In November of last year, The Events Mill worked on an experience which has to be one of our most unique and exciting to date. Set in the depths of Florida’s South only one week after tropical storm Nicole hit, the team worked alongside a local crew to produce a three-day immersive special forces simulation for clients of a luxury watch retailer.
The event was nothing short of an alpha-male’s dream: camo patterns and combat vehicles; screaming commands and testing challenges; the risk of being bitten by a snake or worse – an alligator. For any man who had spent their childhood inspired by the likes of Evil Knievel or Tony Hawk — speeding on a bike up a ramp and over a friend, picking up knee scrapes so often that scabs would not have time to heal — this experience resembled the pinnacle of thrills.
As well as providing creative continuity across the simulation, The Events Mill were brought on to offer a Clandesdining-type moment at the end of each day. Clandesdining is our premium immersive dinner service wherein a developed concept is translated in a variety of ways. For guests, the client wanted these to serve as a culmination each evening after what would be a morning and afternoon spent in blistering humidity and sweaty intensity subject to merciless instruction.
The brief also stated that these dining moments should facilitate interaction between guests and veterans, in turn enhancing the magnitude of the whole experience. We took it upon ourselves to strive for more. As with every one of our projects, the ultimate goal was to elicit an emotional reaction. To spend time hanging out with ex special forces shooting rifles and riding helicopters would be cool, yes, but we recognised these servicemen as honourable, learned figures and—after meeting them ourselves prior to the event on a site visit, much the contrary to prejudicial thinking—emotionally forthcoming too.
We thought if we could create a ‘comfortable’ enough, that is to immersive and ‘beautiful’ enough environment for everyone attending, there would be the opportunity, guards let down, for these middle-aged men to discover that which becomes so elusive in adulthood: a mentor.
What we faced, however, was no wedding so the colour white; arrangements of peonies and roses; and dainty calligraphy just wouldn’t cut the 300,000 Scoville chilli sauce. For such a unique project and specific demographic, with guests essentially arriving at dinner from a battlefield, we would have to finely manage beauty and look inadvertently at its various forms.
With night one, much like a close-combat melee attack we chose to tackle our brief head on, calling it The Camaraderie Dinner. Knowing that this would be the first real chance for guests to get acquainted with one another and with veterans, we opted for more of a relaxed feel by basically expanding everything: we utilised every corner of a large space with components of sets that we’d designed, props and foliage; we drew upon worldwide cuisines in the creation of our menu; we favoured a food station style of service over one that is more intimate. A wide, long banquet style of table was used; theatrical up-lighters to leave no area completely dark.
During the process of designing this space a few ideas were considered for the table runner. Commonly thought of as the piece de resistance of any dining event, it had to impact upon guests. It should also carefully speak of both the client and occasion’s prestige and tie in aesthetically and thematically with the rest of our design. With these restrictions, in a typical Events Mill way, we felt…unrestricted and decided to go for something completely unconventional and daring. Thousands cherish London’s Barbican…brutalism can be beautiful. Inspired in-part by disaster-stricken urban wreckages, we took rubble and ran with it.
The second dinner invited guests outside, completely off-grid into the wild Floridian night. Since guests had had by this point sufficient time to establish bonds and because we were looking at the three days holistically; with a narrative arc in mind, we could afford to push intimacy that little bit further.
A timber pavilion as a location suited this perfectly, surrounded as it was by buzzing vegetation and the pitch black. To emphasise the entire setting and also reference the barbaric, rustic qualities found in the menu we employed the use of over 200 candles to set the pavilion warmly aglow. Natural materials were chosen throughout not only to be in keeping with the environment but also to create an uncontrived atmosphere which would therefore effect comfort.
We always like to incorporate an element of play within our designs. This tends to enhance the experience by creating a ‘moment’. It also encourages interaction and conversation. Men notoriously don’t accept such invitations willingly. In this instance we put a twist on the concept of breaking bread by threading personalised dog tags in between sourdough baguettes, creating one uninterrupted chain encircling the table. The dog tags doubled as name cards and the invitation to engage was accepted because of the pertinence of the idea and because there really was no choice.
Tying Up The Experience
The final day of the event was treated very much like a graduation and so from start to finish it felt like it had an air of ceremony. Everyone relocated over to The Navy SEAL Museum in Fort-Pierce. It was inside of this museum, amongst the lifeboat upon which Captain Phillips was held hostage; amongst a helicopter and sand dune buggy, that the final multi-course meal was to take place.
Because of the number of artefacts and amount of information; because it was a museum we were cautious not to add yet more noise with our setup. Hence, subsequent to cacti, palms and ferns, we finally thought we had the opportunity to use flowers. A terrific display of resplendent colour, patterns, shapes and textures occupied a 30ft long, mirror-topped table. This simply provided an ideal contrast with its life and freshness.
To avoid any potential readings of daintiness into our design we went with exotic choices of flowers; we interspersed each bunch with paraphernalia from the museum’s archive and we stated that the height be exaggerated so that, sat opposite a fellow comrade, there’d be the sense of lying prone on a jungle floor.
There came a wonderful moment at the end, after speeches and the award-giving, during the breakdown. Veterans, guests and staff meticulously inspected each bouquet in an attempt to find the most perfect example to take home and gift to a wife or loved-one.
With such a unique project and specific demographic there was a concern throughout the whole planning and production of the experience that aspects of our designs could be lost; that amongst the Hooyahs (a loud battle cry), combat uniforms and military activity, the dinners could be treated as subordinate. The reality was that, whilst not every guest explicitly expressed amazement or pointed out the more minute details, the sequential contributions to the whole event came together in synergetic harmony. As designers of immersive experiences, sometimes the proof is not so much in what it is but what it does.