On Friday, Oct. 27, the Schenectady Armory Center will transform into London, circa 1896. Think Jack the Ripper, Sherlock Holmes, shadows and street lamps, mystery and intrigue. The transformation is the product of The Masquerade, an annual event to raise funds for the Ronald McDonald House Charities of the Capital Region (RMHC).
Since its start in 2015, The Masquerade has brought something new to the Capital Region’s fundraising scene – a fun, surprising, high-end masquerade ball that attracts hundreds of young professionals alongside the region’s philanthropic regulars. That’s a rare accomplishment. Also rare – the numbers. The first year drew more than 450 people. In 2016, they sold out of tickets (560) a month before the event. In fact, organizers note that the sellout occurred before invitations were even printed. Its ticket sales were generated, in a large part, by word of mouth and social media. That itself is an impressive feat, especially considering it is still a “new” event in the Capital Region.
The response surprised even its planning committee, who have worked to reinvent–or at least reconsider–the perimeters of a nonprofit fundraiser. Years one and two were hosted at 90 State in Albany. Given the demand for tickets, the cavernous Schenectady Armory Center, which boast 33,000 square feet of event space, provides a new and welcome challenge for The Masquerade’s committee. But they’ve set their sights on 1,000 guests this year.
All proceeds from the event support RMHC, which provides programs that improve the health, development, and wellbeing of local children and their families. RMHC’s mission and programs are the impetus of the event, and the supercharged committee of young professionals who spearhead The Masquerade are dedicated to supporting the nonprofit and all the good work it does. They’re also dedicated to providing an unmatched experience for event-goers. That said, the committee structure, the hundreds of hours of volunteer time, and the behind-the-scenes planning and preparation for The Masquerade is a large part of the event’s success and growth.
Kate Otis, director of community relations at DeCrescente Distributing, and John Daniels, vice president of marketing at Transfinder, lead the marketing and creative efforts for the 14-member committee. They explain that many committee members were involved in Hopscotch and Slide, a fundraising event to benefit Seton Health. After the merger of Seton with St. Peter’s and Northeast Health, the event was “sunsetted,” but the committee stayed in touch and discussed creating something new and different for the area.
“We all had gala fatigue,” says Otis. “Every event seemed to blend into the next one, and after a while, you couldn’t keep them straight.”
At the same time, they remained dedicated to energizing new audiences, which was the committee’s original charge with Hopscotch and Slide. “We’ve always reminded ourselves, as we’ve now migrated into The Masquerade for RMHC, that we’re engaging young professionals,” says Daniels.
“There wasn’t a high-end Halloween-themed event,” Otis notes. “There were limited options. I thought there was a gap.” Suzy Wenskoski, a committee member, shared a video of a masquerade ball in New York City, and the group was inspired by the energy, visuals, costumes, and theatrics of the event. “It was high-end,” Daniels adds. “It wasn’t just a costume party. It was something that could engage a business community. Immediately everyone’s lights went off – oh my god, this is a fundraiser opportunity.”
“We had formed this committee and Jeff Yule asked us to apply for the Heart Tank,” Otis explains, referencing a 2015 program by the RMHC. Heart Tank, which was modeled after the television show Shark Tank, provided an opportunity for groups to pitch their fundraising ideas to a panel of professionals, RMHC supporters, and entrepreneurs. “They picked their top entries and we pitched this idea to a panel of ‘sharks,’ as it were.” In the end, The Masquerade was born.
When you meet the committee members, view the videos online, or talk to attendees of past events, it’s easy to understand that so much of the energy, excitement, and success of the event is a byproduct of the planning committee’s enthusiasm and combined skillset. That’s not an accident. The group takes pride in how they recruit and structure the committee.
“Everybody has their unique ability,” Daniels notes. “The team is strategically made up of professionals that are in event production, AV, marketing, food and beverage, creative.” Almost as if they were building a nonprofit board, they ask themselves what skills, resources, talent do they need to make it all come together. “We were very thoughtful in building our team out in that everyone plays a role. It’s functioned very well, and it’s been successful the last two years.”
Ray Legere, owner of the Schenectady Armory Center, notes the creativity and dedication of the committee. “I’m an outsider. I just have a building,” he jokes. “To watch this committee, to sit at the table and watch all of these talented people work together – it’s amazing. It’s a great team. I’ve never seen a group like this.”
Committee members include Jeff Yule, Kate Otis, Eli Rabinowitz, Mike Schinnerer, John Daniels, Matt Mazzone, Maureen Neufield, Carmine DeCrescente, Jamie Thompson, Julie Potter, Melissa Brown, Katherine Wright, Christopher Edwards, and Suzy Wenskoski.
“The volunteer time and the in-kind donations is what makes this scale of a project possible. Otherwise, it would not be a fundraiser; we’d be losing money,” Otis says. At the same time, she’s attune to the possibility of burnout. “People want to give so much that at times I have to rein then back in,” she adds. “Everyone is so excited about it, that it’s a real risk.”
This is one of the reasons that other area nonprofits would have a difficult time replicated the project’s scope, production quality, or inherent energy – so much is committee-based.
“Jeff Yule and the Ronald McDonald House are really to be commended for initially coming up with the Heart Tank idea and then letting the committee run with The Masquerade. It’s a big production,” Daniels says. “And it can be scary at times.”
Both Daniels and Otis remain aware of The Masquerade’s ability to attract a broader audience than any traditional fundraising event. “We attend a lot of fundraisers in the area. Last year, I was looking at the guest list – I usually know 90 percent of the names, but I knew 20 people. We attracted a population of people who don’t typically attend fundraisers. It’s encouraging, especially given our mission to attract young professionals and increase the awareness of Ronald McDonald House and all the wonderful things that they do.”
That original motivation to create something different remains front and center. The committee’s resisted the idea of adding a live auction or sit-down dinner, instead they are continually coming up with new ways to engage attendees. For example, the silent auction, a staple of many events, is creatively and strategically placed among different activities in the room.
They don’t want to give away too much of this year’s event, but they say that event-goers will be transported back to the turn of the century.
“It starts with curb appeal, carries over the foyer, and they right into the main area of the Armory,” says Daniels. It’s clear from how they are talking about the room that they are thinking through the details and the individual event-goer’s experience. We talk briefly about the set pieces and the language on signage, how it was carefully crafted to reflect the era, and how these details make the experience more memorable and immersive.
The event takes a full 11 months to plan and execute. Once a theme is settled on, the creative discussion and planning begins, which all leads to a huge logistical operation as the event nears.
“It’s a mad rush. All hands on deck,” says Daniels. “This year especially there’s so many moving parts. We have a blank slate here in the Armory that lends itself to the theme, but we have to bring so many elements in – the effect lighting, the sound, the dance area, coordination with food and beverage and stations, auction items, power distribution, restrooms. There’s set pieces that are being created as well.” He explains that the load-in schedule is over a four-day period. The load-out is over a two-day period. It’s a massive project, but even the logistics are carefully planned, as they’ve must be for such an event.
Otis mentions that this attention to detail, creativity, and excellence extends backwards in the marketing and promotion of the event. She describes the photo shoots that accompany The Masquerade and the video trailer that accompanies The Streets of London. “We’ve tried to stay true to that creative tendency and high-end marketing that sets us apart and makes the event special,” Otis says.
Last year’s Mad Hatter’s Ball had fire-breathers, contortionists, aerialists, a living garden, tarot readers, and character actors. “Around every turn, we wanted it to be a new experience. We wanted attendees to be surprised and excited.” They are seeking to build on last year and present something even more spectacular and surprising this year. That’s one of the opportunities that a change of venue provides.
In 2016, Otis attended Schenectady County Community College’s inaugural ball at the Armory. “I remember walking up the stairs and walking into the building – it was just stunning,” she recalls. “Looking at this space, we knew had to do a gothic theme. It was just asking for it. As soon as everyone walked into the building, you could see the sparks and ideas flying. It’s just a unique space.”
Given their preference for suspense and surprise, the committee waited to announce the exact location of the event. They held off for a while, but they ended up announcing the location three weeks ago with a reveal and mini-event.
“We had a mocktail with a drink from that era, we had character actors, we set up the foyer to look a little bit like what we were doing. So, everyone got a little bit of a flavor of what we’re going to bring,” says Daniels.
“Part of the intent of coming here too (Schenectady) is that there’s a revitalization of Schenectady taking place, and this is good for the community. We’re helping Ronald McDonald House and we’re helping the city,” says Daniels. He notes the support of the mayor, local businesses, and the business improvement districts in the city. He also notes that sponsorships are up, which he contributes, in part, to the Schenectady location.
Even as all these details and logistics spin, the committee keeps RMHC in mind, and they find ways to incorporate RMHC’s mission and activities into the production and set design. There’s no formal program or speakers that would normally be part of a gala event – so it takes some creative problem-solving to remind the masqueraders to support RMHC. In some ways, there’s a thin line between the high-end production quality that The Masquerade is known for and the dollars raised for the Ronald McDonald House.
“It’s important to us that we’re being responsible with the funds,” says Otis.
In the first two years, The Masquerade has raised more than $100,000 for the Ronald McDonald House. With the change of venue, the expanded attendance, and the dedication of the team, they are poised for another successful fundraiser and unforgettable event.
“We have set very lofty fundraising goals for this year’s event and the Armory was excited to help us achieve them,” says Jeff Yule, executive director of RMHC. “We’re thrilled to bring The Masquerade to Schenectady because of the incredible downtown development efforts. I can’t wait for everyone to see what we have planned – it is going to surpass all expectations.”
For more information, visit capitalmasquerade.com.