Trimming the Fete

A melted candle was once trash. No longer: After well-heeled donors depart a charity ball, Winston Flowers employees will diligently scoop up the hardened blobs of wax and bring them back to their supplier. From there, the wax will be used to make candles for the next event. Although the practice may not seem very glamorous, the florist, which is hired for many of the city’s swankiest galas, is happy to announce it. And for good reason.

As the charity gala season begins this fall, debuting in a deepening economic downturn, organizers and vendors are faced with an impossible task: making an event fancy enough to draw and awe big donors, but modest enough that organizers don’t look uncouth. And so, at this month’s gala for the low-income housing group Rogerson Communities, the customary flourishes—lavish floral centerpieces—will be downsized or cut from the budget altogether. “They cost a lot of money,” says Barbara Quiroga, who is helping plan the fundraiser, to be held at the new Mandarin Oriental Hotel. “And people look at them and say, ‘Why did you spend that?’” The group might instead spring for fruit-based centerpieces, which could serve double duty as dessert.

October’s Storybook Ball, the Massachusetts General Hospital for Children bash that raised more than $2.6 million last year, is also on a tighter budget. “We’ve been charged by the planning committee to sharpen all our pencils,” says event planner Bryan Rafanelli. The goal is to turn the Park Plaza Castle into Peter Pan’s Neverland—but instead of hiring actors, as Rafanelli has done for parties in the past, the swashbuckling pirates will also be the waiters, and Tinkerbell will take flight in an animated video. A troupe of professional acrobats, after all, can cost tens of thousands of dollars.

If there’s one thing gala organizers know they can’t skimp on, it’s food. But only because local debutantes weren’t eating that well to begin with. At Boston events, says Rafanelli, “I think we expect a good meal, not a great one.” Menu offerings are generally tenderloin, chicken, or fish. Further downgrades would be financially helpful, sure, but a little tougher to swallow.