Feb 1, 2011
Special Events Alaska: Where anything that’s worth doing is done with excellence
Abby Heugel

Spotlight On: Wasilla, Alaska

At Special Events Alaska, the goal is to help create events that are uniquely the customer’s vision. From backdrops and ceiling draping to crystal-beaded entryways and corporate style lounges, they want customers to dream big and let them figure out the details – even if it sounds a bit unusual.

“We have taken on some pretty crazy setups – tramming tents to a mountain top wedding site at a ski resort and barging an entire wedding setup across a lake to an otherwise inaccessible property, for example,” said Owner Andrew Gumley. “But we want our wedding customers to know that we will do whatever it takes to make their special day seamless and memorable.”

If a banquet room needs a paint job, they can hide all unsightliness with fabrics, ceiling draping and accent lighting. Total room (and party) transformation is only a phone call away.

Experience the Event

Gumley went through a transformation of his own, as his background is actually in accounting – he’s a CPA.

“Quite simply, I grew tired of working long hours in a room full of people for three months at a time with absolutely no physical evidence of our labor,” Gumley said. “Small business, rising and falling according to your own decisions and having visible results for hard work were definite draws in making the decision to move back to Alaska and purchase Special Events.”

Gumley’s parents established Special Events in 1997 with a fairly basic concept – to offer a few tables, chairs, tents and retail items to rent. The company shared a building with a second family business, a heavy equipment rental store, and the party store wasn’t exactly the primary focus.

When Gumley and his wife Anne-Renee moved to Alaska in 2004, he began managing both businesses and Anne-Renee took over purchasing for the party store. By the end of 2006, they shifted focus and sold off the equipment division and put the party store as the main focal point. In spring of 2009, he purchased the business and a major marketing overhaul began soon thereafter, giving a new image to the store with the next generation of ownership.

The showroom is 6,000 square feet, and they have a 4,500-square-foot warehouse that holds retail backstock and all rental items – tents, tables, chairs, inflatables and wedding decor. They recently changed the storefront signage and installed full vehicle graphics wraps on delivery vans and trailers to show weddings and events that they’ve done in the past.

“We always give the customer more options than the box stores in each party category,” Gumley said. “We know we can’t compete on price for most items, but we can beat them in selection and service every time. Our customers love to come in and browse. Sometimes they have nothing in particular they’re looking for – they simply enjoy being in our store. Word of mouth is powerful in a small community.”

They keep everything within a theme all together. If the customer is shopping for a 1st birthday party, all the options – paper products, high chair decor kits, favors and treat bags, hats, sashes, candles, etc.- are presented in one place. They have even laid out their juvenile birthday aisles according to age and gender.

“We start at 1st birthday, continue with prints and accessories for the toddler years and move up from there,” Gumley said. “Adult birthday is separated with general prints, age-specific prints – 30, 40, 50, 60, and so on. We want to make it easy for our customers to sort through our large product selection without confusing or overwhelming them.”

There are displays at the end of each aisle to help customers visualize how all the different items in a theme can be used together, something Gumley feels is especially important in letting customers know what they have for upcoming holidays.

“We want them to walk in our store and experience the holiday,” he said. “We try to use every inch of space (especially the ceiling) to merchandise our products and it’s not uncommon to walk in to the store with hanging Chinese lanterns, 3-D stars, tissue garland or paper chandeliers over your head.”

One of their biggest sellers is baby shower, and they have a section packed with baby favors, shower games, yard signs, centerpieces, banners and lots of prints to choose from – from classic to contemporary.

“Children’s birthday and Over the Hill are other areas that do very well in our store,” Gumley added. “We like to bring in creative options that are new to Alaskans, finding ways to mix new trends with the old faithful sellers.”

Full Circle

And they also have a lot of faithful customers. What often starts with planning a wedding moves on through the years to helping with a baby shower, then the children’s birthdays, etc. It’s an endless cycle of parties, so they offer an endless cycle of products.

“You can find everything you would need to rent for a wedding, private party or corporate event at the store,” Gumley said. “Tables and chairs (as a group) are our highest R.O.I. assets, but we carry marquee tents in a variety of sizes, tables, chairs, pipe and drape, specialty linens, lighting, inflatable bounce houses, slides, etc. Hands down, we spend the majority of our time during the summer setting up tents all over south-central Alaska.”

Gumley added that more customers are asking for disposable products that look like they’re not disposable, so they’ve recently brought in a line of catering items that are all square – plates, glasses, appetizer dishes and large square bowls and trays.

“We can’t seem to keep these items in our store,” he said. “Square and embossed paper plates are another exciting new option to add to any theme.”

Along with new options are the classic best-sellers. Balloons do well no matter what time of year, and they ask every customer at checkout if they can schedule a balloon bouquet for the event. Gumley said that quite often they realize they did want balloons, but didn’t realize that they could place an order at that time and have the custom bouquets ready two weeks from that day.

“Our store slogan is: ‘Do Excellence,'” Gumley said. “We can apply that grammatically incorrect phrase to anything in our business. Anything that’s worth doing is worth doing well, and anything that can be done well can be done with excellence. Highly cliche, but excellence is what I strive to instill into our entire staff and that flows into everything we do.”

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