Stealing the Scene
F. Anne Harrell stands proudly beside a massive sheet cake just
inside the entrance of the Liquor Store, a newly redesigned nightclub
at the edge of the Theater District. It's a Wednesday night and the
club is filled with about 500 people celebrating the second anniversary
of the Boston Young Professionals Association. A few dozen are rocking
out on the dance floor while others crowd around a mechanical bull,
which has just dumped a screeching woman into a pile of foam cushions.
Harrell, the organization's 31-year-old founder, welcomes her guests
with a perky grin on her face and a clipboard in her hand. She darts
toward a thin, thirtysomething man who's standing in the corner, drags
him into the fray, and introduces him around. Then she moves on, taking
a lap around the room to watch over her guests. A seasoned party
planner, she appears to have complete control over the club and
everything happening in it.
The same night, a few blocks away, Professionals in the City is
hosting a single-women's event at the nightclub Felt. Two dozen women
have turned out and are sitting together against one wall. They're
quietly waiting for comedian Janine Driver to begin her dating-advice
routine, “How to Have a Date Six Nights a Week.” The group's leaders,
Kathy Varpahovsky, 25, and Kelli Corson, 26, are having a whispered
conversation by the bar. Things aren't going as planned.
Half the women who signed up for this event haven't showed, and
those who did have been waiting 30 minutes for the bartender to bring
out the appetizers. Varpahovsky and Corson apologize twice before a
platter of chips and salsa arrives. Drink tickets are handed out.
Driver takes the stage, but instead of enjoying the night they worked
so hard to organize, Varpahovsky and Corson retreat into a corner booth
to talk strategy.
Their group and Boston Young Professionals are battling it out to
see who can command the city's high-energy networking scene. Both were
born of the same parent company, the D.C. Society of Young
Professionals in Washington. But Harrell got here first and holds an
edge, luring more members and turning a profit. After all, people
between the ages of 25 and 34 compose the largest segment of Boston's
population. And the increasingly vicious competition in the after-dark
world of social networking is just more evidence of how desperate they
seem to meet each other.
If there's a city where the social scene is more impenetrable than
Boston's, it's Washington, D.C. Which was a good thing for Michael
Karlan and Gregory Bland, two lawyers who founded the D.C. Society of
Young Professionals six years ago. “The parties went from 10 people to
500 in a few years,” says Karlan. When Harrell, who did party planning
for the group, proposed that she head up a new chapter in Boston,
Karlan and Bland figured they couldn't lose. But after learning parts
of their business model, Karlan says, Harrell went into business for
herself. “She basically screwed them and started her own company,” says
Harrell's first party in Boston was on a rainy night in April 2003.
It drew 500 people, she says, though she staunchly refuses to reveal
the most important secret in the networking business: how she recruits
her guests. “I don't tell that information to anybody,” she says. “But
I can tell you this: I didn't know a soul when I moved to Boston. So it
wasn't because I had lots of contacts.” Why all the mystery? “Because
other people would like to use my methods,” she says.
Harrell invested her own money “and gambled it big,” according to a
former associate. “She bought a list [of e-mail addresses], made
contacts with friends, had them contact friends, then got people there
with an open bar.” This former colleague adds, “You can't tell her how
to plan a party. And if you try, you get a smack on the wrist.”
After Harrell broke with them, Karlan and Bland decided to move into
the Boston market themselves. They waited another year, then hired
Varpahovsky and Corson. It was a rocky start. Both women had studied
marketing in college, but neither had experience as an event planner.
Then Karlan and Bland split up. Karlan ultimately started his own
company, which includes the Boston operation, and named it
Professionals in the City. By the time they threw their first event, on
a Tuesday night in June 2004, Varpahovsky and Corson had recruited 200
people to fill the downtown bar the Place. Since then, their local
membership—which skews slightly younger than that of Boston Young
Professionals—has grown to 1,700, drawn by low ticket prices to pub
crawls, open bars, and party buses.
Still, whether because of the sheer number of events she hosts or
her older, cash-carrying demographic, Harrell has commandeered the
circuit. She pulls together parties about three days a week and goes to
almost all of them herself. The home buying workshops, Red Sox outings,
and parties she hosts consistently sell out. This, at average ticket
prices anywhere from $10 to $20 higher than what Varpahovsky and Corson
charge, plus $35 for a one-year membership. (Harrell claims 4,000 paid
members and 5,600 nonmembers who regularly attend her events.)
Harrell uses her negotiating skills to cut down on event costs.
Where her competitors will get only an hour of open bar, she might
wangle several hours. “People get excited about giving her free stuff,”
says one person who used to help Harrell market events. “But she never
gets enough. She always wanted more.”
Corson and Varpahovsky say they're more concerned with getting
people connected. “There is such an enormous group of us out here,”
Corson says. They host fewer events and don't charge a membership fee.
Since both have day jobs, they do their planning in their free time.
During the summer, both women changed jobs and their event calendar was
empty for weeks. And, unlike Harrell, they still answer to their parent
company, Professionals in the City, which gets a percentage of their
profits—and owns their e-mail list.
No matter who wins this battle, both groups have clearly found a
following. “There are tons of people looking for this in Boston,” says
Michael Karlan. “We wanted to create a sense of community, for people
to feel at ease finding other people.” At each organization's events,
the crowds are almost identical: clean-cut, professional, and a little
nervous. Instead of grappling with drunken strangers, people come
knowing they can start a conversation with others like themselves who
are actually interested in talking.
Scott, who asks that his real name not be used, is a prototypical
member of Boston Young Professionals. A self-employed introvert in his
30s, he became a member more than a year ago. For him, it's more than a
way to meet people; it's a lesson in social skills. “I had to force
myself to become outgoing and this really helped,” he says over a drink
at the group's weekly networking event at the Vault in the Financial
District. Since joining, Scott says, he's made enough friends to keep
him out almost every night.
Both groups are succeeding at something else, too: They're putting
people into Boston restaurants and clubs. Michael Kalil, manager of the
Greatest Bar near Canal Street, says the events “are not incredible
moneymakers, but it's great exposure.” He adds: “They have the
demographic we want.”