My Life in the Age of COVID: Event Planner Bryan Rafanelli

The man behind celebrity weddings and high-end fetes talks hoarding frozen pizza and the future of celebrations in the era of social distancing.

bryan rafanelli

Photo by Joel Benjamin

As the COVID-19 pandemic upends every aspect of Boston life, we’re checking in with some local residents to learn how they’re processing our new normal. They’ll share serious thoughts on their concerns for the city—and yes, some silly recommendations on what to binge-watch, too. For the rest of the series, click here.

As the founder and chief creative officer of Rafanelli Events, Bryan Rafanelli has spent the last 20-plus years throwing luxurious soirees around the world—including several Obama-era White House state dinners and the weddings of celebs such as Chelsea Clinton and Allison Williams, to name a few. Now, for the first time in his career, the party has stopped as coronavirus and social-distancing policies have canceled events both locally and globally. Yet, for the leader of the Boston and NYC-based firm, these quiet, solitary days have been some of his most jam-packed as he plans for the day when we can fill dance floors once again.

What is your level of concern right now?

First and foremost, [I’m concerned for] my family, my friends, my staff, and of course, my amazing clients, [who I hope are] staying safe and being well.

Thirty-five percent of my businesses is [planning events for] nonprofits, so my other concern is how we can maintain the success of these organizations that are doing great work in real time, whether they’re on the frontlines at MGH or they’re Boys and Girls Clubs. Every day I wake up thinking about how we can we help them and make sure that everybody understands they need to be helped.

It’s an interesting time to be in the gathering business. The left side of my brain is like, “We have to plan for the future, and we have to be honest with ourselves about what gathering will look like.” So for example, if Mayor Walsh or the governor will allow assembly in the fall, I’m thinking about [how to plan] events for 20, 50, 100 people so that they’re safe. I don’t do events that small, but I am thinking to myself, “How can I be there to think this through for people?” I literally have been having calls with some of the most incredible people in our business about [things like] how we are going to serve food, how we’ll do drinks, and how we are going to park cars. As long as this virus is around, we have to be thoughtful and proactive about the things that are going to make people as safe as possible and allow them to come back together. Inherently, as humans, we want to gather; my concern is that we do that the best [way] we can with the information we have.

Have you come up with any creative solutions that will allow us to have gatherings later this year, even if there are ongoing social-distancing requirements? 

With Zoom, we are already gathering virtually. That’s happening in real time, and what came out of that for me was [wondering], “Is there a hybrid of that for if and when we can assemble in small groups again?” If we have an event for 300 people, is it actually three 100-person events instead? Or six 50-person events? So that’s something we’re working on. It’s a hybrid event product; people can still come together safely in small groups, but feel the connectivity of the larger group. That’s what I think the future of events looks like in the fall. And then as all of these amazing treatments and vaccines come out, [we can] come back together as a collective. Until then, we need to be thoughtful about how we do this.

Any advice for couples whose weddings have been affected by the coronavirus outbreak?

Our first wedding was [supposed to be] last weekend, and we had weddings that were supposed to happen in May and June. My best advice to these amazing, young, smart, brilliant people who fall in love and are supposed get married is, look, you’ve gone from a short engagement to a really long one. It’ll be a year—it’s not forever. You have to realize how fast time moves. Accept where you are right now, and then reimagine the future. It’s exciting stuff. Not everybody gets to plan these beautiful wedding stories with their families, and you get to do it a little bit longer. And that’s okay. In fact, you might actually have more time to do it and not feel the pressure of planning a wedding. You’ll really be able to dig in and say, “What do I really want this to look like? What stories do I want to tell about my family? Who do I want to connect to?” I think time is going to give you more choices. So focus on that.

How have you been coping so far?

My husband and I have been “couple’s distancing,” we call it. We have a house in Boston and a beach house in Provincetown. So we will be together for four days, and then one of us will separate. It gives us a little bit of a change, even though we’re not seeing anybody, and that has given us a little relief. Look, I’m a very fortunate guy. We have a beautiful place in Boston. We live in a [former] church in the South End, so we have these beautiful views of the city every day. Although it’s been quiet, it’s been really magical to watch spring come.

Walk me through your average daily routine right now, starting with the first thing you do when you wake up.

I have a golden retriever named George Clooney that makes me get up and take him for a nice long walk. Then [I work out for] 30 minutes with my trainer virtually. He’s literally on my iPhone in the corner of my bedroom. Next, I insist that I shave every day. Pre-COVID, I would go five days without shaving. Now, for some reason I’m like, “You need to get up, shower, shave, and get dressed. And you need to wear a collared shirt.” I’m really trying not to break my routine.

Then I go to work. I check in with my chief of staff, we go over my day from top to bottom, and I’m thinking, “How am I going to tackle all of these Zoom calls?” I have never worked harder, and I’ve been working for 25 years. I’m kind of a madman about working. But it’s just constant conversation: “What’s going on? How are we going to handle it? What are we going to do? Where’s the money going to come from?” I believe so strongly in talking to every single client, as well as my teams, as much as I can every week.

And then I sit on the advisory committee for Mass General and on five boards, from Huntington Theatre to the Boys and Girls Club to Camp Harbor View. Each one of them is facing real challenges right now about how they should be doing things and raising money. I’m having those calls every single day.

The other thing I’m doing is connecting with 25 producers and designers from around the world. Once a week, we get on a Zoom call and talk about business, best practices, PPP, and how to finance the future of events. I also will fully admit that every Friday I get on a call with a bunch of them, and it’s just a cocktail party. And we agree that we have to be two drinks in when we get on the call.

How have you been navigating relationships and staying connected?

I do a call with mother every single day, and [a call] once a week with my whole family. [I also do a call] once a week with my husband’s family. It’s been very healthy to do it and I’ve enjoyed it. I’ve never been closer to my family, quite frankly. I mean, I love them, they’re super supportive, but the idea that we’d talk every week is unheard of. Seeing my nieces and nephews, who are all graduating from high school or college or getting married—we’re having really interesting life conversations that we probably wouldn’t have normally.

What do you miss most about your former, pre-social distancing routine?

I’m in the gathering business. I love celebration. So I’ve missed that like you have no idea. I keep imagining how that first party will feel. I just saw a photograph of flowers from an event we did for a client’s 65th wedding anniversary, and I was staring at the image thinking, “Oh my god, those flowers.” I miss that beauty, and I’m not somebody who ever took it for granted.

Have you made any interesting changes to your personal or work routine that you want to keep doing even when things return to normal?

It’s so weird, but I haven’t really cooked a meal for myself or my family in at least 15 years. It’s a lot of takeout from Whole Foods, and I love restaurants and going out for breakfast. But I have been shopping and cooking and setting the table, and I like it. That I could see could stick. It’s not great food, but there’s something about it that I’ve realized is really important.

What have you been keeping in your fridge for comfort food?

I think the strangest things happen in this situation; I only really eat healthy food, but I have so much pasta and lasagna and stuffed shells and frozen pizza that you’d think this was an Italian restaurant. But I’m buying it from Whole Foods, and it’s just always in there. I would eat it morning, noon, and night because it’s so good, and it’s definitely piling up in [my fridge].

What’s been your binge-watch/read/listen go-to to take your mind off things?

A friend was telling me that she and her husband started to watch a lot of comedy instead of watching MSNBC. I thought, “What a great idea.” So I have been going through John Mulaney and Wanda Sykes and old Joan Rivers clips on YouTube. Just when I start to go into a little bit of a dark place, I say, “I should watch some comedy.” I’ve watched John Mulaney at Radio City three times. It’s just unbelievably funny.

What’s a habit you’ll use this time to break?

I’m trying to break the habit of getting too worried. Every morning I start on a high, and then it starts to slip during the day. There’s a book I often go to called A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle. He basically writes about this Eastern religion idea of balancing life’s super high highs—like doing a state dinner for the Obamas at the White House or Matt Damon’s wedding—with challenges like my best friend having cancer for the last five years or COVID-19, and not getting too drawn into the dark. I’m trying to stay in the middle, so what I’m trying to do is catch myself and say, “Bryan, stay steady.” I think if we all stay steady, we will be better off on the other side.

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