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Let’s Party! Tracking the Shift in How We Create
and Experience Celebrations


Tom Kehoe
President, Kehoe Designs

‘Tis the perfect season to talk with nationally recognized Chicago event décor expert Tom Kehoe about shifts in celebrations, from company events to family holiday dinners. Tom, president of Kehoe Designs, shared with TMG his thoughts about significant agents of change in the event industry, transforming venues into experiences, and entertaining Andy Warhol.

What shifts have you seen in the event décor industry in the last two or three years? How have the ways people create a celebration changed?

New technologies in every area from registration, to lighting, to communication have transformed event décor into a multi-dimensional experience designed to stimulate all the senses. Guests have the ability to interact with the environment and create a community of celebration and participation. They become an integral part of the event rather than simply attendees. As the energy builds, a terrific atmosphere of engagement develops. The staging of the venue becomes more believable and buy-in is greater.

The experience starts upon arrival. Guests program their phones so that we are able to broadcast their tweets, photos, and posts in real-time on LED screens placed throughout the venue. Flat screens are incorporated into the décor in unexpected ways; they might become part of the bar, the top of a dinner table, or hung on a wall in a collection of 40-foot by 20-foot panels.

Limitless design possibilities have become available to us through these advancements in technology. Video projection and video mapping add additional layers of visual and auditory sensation. Multiple cameras roam throughout the event streaming live video. Simulcast throughout the space, people view what is happening in another room or area of the event and share their photos and comments. Graphics and imagery are animated and mapped onto floors or walls. Architectural details suddenly come to life as visual elements dance along the surface. Interactive projections change when someone waves a hand across a picture. Computer-based smart lighting controls the movement of color, texture, and pattern via wireless cues.


Video mapping brings the incomparable architecture of the Chicago History Museum to life.


Computer-based smart lighting, video simulcasts, and rich color transform venues into environments.

Are any shifts that were made in your industry to accommodate the recession here to stay?

As a luxury item, events were scaled back rather quickly. People are now ready to celebrate again. However, there has been a change in the corporate mindset. The celebration must include a value-add component for employees, prospects, and clients. Experiential design plays a large role in creating this value. It becomes a marketing tool that allows the company to differentiate itself through the ways in which guests become part of the event experience. Additionally, the technologies allow for an exponential increase in social media exposure.

This shift in perspective applies to personal events too. Hosts and hostesses are sharing the experience with their guests in thoughtful and responsible ways. At the end of the party, they want guests to feel they were given a gift.


The wedding experience is a gift to guests from the bride and groom.

We’ve observed a direct relationship between shrinking staff size and turnaround time. Because our clients have been taking on more and more responsibility in response to shifts at their own workplaces, they’ve had less time available to devote to event planning. Budgets are also often not approved until the last minute. Our business model has changed to accommodate shorter, faster turn-arounds.

Pinterest, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and more have made it easier than ever to share the beauty of your work. Describe the impact social media has had on Kehoe Designs.

The good news is that social media has helped us share what we do and receive inspiration from others. We appreciate seeing different perspectives in our industry.

The bad news is that people frequently want to recreate what they’ve seen online. However, each event is unique and deserves a fresh approach.

Let’s consider those family holiday celebrations that have reached a state of static energy. What can be done to add a touch of spectacular without upsetting Grandma?

  1. Create a new tradition. Consider one that is family-oriented, sentimental and meaningful.
  2. Add humor to the event.
  3. Bring in something unexpected. It can be entertainment, a game, or an unusual dish. Start by brainstorming a list that includes ideas small and large, from an unusual menu item to an a capella choir.
  4. Surprise your family with a trolley and take them on a Christmas lights tour. Serve eggnog and hot cider. Sing carols!
  5. Maintain focus on family and the holiday and ask everyone to leave mobile phones and devices at the door. We’re all so addicted to our phones.

Are there any trends in holiday event décor that are making a comeback? Losing favor? Is there an emerging new direction?

There’s always a new twist on traditional. Updated holiday color stories are inspired by fashion and interior design trends. Color schemes and materials are often changed. Reds become plums with winterberries and sapphires. Blues and purples move to rose golds and apricots. Instead of traditional brocade and velvet, suede or colored cowhide in classic tones might be introduced. A red suede tablecloth can be totally unexpected.

As we age, our definition of traditional changes. Adding a contemporary twist to a beloved holiday element can transform dated into dazzling. We will always love our childhood holiday memories. It is fun to mine them to see which ones can be contemporized. What if that classic gingerbread house became a skyscraper made of gingerbread?

If you could invite anyone in the world, past or present, to your holiday table who would you include? Describe the tabletop décor. What would you serve?

I would invite Andy Warhol. I think he’s amazing and he would have incredible stories. The tabletop would be luscious and scrumptious. I’m a tactile person. I’d do the table in black velvet with gold and silver flatware and glassware. Each place setting would have a small box covered in snake or crocodile skin with that guest’s favorite chocolate dessert inside. Oversized, dramatic, old-world candelabras dripping with wax would shed a soft glow onto bowls of gorgeous white amaryllis. You would want to touch everything, laugh, drink, and stay for hours. My menu would include lots of comfort food; maybe a rack of lamb with mashed potatoes. I would serve all the basics that people love. And lots and lots of wine and champagne!

Think of my table as a welcoming place. When everyone begins to relax and feel more open, they look good and are at ease. Everyone gets along better. I’ve seen it happen again and again. The bickering stops and behavior improves. People sit up and realize they’re in this amazing environment.


White amaryllis will grace Tom’s table when Andy Warhol comes to dinner.


First Dog Bo Obama is all ears as he and Tom discuss event décor for a White House party. “He’s a ball of puppy love,” says Tom.