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Behind the Scenes: Elevating a Gala

Our LAI Live team partnered with the NEA Foundation for a third year to produce their highly attended Salute to Excellence in Education Gala. This year, the event was held at The Anthem in Washington D.C., a concert venue at The Wharf – the city’s bustling waterfront neighborhood. While our team works with the NEA Foundation on evolving the programming, designing custom graphics, and creating new engagement opportunities each year, The Anthem gave us the flexibility to truly elevate the attendee experience.

The attendee experience begins the second they step through the front doors. Our LAI event producers transformed The Anthem’s large, open lobby, with the intention of making attendees feel as if they’ve entered a new world. After passing under the wrap-around marquee displaying a looping gala graphic video, attendees walked along long runs of red carpet rolled from door to door, pushing them quickly through registration and into the reception spaces. We brought in large marquee letters that spelled out “Salute” and “Excellence” and set up moving lighting units on truss stands to create a ballyhoo effect throughout the whole space, which could be seen the entire evening from people passing by outside. While relatively simple, this almost runway experience set the tone for the evening before attendees even stepped into the event space.

The reception spaces were held on all three floors overlooking the main stage with NEA Foundation’s vibrant scenic surrounding a 12-piece band. A lot of thought and preparation went into the design long before it made it to the stage. When conceptualizing the scenic, we had to be mindful of the footprint needed to support the heavy use of entertainment which included performances ranging from ribbon and flamenco dancing to solos by the “Hamilton” cast. One of the many benefits of working in a theatre or concert venue is rigging, audio, and lighting are already in place, as well as a built-in stage with a fly system designed to house overhead units. With the flexibility of the space and timelines, we designed scenic based on a minimalistic concept through the use of staggered LED columns serving as false entrances, decorative panels along the back wall, and ground supported and rigged projection. This gave us the space needed while showcasing graphics and lighting to really make the scenic pop.

Graphics play an important role when creating an elegant setting. Rather than utilizing a traditional rich purple and gold color scheme, we filled The Anthem, known for being an intentionally dark venue, with bright and colorful designs that illuminated the stage. The main graphic theme incorporated sparkling video elements which not only glittered overhead but flowed continuously across the LED panels onstage throughout the evening. All the screens combined showcased presenter and recipient slides as well as video and IMAG. Additionally, we gave an extra nod to the evening’s sponsors and key foundation members by designing unique recognition slides that played as a video loop on built-in monitors all throughout the venue, receiving many compliments from attendees.

But the celebration really begins when the program kicks off. Because the goal was to enhance the evening from previous years, there was also a heavy focus on programming. We worked hand-in-hand with NEA Foundation to best determine how to give everyone the desired stage time while keeping energy levels up and program moving. The event was broken into two halves, with dinner in between. At the top of each half, we had the required but abbreviated foundation remarks – first from the chair, and then the CEO. Awards were integrated into various points in the program to ensure the evening didn’t begin to feel redundant. The band kept the mood high by playing energetic songs during the award presentations.

All things considered, galas aren’t just about hearing your name announced and being handed an award. They’re about truly being celebrated. In this particular circumstance, one award had over thirty recipients, each requiring the traditional verbal recognition and a photo op. When our partnership with NEA Foundation began years ago, this segment resembled an assembly line more than a celebration. Putting our heads together with NEA Foundation, we determined there needed to be more energy and each person deserved their own moment to shine.

To keep the segment timing tight while giving each individual their moment in the spotlight, our LAI Live team decided to put two microphones in stands on stage which each recipient alternated using to announce themselves. While one person was speaking, another was taking a photo, never overlapping with one another. The recipients were thrilled to have their own moment, which was also livestreamed for their families to watch.

The evening ended with a large check presentation with a sponsor. Not knowing she was winning, our recipient was cheered as she climbed the custom LED steps to receive her award and give remarks. A highly emotional moment each year, the lighting was designed to be more theatrical than a traditional gala. The stage went dark as colorful lights with patterns spun over the house. The LED steps changed color as she approached, with a special remaining up on the presentation spot. This is the moment all of the attendees anticipate before giving a final toast and heading home.

There are many approaches to creating an entirely unique gala experience. LAI Live plays off the theme, the venues, and the attendee base to build the appropriate graphics, develop high-energy programming, and build out a stage set best suited for your event.



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Managed and Designed By

With more than 20 years of experience as an event producer, Shannon has produced everything from multi-million dollar, nationally-televised events to a nationwide…

Elizabeth has over 10 years of experience working with LAI customers in all aspects of our business. She maintains production schedules, manages workflow and tracks…

Katie Nesbit-Blackburn joined LAI Live with over a decade of experience in all facets of event production.

With over a decade of experience designing a wide variety of engaging visual media solutions, Benjamin McGeever brings a refined eye and a fresh approach to…

With a background in marketing, PR, event logistics, and video content creation, Grace Dearing brings a holistic perspective to live production.