By Beth Erickson   photos by the mamones
All things Chicago were celebrated at the National Association for Catering and Events (NACE) Experience 2013 July 14-17 at the Marriott Downtown Magnificent Mile in the Windy City. Elements paying homage to the host city were infused throughout the conference, including nods to the musical Chicago and the great fire of 1871. More than 670 attendees relished these and many other details that added flavor and flair. Other highlights were:

NACEEXP13-0018Opening Breakfast/Design Experience
When the doors to the ballroom opened and attendees entered, it was like stepping into Oz, thanks to the handiwork of Jessica Griffin Pfluegl, event designer with Chicago-based HMR Designs. Pfluegl’s Emerald City theme combined hues of greens and golds and included mini hot-air balloons suspended around the room’s perimeter. The magic continued with a Chicago-style cabaret routine to “All That Jazz,” after which NACE President Lisa Hopkins, CPCE, CMP, shared highlights from NACE’s branding campaign and encouraged members to get the most out of conference. “We must engage in conversation, and when we engage and exchange ideas, guess what? We advance our industry,” she says.

Laura Cave of The Knot, New York City, and David Caruso of Dynamic Events, Milwaukee, then took the stage for the Design Experience, a unique challenge in which Chicago designers, using different price points, created unique tabletops. Renee Price of Kehoe Designs fashioned a natural design on a $750 budget, putting most of it into cantilevered driftwood, fern, and moss centerpiece and white mirage chairs. David Halsey of The Meetinghouse Companies had a mid-level budget, spending $1,245 for his “Travel in a Bubble” themed table using bubble place card holders, and a centerpiece created with a 7-foot wrought-iron tree with hanging crystal globes with waterpearls and orchids, tall cylinders with greens, and square vases that held green roses, red carnations, poppy, and cymbidiums. Finally, Erin Dahl Sellers of Revel Decor went slightly over her $2,500 budget with an ethereal, layered table featuring etched glassware, hand-painted menu cards, mirage chairs, and labor-intensive Lucite centerpieces with floral and ascending gold votives to create a city-like landscape.

Keynote Luncheon—Ryan Estis, Ryan Estis & Associates, Minneapolis
“Passion on purpose” was the message behind Chief Experience Officer Ryan Estis’ presentation. “If you want to thrive, if you want to have impact, if you want to dominate in the market today, you have to be better than good. You better be rock-star good,” he says. He believes leaders must have a sense of urgency, fearlessness, courage, passion, and differentiation.

NACE Awards Gala
With amber and gold lighting effects, the ballroom at the NACE Awards Gala reflected an “After the Fire” theme based on the Chicago fire of 1871. Amid a golden haze, the NACE 2013 Awards were bestowed on the winners of 31 categories (see sidebar).

NACEEXP13-0038Culinary Experience
In what felt like a reality show for the taste buds, the Culinary Experience was served on the final day of conference. Chef Rocco Paradiso of US Foodservice moderated this live experience in which three Chicago guest chefs—Patrick Cassatti of The Bank Restaurant, Molly Johnson of Calihan Catering, and Nick Lacasse of Pure Kitchen Catering, prepared a dish onstage and shared insight while the attendees sampled. Johnson prepared buccatini carbonara with Paulina lamb bacon, market zucchini, and charred corn. Cassata created Basque pintxos—grilled long bread, hardboiled egg, grilled pimiento red pepper, seranno ham, fresh mint drizzled with paprika oil. And Lacasse made maple-ginger glazed pork belly with roasted pistachios, spicy pickled asparagus and shaved ciabatta croutons.

NACE Experience Conference & Expo 2014 
will be held July 13-16 in Baltimore. Watch for more information.