A little bit of creativity can work a brand of magic that’s especially powerful in the world of meetings and events. It has the power to turn challenges into triumphs and transform the same old into something special, conjuring a sense of delight among everyone involved. To pull off a good show, the magic words are “do what you love.” In the pages that follow, five industry professionals share their trade secrets.

Joe Surowiec
Front Page Productions, Wayne

Front Page Productions Inc., based in Wayne, specializes in creating something from nothing. Over the last 32 years, the 10-person team has grown from an equipment rental resource into a full service production company. Working with political campaigns in the ’90s helped to put its capabilities on the map—actually, on the front page. “Every time we did something, the next day it would turn up on the front page of a newspaper, magazine or some publication,” says Executive Producer Joe Surowiec. This led to a name change for the company in 1998, and in 2000 it earned a job managing the production of John McCain’s outdoor events during his presidential campaign.

“All of the stuff you saw with the lights, and sound and confetti—all of that’s now commonplace in the campaigns,” Surowiec says. “We started doing that with him in 2000 in New Hampshire.” Creating a rock concert-like production created a buzz around the campaign that helped to increase crowds from about 35 at the beginning of January to 3,000 by the end of the month, outgrowing venues.

These days Front Page often works with smaller companies, which often don’t have an in-house arts or graphic design department, to produce all aspects of their meetings and presentations across the globe. “We really do shine with the smaller companies who say, ‘we don’t really know what we want,’” Surowiec says. Often times, “they have no idea which way to go. They’ve seen pictures of things and they want to do something neat.” Front Page can create an impactful program that maximizes its client’s budget by combining scenery, production design, graphics and video testimonials.

The team’s attention to detail, like how a cable is taped to the floor or how the drapery hangs behind the podium, ensures quality, and it’s also where the team’s passion lies. “When somebody notices the small details that we paid attention to, that’s what really gets us going,” Surowiec says. “We want it to be right, because it has to be.”

Tara Rothberg
The Virginia Hotel, Cape May

At The Virginia, a boutique hotel in Cape May, creating a special experience for the groups that meet and celebrate special events at the 24-room property revolves around the client’s objectives and vision. “To be an event professional, our No. 1 job is always to listen to the client,” says General Manager Tara Rothberg. “Once we get a glimpse into their world and what they’re looking for, we can suggest ideas to them.”

Possibilities include a breakout session or cocktail hour in the outdoor garden, a birthday party in the fireside lounge for 25, a tour of the hotel’s 62-acre Beach Plum Farm, a cocktail reception on the sumptuous front porch or a picnic lunch on the beach, just a half block away. The high-end services and amenities at The Virginia, the idyllic surroundings of Cape May and the nearby sister Cape Resorts properties provide endless resources for creativity.

Often the corporate groups that gather at The Virginia forego the boardroom table in favor of a “deconstructed meeting” that promotes teamwork, encourages free-flowing ideas and captures the vacation vibe of Cape May. “You hear people laughing and joking around,” Rothberg says. “Yes, they’re dealing with business, but now they’re having fun while solving a problem.”

Rothberg and her team employ the same approach. “I always say that hospitality is a team sport,” she says. “It requires everyone’s heads coming together and coming up with ideas.” This collaboration helps anticipate their guests’ needs in advance, and it also makes things go smoothly when challenges do arise. “From our perspective, things happen, but you can’t get upset about it. … Nine times out of 10 we can come up with a solution—we just have to put on our thinking caps.”

Diane Kolanovi´c-Solaja
Dee Kay Events

When it comes to planning events, Diane Kolanović-Šolaja is a natural. Growing up, her home was often the venue for large family celebrations, and she says she’s always been known as “the girl who had the best parties.” But a way with words and her parents’ observation that she was a talented debater led her to pursue prelaw as an undergraduate.

She navigated through the recession as a legal secretary and then internal communications manager at a New York City law firm, but Kolanović-Šolaja was happy to oblige when friends—and soon friends of friends—asked her to coordinate their birthday parties and weddings. She also founded The Croatians of New York and Los Angeles (CNYLA), a nonprofit that celebrates culture and connects young Croatian-American professionals. KolanovićŠolaja developed the organization’s pinnacle event, an annual multiday Croatians Cruise.

It soon became clear that these side projects were her true passion, so in late 2012 she developed a 90-day plan and took a leave of absence. Now, in addition to designing events that bring her clients’ visions to life, Kolanović-Šolaja has created something new for herself: a full-time company called Dee Kay Events, based in Manalapan.

“When you’re doing things in a corporate office, there’s already a process in place for everything,” Kolanović-Šolaja says. “When you’re working for yourself, you have to establish the process for yourself. You have to figure out what you’re doing and what makes sense for you, your clients and your markets.”

She invests a lot of her time talking with her husband, friends and professionals in other industries to gain different perspectives, and also reads “an excessive amount ... if you don’t learn your business, then basically you have a hobby.”

Creating and running a successful company keeps Kolanović-Šolaja busy, but it also keeps her inspired. “I kind of feed off of that,” she says. “I actually feel the least creativity when there’s not that much left to do.”

Barbara Flamenbaum
Atlantic City Ambassador

Barbara Flamenbaum is an expert on all that Atlantic City has to offer after eight years of planning tours, events and logistics for her destination management company, Atlantic City Ambassador, but each client that she works with helps her see the city in a new light. “It’s about working with what interests them,” Flamenbaum says.

Most groups that visit Atlantic City hope to avoid mosquitoes during their stay, but one of her past clients, the American Mosquito Control Association, sought them out. In working with this group, Flamenbaum got to explore the area where she’s lived for two decades from a new perspective, planning a group outing to the Cape May Department of Mosquito Control. “I called them, made an appointment, visited the facility and planned a whole day for them. I learned an awful lot about mosquitos,” she says. “I didn’t think I was going to like it, but it was very enjoyable.”

Even when planning her most popular theme, Atlantic City, she has plenty of ways to customize a program that speaks to the shore’s history and character. “There are a lot of different takes on the city,” Flamenbaum says, recalling programs themed around casino gaming, Boardwalk= Empire, Prohibition, the tropics, The Sopranos and a day on the boardwalk. One of her longtime clients has requested the Atlantic City theme for the last six years, each with a different spin. Each time a program comes to an end, the client asks what’s in store for next year. Flamenbaum’s reply is always the same: “I don’t know now, but we’ll come up with something.”

In times when the creativity isn’t flowing as freely, Flamenbaum doesn’t miss a beat. “You just have to keep going,” she says. “It’s about the inspiration. You just have to go somewhere else to get it.”

Rebecca Wakefield

The 60-person national meeting planning team at KPMG LLP’s Montvale office depends on consistency and standard processes to plan and execute around 2,000 programs each year for the firm’s locations across the United States, but it’s a creative approach that makes each one stand out as a success. “As a planner you have to constantly reinvent yourself, and, if you’re working with different clients, constantly earn their trust and be looked at as a strategic partner, not an order taker,” says Rebecca Wakefield, a meeting manager with 10 years of experience at KPMG.

Her creativity is born from a blend of the needs and personalities of the internal clients that she works with, the cooperation and experiences of the other planners on her team and the capabilities and styles of the suppliers with whom she’s formed relationships. Each of these partners influences the design and outcome of the final program. “I think you’re forever evolving, and you learn from your colleagues, you learn from your peers, you learn from your hotel folks, your vendors—you’re constantly learning,” Wakefield says. “You’re almost like a sponge where you’re absorbing things, and sometimes you don’t even realize it until you have to put it in place.”

With so many sources of creativity influencing each program, “communication is key," Wakefield says. The first and most important person she talks to is her client: “Immediately I want to chat with them. I want to listen and take notes." As the program takes shape and more partners get involved, she makes open communication in each step of the process a priority to ensure that each person’s voice is heard and that the client’s needs and expectations are achieved: “It just grows so that everybody is on the same team, hearing the same information.”

A New York tour company combines the art and corporate worlds.