Pop star Katy Perry
Pop star Katy Perry performs in Dubai. Photo: Mona L. Brown

On The Road: The Star-Spangled Bash

Year after year, business jet travelers flock to major sporting and arts-world events such as the Sundance Film Festival, the Super Bowl, the Academy Awards, the Indianapolis 500, and the U.S. Open Tennis Tournament.
Well-heeled arrivals at events like these are often eager to attend exclusive parties where the draw is the appearance of major sports figures or other celebrities. But there’s a new twist to this undertaking, as organizers increasingly strive to use such stars to offer ever-more-special enticements.

Take singer Katy Perry’s performance for an invitation-only crowd of 3,200 corporate executives last November at the Dubai Airshow. After the concert, a production of Dubai-based Done Events, the pop princess also was the centerpiece at an even more exclusive dinner with a few hundred bleary-eyed guests.

Then there are offerings like the David Sanborn Townhouse Experience, in which corporate guests pay for a two-night stay at the deluxe Mandarin Oriental Hotel in New York. The package includes Saturday night dinner, drinks, and a tête-à-tête with and performance by Sanborn—all at his Manhattan townhouse.

It’s a hardball, competitive field, and big players are moving in. For example, to expand its reach in corporate hospitality management, Hollywood’s giant Creative Artists Agency, known as CAA, recently bought the New York-based event-management company Goviva and another firm, Beyond Sports & Entertainment. Along with a third company, Inside Sports & Entertainment, which CAA acquired in 2014, these outfits are part of a new division, CAA Premium Experience. 

The venture “puts us in a position to reshape the corporate hospitality and VIP events business globally,” says Michael Levine, the co-head of CAA Premium Experience. “The sweet spot is large corporations that are using passion points within popular culture to create unique experiences for employees or existing or potential customers.”

Some events that draw heavy private jet travel from college alumni and corporate sponsorship activities—such as football weekends at schools like Notre Dame and the University of Alabama—stay below the radar, so to speak. Exclusive parties and celebrity appearances through corporate sponsorship deals are popular on such weekends.

But the major action is at internationally famous events, where celebrity wrangling is increasingly part of the process. “The Super Bowl is certainly the big one for [private-jet] travel, but so is Sundance,” says Robert Tuchman, a Goviva founder who is now an executive with CAA Premium Experience. The Masters golf tournament, he adds, “is real close to the Super Bowl in terms of the number of private aircraft that fly in.” Indeed, according to NetJets, it alone accounted for 350 flights arriving for the 2015 Masters—compared with about 200 in 2014.

As a big new player at the table, CAA can draw on its huge rosters of movie, television, and music-world stars for its Premium Experience programs, which arrange private-jet travel and luxury hotel packages and snare hard-to-get tickets in addition to offering what Tuchman calls “once-in-a-lifetime” encounters with celebrities.

The Super Bowl is an especially elaborate hospitality event this year, with the added allure of the San Francisco location coupled with the celebrations surrounding the 50th anniversary of the pro-football classic. Another anniversary is this spring’s 100th running of the Indianapolis 500, where a bigger-than-ever, “Super Bowl-like” corporate splash is being planned, says Mark Miles, chief executive of the company that owns the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

For the Super Bowl, Tuchman and his colleagues spent months arranging something called the CAA House. It’s “a private townhome venue,” he says, “where we’ll bring in our talent for personal interactions, including some of our big musical acts and celebrity chefs, to do dinners and interact with the clients.”

Participating celebrities are expected to become more involved in hospitality activities, “doing stuff that the clients can be a part of,” Tuchman says. “I think a lot of that has to do with clients’ growing expectations, and even the effect of reality TV, where people want to be immersed in the experience.

“It used to be a big deal at these kinds of events just to get former athletes to do a Q&A for you,” Tuchman continues. “Now people’s expectations have evolved. We might bring in the host from The Bachelor and create a Bachelor- or a Shark Tank-type of event. Or we’ll have a TV personality like Giuliana Rancic do a celebrity Fashion Police show, or we’ll design wellness events working with nutritionists like Joy Bauer from the Today Show. It’s a matter of customizing and creating these kinds of celebrity events that were never even on the radar five or six years ago.”

These days, even the world’s top celebrities are willing to do corporate appearances if the money and other matters are right. The Rolling Stones, for example, played for a private party thrown by the investor Ralph Whitworth at a club near San Diego while on their U.S. tour last May. The band pocketed $3 million for that gig.

“I think a lot of talents, even the biggest ones, look for new ways to engage with and grow their audience and also to just make money,” Tuchman says. “In terms of bands, look at what’s happened—artists getting paid for albums is a thing of the past, and their [income] now is much more from touring and private events.

“So you get creative,” he continues. “Say, for a hospitality event, you take a big Southern band, combine them with a famous barbecue chef, and create a one-off experience for a company where they bring in their top 500 clients. It used to be you’d just arrange for the client to go to the concert or wherever; now you’re bringing that talent to the client.”

Of course, big celebrities don’t fly the airlines to these events any more than these clients do. So almost always, a business jet is in the picture—and in the star’s contract. 

Joe Sharkey, the author of six books and a longtime BJT contributor, wrote a weekly business travel column for the New York Times for 16 years.