Corrections or additions?

These articles by Barbara Fox were prepared for the January 14,

2004 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Joe Parnett, Wow Entertainment

On any given weekend Joe Parnett runs a three-ring circus, actually a

six or nine ring circus, with each of the rings in a separate

location. His firm, WOW Entertainment, puts the Wow! kind of

entertainment in a corporate or social event – anything from a

traditional magic show to a disco dance machine.

Though his three-year-old State Road-based company started in the

middle of the recession, it has tripled its revenues and leased a

warehouse in East Brunswick to accommodate all the fun-providing

devices. Parnett deals with 400 to 500 venues, and with four full-time

employees during the week, he employs up to 40 workers on the

weekends. "Especially with corporations there seems to be a loosening

up of some funds," says Parnett.

This is Parnett’s second business – the first was the family-owned

Community Liquors on Witherspoon Street, sold in 1994. Parnett earned

his management degree from Tulane University, Class of 1991, worked in

the family business for three years, and then spent three years at

another entertainment attractions business, American Alpha on Stouts

Lane, which focuses on permanent installations and corporate

promotions rather than on events. After starting his own company in

1997, he went full-time two years later. Parnett lives in Montgomery

with his wife, Nina, a chemist and a native of the former Yugoslavia.

She helps in the business, and they have two preschool children.

Except for December, a big month for corporate parties, much of his

business is social events. He does some business through the Princeton

Hyatt, where he is a recommended vendor, but people living closer to

New York give more lavish parties, and so most of his work is in

Manhattan, Long Island, West Chester, and Bergen and Essex counties in

New Jersey.

Parnett thinks his competitive advantage is that he provides logistics

and coordination services, such as delivery schedules and floor plans.

"It is detail-oriented business. You just can’t take an order and go."

Here are some of the entertainment choices he can pull out of his

party magician’s hat:

Dancing simulation machines that come with two platforms, a screen,

and music. "It’s an ice breaker," says Parnett. "You follow the Simon

Says arrows to learn to dance." For a four-hour event in New Jersey

the dancing machine would cost about $1,700. Another popular simulator

is the driving machine. They are often requested for bar and bat

mitzvahs, but last month he got a call for a dancing machine on Monday

at 4 p.m. for a party in Manhattan on Tuesday night and was able to

comply. The client: Readers Digest.

Billiard halls. An investment bank in Manhattan, throwing a bash at an

1830s bank on the lower East Side, requisitioned nine pool tables.

Some parties mix billiards with ping pong or football tables.

An M&M Wall, a movable wall with 21 dispensers containing 21 different

colors of M&Ms. Two attendants hand out plastic bags and you can mix

and match your colors. It’s a special treat for no-melt-in-the-hand

fans because most of the colors are not sold at retail. Rental for one

hour for a party of 300 people, including 105 pounds of M&Ms, could

cost less than $5 per person. Last month’s bookings for the candy wall

included a Manhattan bar mitzvah (with the theme of candy, what else?)

and a corporate party at the Princeton Hyatt thrown by a national

travel agency.

Boardwalk arcade games such as ski ball or a crane machine.

A Coney Island-style photo machine that takes old-fashioned

black-and-white picture strips. Parnett predicts it will be a

sentimental favorite for weddings, and its first booking is this month

at Whitby Castle in Westchester.

Parnett used to have access to the photo morphing machine made by

American Alpha, his former employer, but no more. "We like to control

every aspect of what we do," says explains Ken Haag, general manager

of American Alpha. "Corporations spend lot of money using our machines

for promotions, and if the CEO sees it at a friend’s bar mitzvah, it

diminishes what we do."

A magic show can cost from $250-350 to $1,200 for a couple of hours of

"phenomenal magic."

A Furry Factory is a decorated trailer containing an on-wheels

workshop. Attendants help you choose a bear, and you make it and dress

it. For corporate events, the bear would wear the company logo.

It was very gratifying, Parnett says, to start a business from

scratch. "If you can produce an event and pull it off – when people

think you won’t be able to – it is a satisfying experience, and the

client is very pleased." A good reputation, nevertheless, can be a

double-edged sword. "The bar keeps getting raised."

The entertainment business can be strenuous, he admits in a cell phone

conversation, en route between giving a quote to a client in Brooklyn

and measuring doors and entrances for a new venue on the Upper East

Side. Every function is attended by a company representative, and each

piece of equipment is packed up immediately after the event. To make

that happen, he owns two 16-foot trucks and sometimes needs to rent

three or four more.

Referrals can come from the entertainment director or the caterer, but

Parnett is moving into the entertainment direction business himself,

and he can be a one-stop shop for flowers, music, and all the other

elements of corporate or private party.

The toughest clients are the ones who ask the impossible – to have a

big, bulky machine taken up 26 steps without using the elevator and

without scratching the floor. "Our role is to let the client know the

issues way in advance, so they can consider them, and we can create

the appropriate option," says Parnett. The impossible costs extra.

WOW Entertainment, 947 State Road, Suite 207, Princeton

08540. Joe Parnett, owner. 609-279-1679; fax, 609-279-0391.

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