Ritz-y Affairs to Remember
Real-life party girl Barbara A. Thibault, director of catering sales for The Ritz-Carlton, Westchester, helps people have fun—for a price.
Barbara A. Thibault brought two decades-plus of experience planning catering events when she joined the Ritz-Carlton, Westchester, in April, 2007. Since the hotel’s official launch a little over a year ago, Thibault, a Bronxville resident, has helped throw more than 75 private parties, as well as hundreds of corporate events. As of this writing, The Ritz is booked for a special event nearly every Saturday night this year—and one 10-year-old already can look forward to celebrating his “passage into manhood” there in December, 2011.
How did you get into this line of work?
I always liked to throw parties; that’s what I did best in college, so someone said to me, “You should do this as a living.”
What was the most memorable party you threw back then?
A “Bring Your Pet Party” I held for two hundred people in college for Halloween in 1984. Everyone had to dress as their pet and dress up their pet as themselves. I had a chocolate Lab so I wore a brown faux-fur coat, big bear-claw slippers, brown tights, and a cap with big felt ears. I was a gymnast, so my dog wore a leotard.
What were your birthday parties like when you were a kid?
You got a card and a cake. Birthday parties were pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey and a pony ride, if you were lucky.
How do you handle hard-to-please clients?
There’s no such thing as ‘no’ at The Ritz-Carlton. And if someone wants something that’s really impossible, you explain why and suggest another option. The only request we’ve had to deny so far was when a bar mitzvah boy wanted to drive into the ballroom in a mini gas-operated race car, but you legally are not allowed to have oil and fuel inside a building. So instead, he operated a motorized car, which preceded him into the ballroom.
What’s the total price tag for a typical Ritz-Carlton wedding and bar/bat mitzvah?
A wedding for two hundred people or a bar mitzvah for two hundred fifty usually costs about one hundred thousand dollars.
What’s been the biggest near-disaster you’ve averted?
I’d have to say that the most nerve-wracking experience of my career was when an elephant and a donkey got stuck in a freight elevator between floors at the Waldorf-Astoria during an event for Ringling Brothers. The animals didn’t panic, but the handler did. Engineering got it going in about a half-hour.
Any experience with runaway brides or grooms?
I’ve worked with six hundred and forty six; only one, a Korean couple, bailed at the last minute at a hotel in New York. It was just before the bride and groom were supposed to walk down the aisle. The dowry wasn’t going well so the bride’s family decided to pull out. Everyone was already seated. We had to send them all home.
If you had a daughter, what kind of wedding would you want to have for her?
A wedding celebrates a marriage and should be an elegant affair, not a circus.
If you weren't doing what you are now, what would be your dream job?
I'd love to own a bed and breakfast that allowed owners and their pets, maybe a bit further north, like the Catskills, where people can go for a quick getaway.
How much will having a special event at The Ritz set me back?
It depends upon season, time of day, number of guests, etc. But it usually costs $175-$300 per person for a wedding and for all other parties, $175-$250 per person for adults (teens at a Bar or Bat Mitzvah are $95-$135 per person). Fundraising galas run about $125-$150 per person. All these prices would include the space, food and beverage, service, and our linens, place settings, and tables and chairs-but not flowers, music, entertainment, special lighting and décor, etc.
Has anyone ever handed you a proverbial blank check and said 'Money is no object'?
No. And I wouldn't believe them if they did.
What's your workweek like?
I usually work about 70 hours a week and there's only one month or so, usually January, when I don't have to work every weekend.
What would you say is the best part of your job?
The customers-everybody is different and every day is different. We try to wow people beyond their expectations and what impressed one person may not impress the next; you're always trying to top yourself.
If money were no object, what would be on your personal wish list?
My tastes are somewhat conservative and definitely toward the elegant side so I'd use the best quality table setting available: Versace china, Christofle sterling silver flatware, Baccarat crystal, Frette linens, and, of course, David Tutera for the flowers. If there's any wish list, he's on it; he has the finest of everything. And I'd go caviar and champagne the whole way.
Who are some of your favorite party vendors?
Here at the Ritz we work a lot with two New York City music vendors: Hank Lane for everything from DJs to the Rainbow Room band and Larry King for musical trios and piano. For floral and décor, we recommend David Tutera and also Diana Gould and for lighting, Caroline Dempsey.
How many of your clients use their own professional party planner?
About 90 percent.
Where in the hotel are parties and special events held?
Our ballroom-it's about 6,000 square feet. With a dance floor and depending upon to set up and décor, it can accommodate up to 350 people or sectioned off into three separate smaller areas. And we also have a secondary suite of about 1,500 square feet that can be used a kids “mocktail” hour during a Bar Mitzvah.
What party theme is really in now?
The guests-of-honor for all the coming-of-age parties-Sweet 16s, Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, Quinceaneras, etc.-are so into everything green and being earth-friendly. Instead of giving out silly favors, one girl gave her friends a garden-in-a-can so they could plant seeds and grow trees.
Do you like to entertain in your own home? And if so, about how many parties do you throw a year?
I love to entertain at home. I hold close to 20 parties including our quarterly sales review meetings where we can all really blow off steam.
So, I guess all the holiday dinners are at your house?
Yes. My mom lives with me, too, so my house is really family central.
Tell us about a party you recently hosted in your own home.
I had a sit down dinner party and wine tasting for eight guests, all of whom were in the food and beverage business. I tried to find the most inexpensive wines that were new and good and then we all critiqued them and sat around and ate and talked.
What was your own wedding like?
It was an elegant country club wedding at the Du Pont Country Club in Philadelphia for 300 people in October.
What do you think is the most important ingredient for a good party?
Family and friends. Then it's the music. The music can make really make or break your party because if people are supposed to dance and they're not, that's embarrassing.
What's your best advise for the nervous at-home host or hostess?
Lists, lists, lists! Start with a menu, then make a grocery list from that. Then from the grocery list, make an errand list. And then make a cross-reference checklist. Also, make and keep lots of notes, and clip photos of things you like.