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April 9, 2018
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Sub-Saharan Africa: Pretty, Practical, Provocative Décor


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Photo by Andrea Willmore/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

The sky’s the limit when it comes to the visual element of events. There are definite trends, however, and staying abreast ensures events look current, fresh and appealing.

By Word Of Mouth events management company owned by Karen Short is known for incorporating the latest trends in décor, dining, presentation and entertainment into their events. Karen says they are inspired by, for example, what they see on the Chanel runway during Fashion Week, what the models wore, the setting and mood of the event. They experiment in the mini-showroom on the premises once or twice a week, playing with ideas and colour combinations.

A quick glance at what has caught Karen’s eye recently that will inform décor:

  • Earthy colours such as khaki and autumnal shades.
  • Black with a bright pop of colour, such as black candles on tables contrasted with bright pink peonies; black cakes (even wedding cakes); black food such as tacos; and black cutlery.
  • Green has been in for a while, as seen in leafy foliage as opposed to flowers, textures and food.
  • Move to vegetarian, vegan, natural and organic foods and flavours, with an emphasis on Asian green curries and spices like sumac.
  • Pantone’s Colour of the Year 2018 is Ultra Violet, which will be introduced through florals, napkins, fabrics and glass.
  • Layering of textures, such as white on white using fabrics like raw linen and natural objects like stone, bleached wood, driftwood and shells.
  • Hanging installations of porcelain, organic materials and wood.
  • Moving away from gold, which has been huge for the past few years, to metallics. Gold will still be present in cutlery.
  • Blush pink and Millennial pink are popular.
  • Economising on entertainment by moving away from big bands towards smaller scale entertainment like single actors or performers, artists on a stepladder painting a wall or a ballerina on a table, for example.
  • Combination of new and recognisable features, to create excitement and retain comfort.
  • Familiar cuisine and food presented in a new way, such as colourful tacos; sushi doughnuts; rainbow/unicorn sushi; and alcoholic freak/gourmet shakes.
  • Move away from molecular gastronomy as people opt for more carbs.
  • Doughnuts still big news, now being seen as doughnut walls and chandeliers.
  • Sweet and savoury profiteroles are in, cupcakes and macaroons are out.
  • Avocado is huge and seen in fresh smashed avo stations, guacamole bars, chopped into foods, churned into ice cream, added to tacos and served in poke bowls.
  • Vintage weddings are out.

“We’ve been in business for 23 years and have excellent supplier relationships. They are our friends as well as business partners and listen to us,” says Karen. In addition to owning and buying in a large amount of furniture, fittings, crockery, cutlery, glassware and accessories of every kind, By Word Of Mouth also hires in key items to reflect certain trends. Their designer attends the major trade shows around the world to gather ideas and other caterers hire items from By Word Of Mouth.

Sustainability, green issues and environmental responsibility impacts in every way on how the company does business. They have replaced plastic straws with paper ones and look to utilise the products and services of people from local communities in their events. There is a move away from floral centrepieces towards reusable centrepieces such as rocks, driftwood, wicker mats, printed menus and candles.

Vaughn’s Creations owned by Vaughn Durant has a wealth of design and décor inspiration and ideas. “The noticeable trends for 2018/19 are botanical, natural, greens and recycling. The face of events is changing in the direction of reducing our carbon footprint on the earth,” Vaughn notes. This is carried through the influence of fashion and furniture; natural woods; plants; natural and neutral fabrics; and a reduction of plastics and bio-hazardous elements from events, such as removing oasis foam from floral arrangements and changing standard candles for those that use soy wax. He has seen a move towards a crisp, modern and refined look and feel; a less is more approach, with attention focused on a single vase or few objects on the table.

To determine what kind of décor will work best for a client, Vaughn looks at the following:

  1. Demographics and gender of invitees.
  2. The space for the event – marquee, function room, open terrace or offices – to determine the look and feel and most importantly, the colour scheme that will work best.
  3. What the client needs to obtain from the event and their return on investment.
  4. Keeping a signature feel running throughout the event including invitations and RSVPs; menu cards; programs; welcome cocktails; main event; and entertainment.
  5. Working to a budget and getting the biggest bang for their investment and an experience that the guests will take home with them. Depending on the nature of the event, Vaughn suggests at least 25% of the budget be dedicated to décor.

When it comes to sustainability, Vaughn says, “As a whole, we at Vaughn’s Creations started with how we can give back to the community; we did not just want to give money with no purpose. We try to incorporate locally sourced goods, beaded napkin rings, wire art, woven cushions and throws, basket ware or even pottery pots. A strong move to raw wood has seen us invest in recycled pallets as furniture and tables, which has become a sustainable business for the handyman that manufactured them for us. We are not always able to bring this element into the event but we do try and make it happen as much as possible.”

Weather, seasonality and region of the country also impact décor. With the international flower market open to the world, it is easier to source specific flowers requested by clients all year round.

“At the end of the day it all comes down to what the client wants and expects. There are no hard and fast rules: as long as the overall look is experiential and plays with the guests’ senses of touch, sight, smell, taste and hearing and they leave with a great feeling, you have done your job well,” he adds.

Gill Martini, a freelance project manager of events, conferences and exhibitions at Phambili African Events, has been involved in the local organising committees of major government events, such as the late President Nelson Mandela’s inauguration, state banquets and functions attended by heads of state, royalty and politicians. She is passionate about incorporating the cultures of all South Africans at these events through décor, cuisine and accessories.

In her quest to celebrate local cultural traditions through their cuisine, designs, fabrics and beliefs, she has amassed a huge amount of research. She pushes hard to have local communities involved with and benefitting from events, by making decorative items for the table and gifts, as well as spreading the business to a number of local caterers rather than a single one, for example.

“My approach to décor during events for presidents Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki was to mobilise people at grass roots level, incorporating features of the region in which the event took place. For example, in the Western Cape we used fynbos, proteas and vine leaves as floral arrangements to showcase what is unique to that region,” she explains. “This influences the meal and wine and I would consult experts like chef Dr Billy Gallagher and wine connoisseur Michael Fridjhon.”

Before project managing each event, Gill unpacks the message she and her client want to communicate. In the case of government events the overarching themes are unity, diversity and the rainbow nation that is South Africa. Décor is used to communicate a range of cultural dynamics, including the national flag.

The logo of the event or company is the first design element in Gill’s strategy, and from there the corporate identity is written up for the event and used as a guideline for all visual and décor elements throughout the project, including branding and marketing collateral. Although she is not primarily focused on “the pretty”, as she calls it, Gill speaks with enthusiasm about striking baobab

tree lamps, blankets made in the style of the Eastern Cape and Lesotho, woven and hanging baskets, and delegate bags made from recycled billboard fabric by local communities.

Every event requires a great deal of homework, she adds, as project managers, PCOs and event planners are messengers for their client’s brand. Once she has the master plan and strategy in place, she then looks at how every aspect of the event can boost the economy by creating jobs, big and small. No stone is left unturned and she will often add an unexpected element, such as inviting local crafts people to set up a pop-up market at an event with international delegates.

A decade ago exhibitions were rows of shell schemes, whereas today they the show floor is a place of leisure, entertainment and business. There are many more open stands, lounge seating, beautiful branding, recycled materials, green walls and crafted décor. Design and décor sets the tone of the function that delegates and visitors respond to using the senses.

“Whatever event I’m doing, I’m only the project manager – I’m only as good as my team, and this includes those involved in selecting the menu, décor and protocol of the event,” she notes. In her quest to facilitate knowledge sharing, she encourages people to work together, some senior and some junior. She believes the events industry needs to be leaders and initiators in thinking and purchasing local. Her role in giving back to industry is training project managers and event organisers in countries like Rwanda, on how to grow their MICE market and ensure the value chain benefits as many people as possible.


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