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Design an Immersive Event Experience?

as long as a brisk walk around the block
How Do You Design an Immersive Event Experience?
Marina Vitebsky & Danni Zelin

Co-founders of A Forest Dark

Nightlife events have undergone a significant transformation in recent years. Especially in big cities like New York, people expect more than just some music, a dance floor, and a couple of go-go dancers.

Nowadays, it's about creating multi-dimensional sensory adventures that leave a lasting impression on guests, especially if you want great press for your brand or product launch, or want to make a name for yourself as an event organizer.

This shift has led to great demand for elements that can elevate the entire experience, which is where A Forest Dark comes in. Based in New York, this company means serious business when it comes to immersive themes, elaborate decorations, and captivating acts. We chatted with co-founders Marina Vitebsky and Danni Zelin about what it’s like working on huge productions, such as their haunted hotel event with Amaya Society during Halloween.

Performer and costume design by A Forest Dark title=
Performer and costume design by A Forest Dark

How do you answer the demand for elevated event experiences?

A Forest Dark’s peculiar project titles already speak volumes. Themes include “Indian Wedding,” “Neon Rainforest,” “Space Erotica,” “Ancient Cambodian Ruins,” and “Garden of Surrealism,” for example.

Their portfolio includes relaunches and corporate events for brands like Don Papa Rum and Toyota, and nightlife productions with organizations like Indo Warehouse, Amaya Society, Cipriani, Arlo Hotel, Paradise Club at Edition Hotel, and Tao Group.

Decor production by A Forest Dark title=
Decor production by A Forest Dark

The scope of unique projects varies, which is why A Forest Dark continues to expand its wide array of services. Evidently, clients are looking for a way to make their event memorable, setting them apart from other events. 

”We can take care of the stage design and decor throughout the venue as well as creating immersive art installations, performances including costume design and props for the performers, and branded moments for any sponsors involved,” Vitebsky explains.

Zelin adds that their ultimate goal is always the same no matter which services they deliver. “To make guests feel like they have entered another world, taking them out of their day-to-day. We do this by transforming event spaces into immersive experiences where guests can fully interact with the elements we create,” she says.

Decor and performers by A Forest Dark title=
Decor and performers by A Forest Dark

How do you bring creative ideas to life?

Vitebsky explains that some clients approach them with a very specific vision, with references to work with, while other meetings involve a bit of brainstorming.

“We have a meeting to shape the vision into a concept and then we create a mood board. Once we get the mood board approved by the client, we do a venue walkthrough and start putting together the budget, which can involve some negotiating.”

Something Zelin noticed is how the cost of DJ bookings has drastically increased since COVID. This often leaves organizers with a smaller budget for the overall production, while still wanting the same impact and quality. 

“Clients will ask for 10 different installations, with a very small budget. So we have to end up saying we can do only three of their favorite ideas, or find ways to reduce costs, by shrinking the ideas into smaller versions of the installations. It’s a give and take, with a lot of rebudgeting.”

Performer by A Forest Dark title=
Performer by A Forest Dark

“Sometimes, ideas get bigger and even more amazing and inspired. We would exceed the budget simply because we cared about the art so much. So now, as we continue to evolve our business, we’re refining the skill of finding a balance.”

An important detail is that they create all the decor themselves using raw materials in their studio in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. With multiple projects going on at the same time, it can be quite a juggle working on all the different pieces. Especially during special holiday seasons, such as Halloween for example.

For last year's fall season, they worked on two different Halloween-themed projects; one for Cipriani at nightclub Musica, and another with Amaya Society at the Georgia Room nightclub. The latter is located at the Freehand Hotel, a historical building that’s considered an art-deco-style masterpiece.

This fall season, they worked on three different Halloween-themed projects; one with Amaya Society once again at a secret venue in Chelsea, another at one of the biggest Halloween events in the city called City of Gods, and lastly at the popular Arlo Hotel - formerly known as the Williamsburg Hotel - creating a riveting forest of the dead. 

“We were so inspired by the historical architecture of the Freehand and the Georgia Room with its gorgeous columns and ornaments, that we decided to go for a complete haunted hotel experience with decor and installations throughout every area” Vitebsky says.

Countless bags of cobwebs were ordered for the event, along with numerous candles, chandeliers, frames, fabric, mannequin body parts, fake blood, and knives.

Decor by A Forest Dark for the Amaya Halloween party at the Freehand Hotel title=
Decor by A Forest Dark for the Amaya Halloween party at the Freehand Hotel

“Body parts came through the windows, with mysterious faces coming through frames on the walls. Bloody spats covered the rooms, while bloodied knives hung from the chandeliers. We also had a hand holding a candle, which appeared to come through a mirror. The venue was transformed into a haunted hotel movie set, especially with the combination of immersive theater” Vitebsky shares.

Decor by A Forest Dark for the Amaya Halloween party at the Freehand Hotel
Decor by A Forest Dark for the Amaya Halloween party at the Freehand Hotel
Decor by A Forest Dark in the halls of the Freehand Hotel
Decor by A Forest Dark in the halls of the Freehand Hotel

How do you ensure the experience becomes immersive?

Besides bringing ideas to life through decor and installations, A Forest Dark also masters the art of immersive storytelling. They concoct a complete storyline, brought to life through a whimsical crew of actors and performers.

It’s important to note that their performers are not just playing a role by standing there and performing for people; they are actually interacting and speaking with the guests the entire time.

Sometimes the actors will ask guests to help them find things or solve problems, turning some installations into activities the crowd can partake in.

According to Zelin, they had about 30+ actors and performers spread throughout their Halloween productions in 2022, which they designed costumes for, as well as complete character developments, writing full scripts for how they would interact with the guests. 

At Amaya’s Haunted Hotel, for instance, the actors played the hotel’s residents, of which some were alive and some were ghosts.

Decor by A Forest Dark for the Amaya Halloween party at the Freehand Hotel title=
Decor by A Forest Dark for the Amaya Halloween party at the Freehand Hotel

One storyline involved a bride and groom who got married in the building hundreds of years ago, but they died at the hotel. Unable to pass on because they love each other so much but can’t find each other, they leave love notes and clues around the hotel.

The party attendees could help them find each other by following trails of rose petals and clues found in love letters scattered around the venue.

There was also a “Bat Sh*t Crazy Lady” who constantly laughed hysterically asking guests to pet the bat on her shoulder. Other characters included an opera singer, a corpse contortionist in a skull room, as well as a nymphomaniac seductress at the bar that guests could spill hot candle wax on if they ordered a drink.

With the amazing decor and all these outrageous characters interacting with you, it doesn’t only look like a movie set, it feels like stepping into a Halloween movie entirely.

Decor and performance by Vitebsky herself by A Forest Dark for the Amaya Halloween party
Decor and performance by Vitebsky herself by A Forest Dark for the Amaya Halloween party
Decor by A Forest Dark for the Amaya Halloween party at the Freehand Hotel
Decor by A Forest Dark for the Amaya Halloween party at the Freehand Hotel

How do you deal with production challenges?

Doing build-up in a rush, or dealing with scissor lift machinery failure, Zelin and Vitebsky handle it all. Everything works out in the end, but Vitebsky admits, not always as envisioned.

“When the scissor lift died, we couldn’t complete a huge chandelier activation meant as the room's centerpiece with ribbons spread out across the ceiling. The production manager neglected to charge the scissor lift, so it wasn’t on us but we were so sad. We prepped this chandelier for days for this huge event, and it looked nothing like intended.” 

Figuring out ways to install decor is an art in itself. Some venues don’t mind drilling into the walls, but others such as the historical Freehand Hotel don’t, requesting them to use only contact strips.

After decorating the day before, they found some of their antique frames broken on the floor the next morning. Luckily, they were then permitted to rehang everything with very thin nails as the hotel management saw how cool the decor looked. 

Besides the walls, ensuring decor is ‘foolproof’ in any area is always top priority. Some guests think decor is theirs to take, with the team sometimes catching people dancing with the mannequins or walking out with giant sculptures.

The team learned that some guests just really like to have a small souvenir or memento from events they enjoyed. 

“We play into this by providing things like little bottles of potions, tarot cards, or custom poetry written for guests. At the Hantel Hotel event, guests could take the love letters and roses from the ghost couple home with them” Zelin says.


Decor production by A Forest Dark for Indo Warehouse title=
Decor production by A Forest Dark for Indo Warehouse

How do you keep pushing your creativity?

For A Forest Dark, every event is an opportunity to break boundaries and create something extraordinary, but Zelin and Vitebsky already find themselves expanding beyond that.

“We want to start designing fully modular decor pieces, which could be a great option for organizers with a smaller budget. Besides this, we envision A Forest Dark becoming a global brand, so we are preparing operations for international events” Vitebsky says.

Another outrageous project that the ladies thrust themselves into recently was organizing a themed camp at Burning Man 2023 named Looners. As seasoned ‘burners,’ they wanted to bring something unique to this event where nothing is crazy enough.

Vitebsky shares that they not only built a circus-themed camp with an old-world lounge and dance area, but they also offered hot air balloon rides with DJs onboard playing music during sunrise and sunset. “It was a tough challenge because of the harsh weather among other things, but the whole experience was still beyond magical” she adds.

So what’s next? If we leave it up to A Forest Dark, the future promises to be a thrilling enigma.

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