Toll Gate grad is party planner to stars
Warwick's Rafanelli said careful thinking, stewardship lead to success
He’s the man behind major galas like President Barack Obama’s inaugural party and Chelsea Clinton’s lavish wedding. He’s the Clark Kent of event planning – by day he hides behind Ray Ban frames and a Windsor knot, but at night he’s host to the decade’s best parties. He’s Bryan Rafanelli: event-planner to America’s best, brightest and most powerful.
But before he was the CEO of an award-winning event planning firm, he was a student at Toll Gate High School.
Rafanelli, founder and CEO of Rafanelli Events, grew up in Warwick, and on Tuesday he paid a visit to his home state to talk with students at Johnson & Wales University about his career.
“I come from an Irish-Italian family of five kids,” he said. “My dad was a lawyer. My brother’s a lawyer. My sister’s a lawyer. But that wasn’t exactly what I wanted to do.”
When Rafanelli was studying at Syracuse University, he joined a fraternity. Each week, the frat would throw a party, each with a different theme.
“On Mondays we would brainstorm party ideas,” he said.
Soon he began to learn basic event-planning skills. He remembered throwing a farm party and buying chickens for 5 cents apiece. He then let them loose in the school’s aptly named E.S. Bird Library, a story he didn’t tell publicly until a 2010 interview with Syracuse’s school newspaper, The Daily Orange.
After graduation, Rafanelli got involved with non-profits, and began coordinating and then planning events for organizations in Boston. After a couple of years, one of his non-profit clients asked if Rafanelli would plan his daughter’s wedding.
“I’m not a wedding planner, but I’ll try,” he said.
And that was Rafanelli’s business model. He never turned down a job because it was something new. Instead, he sought out more experiences outside his comfort zone, all the while growing his skills and his business.
“Fake it till you make it,” he said.
Now, with 16 years of experience under his belt and four locations in Boston, New York City, Washington D.C. and Palm Beach, Rafanelli has no need to fake it.
Rafanelli Events plans and organizes fundraisers, weddings, retail galas and “parties for parties’ sake.”
“I get married 10 times a year,” he said.
His wedding clients usually spend $1,000 to $2,000 per person for their reception, with budgets typically ranging from $250,000 and $1 million. Rafanelli said the most expensive wedding he’s planned cost $6 million. In the retail arena, some of his biggest clients are Louis Vuitton, Chanel and Armani. His website lists 100 other organizations and companies he’s worked with.
But Rafanelli hasn’t gotten cozy yet, and said he has just started to feel like he’s “made it.”
“I’m a small business owner,” he said. “It may not look it, but I’m dancing as fast as I can.”
And he doesn’t plan to stop dancing any time soon.
“Nothing is cookie cutter,” he said. “Things continue to happen and there are new and different challenges.”
Rafanelli has never been one to take a passive approach to anything. His advice to the students at Tuesday’s gathering was to proactively seek out their next deal, and never wait for it to come to them.
At parties, Rafanelli said he finds people on the guest list he hasn’t met, expanding his network of potential clients and telling them why his services would be different and beneficial. He said there’s one key to self-promoting without smothering a client: don’t boast.
“Listen to other people,” he said. “And stay away from ‘I.’”
Rafanelli said by following these steps, success came – just not overnight.
“I did it one project at a time,” he said. “My best customer is sitting in the room.”
Students at Tuesday’s lecture, comprised of those in the Hospitality College, were eager to ask Rafanelli what he looks for in new hires.
“Confidence,” he said, encouraging students to take acting classes to help them be more outgoing.
Rafanelli said he also looks for people with a strong understanding of money.
“You have to be very comfortable with money and accounting,” he said. “You have to stand in front of a client and tell them why invitations are going to cost $100 each.”
Rafanelli said most of his interns begin as event production volunteers. From there, he can tell if they will be a good fit for the company.
One student asked what Rafanelli’s favorite sector to work in was: weddings, non-profits or retail.
“I would have to say yes,” he said. “I’ve never fallen in love with one category over another.”
Rafanelli showed photos from the various types of events he’s planned, including Chelsea Clinton’s 2010 wedding.
“I asked for Chelsea Clinton’s wedding,” he said.
At the time, he was working with Hillary Clinton, and her chief of staff, Huma Abedin, was getting married. Rafanelli reached out to Abedin, and asked if he could plan her wedding. She said yes. A few years later, when Chelsea Clinton got engaged, Abedin made the call to Rafanelli again. The rest is history.
Rafanelli thought Hillary Clinton would ultimately be his ticket into the White House.
“She obviously didn’t win the election, but I’m still at the White House,” he said with a smile.
Rafanelli planned Obama’s inauguration party and has subsequently planned several White House galas.
“It was careful thinking and stewardship that got me where I am today,” he said.
Although the idea has been presented to him, Rafanelli said he doesn’t ever plan to have his own reality television show. Why? His clients prefer privacy.
“I asked Chelsea Clinston, would you hire me if I had a reality TV show? She said ‘no way,’” he said.
Then one student asked what Rafanelli wanted to do next.
Rafanelli’s next big event is the Democratic National Convention in September.
“I couldn’t tell you I wanted to do that, but when it presented itself … Hell yeah!” he said.
Rafanelli said he has always wanted to construct a tent down Commonwealth Avenue in Boston. When Rafanelli says “tent,” he doesn’t mean several metal poles and some material. The tents Rafanelli constructs have floors, windows and air conditioning units that mimic freestanding permanent structures. For a recent White House event, he planned to build a two-story “tent.”
Although he’s always imagined his success and dreamt up the next big thing, he’s unsure of what he will do now.
“What’s next, the moon?” he laughed.
For now, Rafanelli doesn’t have time for the moon. After spending three days in Rhode Island, he’ll hop on a plane to his next locale. He said he gets on a plane every three days, and can usually be found with an energizing cup of coffee (preferably Starbucks) in hand. For now, he doesn’t plan to open another location of Rafanelli Events.
“The brakes are on right now,” he said. “Enough is enough. I enjoy this. I love this. But right now it’s plenty.”
Despite his industry-specific tips and tricks, Rafanelli (before being whisked away to his next appearance) left the future grads with a simple piece of advice: “Don’t give up, and push all the buttons.”