By the time the players hit the court for the NBA All-Star Game on Sunday, most of the weekend’s real action will already be over.
A slew of parties populated by entertainers and athletes — some staged for profit, others for prestige — will have come and gone.
One of the most exclusive was the Friday night soiree hosted by Jordan Brand, the Nike division built around its namesake, former NBA great and Charlotte Hornets majority owner Michael Jordan.
And the person Jordan Brand has trusted for more than a decade to pull off its eye-popping parties is Patti McCarthy, an Atlanta-based event planner with a special affinity for New Orleans.
On Friday afternoon, hours before the Jordan Brand party popped, McCarthy calmly navigated the premises of Seven Three Distilling Company, an otherwise nondescript warehouse-like space at North Claiborne Avenue and Bienville Street. The distillery, which includes a tasting room with a long, brass-topped bar, hasn’t officially opened yet. A “soft opening” is scheduled for Tuesday.
But first, the space and its signature St. Roch Vodka would be sampled by Jordan Brand’s 600 invited guests, a who’s who of sports and entertainment world celebrities.
“Part of our business model is to host events, but this is a world beyond us,” said Seven Three co-owner Sal Bivalacqua, clearly awed by the A-list coming-out party. “Patti is showing us a lot about it. I didn’t know this kind of thing was possible.”
When McCarthy asked to cut a doorway into one of the distillery's 6-inch-thick brick walls to improve the flow between buildings, Bivalacqua quickly agreed. “I didn’t understand the lengths they go to to build events,” he said.
He does now. Turning ordinary spaces into extraordinary events is what McCarthy, partner Mary Lynne Thompson and their firm, Monarch Event Management, have done for 30 years all over the world.
And some of McCarthy’s favorites have been in New Orleans, especially during NBA All-Star Weekends.
Members of the general public can buy tickets to some All-Star Weekend parties. These are often for-profit enterprises staged by a promoter who advertises a certain star as the “host.” That celebrity is likely being paid a fee for the use of his or her name and likeness, and may or may not actually show up.
But the truly exclusive parties, such as Jordan Brand’s, are strictly invitation-only.
“If someone pays to go to this one,” McCarthy said, “I fire the person who took the money. This is the real deal.”
'It's been a great ride'
Patti McCarthy did not plan to be an event planner. She was a political science major at the University of Georgia. After graduation, she went to work for a Hyatt hotel, dutifully scheduling the hotel's ballrooms and meeting rooms, in pencil.
Meanwhile, a friend of her mother’s was traveling the globe staging events for an oil company. “I heard about what she did and thought that would be fun,” McCarthy said.
She eventually went to work for a destination management company, planning events. In 1987, she and co-worker Thompson founded Monarch Event Management.
During the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, they worked for several corporate clients. Those clients later continued to hire them around the world, in Shanghai, Berlin, South America. Now, most of their work is outside Atlanta. “It’s been a great ride," she said. "A lot of work, a lot of fun.”
Which pretty much describes the past week in New Orleans. McCarthy and her team, including numerous local vendors and technicians, transformed a raw warehouse/distillery space into a swank party lounge with a stage, concert-worthy lighting, a video wall, upholstered bars, a wooden dance floor and lush private seating areas.
McCarthy prefers to use local vendors, especially in New Orleans. Pigeon Catering generally feeds her parties' guests. Yur Event Rentals supplied tables, linens, the dance floor and more. Rapper Travis Scott was Friday night’s featured entertainer, but the local Stooges Brass Band was booked for a secondary stage built to look like a swamp cabin.
“I wanted to get local talent into the mix,” McCarthy said. “New Orleans has such a great mystique. We do events all over the world in big convention cities. But New Orleans has culture, history and class.”
On a flight from the Bahamas 10 years ago, she met Caroline Robert. Robert is the proprietor of Perch, a home décor and interior design shop on Magazine Street that has since dressed up many McCarthy events, including Friday’s party.
The ornate English wallpaper used as a design element was sourced through Perch. Several pieces of furniture in Michael Jordan’s private seating area originated in Robert’s attic.
“We’ve got a very big attic,” Robert’s husband, Andre, said during Friday afternoon’s set-up.
McCarthy's first Jordan Brand NBA All-Star Weekend party in New Orleans was in 2008, at the Board of Trade. With the city still recovering from Hurricane Katrina, “it was hard to find things. It was hard to find people. But it was a great experience all around.”
New Orleanians she met then still work with her, including production manager Ed Douglass. “He trouble-shoots for us,” McCarthy said.
“Only 'cause I’m old,” Douglass replied.
For the 2014 All-Star Weekend in New Orleans, she converted a former Melba toast factory off Tchoupitoulas Street, which her friend Daly Turnbull’s family had put up for sale, into an A-list destination.
Hours before the party, with the room already decorated and pristine, “we turned on the air conditioning, and 40 years of Melba toast dust flew off the rafters and into the room. It was a shock. It was true New Orleans flavor."
Such surprises aside, “we like to do things in non-traditional spaces," McCarthy said. "We don’t really like hotel ballrooms. Whatever the brand is, we like to bring it in and make it theirs, and not deal with the funky carpet that was put in 20 years ago.”
Monarch is headquartered in Atlanta, but McCarthy lives in the Bahamas. While there eight years ago to produce a Jordan Brand event, she needed a sunken barge to be refloated and stabilized as a party platform. She was sent to a local guy with a steel company. She ended up marrying him, an unexpected perk of the job.
Another perk is spending time in New Orleans. She tries to catch at least part of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival every year. “If I’m somewhere weird in the world, I’ll try to fly in for a couple days.”
She tagged along when the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, led by her friend Ben Jaffe, traveled to Cuba last year. When in town, she and her team stay at a house near Audubon Park that Turnbull rents.
“I feel like I’m an honorary New Orleanian,” McCarthy said.
She has worked with Nike since 1994 and with its Jordan Brand division for more than a dozen years. They and other corporate clients entrust her with budgets that can reach into the millions of dollars, as well as with their celebrity affiliates and guests, and all the security and service demands that come with them.
Two years ago, Prince played a three-hour set at Jordan Brand’s All-Star Weekend party in New York City.
“I’m always aware of the responsibility,” she said. “When I was younger, I used to be more scared. I remember some catastrophes that you never want to live through again.”
Case in point: In her 20s, she planned an event for the National Hearing Aid Society at the Georgia Freight Depot. Everything was set, she thought. A few days before the party, long after the 800 invitations had gone out, she called the Freight Depot to check on the timing for load-in, only to be told that the venue had booked a different event that night, for Georgia’s governor.
McCarthy realized she had never sent in the signed contract for the Hearing Aid Society party. “So I had to call my client in Washington D.C. and tell him that he couldn’t do his party on the night he’d advertised.
"That's never happened again. I made sure of that.”
She has a reputation for being especially calm on site, as she was Friday, even as the rain revealed leaks in Seven Three's roof. Traffic, complicated by Mardi Gras parades, would be an issue; she had already received permission to close one lane of North Claiborne Avenue in front of the distillery, to ease arrivals and departures for VIP guests.
“There is a lot on your mind all the time," she said. "You do the preparation ahead of time, and the design. When the party starts, you should have thought of everything. If not, you react.”
Some of Friday's guests would likely be coming from Pelicans and Saints owner Tom Benson’s gala dinner at Gallier Hall earlier in the evening. It was McCarthy's responsibility to make sure the good times continued to roll at Seven Three.
“I’m not nervous when the party starts," she said. "I’m most nervous a few weeks before: How will we make this one more beautiful than the last one? Once you have a plan, then it’s just execution. I really like that part.”
She and her staff plan to have their own party Saturday night, at a location to be determined. “It’s better when it’s spontaneous,” she said.
Sometimes, even people who make plans for a living like to work without one.