The Life of Bryan
Fun is serious business for Boston’s celebrity party planner.
Rose petals flown in from Holland. Authentic Moroccan lanterns. Real swaying palms. Torrid tablescapes under a canopy of swirling silk. Champagne, lobster and a “fez-tival” of desserts in an opulent homage to casbahs and bazaars.
Behold, the 11th annual Storybook Ball—this year’s spin is Aladdin—to benefit Massachusetts General Hospital for Children. Tonight’s gala, held at the Park Plaza Castle, aims to be one of the wildest magic-carpet rides this city’s ever experienced. The overseeing genie behind this night—and 1,000 and one like it—is Bryan Rafanelli, event impresario extraordinaire. From President Obama to Chelsea Clinton to the local philanthropists hoping to raise a pile of dough from tonight’s fez-tivities, Rafanelli has made a boatload of wishes come true.
These days, Rafanelli Events choreographs as many as 100 functions a year, from a $5,000 private dinner to a party worth $4 million. He won’t say whose fête tops the list, but scuttlebutt has it that the July wedding in Marblehead of Fidelity pasha Peter Lynch’s daughter, Elizabeth, to a French royal, takes the cake for opulence.
Rafanelli has a knack for attracting gushy testimonials. “All his clients love him,” says Geri Denterlein, a Boston public-relations maven who has frequently used his services. “Bryan has a unique ability to articulate a vision,” adds fund-raiser and cupcake queen Courtney Forrester. “He applies his talents equally to projects large and small, shoestring budgets and sky’s the limit resources.”
The limits reached the stratosphere last summer when Rafanelli orchestrated the multimillion-dollar extravaganza of Chelsea Clinton’s wedding to Marc Mezvinsky. With the world’s gossip pages sniffing at his every step, he demonstrated discretion and aplomb. A precise, cheerful man whose job is to create enchantment out of chaos, Rafanelli makes trafficking in fun look easy. “Of course it keeps me up at night sometimes,” he says. “I care as much as if it were my wedding, my product, my fund-raiser.”
While perfection is ever the goal, Rafanelli is the first to admit it’s not always the result. From toppling cakes at his own sister’s wedding to the no-show valets at the close of a Palm Beach luncheon for Laura Bush, he’s been stung by fortune’s slings and arrows. But when life hands him lemons, he turns them into tall glasses of cold lemonade, which he served to the 250 Palm Beach ladies wilting in the 90-degree heat while he, his staff and the kitchen help ferried Bentleys and Rolls’ to the waiting doyennes. “The talent of Bryan is that if the soufflé flops, the client doesn’t know it,” says Mark Walsh, Rafanelli’s one-time business partner and longtime life partner.
Adds the maestro himself, “The art of being a good producer or planner is to plan for perfection, so when there’s a crisis, we’re OK. We’re ready for it.”
The 48-year-old Rafanelli finds calm amidst such occasional storms naturally, which is to say it’s in his genes. He was raised in Warwick, R.I., one of six children, two of whom became lawyers like dad, who passed away in March. Growing up, Bryan emulated his mother, an admired hostess. At Syracuse University in the early ’80s, he organized parties for his fraternity, including a now-legendary farm-themed fête involving more than a dozen chickens that he managed to set loose in the school library.
After graduating in 1984, Rafanelli studied interior design, worked at Filene’s and volunteered for the AIDS Action Committee, where he organized special events. “One of my first smaller events with impact was Hula Hoopla in Provincetown,” he says. Toymaker Mattel donated the hot-pink hoops, which Rafanelli festooned around town to promote a fund-raiser at a local bar. He was the life of the party, so he decided to make parties his life.
“Back then, we did a kitschy thing, and it took off,” he says. “Now, fund-raising for nonprofits”—which accounts for about 30 percent of his business—“is a science. You sit with the committees, you present ideas, you refine them, you meet again and again. You make all these ideas seem like they’re their ideas.”
“Bryan’s got the knack for the big picture. He’s the master strategist on how to raise funds,” says Billy Evers, Rafanelli’s creative director for almost 12 years. “I’m embedded in the creative end. We complement each other.”
For all that, Rafanelli may be at his best when it comes to planning weddings—those very special occasions that often turn brides into monsters and grooms into zombies. “It can be overwhelming. Clients can feel like their heads are exploding,” he says. “I’m the guy who has to bring them back to Earth. I have to get the ’zilla out of bridezilla.”
Now that he’s become the rock star of party planners, Bryan Rafanelli, the celebrity, is in almost as much demand as his services. While he attends many of the events his company handles, plenty of clients never meet him. “When you buy Armani, do you expect to meet Giorgio?” he asks. “Part of the business is to pass on the breadth of experience, to hire great people.”
With a staff of 25, Rafanelli Inc. has offices in West Palm Beach and Washington, D.C. He opened his Florida outpost because many of his Boston clients have homes there, while his Washington office grew out of his work for the Obama inaugurals and for Hillary Clinton’s Senate and presidential campaigns. Explains Rafanelli, “When Hillary went to the State Department, D.C. became a good secondary market.”
Rafanelli met the Clintons through his clients Gerry and Elaine Schuster of Chestnut Hill, who raised millions first for Bill, then for Hill. His other Clinton connection was Mark Walsh, a lawyer and political consultant who managed the business side of Rafanelli Events for 12 years. Walsh was Hillary’s liaison to the gay, lesbian and transgender community during her presidential campaign. Rafanelli organized a luncheon in Boston for her back in 2001 and personally helped raise more than $100,000 for Clinton’s presidential foray. When Walsh worked on Obama’s inaugural committee, he had Rafanelli do the candlelight dinners.
Taken together, Rafanelli had the needed credentials to manage the Wedding of the Year. Cloaked in secrecy, he and an extraordinary cadre of Clintons set to work on the wedding details. The parents, the bride, the groom and Hillary’s mother attended every planning meeting. Rafanelli acknowledges that having all the relatives involved was a departure from his usual modus operandi. “Believe me, that doesn’t happen. But when Chelsea and I talked about the wedding, it was really important that it be planned with her family, especially the three generations.” He was willing to break precedent for such a special client.
In his promotional material, Rafanelli gives equal billing to his celebrity and corporate customers—Aerosmith and Hank Williams Jr. are on the same level as the American Heart Association and the YMCA. But he says that’s misleading.
“I did events involving the celebs, but my success is built on what we do really well, not the people we work for.” So why list them? “Because it’s what everybody wants to know. It’s frustrating. So the list is there but I don’t want to dwell on it. Chelsea and Marc chose Rafanelli Events because they were drawn to what we do. But since then, we’ve got this celeb thing, which eludes a lot of people in Boston. Not as much now, thanks to Ben Affleck, but this is not a celebrity-driven town.”
Like, say, New York, where he’s often summoned by Gothamites such as fashion designer Carolina Herrera. Despite New York’s glamour and giant customer base, Rafanelli insists he’s not hankering to move his operations to the city that never sleeps. “I’m not jumping ship,” he says, “but would I love to do an event in Bryant Park or Central Park? I would hunger for that.”
Recession aside, Boston high society still digs deep for its favorite charities and the 15 or so top-tier annual galas. A good haul for a major benefit is about $1.25 million gross. The record seems to be held by last year’s Children’s Hospital Champions for Children’s fund-raiser, which brought in $2.5 million. In its previous 10 years, MGH’s Storybook Ball averaged $1.4 million. This year, the hospital expects the gross to top $1.6 million. Of that, MGH for Children may net as much as $1.2 million, if Rafanelli’s projections hold true. Compared to industry standards that find a cost of 35 to 40 cents to raise $1 acceptable for nonprofit special events, Rafanelli says he spends closer to 25 cents on the dollar. How? “Ah, the secret recipe,” he says, laughing. “Experience, common sense and pressing my fine family of vendors on cost.”
Then there are those golden touches he calls “income inducers,” such as the carnival-type booths at tonight’s Storybook Ball, where guests can play games, win big prizes and donate more cash to the cause. Income inducers are “a way to get people to forget about how much money they’ve already given,” Rafanelli cheerfully admits. The booths will add an estimated $225,000 to the ball’s proceeds, says MGH’s Marion Kassler.
Today, with all the pomp and artifice attached to the posh events on the social calendar, the party planner has to be one part shrink, one part referee—and often stern tastemaker. “Let’s say I go to great lengths to articulate why we should do something else. Maybe because it’s too garish. Maybe it’s out in left field. Sure, sometimes I just say no.
“I want the best, which is not necessarily the most expensive. I mean, some wedding planners want to do rose petals on the bed. Do you know what a pain in the ass it is to get rose petals off a bed? I’m way too practical for that.”
Which brings us back to the Storybook Ball, a year in the planning with a cast of 200. Transforming the cavernous Castle into The Arabian Nights has taken three days. The checklist today alone included 44 items, from rehearsals and sound and light checks, to cleaning the restrooms and passing the fire-marshal inspection.
It’s about an hour to go before the doors open. Rafanelli, in sneakers and tight jeans, surveys the scene and smiles. “The precision on this one,” he pronounces, “was perfect.”
If parties like this are Bryan Rafanelli’s life, it follows logically that he sees his life as one long party.
“What do I do for fun? My life, baby!” he says, with candid glee. “I’m very successful and have a good time doing it.”