Photo: Hannah Thomson

Event Producer

Bronson Van Wyck

Written by Saul Taylor

Bronson van Wyck was forced to cultivate hospitality and entertainment skills from a young age in his Arkansas childhood farm. We discover what it’s really like working with your mother and your sister and why it’s so important to stay invisible as a party planner.

Where did your preoccupation with hospitality and events begin?

I grew up on a farm in Arkansas and we had to amuse ourselves all the time. There were no real restaurants, theatre or nightclubs. You had nature and you had each other. We were living in this bucolic place with our imaginations. Our family were very busy going places and people were coming to visit all the time. When people came we all had this responsibility as hosts, even as little kids. It was developed in us that we had to entertain because there were no other options for entertainment except what we could put together. We were in a constant state of preparing a moveable feast, where the most ancient foundation of hospitality — receiving strangers or people from afar and making them feel comfortable — was practiced on a daily basis.

Where did you train?

When I left college I went to the State Department and ended up being assigned to protocol. I was working on diplomatic entertainment and ceremonial stuff. When my stint at State was over I went out to LA.. to be a movie star, which really meant that I was the host at an Indian restaurant waiting tables. I worked in set design in Los Angeles. I really believe that through this extended process of elimination I figured out what it is that I’m supposed to do — it’s a combination of protocol, acting, set design and waiting tables. That was basically my training with a bit of education and history of art that perhaps gives it a little perspective.

You work incredibly closely with your family. How did that come about?

We were always very close. When I was in Los Angeles 20 years ago I was growing tired of being in the film business and felt frustrated. My mother meanwhile had gotten very sick. She had cancer and was not meant to survive but she did, knock on wood. She came out of that with this new lease on life and she wanted to do something. And all while I was in a moment of wanting to do something else. She asked what I would have liked to have done that weekend if I could have done anything. I said I would have thrown a party. She said, “Well, let’s go figure out a way to get paid to throw parties.”

Three weeks later a friend called needing help with their wedding. That was our first event and we just kept going with friends and family dos. The first time the phone rang from a complete stranger was about two years in, saying, “We’ve heard about you guys,” and then they hired us. We got off the phone, opened a bottle of champagne and said, now we’ve got the first real event. It was a publicist named Elizabeth Harrison for a Dunhill event.

That’s pretty high-end for your first major client.

It was great. We started working with a lot of brands at that time. Working with your family means that one, you don’t have to watch your back because your success is what the other person wants, so there’s no politics. What’s so fulfilling about it on a personal level is that I get to see my mom and my sister, these two people who I love and adore, doing the thing that they love and are sublimely good at. On the flip side you can’t fire each other, so you have to make it work. You have to get along which is probably a good thing actually. There’s no exit strategy when you work with your family.

It says on your Instagram, ‘born to party’. What is it about your approach in particular that sets you apart?

I’m always scared answering a question like that in case I come across pompous or arrogant. Growing up in a very rural place you had to figure things out. Nobody delivered and if you wanted to get a plumber, you might not be able to get him for next week.

I think a lot of what we do is to basically figure things out and it makes you resourceful. You get to this point of self-sufficiency which helps you when you have to think on your feet when you’re moving fast in the event. On a more philosophical level, we’ve gone to parties and given parties all our lives. We are not trying to, on our client’s time, give our party. We’re trying to give their party. I think we are really good at listening. Our job is to be detectives, to draw out and distill what it is that they really want to achieve in the most gracious and receptive way. Then we can take our experience of having produced hundreds of events from the perspective of the guest and the host, and surround their vision with all the touch points of graciousness and generosity and hospitality that make it feel like an utter delight to the guests.

Do you have a particular style or aesthetic?

We don’t really have an aesthetic because our aesthetic is the aesthetic of our clients. I always want to know what people’s favourite books are, what hotels they like to stay in, their favourite scenes from their favourite movies etc. All of these things are like little clues that you use to assemble a mosaic.

It’s like a psycho-emotional profile which we take very seriously because we want the client’s friends to come to the party and we don’t want them to see us. We’re invisible, we’re little elves behind the curtain. We want them to come in and say, “Oh my God, this is so you!”, and we want them to learn something about the host. That’s a really gracious, wonderful thing that a host or hostess can do for a guest, just to share something and have them come away knowing something and feeling something that they hadn’t before.

You still sound incredibly enthralled to it all. I wonder how you keep up that kind of energy.

Ideas are a totally renewable resource. I have six or seven parties racing around in my head at any given moment that I want to do. I feel so lucky because every day I get to meet people and potentially take some of those ideas and share them. I’m inspired by art and theatre, design and fashion. I think we, as humans and guests, also yearn to feel taken care of and protected. I’m also always trying to figure out how to mix high and low, or formal and relaxed, or grand and intimate. How do we mix these things in a way that mirrors life but in a happier, more inclusive way that gives guests that sense of wonder, but at the same time never makes them feel smaller than the party?

What makes a good host?

A good host doesn’t awe guests in a way that alienates them. He or she blows them away by bringing them along. If you’re never making choices then it becomes a display and it’s not about the actual experience. It’s about witnessing something instead.

Could you tell us a bit about Save Venice? How did that come about?

Our friend Lauren Santo Domingo, chairs Save Venice with some other friends and Oscar de la Renta has been sponsoring it. Three or four years ago, Lauren and Giulia Caltagirone {Oscar de la Renta’s brand ambassador], we were all together and Lauren said “I want to make this party the most amazing thing in the world. Shall we do this?” And we said, “why not. Let’s do it”. We started making that party the experience of being there, in terms of how it looked and felt, we elevated it. When we work on charity events, we work as volunteers. So we don’t charge charities and we try to cover our costs. I’ve never in my life been in a position to write million dollar cheques to a charity, but I can certainly make an event look like it’s a million dollar event or I can I can make guests feel like a million bucks when they come. It’s a way for me to punch above my weight and give back.

That’s been the impetus and it’s fun to work on Save Venice. Given that kind of engagement where you’re doing something because you want to do it you’re doing something, you know as a volunteer Save Venice is very, as an organisation, they’re very respectful and they leave us alone. They get our absolute best vision because they let us go do what it is that we do and there’s a huge level of trust.

You seem to have quite the knack for a good guest list. How do you go about curating such a high profile room?

That’s Lauren. I don’t do guest lists. Back in 1999 I wanted to do things I could control and I knew I couldn’t control whether Leonardo DiCaprio wakes up with a headache and doesn’t want to come to the event anymore.

What does a dinner party Chez van Wyck look like?

I always seat a dinner. I think that thoughtful seating is one of the greatest gifts you can give as a host to your guests and it’s a particularly important to the shyer members of the tribe. The most gregarious person don’t need seatings because they’re always going to find their way. You seat it so that so that somebody who might not be as socially facile is put in a situation where they can shine. So I really believe you always need talkers and you always need listeners and they need each other. I mean if you’re a talker and a listener you get invited out every night of the week. Most people are one or the other, if you’re both you’re guest list gold.

I’ll always try to serve salty food, salty hors d’oeuvre to make people thirsty and thirsty people drink. People who drink flirt and people who are flirted with feel beautiful and people who feel beautiful remember the night through rose tinted glasses.

Several months ago at one of my dinners I got a book for each guest and put him at the place settings. You might have been sitting next to somebody who had a Robert Massie book on Nicholas and Alexandra and the next person might have had Emily Wilson’s new translation of The Odyssey and each of those things had something to do with the person who it was given to. So immediately you have something to talk about. Oh look, he gave you a book about the Russian Revolution. Tell me why? And they say, Oh I spent eight years there after college and you know you’ve got something to talk about.

We’ve noticed you like a costume.

(Laughs) I do. Costumes are used very effectively at Save Venice because it’s a masked ball. It’s funny in a world where self-presentation is so important, that it’s when we put on a mask that we often reveal the most about ourselves. Because it’s this opportunity to not have to worry about the masks that we wear every day. The mask of the Venetian nobleman, the pirate, the sorceress or the muse allows you to take your own mask off. That happens at the Save Venice party.

What makes a great event?

Strong drinks, because no great party starts with a cup of tea. Great guests and a great host. When I say great what I mean is this — it’s a host and a guest who understand this reciprocal relationship between them. This is something that I talk a lot about in my book called, Born To Party, Forced to Work. I explain that the nicest thing a guest can do for a host is to look around the room and see who at the party is not having fun and go over to that person and give them five minutes and make them have fun.