How to Throw a High-Profile Gala in the Era of COVID-19

This year’s San Francisco Symphony opening night gala took a more relaxed, COVID-safe approach than in previous years. But the design and logistics were anything but simple.

San Francisco Symphony opening night gala

SAN FRANCISCO—The San Francisco Symphony's annual gala is typically one of the city's most high-profile, glamorous events—not to mention, a masterclass in event logistics, with organizers pulling off an ambitious, seven-hour gathering with four simultaneous dinners, several cocktail receptions, a concert and an after-party.

So this year, organizers were determined to gather together in person, in whatever form that needed to take. “It was important to the SF Symphony that their appreciation for the generous support they have received throughout this pandemic was felt," explained Shannon Gurley, creative director of Blueprint Studios, the gala's longtime design and production partner.

However, the team also wanted to be sensitive to the times—and to the effect the pandemic has had on the symphony's internal teams, musicians, community and other patrons of the arts. "To host an over-the-top, glamorous gala felt insensitive and inappropriate. Instead, the hope was to host a joyous event that celebrates music, art and the community's ability to reconnect with each other within a relaxed outdoor setting in the heart of the city," said Gurley.

The result was the outdoor, art- and nature-themed “Re-Opening Night Celebration,” which took place Oct. 1 as a way to kick off the 2021-2022 concert season and introduce the symphony’s new music director, Esa-Pekka Salonen. To kick off the night, attendees walked over an earthy “green carpet” pathway and passed through lush green trees, illuminated foliage and 12-foot-tall kinetic light sculptures before enjoying preconcert Champagne or sparkling water. Then, after the concert, patrons returned to the outdoor setting on Grove Street, which had been fully converted into an after-party complete with chic lounges and communal spaces, all adorned with watercolor accents that were interwoven with the urban park-like setting. Painted metal and wood furnishings were complemented by rich velvet textures and stylized foliage centerpieces.

A new addition to this year’s gala was The Nosh Pit—aka, the parking lot for Davies Music Hall, or as locals know it, Lake Louise. The area came alive with projected video art, which showcased the work of local artisans. There were also a variety of creative food stations, food trucks and other activations set up around the area. “This is the location that we have historically built the patrons' dinner tent on,” explained Gurley. “However, since this year’s event hosted an all-outdoor after party, we decided to extend the Grove Street activities into the parking lot.”

But the condition of the parking lot—which sits about 20 feet below Grove Street with no ADA access—ended up providing the team’s biggest logistical challenge. “The first thing we had to solve was the attendee flow. We needed to ensure that attendees felt that the parking lot activities were just as dynamic and engaging as the activities up on Grove Street,” she said. “In order to accomplish this, we designed a footpath where guests could flow seamlessly from Grove Street down to the Nosh Pit, creating a cohesive attendee experience.”

The team was able to remove portions of the fence and build a massive, carpeted ADA ramp, plus a staircase with an overlook platform that helped encourage attendee engagement. “A 12-foot-tall illuminated arch, complete with the words Nosh Pit, provided a focal point and grand arrival for attendees making their way down to the lower party,” noted Gurley, adding that the playful name was chosen to fuse two words: nosh, relating to food, and pit, relating to an orchestra pit. 

In addition to the all-outdoor setting replacing the individual seated dinners, organizers took several other safely-focused steps this year, including ending the event at 11 p.m., an hour earlier than in years past, and limiting attendance at 1,600 people, about 1,000 less than usual. In accordance with the symphony’s own rules, all attendees were required to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination (attendees under 12 could show a negative PCR test taken with 72 hours), and everyone was required to wear a mask while inside the Davies Music Hall and attending the concert. Outside, masks were encouraged when not eating or drinking.

“The SF Symphony Opening Gala has historically been an ultra-glamorous event with high-profile attendees and over-the-top decor. Our challenge this year was to create something that felt on brand with what we have historically done, and also be very conscious about how this type of event would be received by the community while staying compliant with COVID mandates,” said Gurley. “We—along with the other event partners Got LightHensley Event Resources and McCalls Catering & Events—worked closely together to create a beautiful and dynamic event that allowed SF Symphony patrons to immerse themselves once again in music and community.”

Scroll down for a look inside the event.

The San Francisco Symphony’s “Re-Opening Night Celebration” on Oct. 1 had an art and nature theme, with an earthy green carpet, lush trees, illuminated foliage and 12-foot-tall kinetic light sculptures. (Photo: Show Ready Event Photography)
Before the evening’s performance, guests could enjoy Champagne or sparkling water. While they watched the performance, organizers converted the outdoor space into an after-party complete with chic lounges and communal spaces. (Photo: Show Ready Event Photography)
Painted metal and wood furnishings were complemented by rich velvet textures and stylized foliage centerpieces. (Photo: Show Ready Event Photography)
A new addition to this year’s gala was The Nosh Pit—a.k.a., the parking lot for Davies Music Hall. A 12-foot illuminated arch drew guests into the space. (Photo: Show Ready Event Photography)
The Nosh Pit area came alive with projected video art, which showcased the work of local artisans. (Photo: Show Ready Event Photography)
“With the addition of the Nosh Pit, the attendee flow felt relaxed yet celebratory,” explained Blueprint Studios’ Shannon Gurley. (Photo: Show Ready Event Photography)
There were also a variety of creative food stations, food trucks and other activations set up around the area. (Photo: Show Ready Event Photography)