Events: Clutter cutters gain ground

Whatever you do, don't tell Alison Silcoff that she has a cushy job. Silcoff is the organizer of one of Montreal's most successful fundraising events, the Canadian Cancer Society's Daffodil Ball, which will be held April 25 at Windsor Station.

Whatever you do, don’t tell Alison Silcoff that she has a cushy job. Silcoff is the organizer of one of Montreal’s most successful fundraising events, the Canadian Cancer Society’s Daffodil Ball, which will be held April 25 at Windsor Station.

As president of Alison Silcoff and Associates, she is one of the city’s most high-profile event planners. It is an industry that conjures up images of activities such as business seminars, conferences and functions that are as much about having a good time as about doing business.

But Silcoff firmly disputes the assertion that her job is all play. ‘It’s not just socializing,’ she says. ‘Event planning is a big business. Our clients expect results, and we have to deliver.’

And deliver Silcoff has. In the nine years since she organized the first Daffodil Ball, she has built the event into a must-go exclusive social function, where Montreal’s rich and powerful get together to hobnob for a good cause.

The bulk of the tickets sell for between $15,000 and $25,000 for a table of 10. The lowest price tickets sell for $500 each, but only those who have contributed $1,000 to the organization have a right to buy those.

Despite this, the event is sold out long before it is actually held and even has a waiting list. But Silcoff refuses to squeeze in more places, relying on the event’s exclusivity to give it a cachet so that people keep coming back.

It seems to have worked. The ball has grown to the point where it is now the largest annual cancer fundraising ball in Canada, generating more than $1 million in net profits each year. Even more impressive, according to a Canadian Cancer Society spokesperson, event expenses are just 20% of revenues.

And Silcoff gets a lot of the credit. ‘Allison handles the entire event,’ said Nicole Magnan, the organization’s executive director, who has been working closely with Silcoff for the past few years.

‘She takes care of the (catering), the music, the decor and the fund collection. Over the years she has built up a lot of credibility, and we give her a lot of freedom.’

The fact the Daffodil Ball has grown so quickly is no coincidence. Marketers are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of running special events, not just for fundraising, but for a variety of brand awareness and promotional opportunities.

Says Lisa Hurley, editor of Los Angeles-based Special Events magazine, events work because they cut through the daily ad and media barrage.

According to Hurley, in the magazine’s annual survey, its subscribers claimed to have conducted $55 billion worth of marketing, corporate and social events during 2000, up 4% from the previous year. While the 2001 numbers aren’t out, she expects a 7% increase in 2002.

‘The big growth area is incentive trips for top company managers and salesmen,’ says Hurley. ‘Many of these people are highly paid, and more money is no longer a big motivator. But if you organize a private five-day trip to an exclusive resort, with Rod Stewart performing, that will really impress them.’ A special event has to give people something they would not get somewhere else says Hurley.

Silcoff, an industry veteran, arrived circuitously into the business, and has seen a lot of that industry growth first hand. After studies in both law and mathematics at the University of Cambridge, she spent time in the London offices of J. Walter Thompson, before ending up running the Bank of Montreal’s sponsorships department.

When the bank moved much of its head office staff to Toronto during the mid-eighties, Silcoff decided to strike out on her own, with the bank as one of her first clients. Word of mouth did the rest, and she now runs a variety of events each year, although the ball is by far her biggest.

Peter Diekmeyer is the marketing columnist for the Montreal Gazette. He can be reached at