A special entertainer, helicopter ride, classic car or out-of-the-box theme can make events stand out.
And Scottsdale Airpark event planner Karen May resorts to those and other tactics to create memorable, once-in-a-lifetime experiences.
She owns Scottsdale Private Event Venues and Scottsdale Hangar Parties, bringing character to parties and often hosting them on ranches, in amphitheaters and in the desert.
Her clients read like a who’s who of corporate and private clients – many of whom she cannot name. She has also lent a hand to the Super Bowl, Final Four, the Fiesta Bowl and Major League Baseball.
She collaborated with or met celebrities like golfer Tiger Woods, former football player Kurt Warner, actor Leslie Nielsen and country stars Garth Brooks and George Strait.
May was recognized for her work in 2019 with a Smart Women in Meetings Award during the Smart Woman Summit in Las Vegas.
Being an event planner has been challenging during the COVID-19 pandemic. May said that she has seen an 80% decrease in business since March 2020.
She has tried to stick to smaller events such as holiday and private parties, weddings, digital drive-in events, incentive events, pharmaceutical releases, a helicopter-themed rehearsal dinner, brand launches, retirement parties and an outdoor gala in a mall parking lot.
During the gala for architects, attendees watched prerecorded footage of nominees and a video featuring the nominated projects.
“Everybody was in their cars like they were at a drive-in, watching their awards gala,” she said. “They saw themselves and their projects on the big screen. At the end of the night, the first-, second- and third-place winners came up live on the screen to get their awards. It was a lot of fun. We were just trying to do something different, out of the box.”
During the last year, she avoided planning events for larger groups, as she didn’t want to contribute to the spread of COVID or play gatekeeper.
“You can’t always control your clients, if they are going to follow the rules, if they are going to wear their masks,” she said.
“It’s up to you to make sure that they do, and that’s really personal. I don’t want to be putting a mask on someone’s child or telling the CFO to put your mask back on. It’s just hard. You are in a different position when you are planning someone’s personal event, and they are spending all that money. So, sometimes it’s easier to not do it than put yourself in that situation.”
Instead, she focused on helping organizations like the Special Olympics and St. Mary’s Food Bank. She assisted with food drives, PPE packages for hospitals and donations for the Beat the Heat program for Scottsdale seniors in need.
“I can’t give them money that I don’t have, but I go can help them raise it,” May said. “I can go help them throw an event, and I can through my connections get them stuff. That’s what I was doing. It’s amazing what you can do as an event planner.”
Charities and nonprofits are nothing new to May, who has worked with Alice Cooper’s Solid Rock Teen Center and the Thunderbird Field II Veterans Memorial and the Be Kind Project.
May said giving back has helped her to stay focused and busy during the pandemic.
“Rather than just sit at home and be in a pity party, I needed to go do what I know and love and go help people,” May said.
She’s especially passionate about animals, as she has six rescue dogs. Before COVID-19, May organized events for thousands of people.
Her hangar events are something special. She brings in helicopters, jets and other aircraft. She has teamed with the Janet Cussler Car Collection, as well.
“With the hangars, it’s a blank slate. You can make them into anything you want, and you can do it with props and lighting,” May said.
She stresses that she tries to stay away from the “typical.”
“I love when it’s different, and it’s not in a ballroom,” May said.
“I hate being in a square box. I don’t like to do that. I like to do things in fun places. If you are at a convention for five nights, there’s always a night where you want to go out and let your hair loose. Those are the parties that we do.”
May said it’s all worth it when attendees walk into the venue.
“My thing is seeing it all happen, and the best part is when the doors open. It’s that Oprah ‘aha’ moment,” May said.