The Biggest Party You Never Heard About
Gayle Benson shares the story behind the huge NFL Owners Party at Super Bowl XLVII
Michael C Hebert Photographs
“Once there was a wonderful party in a clear tent beside a chateau in Germany. Today and going forward, your party in a clear tent under a grove of trees in New Orleans sets the bar.” – Bronson Van Wyck, event planner and designer, Van Wyck & Van Wyck
In 2011, Gayle and Tom Benson were in Germany for the Mercedes-Benz annual meeting and gala. Gayle was immensely impressed by the amount of money the company was pulling in from their international dealerships, and had been telling her husband for years that they needed to approach Mercedes-Benz about the naming rights to what was then-called the Louisiana Superdome. Gayle says that Tom was wary, because as a long-time dealership owner (he owns one in San Antonio, Texas, and another in New Orleans) he was concerned that the company would ask him to put up some of his own money.
Gayle persisted. Tom called the Saints office from Germany and asked them to put together a proposal. Everyone told Gayle that it wouldn’t happen, but thanks to the efforts of Dennis Lauscha, Ben Hales, Jean-Paul Dardenne, Jennie Guarisco and many others, the proposal was sent within the day.
That night, the Bensons arrived at the gala event early and asked to speak with Ernst Lieb, the then-CEO of Mercedes-Benz USA. They presented Lieb with the proposal and, in Gayle’s words, “He loved the idea.” Three months later, the deal was signed.
Gayle wasn’t just impressed by the company, she also considered the gala one of the most beautiful events she had ever attended. At this point, she already knew that New Orleans would be hosting the Super Bowl in 2013 (which meant there needed to be a lavish owners party), so when she met event designer Bronson Van Wyck, of Van Wyck & Van Wyck, a New York City- and Charleston-based “environmental design, event production and experiential marketing team,” she was already planning. She told him that she loved the way the gala looked, but that there aren’t any castles in New Orleans.
“Here we were in this German schloss,” Van Wyck says about first meeting Gayle, “with this wild party going on around us, waiters hustling back and forth, enough champagne flowing to fill a swimming pool, and right in the middle of it all, an oasis of calm, this delightful woman in a Chanel suit.” Since Gayle had asked to meet him, Van Wyck introduced himself. “She said, ‘I’m throwing a party, and I could use a hand.’ How could I say no? Also, how could I pass up an opportunity to throw a party for my favorite team?”
Van Wyck has been a Saints fan all his life, and says that some of his fondest memories are of “flying down from Arkansas for a football game with my grandparents and their friends, the Mecoms, to cheer on the Saints.”
This wasn’t just a party with a prestigious guest list; it wasn’t even just a party to impress National Football League owners. The Super Bowl Owners Party needed to represent New Orleans. “We had all the owners in from all over the country,” Van Wyck says. “These guys had voted to hold the Super Bowl in New Orleans. The party was an opportunity to thank them by showing them a small slice of what New Orleans does better than anywhere else.” They felt that they wanted to show the “magical environment and fun spirit” of New Orleans, to make each guest “feel for one moment that he was the most important person in the world.”
“I felt like if we would focus on how well of a party we can throw and how hospitable we are,” Gayle says, “if we could play up the city and what we do – our community and how we treat guests from out of town – they’d know that we’re the most hospitable city in which to have an event. That’s what we needed them to experience.”
Gayle had a vision that no one understood. In her mind she could see the invitations, the colors – and the budget. It wasn’t until Van Wyck presented his first renderings that everyone began to come on board; “they liked it,” she says, “but they still didn’t understand it ... After (Van Wyck and I) talked in Germany, and then when he arrived in New Orleans for our first meeting, I knew we were going in the right direction. He had brought samples and he was just right on target as to the direction in which we needed to go. His ideas and mine together made for a magical evening and event.”
With her past experience as an interior designer, Gayle says planning the party took her back to what it was like to plan a large project. “It was just like a huge house or hotel being constructed from the ground up.”
Her first thought was to have the party at the New Orleans Museum of Art, but the location was too small for the 32 owners and significant others; numerous coaches and their significant others; and invited New Orleans residents and their guests. Instead, she decided to host the ladies luncheon there (see box), and many of her guests told her that it was the most elegant afternoon they’ve ever had.
Instead Gayle decided on a space next to Storyland in City Park where everything could be built-out and completely customized for the occasion. “The day of the site visits,” says Jennie Guarisco, Executive Assistant to Tom Benson who helped the Bensons and Van Wyck with the event, “we were driving through City Park when Bronson said, ‘Stop the car; this is it!’”
From the wooden floors to the tents, from the lighting in the oaks to the flowers on the tables and the walls, there was no detail too small and no angle overlooked. All the tables were covered in white; crystal chandeliers hung inside each tent; and fine china, flatware and crystal graced the tables. The flowers were all white – hydrangeas, roses, peonies and orchids. Chef Susan Spicer prepared dinner, and during the meal the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra played against a wall created out of green foliage. “Everyone had on their finest cocktail attire and beautiful jewelry, shoes and bags,” Gayle says. “It was all so magical, everyone matched the venue, which was perfection!”
Van Wyck’s favorite moments were spent “Working with Mrs. Benson. She was involved in so many details from where the Governor was sitting to whether Mr. Benson’s microphone would be handheld or on a stand.” “When my husband and I drove up and everything was in place,” Gayle says, “it was awesome! It took a moment for my husband to take it all in; he was so pleased, I could tell by his comments he loved it, and I knew it would be a great evening for him and all our guests.”
“Every detail, from the cherubs wearing team hats to the saxophonist under the tree, to the music, food, red accent chandeliers and champagne,” was magical, Guarisco says. “The cocktail tents transporting you to something out of an Arabian Nights classic tale to the oak tree through the glass roof of the dinner tent and the magnificent oak trees bathed in colored lights. The event sparkled and was quintessential New Orleans. It was an evening that anyone that attended will forever remember fondly.”
“The Bensons were unbelievable hosts for the Super Bowl,” Mayor Mitch Landrieu says. “They are a major reason why we got the Super Bowl in the first place, and their hospitality for the owners and team executives are a reason why I’m confident New Orleans will host another Super Bowl again soon.”
“Our goal is to bring more NFL and NBA events to New Orleans,” Gayle says – and she’s already started. New Orleans will host the 63rd NBA All-Star Game on Sun., Feb. 16, 2014, and she’s already planning an event at the Audubon Zoo. The Super Bowl Owners Party, “could have been the best party ever in New Orleans,” says Ron Forman, President and CEO of Audubon Nature Institute, Inc. “The NFL owners that I talked to were all blown away.”
Super Bowl Ladies Luncheon 2013
From 11:30 in the morning until 2:30 in the afternoon, the New Orleans Museum of Art was transformed for 230 ladies. Red roses and purple hydrangeas bloomed on tables within tall crystal vases adorned with crystal beads, as well as on the podiums alongside the main staircase. Table settings were delicate and exquisite. The harp music of Rachel Van Voorhees floated through the room while the guests dined on a strawberry delight salad and a duel entrée of pepper-crusted petite filet served with pepper jelly glazed shrimp and topped with a roasted garlic compound butter served with gouda mashed potatoes and freshly steamed baby carrots provided by Pigéon Caterers.
For more entertainment, “Saks Fifth Avenue provided us with a beautiful Spring 2013 Fashion Show” Gayle Benson says. “We had many runway models who featured clothes, bags, shoes and jewelry all from Saks and Fendi.” And in addition, “Fendi gave each of the guests a beautiful coffee table book, along with Channel fragrance and a Fendi USB for our computers.”
It was a time when the women of the NFL could come together, “without our husbands and business,” Benson says.
“Seeing the excitement and anticipation of the ladies from the Ravens and 49ers,” was thrilling, Jennie Guarisco, Executive Assistant to Tom Benson says. “I don’t believe any other host team had ever had this type of function before. They loved it.”