Based on legacy alone, Paul C. Wolman ought to be practicing law right now.
After all, barristers go back two generations in his family. Wolman earned the prerequisite law degree all right, but he made a career of an idea that first struck his fancy as a child.
Wolman started throwing parties and magic shows as a youth, and he hasn't stopped -- he's just made the parties more elaborate. His festivities now are attended by thousands and held at posh sites across the country and even internationally.
"He's a combination of Barnum & Bailey and Ed Sullivan all wrapped into one," said Steve Eisner, president and CEO of Eisner Communications Inc., who went into the party business with Wolman when the two were children. "He's got a real love of lighting up a room, and he knows how to do it."
Wolman, 44 is considered a pioneer in the events marketing industry. The company he founded 14 years ago, P. W. Feats Inc., now puts on 250 events a year, typically juggling plans for 40 events at any given time.
From formal galas to civic promotions to company birthday parties, Wolman's staff does it all -- their motto: Feats Speak Louder Than Words. They put on events that range anywhere from $10,000 to more than a $1 million.
"Anybody can plan a party or a meeting," said Wolman, a Baltimore native. "How do you get people to feel it, experience it? It's about making it sizzle."
Wolman is a tall, unassuming man, a dreamer, with what seems like a permanent twinkle in his eye. His colleagues describe him as creative, hands-on and meticulous.
"He looks at events with this child-like quality, and he's a very good businessman," said Joe Goldblatt, founding director of the event management program at George Washington University. "It's very unusual to have both together."
It is Wolman's strong sense of humanity that contributes to his success, said Steven R. Jeweler, co-owner of Jeweler/Webster Creative, a Baltimore-based event design and custom floral company, who has worked with Wolman.
"He understands the client goal and finds the way to fulfill that potential," Jeweler said. "He finds that element within the event that sends that little tingle down your back. If that isn't there, then Paul isn't satisfied."
Wolman and his company faced a challenge when they were commissioned to put on a party for 1,200 international CEOs and VIPs in Boston for L'Oreal. It was Harvard graduation weekend, June 1997, and no famous sites were available. So the event planners had to scramble. They found a sheep farm with no water, no power, no building and no level ground and, with the help of a 500-person crew working around the clock, transformed it into two elegant tent villages for that year's World Food Congress -- all within 4 1/2 days.
Beautiful, multilingual models met each guest at a hotel, all wearing identical clothes in pink, the primary color of that year's L'Oreal signature line. Guests were taken by motorcade to the site and welcomed by models in 17th-century clothes. They then walked down a red carpet, illuminated by candle-lighted lanterns and through an entrance flanked by a fife and drum corps.
In eight themed tents, they sampled a variety of American foods including a raw bar and Mardi Gras fare, with entertainment by Cajun, blues and gospel bands. The china in the dining area changed with each course, some cobalt blue, some Burgundy-rimmed plates edged with gold, all part of a larger red, white and blue motif.
During the meal, the lighting in the tent changed from sunset orange to midnight blue and then into a laser/light show punctuated by an appearance by Liza Minelli.
When the Washington-Baltimore Regional 2012 Coalition needed to create an eye-catching exhibit to showcase the region and enhance its bid for the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in October 1998, the group turned to Feats.
The resulting interactive exhibit featured an enormous, circular and walkable floor map, and a video that provided a 3-D, virtual, bird's-eye tour of the region. A 16-foot-high torch topped with red acrylic flames flickered in the center of the exhibit catching light from a rotating color wheel.
Summer Olympic Games
Last month, when local Olympic organizers needed to entertain more than 200 top coaches and other United States Olympic Committee officials and make sure that they walked away convinced that this region would be a good choice to play host to the 2012 Summer Games, they again turned to Feats.
Among the festivities were a black-tie gala, a day of sailing on the bay, a crab feast, and a tour of the Naval Academy.
"I don't think I ever thought that I'd end up doing this," Wolman said. "I never thought you could make a career of it."
But Wolman started training early. By age 9, he and Eisner, who met in nursery school at age 4, were organizing neighborhood fairs complete with food booths and bean-bag toss games and donating proceeds to charity.
They founded Parties Unlimited Inc. when they were about 12.
"We became the party planners for the city at a very young age," Eisner said. "It was a big responsibility. I think it taught us a lot about what it takes to make things work effectively."
During college, the men organized two teams to run the business and put the parties on for them.
Wolman enrolled at the University of Maryland School of Law following in a tradition of lawyers. His father was a lawyer. His grandparents were lawyers. His grandmother was the first female member of the Baltimore City bar association. His uncle was a lawyer. Wolman thought law was something he could sink his teeth into.
He spent his last semester of law school representing juveniles. But the day after he took the bar exam, he started working as an account executive at what was then Eisner & Associates. He worked for Steve Eisner's father, Henry, making a third of what he could have made as a lawyer. He worked there for four years from 1981 to 1985.
"The excitement just pulled me in," Wolman said. "I don't think [that] until I was in the throes of marketing did I realize the power of the live experience. I thought, why not go back and take those early years of the party business and marry it with the business of marketing?"
Event planning as a business is only about a dozen years old. But it has grown quickly. No one knows the exact size of the industry, but it is widely acknowledged to be in the billions of dollars.
The business has such an allure that Wolman says he receives an average of six calls a week from people who want to work for him.
Wolman doesn't like to talk about the size of his privately held company of 21 employees, except to say that he expects his business to grow by 20 percent in the 1999-2000 fiscal year.
But to get an idea, the average event business has 10 or fewer employees and gross annual revenue of $1 million, according to a recent industry survey.
Generous to community
Those who have seen Wolman in action say he could generate even more revenue if he didn't underwrite so much for the community. He is generous -- almost to a fault, colleagues say.
"Many times he puts more into the event than the quoted price, because he wants to make it right," said Peggy Daidakis, executive director of the Baltimore Convention Center.
Scattered around the P. W. Feats warehouse are elements of the many local events created there: a giant 15-foot crab, once a basketball backboard at a pep rally to celebrate the NAACP championships at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County; a life-size stuffed gorilla that frequents tropical parties and usually ends up as someone's dance partner; a triple-layer cake created for USF&G; Corp.'s 100th anniversary -- the same cake that Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke popped out of at a 1997 party to celebrate volunteerism.
If an important event is happening in Baltimore, Wolman generally has a hand in it.
He was part of the opening of the Baltimore Convention Center and Oriole Park at Camden Yards. For the All-Star Game in 1993, the company staged a 3,000-guest VIP reception on the Inner Harbor where the sails of a tall ship lighted by a laser show served as the backdrop for the stage. On it, a series of special affects created 60-foot-tall ball players with pyrotechnics and the Naval Academy band.
"The key was turning it into a great experience," Wolman said of the All-Star event. "But really a great marketing vehicle for the region."
Making events memorable
A great deal rides on making such events special, memorable enough that people will think about them long afterward, and, ideally, so powerful that they will propel people to act in a desired way.
"When they have a great experience here, they leave with a great impression of Baltimore and the region," said Diane L. Robinson, vice president of marketing at Feats.
That was certainly the hope when the region played host to 1,700 of the world's most powerful real estate executives, members of the International Development Research Council, in May 1998. Feats designed and produced a formal dinner at the Walters Art Gallery.
"It was just like any other convention, except in this case the people were our dream targets," Wolman said.
The average IDRC member company has 42,000 employees, assets of $6.1 billion and annual sales of $6.8 billion. State officials had hoped to parlay their visit into 20 deals, 2,000 new jobs and $150 million in capital investment over the course of three years.
Ambassador for region
Wolman often finds himself being an ambassador for the region. About 65 percent of his business is regional. The remaining 35 percent is national, including a small component of international business.
He and his employees have accompanied representatives from the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association on a variety of sales trips to promote the city. They went to San Diego in August for the American Society of Association Executives convention, and to Geneva in May for the European Incentive and Business Travel and Meetings Exhibition.
Although crime issues have occasionally clouded efforts to sell the city, Wolman says he seldom gets asked direct questions about crime when he is promoting Baltimore. But he goes armed with the latest statistics, just in case. "Meeting planners need their groups to feel safe," Wolman said. "There's no question that that's an issue."
Often meeting planners are ignorant of the region's best attributes, Wolman said.
"We all know, 'Virginia is for Lovers,' and 'I love New York,' " Wolman said. "What do people know about Baltimore? One of the things that Baltimore needs to get good at is telling its story better."
Helping people have fun
Wolman has been helping people have fun in the city for years.
From the days when he and Eisner earned spending money from Parties Unlimited Inc., Wolman has taken entertaining seriously. For 15 years, the two honed their skills with birthday parties, bar mitzvahs, record hops and Sweet 16 parties before graduating to corporate parties -- thousands of events in all.
The events business is a high-pressure world with no room for error, said colleague Jeweler.
"You really only get one chance," he said. "You create something that exists for only four or five hours and then it's gone. You don't have the chance to do it over. It's got to be right, and every part of it has to be right."
Wolman says he's having way too much fun pursuing his childhood passion to ever start practicing law. In all his years since graduating, his only foray into the business of law has been to work on an uncontested divorce and prepare a few wills.
"Once entertainment gets in your blood, it's tough to get it out," he said. "While moments in the courtroom can probably be exciting, it really didn't turn me on."