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Q and A with Duane Smith

by: Jim Clark, West Coast Event Productions’ Duane Smith can bring tables, fake trees or a few famous figurines to any party.

It seems like everybody's got a stinky-cheese story these days. Duane Smith certainly has his. Smith's got a lot of stories, in fact. Owning and operating West Coast Event Productions in Northwest Portland, a rental company that provides all the essentials for events, has ensured that the odd situation or two would come Smith's way.

Smith has seen outdoor wedding tents blow down before the ceremony was complete, and he's seen weddings that couldn't start because the bridegroom and his pals were watching the last five minutes of a Blazer playoff game in the room next door, and everybody knows the last five minutes take at least half an hour. Well, the wedding planner didn't know that. She was going ballistic, Smith says.

No ballistics from Smith, whose company has grown to include outlets in Bend, Seattle and Las Vegas since he started it out of his garage 26 years ago. And the one lesson he's learned in those 26 years?

'Flexibility,' he says, adding, 'No matter how much planning you do there's always something that will get in your way of having a perfect event.'

Portland Tribune: So. Stinky cheese. You say this stems from the most unusual party you've helped produce?

Duane Smith: This just happened the other day. A group called the American Cheese Society called. There were several hundred people coming in for cheese testing. The bottom line is, we did the whole event for them but they didn't have the budget. So they asked if I could trade out some cheese. They paid me with about 300 pounds of cheese.

Tribune: What kind?

Smith: They must have had 40 to 50 different kinds of cheese. That's not the worst part. I had to pick it up at 10 o'clock at night. We took it down to West Coast to put it in my refrigerator but found it didn't all fit, so we had to go to three different homes between 10 and midnight to get it all put away.

Tribune: Does your office now smell like cheese?

Smith: No. But my refrigerator does when I open it up.

Tribune: What did you do to earn 300 pounds of cheese?

Smith: It was at the Hilton, 'Exploring Cheese Frontiers.' We did a Northwest décor. We had a 15-foot-tall by 30-foot-wide painted backdrop of a mountain scene with rivers and rocks, and in front of that we put three-dimensional fir trees and rocks and foliage, and there were about a thousand different types of cheeses that all the manufacturers brought in.

Tribune: Do you often allow customers to pay you in kind?

Smith: Yeah, we do actually. What happens is people want something really nice but don't have the budget.

Tribune: Is that a good way to make money?

Smith: No, but it makes your event look better, and if you're flexible with them they can come back again and again.

Tribune: What was the biggest event you've helped produce?

Smith: We did a job for Microsoft in Seattle out of our Portland branch. We took about eight large truckloads of décor and themed events for a holiday party for 20,000 Microsoft employees, from the lighting to sound to tablecloths to centerpieces to wall décor and large winter vignettes with a log cabin in the center of the room. It was about a $250,000 budget.

Tribune: Anything in trade?

Smith: No. It was all in cash.

Tribune: How about unusual requests?

Smith: Sometimes people don't realize how much parties cost, and they ask if you can get an elephant or a tiger for their kid's party. And of course you can, but it's very expensive.

Tribune: Have you ever done it?

Smith: Yes we have. A tiger, once.

Tribune: For a kid's party? How much did that cost?

Smith: I think it was $800 to $1,000 for a tiger and a trainer out there to work with the kids.

Tribune: You mean to work with the tiger, right?

Smith: Yeah, right.

- Peter Korn