When it comes to planning memorable events, Jess Malone Atkinson, Creative Director of the Westchester-based Spark Group, uses her many talents to make big moments out of small details. Voted best party planner by Westchester Magazine and Westchester Wunderkind by 914INC, Jess knows how to set the scene for her events to showcase the personality of her clients and meet their needs. She is one of the few event planners to create all of her own original décor. I recently had the opportunity to talk to Jess about the benefits and challenges of her career, her approach to creativity and her unique perspective on the industry.
How did you get into event planning?
Looking back, it seems I was practically born into this career. My mother was the Banquet Manager of a catering facility in White Plains and I worked there throughout high school and college. I learned the ins and outs of catering as I worked my way from waitress to maitre d’ in this catering company, while studying Scenic Design at SUNY Purchase. It wasn't until after college when acting as the Assistant Art Director on a corporate summer part for 5,000 guests in New York City that I realized I could merge my design and production knowledge with all of the experience I had working in the hospitality industry.
Can you share some highlights of how you approach the creative process?
It is truly always different. I tell my clients that working with me is a very organic process. I can't always say when the SPARK is going to hit me but when it does, watch out 'we're on a roll.' Sometimes it happens at a brainstorming session when I am getting to know my client(s), sometimes it happens during the invitation meeting, and sometimes it happens when I walk by a store display or see a new piece of art.
What do you find most rewarding about your job?
Seeing my client's face when they walk into their event. The excitement, smiles, tears of joy and pure glee never get old.
What are the biggest challenges facing event planners these days?
One of the biggest challenges is correcting the misperception that all event planners are created equal. Being an event planner is a multi-dimensional role. You are the creative force, friend and confidante, accountant, negotiator, troubleshooter and sometimes, even therapist for your client. Many individuals think that they’re qualified to plan events, but often lack the depth and breadth of experience required to do the job right.
How would you describe your signature style?
Ah, good question. My signature is to match the aesthetic of my client. I never want a guest to walk into a party we have produced and say, "Oh, that's a Spark Group Event." I want the design and decor to reflect the sensibility of my clients. I prefer to be more of a chameleon, constantly changing and trying to stay innovative so the look of our events don't get stale or become expected.
What makes you different from other event planners?
I have an extensive production background being classically trained in theatre. We actually design the majority of our events in-house and have a warehouse in Westchester that houses many of our props and decor items. Whenever I co-venture a project with another designer I am very hands on in their décor, often designing new items for them to implement because again, I want the design to be fresh. I also like to bring a bit of theatricality to the events we are producing. It could be through a performance, a grand entrance, or even lighting. A little surprise is always fun!
What aspects of your events do you wish you could better control?
The weather. We always plan for it, but being in the Northeast, you never quite know what Mother Nature may have up her sleeve.
How has the rise of social media changed your approach to event planning?
I think Lady Gaga said it best when she said, “social media is the toilet of the
Internet.” Yet, it is the future of the event industry and everyone uses it. Trends change so quickly that clients are constantly sending new ideas. I find we end up working later and later because no one wants to copy what another person just did for their event. There is a bit of a waiting game because everything is so “on display” for the whole world to see.
P.S. Don’t forget to follow us on Instagram @sparkgroupevents
What is the best or worst speech you ever heard delivered at an event?
At most events, I am looking for high energy. Thus, any speech that goes on for more than five minutes is usually a buzz kill. I have found the best speeches strike some kind of emotion in the audience. It can be laughter or tears, but it needs to have something in it that relates on a deep level to whomever is being spoken about.
We recently produced a wedding where the two grooms each asked four friends and family members to delivery a blessing or a well wish for them. There were eight speakers and each had only had 2 minutes to convey their thoughts. They all kept their words short, sweet and meaningful. In these brief words, they were able to capture the groom’s individuality by telling different stories. There was not a dry eye in the room, so much so that we called it our "five tissue ceremony.” Their guests are still talking about how moving the whole experience was.
Who would be your dream client to plan an event for?
Right now, JLo and A-Rod. Who wouldn't want to plan their wedding?!?
What is one thing your clients may not know about you?
I once auditioned to be a Disney Princess at Walt Disney World.