It is one of the blockbuster events of the summer. It is creating a stir around the nation and around the world; drawing out the wizards, owls and other creatures of the night; and making even non-believers believe in magic. J.K. Rowling’s newest Harry Potter book, "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," is scheduled to be unleashed upon adoring fans at midnight on Friday, July 15, and event planners are scrambling to create a unique and memorable experience fashioned around the release.
Two of Princeton biggest events both take place on July 15. Jazams’ Harry Potter Block Party, complete with wizard-themed crafts like make your own wands, games, food, and life-size chess, takes place at its store on Hulfish Street in Palmer Square from 7 to 9 p.m., followed by Thomas Sweet Outdoor Cinema’s screening of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone" on the Palmer Square Green. In 2003, JaZams hosted a similar party for the release of the fifth Harry Potter book and over 2,000 people attended, despite driving rain.
Barnes & Noble at MarketFair has created an entire evening of activities that includes a Bad Cat Contest, a Harry Potter Costume Contest, and a snake party at 8 p.m. followed by a reading of "Hagrid’s Tale" by actor Jerry Lyden at 9 p.m. The evening culminates with the no-holds-barred Midnight Magic Party with face painting, wand making, and many more "wizardly" activities until midnight.
A third Harry Potter celebration, the Wizard Wake-Up Party, takes place Saturday, July 16, at 10 a.m., at the Princeton U-Store, which will be transformed into Flourish & Blotts, where Hogwarts’ young wizards can buy their books, complete with tea and cauldron cakes, chocolate wands, a Harry Potter reading, photos, games, and give-aways.
But what if you want to plan your own Harry Potter event – either before or after the Jazams, Barnes & Noble, or U-Store parties or as a stand-alone party in your own home? Simone Mets, partner of Impressive Events, a national events marketing and management firm with headquarters in Montclair and a satellite office in Princeton, makes her living planning just such events. I met with her in her offices to "pick the brain" of this premiere event planner. Impressive Events orchestrated pre-release screening receptions in four markets – New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago – in 2002 for the movie "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets." In 2004, it orchestrated receptions in six markets for the movie "Harry Potter, Prisoner of Azkaban." The 2004 events were nominated for Best Food Presentation by BiZBash Event Style Alert, the event industry’s widely read weekly E-mail newsletter.
More often than not Mets is on a plane, jetting off to orchestrate yet another "impressive event," with hosts and guest lists that often include celebrities and corporate luminaries. "The beauty of what I do is that I take something that can be pretty ordinary and mundane and turn it into something unusual," she says. "It takes an element of surprise and an understanding of how people enjoy themselves."
Mets projects an aura of brisk professionalism with can-do efficiency at the same time that she exudes personal warmth and an air of fun and natural exuberance. Her face, for example, grows soft when she talks about her sister, Katie, 16 years younger, and you sense a bond that goes beyond just family obligation. It’s protectiveness and love, a true big sister sense of loyalty, responsibility, and affection – all qualities that come in handy in spades when it comes to throwing the party of all parties.
One of her upcoming projects is the NBA All-Star weekend in Houston in February, 2006, for Turner Sports, as well as other events stretching from New York to Honolulu. She just returned from masterminding CNN’s 25th anniversary celebration in Atlanta, which culminated in a concert with Hall and Oates.
"We create experiences," says Mets. "If you want to grab a group of people, put them in an elevator, and have it stop between floors. Whether good or bad, a shared experience can create a bond. You start volunteering parts of yourself you never would in a different situation." She cites 9/11 as an example of a horrible experience that nonetheless united people. "It made us all bond in some way. It made us all parents and sisters, husbands, and children and friends. It fused us. "
She says she has witnessed the growth of event planning as an industry in recent years from something that started out as hospitality. "Now people realize the potential of shared experiences to serve as a touch point with customers." She adds that corporations understand the value of putting money into events because they create a return, either in business or goodwill or just good old-fashioned positive buzz.
When it comes to creating a buzz around Harry Potter, Mets has been there done that, in a big way. At Impressive Events’ "Harry Potter, Prisoner of Azkaban" pre-release screening receptions guests got a taste of the movie, quite literally, through cleverly designed food and drink stations built around the book’s themes. One station, "Quiddich Fields," featured waiters in rugby shirts, shorts, and capes, manning a buffet offering Quaffle Waffles, Golden Snitches, and Savory Wands. Another buffet, "Seriusly Black," a play on the name of the film’s villain, Serius Black, featured hooded waiters presenting food served on an all-black buffet, complete with ominous effects like dry ice and things that glowed in the night. The final station took its inspiration from the Azkaban Prison – "cell block bar" waiters, dressed as wizard prisoners, served specialty drinks from smoking cauldrons and magic elixirs from glowing cups.
Mets says she loves Rowling’s books because they allow people to have different experiences depending on their age and says there are different points in a person’s life when the ordinary becomes the extraordinary. "As a child your imagination is at its peak. You can see pots and pans as a drum set. The magic of Harry Potter is that the little spark that lets you see pots and pans as a drum set doesn’t go away."
She says the challenge of the "Prisoner of Azkaban" project was to present the dark side and not make it too scary for kids. "The tug of war is between good and evil, and we had to portray it in a broad way. But to me the challenge isn’t work, it’s play. I read lots and lots of books, and I love the Harry Potter books. Rowling’s imagination is exquisite. Her books are so well-written but not predictable."
Mets took her corporate event experience and morphed it into these suggestions for planning a party surrounding the release of "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince":
Planning a theme, invitations, and costume. For a children’s party at home, pick out a two-hour time frame. For older kids and teenagers, you can consider a longer party. Have your child help you create an invitation around an owl as the messenger. In the invitation encourage guests to come dressed in their favorite "House" colors. Wearables always help get people into the mood. Wizard families are big. You can have your entire family dress as a theme from the movie. Dress in big red wigs.
Evoke a magical setting. Buy stuffed owls to hide in the trees.
Beverages. Create a "mix elixir" bar where guests can make their own magic drinks. Go for a mix of different colors with lemonade, Kool-Aid, any drink that’s red, yellow, pink, purple, or blue. Use carbonated beverages to create the fizz. Have dry ice on hand to conjure an eerie aura of mystery. If adults are invited to the party you can kick the "mix elixir" area up a notch with "potions" (alcoholic beverages). Use glowing cups and glowing ice cubes and goody bags that glow – all available at party stores.
Activities and food. Use Harry Potter-related candy like gummy worms to have the kids decorate pre-baked cookies. Buy candies that will inspire kids to use their imagination. Serve sandwiches "branded" with the letter "H." Stage a scavenger hunt in your yard. Take the ordinary items referred to in the book, hide them strategically, and then let the kids run around and find the magical treasures. "Repurpose" games they are familiar with to come up with a Harry Potter version. For example, bobbing for apples can be renamed "Bobbing for Golden Snitches." Be careful with smaller children for choking hazards. Have a giant jar of jelly beans on hand and have kids guess how many are inside. Award prizes for those who come closest. Other contests with prizes might include best decorated cookie, best cape, and best wizard costume. Have door prizes.
Party favors. Look for theme-related items, for example, kids love the lightning bolt tattoos and magic wands. Party stores are great resources for these items.
Create photo opportunities. Digital photography is easy and inexpensive. You can even use a Polaroid camera to make a photo booth. Use props like a broom, sorcerer’s hat, Harry Potter glasses, glass orbs for a crystal ball, a large pile of heavy books, and some sparkly powder. Photos are a fun keepsake for kids to take home with them.
Signage and "people" props. Simple signage can add a lot to the mood. Your house can be number 9 3/4. Dress your spouse or an adult friend up as the conductor carrying suitcases. You can hire people as
real life props. Have someone on hand for Tarot card readings. Hire a magician. Have other costumed performers circulate among the guests.
Mets, the oldest of four children, says she has been planning events her whole life. She was born in Eton, England, home of the renowned boarding school. "I get my creativity from my mom, a university professor who had two PhDs, one in anthropology, the other in linguistics," she says, adding that her mother can speak seven languages and now teaches foreign language in Parsippany. "I can still see her creativity in the way she teaches children. She can see the formulas and patterns in language, and she presents it in a way that makes it interesting and exciting to the kids. Her magic is something she ingrained in all of us."
Mets says books were her friends growing up, and at four o’clock in the afternoon every day, all the kids knew that it was the family reading hour. "We would get a candy bar and a book and off we went. My mother made us do book reports over the summer. We hated them then but they really helped us become who we are today. There’s nothing like reading. I especially loved mysteries."
Her father worked in international telecommunications. Mets spent part of her childhood in Iran, due to her father’s work. "I used to watch Sesame Street in Iran. We used to travel a lot because of my father’s job. It’s where I got the travel bug." She spent the summer of her 10th birthday living with her father’s business colleagues in the United States. The family came to the United States for good in 1979, and Mets attended South Brunswick High School. From there she headed off to Montclair University, then to Temple Law School in Philadelphia. After graduating she stayed in the city, passed the bar in both New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and practiced with a private law firm, largely doing criminal defense work.
Her husband, James Mets, to whom she’s been married for 13 years, is her college sweetheart. "We met the first week. I saw him in the hallway. I decided he was a must have!" A partner of Mets and Schiro, he represents police and labor unions, and was named as a New Jersey "Superlawyer" for 2005, an honor designated to only five percent of the lawyers in the entire state. "We’re both very lucky," Simone Mets says. "We both love what we do."
One of her mother’s favorite sayings is "Everybody has free time," and even with her legal career, Mets made time to do volunteer work for the Make-a-Wish Foundation of New Jersey, spending eight years as a volunteer and serving on the board of directors as well. It was the wishes that she helped make reality – each one an event on its own – that would eventually channel her into her life’s calling. She remembers one child in particular, a child with a terminal illness, who had the desire to "jump over something" on a horse. "We gave her horseback riding lessons, took her to Rick’s Saddle Shop in Englishtown, and outfitted her in a complete competition uniform. She didn’t know it, but she was slated as a featured performer in a huge equestrian event. The magic moment came on a bright sunny day, in front of everybody, in front of the people who were her guests, when she got to make her jump. It was a golden moment. It was moments like that one that made me get involved with wishes."
She says she came home one day and told her husband that she was going to take an enormous pay cut and get into special events. "There’s nothing like coming home excited about something and having your spouse say, ‘If you’re passionate, then go for it.’"
One of the people she had met when she was beginning her career in special events was Meryl Hillsberg, who founded Impressive Events in 1995. In 2002 Mets joined the firm as a partner and opened the Princeton office. She has been credited with boosting the company’s business by leaps and bounds. In 2003 Impressive Events won the Big Apple Award from the New York Metro International Special Event Society and in 2004, was named one of "New Jersey’s Finest" by NJBIZ magazine.
Mets now spends a lot of time on the road at speaking engagements and moderating conferences. She is also helping to develop the curriculum for Temple University’s School of Tourism and Hospitality Management. Despite her busy schedule Mets still remains involved with the Make-a-Wish Foundation and works on the annual fundraising event. "It’s an organization that makes me smile from year to year. If you have an extra dollar in your pocket or any extra time, it’s an organization that deserves your support."
Despite veering off the legal track, Mets says there was nothing like her law school training to prepare her for her career in events planning. "All of that contractual, technical stuff, all of the analysis, I tell students who ask me for career advice that law school will prepare you for living and working in one of the most regulated countries in the world. It gives you the confidence to advocate a position. Of course," she says, "you do have to know when you should tuck in your shark fin."
She says many people who are creative can be shut down by their inhibitions, often caused by fear of what other people might think. "One of the most cost-effective ways to get people to brainstorm is to put them in a room and turn off the lights and encourage them to talk about their ideas, let them shout it out," she suggests. "The darkness means they can only hear voices. They can’t see the shake of the head or the roll of the eyes. You take out the fear of rejection, the negativity. You’re braver when you’re anonymous. Little kids don’t need the lights off. Adults often do."
For someone who has rubbed elbows with plenty of celebrities and business hotshots, Mets says the coolest person she ever met is not Ted Turner or any of the other celebrities who have crossed her path. "The coolest person I’ve ever met is a five-year-old I met through Make-a-Wish. He told me he’d be an angel soon. I can’t think of a more important event I’ve planned than his fifth birthday with his twin sister. It was also the hardest event. He was here in New Jersey for treatments, and we flew his cat in from Florida." She says it is events like those that have made an indelible impression on her and have continued to shape her professional life.
Mets says the constant challenge of her job is to remain relevant and interesting and take what she is given to work with and breathe life into it. There is also the challenge of staying on track with corporate budgets and often working on tight deadlines. "At the same time we create magic we also have to provide a cost-effective service. We are the guardians of the corporate budget, especially at a time when there is a lot more scrutiny. We want you to be happy and at the same time, we have to be the voice of reality and have the confidence to have you see it in the same way."
Traveling makes it hard to entertain at her own home with any regularity, but she says that when people come over, they know it’s going to be an experience. "We took our friends to Salem, Massachusetts, one year and we went as the Addams family, all 10 of us. I was dressed as Wednesday, we even had ‘Thing,’" remembers Mets, who has no children of her own. "The downside is that sometimes people are afraid to invite me to their stuff."
The biggest event on her personal horizon, however, is not a Harry Potter party but her husband’s 40th birthday, coming up very soon. The only detail she will reveal is that they will be going to Italy. But as with all of her events, you can bet she is planning to infuse it with surprise, flair, and of course, magic.
Impressive Events, 24A Jefferson Plaza, Princeton. 732-438-9686; fax 732-438-6889.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince Party, Friday, July 15, 8 p.m., Barnes & Noble, MarketFair. Face painting, wand making, wizardly activities, a Bad Cat contest (bring in a photo, no bigger than 4×6), costume contest (not for children only, dress as your favorite Harry Potter character), snake party with real snakes at 8 p.m., actor Jerry Lyden reads "Hagrid’s Tale" at 9 p.m., Susan Parisi and members of the Princeton Recorder Society give a concert at 10:30 p.m. as people wait in line for the midnight release of the book. 609-716-1570.
Harry Potter Block Party, Friday, July 15, 7 p.m. to midnight, JaZams, 15 Hulfish Street, Palmer Square. 7 to 9 p.m.: crafts, games, a candy store, grilled munchies from Mediterra, and drinks, all with a wizardry theme, in front of the store. Activities include life-size chess, make your own wands, and seedling plantings (just like Harry’s herbology class). 8:45 p.m.: Thomas Sweet Outdoor Cinema will screen "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone" on Palmer Square Green. Finally, there will be a professional reading of favorite Harry Potter passages while guests await the midnight release of the new book at the JaZams store. 609-924-TOYS.
Harry Potter stories, Saturday, July 16, 11 a.m. Barnes & Noble MarketFair, West Windsor. Gwendolyn Jones presents stories about the newest Harry Potter book. 609-716-1570.
Wild Owl Presentation, Saturday, July 16, 7 p.m., Barnes & Noble, MarketFair. The magic of Harry Potter continues with experts from Mercer County Wildlife, who will bring in several wild owls for an educational presentation. 609-716-1570.
Wizard Wake-Up Party, Saturday, July 16, 10 a.m., Princeton U-Store, 36 University Place, Third Floor. The store is transformed into Flourish & Blotts, where Hogwarts’ young wizards and wizards buy their books, complete with tea and cauldron cakes, chocolate wands, a Harry Potter reading, photos, games, and give-aways. Costumes encouraged. Reservations for the party and pre-orders of "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" are recommended. 609-921-8500.
Harry Potter Party, Monday, July 18, 7:30 p.m., West Windsor Library, 333 North Post Road. For grades three and up. Register. 609-799-0462.