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Local event planners join forces to acquire firm

New co-owners merge three event design and décor rental businesses while expanding statewide.

December 6, 2019
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Special Occasion
The owners plan to provide expert design services based on the layouts, themes and budgets of the events in question. Courtesy Special Occasions

(As seen on WZZM TV 13) Special Occasions was founded 16 years ago to provide linen, chair and décor rentals to corporate, bridal and social event planners. Now, a pair of industry veterans has taken the reins and kicked off an expanded vision for the firm.

Sisters Lorrie Sage and Penny Waltman originally founded Special Occasions in 2003 as two distinct businesses in Grand Blanc and Grand Rapids, but they shared inventory — and a name — and often collaborated to help clients. The sisters also co-owned a third location in Traverse City.

Waltman retired a few years ago and sold Special Occasions West to husband-and-wife team Dee and Mark Mitchell. Not long after, Lorrie Sage announced her intention to retire and sell Special Occasions East, while the Mitchells mulled the same option in Grand Rapids and the three planned to exit Special Occasions North.

Enter Jamie Carnes and Keri Kujala (pronounced Kwee-ella).

Carnes has over 15 years of event coordination and design experience, most recently as owner-operator of Design Effect, which focused on corporate coordination throughout the Midwest, including in West Michigan.

Kujala recently wrapped up 14 years with Mercy Health, where she was director of donor and corporate relations with a focus on overseeing fundraising and public relations events — both internal and external — for the health system.

The pair had crossed paths in the event industry many times over the past 12 years. About a year-and-a-half ago, they connected and began talks with Sage and the Mitchells to acquire all three locations of Special Occasions and merge them into one LLC.

The acquisition and merger was completed July 1. 

Carnes and Kujala retained the existing showrooms at 7413 Fenton Road in Grand Blanc and 850 Grandville Ave. SW in Grand Rapids, as well as maintaining a mobile presence in Traverse City — but their plan is to serve clients statewide.

Kujala lives in Rockford and Carnes splits her time between a house in Grand Rapids and a cabin on the east side of the state. They said they don’t consider any of the business’s locations as its headquarters because they travel so much between all three, as well as meeting clients all over Michigan.

They acquired the business during the full-blown wedding season and became even busier when the corporate events calendar kicked off in September and October while bridal season still was going strong.

During peak times, the business has about 25 employees, and its new co-owners are looking to add more full-time hires as their book of business expands.

Even while running two busy households — between them, Carnes and Kujala have seven children under the age of 7 — the pair are proud to say they left their previous careers to take on running a full-time-plus business.

“Because there were (three) different businesses, there were a lot of procedures and things that each business did differently, and so Jamie and I have spent a lot of time working hand-in-hand with all of our employees and understanding what works and what doesn’t work and trying to find best practices to implement throughout all three locations, which has been a really fun and interesting challenge for us,” Kujala said.

“On top of that, we are not only providing a service … but we also have products. We want to make sure that our products are up to par.”

Carnes and Kujala said the upkeep and maintenance of the products are done locally and not outsourced, right down to the washing and pressing of linens with local seamstresses on hand to perform repairs.

They envision Special Occasions will be bigger than it has ever been under their watch.

They plan to expand the business’s services by “elevating the design aspect of the company,” which means they will provide clients — usually event planners rather than the organizations or brides themselves — with expert design services based on the layouts, themes and budgets of the events in question. They will focus on translating a client’s brand into the presentation of the event, consulting on complementary elements, from color palettes to floral arrangements to programs.

“It’s important to our whole team that each event can be fully designed to match our client’s vision,” Carnes said.

As part of its statewide expansion, Special Occasions will provide products and installation for any event, anywhere in Michigan.

Special Occasions has kept a steady pace of 20-50 events per week during Carnes and Kujala’s tenure.

“It’s been a very busy last five months to say the least, and we’re really excited about the next stage. My running joke keeps being, now that we have the wheels running for all three locations together, now we’re figuring out what the next stage of growth looks like and how we start really implementing that throughout the brand statewide,” Carnes said.

Kujala said they have discovered the trends and needs are very different on the east, west and north sides of the state, so learning about that, as well as trying to forecast trends into 2020 and 2021, has been “a fun challenge.”

Brides continue to use Pinterest and Instagram as their primary tools for determining an aesthetic for their weddings, and Special Occasions often is stretched to help plan events that are beautiful but also affordable compared to the event décor depicted on social media that comes with no advertised price tag.

“Sometimes, it’s easy to say, ‘Here’s the thing I’m seeing consistently — this one piece that is the through line with all of those photos,’ and so you can sometimes home in on a style pretty quickly,” Carnes said.

“Then, other times, people show you this photo that we can identify is from a $1 million event and they’re like, ‘Oh, I love this centerpiece,’ and it’s like, ‘Well you do, but you also love this photo, which has been made to look amazing because of all of the (expensive) elements.’”

Carnes said just five years ago, event rental and design firms weren’t posting event setup pictures on social media in real time, but that is now an extra dimension that is practically expected — that firms will have a canon of public evidence on social media to market their designs to prospective clients and “keep people apprised of what we’re doing.”

The “heart and soul” of what the co-owners believe sets Special Occasions apart is their philosophy of sharing and openness with other women in the female-dominated event industry, rather than fierce competition with other firms.

“The sandbox is big enough for everyone; there’s no reason why we cannot all play,” Carnes said. “We’re really trying to take the team leadership atmosphere and have that be how we’re doing it differently; that we don’t feel the need to be competitive, that we want to do good work that we love and are passionate about.”

They also want to encourage other “mompreneurs” to “be human” and not worry about having it all together but also to embrace the female gift for multitasking.

“We’ve been making sure that we’re filling our teams with people who also believe that. It’s OK that I went to a setup just last week and had a 1-year-old in a Moby Wrap on me while I threw linens. Sometimes, that’s what life looks like here, and we’re OK with that,” Carnes said.

“We are excited to show, confidently, that you can be a mom, you can be a good friend, a partner, and still lead a business and a crew and be out there doing the hard work, too.”

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