot be in a museum, in our institution,
it cannot be in an event space that anybody else has ever held a wedding in,
and oh, by the way, I want a view with the water.
Even here in Newport, there aren’t that any venues that are right on the water.
So I came up with this harebrained idea. We should build an island.
We built an island out of a barge, which actually is amazing because it’s flat, right,
so it’s actually a fairly easy thing to do.
The tents, the electricity, running water, giant kitchens, bathroom trailers, we built that all on a barge and
We sailed it across the harbor, put it in the most beautiful spot in Boston Harbor,
with beautiful ocean views, by the way, they also wanted an outdoor garden, so we created outdoor garden.
This is all in the book!
I think what’s kind of exciting is, if you buy the book, you’ll follow this and see how this all fell into place.
Most of your events are pretty extravagant, would you say that one stands out as the most extravagant?
Well, you know, we touched upon Istanbul and I think certainly, it’s in the center of the book,
and when you move through it, because there were five parties, and because we were in Istanbul.
In Istanbul you can get anything made, anything made, beautiful jewelry, pennies on the dollar,
clothes, shoes, right ! chargers…
When you look at these images in the book, we had that all made in Istanbul, it was incredible.
I went there 11 times before the wedding.
We planned it for a year and a half and so when you say extravagant, yeah actually,
culturally and in that city and everything that was available to us.
I mean I couldn’t help but walk through the grand markets, right, the grand bazaar
and see all these beautiful fabrics and all this brass and and so that was part of the story of Istanbul.
I know it’ll appear extravagant but it actually sort of matched what was supposed to be there.
And then, yeah, it was a little over-the-top.
Well that’s what makes it fun and makes you unique.
One of the images in there, is this floral ceiling with just thousands of flowers hanging from the ceiling.
There’s a story behind that. The ceiling of that location was absolutely horrible.
It was like this terrible tiled ceiling and even though the building was extraordinary, the ceiling was ridiculous.
It was like some weird sort of corporate design and we had to come up with something.
That’s why we have this giant floral ceiling, and not just to do it, even though it’s really gorgeous, and lush and beautiful.
There was a purpose behind the madness of hanging thousands of flowers out there.
Is there anyone that you have not worked with, that you would love to work with?
I mean, there is some of the obvious people, I love Meryl Streep.
I’d love to throw a very understated beautiful party at Meryl’s house in Connecticut.
Of course I have not had the pleasure of doing anything for Oprah.
I think that would be extraordinary.
I would definitely love to do something for Melinda Gates.
I would like that sort of perfect combination of creating some kind of beautiful event that celebrates
what their foundation does and the work that they do, and they do so much,
it probably would be an embarrassment of riches, of which one to choose.
but that I think would be pretty extraordinary.
I love the impact that they are making on the world and that they will make for a hundred years from now.
She just came out with a new .org helping women in business & entrepreneurs. www.pivotalventures.org
I’m ready ! I’m ready!
Out of the seven key Rafanelli principles listed at the back of your book. All Genius.
Otherwise known as the “Rafanelli Rules”.
What advice would you list is the most important for regular folks like us throwing parties?
My favorite rule is one that just says “Beauty in Numbers”
Basically, saying to yourself ( and anybody can do this ) I’m throwing a party for a hundred people
Think about what you’re bringing into your house to do that.
How many hundred chairs, hundred napkins, probably 300 or 400 bottles of wine
He knows us well.
Okay, maybe a thousand bottles of wine.
In my book actually, in that one rule, there’s this beautiful image of shelving that we built.
It’s like 50 feet wide, by 13 feet tall and it was about 10 shelves and we just filled it with red bottles of wine.
That wine was being used in real time during the party but it became this beautiful design.
Now it didn’t hurt that the husband loves wine so there was also that great connection
to like, “Oh my God, he loves wine!” “Paul loves wine!” “He’s celebrating wine!”
but we were actually turning it into this really beautiful design element with flowers.
I love a full gorgeous flower arrangement. There’s 50 or 60 inside my book.
That idea of down a long table, if you just did 20 individual bud vases with
those perfect garden roses or perfect peonies,
that actually creates a garden or field in a room. Imagine that on 20 tables.
You don’t have to always rely on the grand, you can actually say,
Yeah, there is a grandness in numbers and you’ll see it repeated over and over and over in the book.
A lot of your pictures have a lot of repetitive things on a larger longer scale . It looks very artistic.
That’s true. I always like, because of my architecture background,
if you have a long room, it’s screaming long table.
Long room, do a long table. If you have a square box, maybe you should do rounds and long’s.
That’s why you’re seeing that in the book.
Even the cover of the swirling table. It’s really to create this energy that goes through the party.
That doesn’t really cost anything.
The pictures just create this energy level that just you just want to keep reading more and learning more.
I love that.
What can people take away as something that’s the most expensive thing at a party and replace it
with something that’s maybe more affordable, but still has a great impact?
When I’m talking to a father of the bride, and I get “marry” like ten times a year,
I always say, think about this, if a glass of champagne, as fantastic and chic as that is for every guest
If you did that for a hundred guests and each glass is twenty-five dollars, you can do the math.
Wouldn’t it be better to have champagne on the bar and available to everyone, if they drink it.
Move that money over, so move it into something that really matters to you.
Whether that is flowers or that’s big impressions when people walk in the room. I really believe in that.
Like all these tiny little things, are amazing at a dinner party, but quite honestly what do people really see?
They look across the room, they see the fireplace so something grand should be on there.
They look across the room and they see the bar maybe there can be something tall there too.
That’s one of my rules of “Shoulders and Above”
Really think about what does the room feel like when it’s full and
therefore maybe you do need to rob from down here and bring it up here.
All of your parties are known for their personalization.
How do you pull that out of your client because every party is so unique to each of them.
Well and it should be. This is your celebration.
I often say this is not my wedding. It’s not my party.
It’s my job to present you, to curate down 20 years of experience, all the amazing choices that are out there.
I mean it’s unbelievable what’s available in the rental market, what your florist can provide,
but you know you need to sort of, you need to curate that down.
With a client I’m often saying well what are you drawn to?
I love asking the question of, “What’s your favorite party scene in a movie?” and see what they come up with.
It’s sort of a fun game to play. Mine is actually “Meet Joe Black” with Brad Pitt.
I love that movie, but I love the treillage and the twinkle lights. I mean I think it’s really great !
The Great Gatsby with Leonardo DiCaprio, okay that is gonna say something!!
If you come up with that and there’s exploding confetti everywhere and a champagne bottle squirting everywhere…
You probably would like that!
That says something, so you can imagine what your party’s supposed to be.
I love to say, “What do you want?” “How do you want to feel the morning after your party?”
What do you want to remember?
Do you want to remember that it was kind, and intimate, and sweet?
Then it should be in a small room and everything should be cozy with lots of candlelight.
No I want it to be like bangin’ over the top!
Well yeah, we need to put some confetti guns in the ceiling. We need a killer D.J. we need lots of color to create excitement.
Confetti guns, there’s actually this big giant image in the center of the book of confetti falling all over.
This is an Istanbul, it was the after party. It was after the rain and
I always point to the image, to my friends, and I’m like
See that? That’s me
I’ve had four martinis at that point, in probably one hour.
I was so relieved that it didn’t rain.
Do you have a failing forward moment in your career?
Failing forward means, I learned something,
and therefore I became better from it.
At almost every event, no, this is true, I do have a failing forward moment and I know my team does.
That’s what we learn from, right, so experience is life’s best teacher.
Yes so that wedding cake that was six feet tall that was kind of ridiculous to begin with, that was leaning…
We actually had the bride and groom come over and cut the cake before first course, because we were so afraid that the cake was gonna fall over.
Well so we learned from that…
My own sister’s wedding here in Newport at Rosecliff Mansion, I had this crazy idea, I don’t know why
We had a wedding cake on every table
Now this is like literally my first or second wedding
I don’t know where that idea came from
My mother loves more, so forty cakes lined in the back.
It’s one of my favorite images in my sister’s wedding album, you saw all the cakes lined up.
The waiters pick up the cake, because I wanted the trays on their shoulders.
Up goes this beautiful cake, icing on the cake, beautiful Rhode Island baker, goes up on the shoulder.
First one “Boop!” right over, hits the floor.
Second one, “Boop!” right over it
This is all in back, so now the caterer comes to me and is like Bryan, come on!
We’ll have them hold them here.
I’m like no, no, because I’ve always had this image.
Okay so failing forward, never do this.
At the same time, you know there is the photograph of them holding in front of their chests.
They’re all holding these cakes and it was still amazing.
Those are things that, inside my business, we talk about them, in real time now.
We have a hashtag that you send “what you would do different”
That all gets populated within the company and so the next week when we do a debrief.
We can go through, and it’s not to tear the event down,
it’s just to say these are really best practices that we could learn.
At home you must be doing this, whether it’s Christmas after Christmas, or whatever, birthday after birthday.
You learn different things to do.
I’ve had lot’s, I had one in the White House.
The Italian state dinner, at the last moment, the last dinner for the Obama’s, a state dinner for Italy.
The room is set, the press corps is coming in. And I look,
and a candle in front of the president’s table on a candelabra
was tipping and it was tipping into a glass sleeve that was over and it
started to create a burn mark, so now I wasn’t afraid that it was gonna fall over,
but the photographs from all the press is shooting this way,
they would see this crooked candle, so I turned to the usher of the White House
and I said, “Hey Daniel, let’s correct this.”
He’s like, “Okay, are you ready?”
Now there’s all the guests are coming down, anyway, I get a candle, I get a sleeve,
I take it off, he takes the candle, we switch it out,
I push the candle back down on the arm of the candelabra and it snaps,
candelabra arms drops, hits the custom-made cement Italian charger.
I don’t know why I insisted on cement chargers,
hits it, breaks into three pieces,
Okay now, everybody’s here now,
There’s no reason that the press would be photographing this at that moment because
The President wasn’t in the room.
but I mean, I was starting to sweat!
so I pick up the glass, my assistant runs over with a candle and another sleeve, we fix it,
and Daniel looks at me, brushes off the table and he’s like, “I think I should change out the glass wear.”
The fail is that maybe the whole glass thing with the candelabra burning into the glass wasn’t such a wise idea
but you know what…. These things are gonna happen.
Well anything can happen, anything can happen at a party!
I do say that if we’re planners and if you plan to the last second of your party,
that when something kooky happens, something weird that you didn’t expect,
something didn’t come, it’s not the size you thought it was.
If only one of those things happens…
Its not that big a deal.
You have a good story.
If five of those things happen, that’s not good.
Yeah! Your parents are partyers
and almost like a little competition
I don’t think they are partyers like you.
I just like a little champagne
How did they influence your life?
I dedicated the book to my mother specifically because
and I say to the woman who celebrates everything,
everything in our family much like a classic American family was a celebration,
our birthdays, and Easter and st. Patrick’s Day, and over, and over, and over it was always celebratory.
I liked the malted milk balls in the tennis shoes for the winning of a game.
It is the simple little things.
In my introduction, I write about the little things that our family did when they would win something.
My parents would always celebrate it.
They didn’t just say good job, it was like they turned it into a theme party
when you got a report card.
Those things we remember.
You made a cake with an “A” for your sister Toni, love that, just simple little things.
Because she got an “A” , she got an “A” cake
Those little things, actually for me, as you can, see propelled me into this life of creating a career of celebration.
My work is my life and I love to do that.
Everybody wants to know, what your life was like
Everybody? You all want to know?
when you first started? Were you in a one-bedroom apartment eating ramen noodles?
What was your life like when you first started your career?
I am one of those, I don’t know.
All I’m gonna say is this,
is that, in the first part of my life,
and sometimes I think it was the best part of my life.
I did like everything, I went everywhere.
I never thought about the risk factor or the what if something terrible would happen.
When I first got into the business it’s probably why I was $30,000 in debt really fast
but I was really living the life I imagined.
And that was important when I look back on it now. I took all that risk.
Yeah, maybe I was spending a little bit too much money on that triplex apartment that I really couldn’t afford
but I threw pretty great parties in that apartment.
Got to get better some how!
Think about that right ! I would invite my clients, I would invite my friends in the business
and we throw these grand parties and
so they were like, okay, this guy’s on to something and so there was a connection there
but I was always living a little on the edge
and I think that’s okay
Knowing your history with parties and planning. What is the secret recovery cure?
A hangover cure?
Everybody has one.
Don’t get started.
I have this funny game that I play and I love playing it with my
I have lots of nieces and nephews, who love to stay over, I’m a good uncle.
but if they come home a little tipsy or we both do, I line up eight glasses of water on the kitchen counter.
and I’m like we are going through every one of these.
They are called water shots
These are tall boys by the way, non of these little one ouncers.
oh yeah, that is what I call a water shot, everybody’s got to do a water shot!
My godson, Jack, always would be like, “Aw Uncle Bryan, come on.”
because he would get to like three and a half
and I’m like, “Nope, you got to finish them off, you gotta finish it, you’re gonna feel so much better tomorrow.
One last question,
What is your signature dance move?
Alright, we gotta clear the furniture out
We might have to clear the furniture out! Alright!
Now this is where you know I’m having a really good time at a party.
I’m a jumper
So I start to jump, that’s what I’m having a really good time, can I get some music?
I kind of want to jump with you
You go to wait for it, wait for it, wait for it, wait for it. Hey!
Thank you for dancing with me!
I hope that we can have a glass of champagne later on after your
event at The Redwood Library.
Thank you so much for joining us today
and we look forward to seeing you on
Newport Living and Lifestyles