So Many Benefits, So Little Time - May 20, 2001
HIGH season in the Hamptons doesn't begin until Memorial Day. From then on, the calendar is so full of fund-raising events that partygoers are shuffling through decks of save-the-date cards and invitations deciding which to attend.
Some die-hard see-and-be-seen types party-hop to two, three or four events a night. But others have to think strategically. To beat the rush and ensure that a crowd of more than 350 sample dishes created by an array of top local chefs, John Kowalenko helped organize the sixth annual Taste of the Nation East End Restaurant Ball, to benefit Share Our Strength, tonight at the James Lane Cafe in East Hampton.
"The season is creeping forward because of the amount of established benefits that go on," said Mr. Kowalenko, who is an owner of Art of Eating, a catering company in Amagansett. He is working on 25 fund-raisers this summer. "You can't go head to head with them and expect to get people at your benefit. There are only so many weekends in the summer and so many benefits you can go to."
Party planners are always looking for ways to make their events stand out. Local charities and social service agencies try to hold their ground against outside organizations.
To support local causes, Felicia Gaetano of Hampton Bays tries to attend one affair a weekend.
"It's benefit hell out here," Ms. Gaetano said after a strategizing session -- including a discussion of sought-after goody bags -- for the Family Service League's Taste of the Hamptons, scheduled for June 30 at Wölffer Estates, a winery in Sagaponack.
"Every time you turn around on the weekend," she said, "it's six events a night. It's so difficult for the charities. No charity can have an event to itself. You have to hope you'll get as many people as you can. People do resent organizations that are up island and do events out here just for the money out here."
Several other groups have scheduled events for June 30, including Phoenix House, a drug rehabilitation center, that is having a dinner-dance at the Sagaponack estate of Robert Hurst, a Wall Street executive; the Hampton Designer Showhouse at Villa Maria in Water Mill, which is holding a preview cocktail party; and the East End Hospice, which is having cocktails, dinner and dancing after its annual tennis open.
Kim Folks, event manager at Wölffer Estates, said the 173-acre winery and equestrian center was solicited for at least 50 benefits a season. Because of Southampton Town rules and wear and tear to the property, they are holding only four philanthropic functions this season.
"Even if they are primarily a city-based organization, they want to bring it out here," said Ms. Folks, who described Wölffer's efforts to help local charities by matching the wine purchased for the events even if it can't hold an event. "They want to go where the money is and create charity evenings. It certainly makes for an incredible backdrop out here, it's so picturesque."
The benefits draw people as well as charities to the Hamptons, said Paula Schiff, an event planner working on 10 parties this summer, including an auction of bachelors for Cancer Care of Long Island on July 20, an art sale for Guild Hall on Aug. 11 and a party on Aug. 25 to raise money to bring Cuban films to this year's Hamptons International Film Festival.
"People come out here specifically for that," Ms. Schiff said. "They are not just going out to a club. You are always going to find people who will come just because it is a party, and other people will come because they are dedicated to a charity regardless of what type of function it is."
Last summer, the Retreat, a domestic violence counseling and education agency in East Hampton, sent out more than 3,000 invitations to its plate auction. A total of 350 people went to a cocktail party and had a chance to buy ceramic plates painted by Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, Alec Baldwin, Rosie O'Donnell, Dr. Ruth Westheimer, Ralph Lauren and the artists Louise Bourgeois, Ross Bleckner and Tom Wesselman. The auction prices were $250 to $6,000.
Hoping to attract a larger audience with more knowledge of art this year, Linda Cohen Wassong, chairwoman of the gala, is trying to make the event more glamorous. Tickets cost $75 to $100, and she scheduled a preview party at the Laundry, an East Hampton restaurant, and a cocktail party and 10-day showing of the plates at Sotheby's in Manhattan.
"We are constantly trying to come up with new marketing ideas that are razzle-dazzle and different," said Ms. Cohen Wassong, a former publisher of Sassy magazine. "You want to keep your main audience, but the name of the game is to always attract new people. It's cutting through the clutter and getting your message out."
Summer fund-raising is critical to organizations like the Retreat and the Family Counseling Service of Westhampton Beach, which is charging $150 a ticket ($100 for people under 30) and expecting 800 people at its 18th summer gala under a tent on an estate in Quogue. Susan Lucci, the actress, and John Roland, the television anchor, are hosts for the buffet dinner. There will be an eight-piece orchestra, a Champagne bar, a vodka bar, a clam bar and an auction with 400 items, including a limited-edition recent-model Thunderbird. Last year the party raised $325,000, which was 35 to 40 percent of the service's operating budget.
"The success of the party," said Kathy McVann, chairman of the gala, "is not in the celebrities who attend or the number of tickets sold, but in a growing number of summer people interested in becoming involved in the community."
"It isn't their main home, but there is a feeling, especially in Westhampton Beach, you've been out here two or three years, you've played your tennis, you've had your cocktail party and you've done your schmoozing," Mrs. McVann said. "Then it goes a little deeper than that. They do want to make an impact on the community they have a house in."
Melissa Cohn, owner of the Manhattan Mortgage Company, has offices in Westhampton, Water Mill and East Hampton and a summer home in Water Mill. She and her husband, Seth Paprin, a lawyer, were invited to 30 benefits last summer and went to at least 10, she said. Ms. Cohn is also a sponsor at Bridgehampton Polo Club matches and the Hamptons Classic Horse Show, which aids Southampton Hospital.
"I tend to try and sponsor and be part of my own community," Ms. Cohn said. "I go sometimes for business, sometimes for friends who are on the committees, sometimes because I think it's a decent cause, and sometimes it's purely social."
"Oftentimes if you buy a table at one of these benefits you get to entertain and you don't have to clean up afterward," she added. "It's an enjoyable way to get exposure. It's a great way to meet people. It's a great way to network. If you sponsor something, your name is on the invitation."
"But at least half the time when she buys tables at events," Ms. Cohn said, "she gives the tickets to her staff or friends. And at some V.I.P. events, where gatekeepers require a name instead of a ticket for entry, she and her friends simply swap names."
"Last year I thought there were a number of interesting, fun parties to attend, others were your basic boring, bad food, time to leave," Ms. Cohn said. "She said that the more parties there are, the more interesting they get."
The most coveted invitations this year are the Midsummer Gala on July 14 for the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton and Southampton Hospital's 43rd annual Summer Party Benefit on Aug. 4. Last year, 1,300 attended the Parrish event, at $600 a person. At $1,800 a couple, one of the most expensive and successful events last summer was the dinner-dance for the Hamptons Synagogue, an Orthodox congregation in Westhampton Beach. Though only 400 people attended, according to Rabbi Mark Schneier, the tickets helped to raise $750,000, a figure he expects to match at this year's event on Aug. 26 at Ruth and Fred Schwalbe's home in Quogue.
The party givers think about more than money and guests. Caterers, tents, workers, lighting, portable toilets and parking attendants are also necessary for a successful party, said Linda Shapiro, an event planner. She recalled a party last year that was marred when the guests had to wait two hours to retrieve their cars.
Ms. Shapiro has 10 events this year, including a $250-a-person cocktail party on a Sagaponack estate to benefit Maryhaven Center of Hope of Port Jefferson and a Save the Victims of Sierra Leone dinner and celebrity performance with Muhammad Ali and his wife, Lonnie, as honorary chairmen. "Get your name known out here and you have it made," Ms. Shapiro said. "It's not only the charities. It's the corporations. It could be a celebrity who wants to really get name recognition. Everyone wants their logo emblazoned on something out here."
But some say the celebrity factor is overstated. Celebrities who lend the use of their houses aren't always home for the party. The only boldface names at many benefits, including the V.I.P. events often scheduled an hour earlier or under a separate tent, may be those on the invitation.
"Even if they have their name on a committee, there's no guarantee they'll show up at an event," Ms. Schiff, the party planner, said. "They might believe in a charity. It doesn't mean you are physically going to be in the same room with them."
Still, the Hamptons allure remains.
"The great thing about these things is there are levels of reasons for going, starting with giving some money to charity,'' said Stuart Epstein. He and his wife, Lynn, own Devlin McNiff Real Estate in East Hampton. Listing the Bay Street Theater's bash among his favorite fund-raisers with a Hollywood component, he said: ''They are fun, they are usually great parties and it is good for business. You can't miss with these things."
"People look good, it's the Hamptons," he said. "If you are a person who likes to come to the East End of Long Island, you are not a person who is looking to get lost and hide away. You are social. That's why you are here."
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