Auburn University's annual Hospitality Gala raised $400,000 Thursday night for the school's hospitality management program. But that wasn't the only benefit students in the program received from the bash.
"I've never done a big event before. This is my first one," said Catherine Pirani, a senior majoring in hospitality management. "I now realize how important every tedious detail is. People won't even notice it, but you have to put in all that effort. So I think I've learned how much work goes into these events. But actually being part of it, being here today and seeing it all come together, makes it all worth it."
The gala has been the program's main fundraiser since 1992, welcoming ticket holders to a wine and fine dining event that also features a silent auction. Its home has been The Hotel at Auburn University for the past several years.
"The partnership between our hotel management company and the university started in 2003," said Hans van der Reijden, the hotel's managing director. "That's also when we started to get involved in this hospitality gala. In 2009, we made the decision to use our network of chefs and winemakers, not just from the United States, but globally, to bring in and make it a chefs- and winemaker-driven event."
Each chef prepares one course for the meal and one for the reception, van der Reijden explained. Dishes were prepared this year by Kyle Knall, a chef at restaurants in New Orleans and New York City, Erik Niel of Chattanooga, Alex Harrell of New Orleans, Antony Osborne, national dean of culinary and hospitality programs with the Education Corporation of America and Leo Maurelli, executive chef at the hotel.
Winemakers from three California wineries also shared their wares with gala guests.
"We're very grateful this year, after all the fires in Napa Valley, that all three, even though they have suffered some great losses in that area, were still able to come to this event," van der Reijden said.
Guests also sipped on bubbly from the French champagne house Taittinger while browsing the items available for the silent auction. Packages included trips to New York City, jewelry and original artwork. A live auction featuring a South African safari and VIP seats for Lady Gaga's Atlanta concert later this month followed the four-course dinner.
"We did a lot of silent auctioning: putting together the packages, asking companies for different things we could put together," junior Morgan Perry said. "Everyone did a hometown package; we kind of put together something special from our hometown. It was super fun."
Funds from Thursday's sold-out event will go to the College of Human Sciences, much of it toward scholarships for hospitality students to study abroad, senior Joie Hale said. For her, overseeing the gala from beginning to end was "really special."
"In the spring semester, we were in the class that designed, starting with the color schemes, and the florals and linens," she explained. "Moving into the fall semester, we helped create the silent auction packages. We meet with the hotel team and our professors, and we design what the event is supposed to look like, and how it's supposed to flow.
"It's an honor to be part of this class. It's such a small class of 10 people that we have on campus, and it's really exciting to work such a big event for so many people. Because 350 to 400 guests is a lot."
The gala provides students with the opportunity to work directly with chefs and winemakers, watching them perform their craft and ask questions.
"A lot happens through osmosis," van der Reijden said. "Simply observing professionals like that in their environment - in a kitchen, at their wine stations, etc., and they build a network and make connections, which is equally important."
But after all that hard work paid off, what's next?
"We start tomorrow on next year's event," van der Reijden said.