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August 2010
Master Player
By Ellison Clary

     For his production of Maya Angelou’s 82nd birthday party, hosted by Lowe’s, the acclaimed author and poet dubbed Clarke Allen “giver of joy.” It’s among the Charlotte entrepreneur’s proudest moments as an event planner, designer, celebration host, promoter and motivational speaker.

     The commemoration did what its recipient requested. During eight in-person visits to her Winston-Salem home, Allen got to know Angelou. So he asked her what emotion she most wanted her birthday guests to experience. “Joy,” she replied.

     “At the end of my event, she wrote in my book, ‘Clarke Allen, giver of joy,’” he smiles.

     Allen has owned and operated Charlotte Arrangements, a destination management company, for 16 years, assisting groups of various sizes visiting Charlotte by coordinating and packaging their Charlotte experience, arranging ground transportation, historic tours and special events.

     A native Charlottean, Allen was managing sales at a Hyatt Hotel in Dallas when he realized his calling. Many of those coming to the hotel needed much more than space for a certain date.

     “I’d find out about their ground transportation needs, their tour or spousal activities, and off-premises event needs,” he says, “and then I would call my various vendor partners and have them send all their information to me.

     “I would include those details with the hotel packet and mail it to prospective guests. So my visitors not only had a date and space, they had their entire meeting almost planned,” he says. “I was doing what this company does.”

     He decided to return to Charlotte and perform that work full-time.

     “I laugh about how passionate I am about Charlotte,” he smiles.

     Indeed, Charlotte Arrangements often directs tours of Charlotte for visitors and residents alike, lecturing on Charlotte’s history which, Allen insists, is much more eventful than many would guess.

 

The ‘Quintessential Entrepreneur’

     Chamber President Bob Morgan appreciates that passion as Allen shares it with fellow Chamber board members.

     “Clarke Allen is the quintessential entrepreneur,” Morgan says. “He brings an incredible amount of passion to whatever he does including building his business. He is ardent in his love for Charlotte.”

     Charlotte Arrangements has won enviable industry recognition and in 2006 was named “Inaugural Services Partner of the Year” by Visit Charlotte, an arm of the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority.

     These days, Allen, a destination management certified professional (DMCP), is at the helm of the Clarke Allen Group, an umbrella outfit the 46-year-old formed to administer Charlotte Arrangements as well as three other companies he started. It also encompasses his speaking engagements. The whole shebang operates from two connected former warehouse buildings on North Davidson Street in NoDa, a once run-down industrial sector turned arts district.

     About three years into event planning, for both visitors and area firms alike, Allen decided to form a separate entity to design sets for parties and handle details of carrying out their themes. He bought a local firm and christened it Creatrix Design. Through the years, it has facilitated celebrations with beach atmospheres, or mock up castles, or whatever Allen and his clients can imagine.

     “I do a lecture for the corporate audience called ‘Theme Is Not a Four-Letter Word,’” Allen says. “We work on ROI, which is not return on investment but retention of information. Retention is facilitated,” Allen maintains, “by an event environment that is memorable.”

     He started CenterStage@NoDa in 2001 in a 14,000-square-foot building next to his offices. With parking for nearly 500 and a wide open floor space, it’s a natural for seminars, retreats or parties.

     Then, about 18 months ago, he formed a non-profit firm for fund-raising, called Legacy Charitable Partners.  It helps talent- and treasure-starved organizations create signature events and attract lucrative sponsorships while raising money and their profile.

     “Each of the companies specializes in a particular aspect they support each other,” Allen says. It plays to his motto of “One company, one staff, zero stress” for his clients.

 

Creative Thinker

     Dealing with clients, being creative and responsible for managing events and the business, the solo owner soon realized he was overwhelmed.

     “I finally hired a general manager,” he says, referring to Leslie Palmer. She’s general manager of Charlotte Arrangements and chief operating officer of the other three companies.

     Palmer is an accountant with a background in operations with Mitsubishi International, as well as over 15 years directing a non-profit in Atlanta and founding her own non-profit teaching emotional intelligence to teens. She is uniquely qualified to run his businesses, Allen feels, leaving him to focus on the businesses of the Clarke Allen Group and building more of a national presence.

     He’s doing what he has advised other entrepreneurs and shared with lecture audiences for some time. That is, do what you do well—and for Clarke, that would be focusing on his creative gifts, which is designing and teaching.

     As a South Mecklenburg High School student, Clarke was always drawn to the arts; his mother was also an artist. He was a magician at 13 and was pulled toward acting. However, his father was an ex-Marine and a partner in an insurance agency and, with that influence, he gravitated toward sports.

     He finished Appalachian State University in 1987 with a degree in Hotel, Resort and Restaurant Management. That led to his association with Hyatt.

     He didn’t really allow himself to think creatively until he founded Charlotte Arrangements. Even then, as business mushroomed, he found himself being burdened with the managing piece which has lead him to write his upcoming book, entitled The Inevitable Box. The theme is helping entrepreneurs recognize the trap or box that a quickly growing business creates and giving them tools to redirect their energy back into their original passion and what brings them joy.

     “I’m not profit driven,” Allen declares. “I’m passion driven.”

     He’s developed a strong base of area clients who appreciate his handiwork. Among them is the Charlotte campus of Johnson & Wales University, where he also goes to find interns. He recently hired Kaitlyn Green, a graduate of the school’s Sports, Entertainment and Event Management track.

     Ann-Marie Weldon, chair of the JWU Hospitality College, praises Allen for hiring students as well as for participating in an “Executive in the Classroom” program.

     “Students love him because he brings in great experience,” Weldon says. “He shares lots of knowledge and is very upfront.”

     Other clients include businesses with well-known names such as Belk, Siemens and American Tire. For Joe Gibbs Racing, he produced “Taylor’s Finish Line Event” to honor grandson Taylor Gibbs, who had just completed chemotherapy for leukemia. The zMax Dragway celebration raised nearly $650,000 for Levine Children’s Hospital and the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

 

Spreading His Wings

     Allen credits his continuing association with Lowe’s Home Improvement for the opportunity to plan that corporation’s celebration of Angelou’s lifetime contributions. The fete was held in Angelou’s garden, which Lowe’s beautifully restored.

     The party included handmade chandeliers inscribed with Angelou quotes, a 20-foot floral carpet that cascaded from a vase suspended from the ceiling with a waterfall that slowly trickled down the flowers, and a 16-foot welded steel tree burnished on its bark with empowering quotes. Among the 100 selected guests were singers Martina McBride and Naomi Judd, rapper Common, and Lee Daniels, director of the poignant movie “Precious.”

     Allen was humbled when Angelou recognized him by name in her brief remarks. Not only that, she invited him back as a guest at her Fourth of July party.

     There are other creations he’s proud of, including blowout weddings in Virginia and Texas. And he facilitated two huge events for a New York City designer. But the average Allen affair is about $10,000 and Allen insists on operating frugally.

     His speaking engagements have taken him throughout America, from Philadelphia to Seattle to Dallas, he says. Meanwhile, for 11 years he’s taught a post-graduate course in Event Planning and Design at the UNC Charlotte. He also serves on the school’s Meeting Certification Advisory Committee.

     Despite his enthusiasm for his business, Allen cautions that the steep recession hurt him as it did most everyone else.

     “The economy hit us hard,” he says with a head shake. “It hit our industry hard. In addition, there was Congress’ scrutiny of corporate spending, and of travel and events. And it really hurt the hospitality business.”

     His staff that now numbers 13 full-time and 18 part-time has been pared severely, he says, adding that his experience would have been worse had he not anticipated hard times and taken appropriate action as early as the latter half of 2008.

     These days, Allen says, he’s partnering more than he ever imagined he would with competitors. “We have changed from competitive capitalism to cooperative capitalism” he says.

     Even with new economic realities, Allen believes there is a place for what his companies do.

 

High Tech; High Touch

     “I strongly believe that meetings are a more intrinsic part of our business and social life than ever before,” he says. “The more we move into high tech, the more people need high touch. They need the opportunity to engage and celebrate and renew.”

     He’s placing more emphasis on team-building. Often, participants in an Allen- produced program cooperate to create a commercial as in his “Lights, Camera, Action” activity. Or he also offers a “build a bike” activity where groups build a bike from scratch, test it on a race course and donate it to charity.

     Allen sees better times ahead. He’s fortunate, he feels, that the Clarke Allen Group doesn’t really have an overall rival. Its diverse companies compete in their sectors, but no area firm offers the comprehensive services of his Group.

     Further, his new emphasis on allowing others more influence in the firm portends better experiences for his employees. He is having Palmer install performance measures and envisions a program by which associates can invest in the companies. A profit-sharing plan will come soon.

     Allen likes his company’s physical location in art-oriented NoDa. That was reinforced a while back when Charlotte icon Hugh McColl Jr., whose center city development hand was supremely influential while he steered Bank of America, paid Allen’s offices a surprise visit.

     “He talked to me about the opportunity NoDa presents,” says Allen.

     Allen hopes Charlotte will continue to develop light rail, especially the north line envisioned to pass right behind his location on its way to the UNC Charlotte campus and beyond.

     “What light rail will mean for this neighborhood and others like it is important,” he says, adding it’s another reason to be proud of the Queen City.

     Charlotte is not New Orleans, it’s not New York. It doesn’t slap you in the face when you walk outside,” he says. “But we have so many wonderful treasures, like the Hall of Fame, the new museums downtown and the Billy Graham Library, along with exciting new restaurants and entertainment”

     So Allen believes Charlotte has much to attract visitors and inspire corporate events that nurture companies such as those he has created.

     “I’m a student of my industry,” he says, “and I love what I do.”

 

Ellison Clary is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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