Event planner builds business on big-city experience: Award-winning firm grows into all-around performer

Indianapolis might not be as glamorous as Los Angeles or New York City, but Midwestern life seems to be suiting Gene Huddleson just fine.

Nearly 10 years after returning to his Hoosier roots, the event planner has found a niche within the industry that builds upon his past travels. He and his colleagues at Detail + Design, in the Stutz II building across the street from the original Stutz building, accompany corporate clients who may be hosting activities throughout the United States.

Their job is to ensure the events go off without a hitch.

“We partner with them to make sure they look good,” said Huddleson, 45. “There’s this huge comfort level with them knowing that they will be going into this strange town and everything will be taken care of.”

They must be doing something right. The firm pulled down five awards at the March 15 banquet of the Indiana Chapter of the International Special Events Society in Chicago.

Leslie Swathwood, president of the chapter and owner of locally based wedding planner Elegant Events, said it’s no surprise the company cleaned house at the annual gathering.

“Gene has done an exceptional job because he lived and worked both in L.A. and New York,” she said. “It’s no wonder people trust him to do things from afar, or to come into a city to do an event.”

Details + Design is a full-service event planner, though, thanks to the additions of Anne Steinberg and Kari Strolberg. The idea was to create a “powerhouse company” that could fulfill any client request, Huddleson said.

New York not the place

Huddleson, a Rockville native, attended Indiana State University but moved to the West Coast in the early 1980s. As a talented artist, he began doing fund-raising event design for AIDS Project Los Angeles.

He later worked for an event-planning company that sent him to jobs all over the country. It was in 1994 that a New Yorker asked Huddleson to come there for three months to work on a project. His time there lasted three years instead.

His laid-back approach and calm demeanor clashed with the culture of the Big Apple, where Huddleson said shouting was the preferred method of communication. He knew it was time to leave when he began adapting to the customs.

Saving a wedding

A funny thing happened on his return to Los Angeles. While visiting Indianapolis, he met Jeff Smulyan, who mentioned a grand opening in the works for the downtown headquarters of Emmis Communications Corp. Smulyan, CEO of the public corporation, hired Huddleson to coordinate the event.

Smulyan later recruited Huddleson to handle the details of his 2003 wedding. Smulyan’s home on Eagle Creek Reservoir provided the perfect backdrop for the August ceremony and the 1,000 people in attendance.

Except for one minor glitch-severe storms threatened to dampen the festivities. A tornado warning even capped off the evening.

Huddleson’s talents shone through, however. Quick shipments of umbrellas, canopies and tarps helped save the day.

“It poured down rain; I was frantic,” said Robin Rene, Smulyan’s executive assistant. “He just never missed a beat with anything.”

Huddleston launched LGH Design Group in 1997 and began organizing travel events for corporate clients such as Rolls Royce. Through his work he eventually met Steinberg.

Huddleson, who focuses on event decor, figured he and Steinberg, whose niche is logistics planning, might make a good team. About six months later, Steinberg agreed.

“I thought if there was two of us I wouldn’t have to work so hard,” said Steinberg, 35. “But that didn’t happen. As soon as we got together, it was gangbusters. It was a great collaboration.”

Steinberg, who graduated from DePauw University in 1992 with a degree in economics, managed events such as charity golf outings while at the former First of America Bank.

Her interest in event planning outweighed her commitment to a banking career. She launched her company, Details By Decker, in 1998 before joining Huddleson in 2002.

Strolberg, 36, came aboard two years later. She still operates her own company, Eventful Marketing Solutions, but collaborates with Steinberg on the logistical end of the event-planning process. Strolberg filled in for Steinberg two years ago while Steinberg was on maternity leave, and stayed.

Strolberg is a graduate of Illinois State University and attended Ball State University to begin work on a master’s degree in public relations. She became sidetracked, though, while completing a graduate assistantship at the Carmel mayor’s office, where she got her first taste of the eventplanning business.

She worked for six years at Wiersma Event Planning Co. until it closed in 1997. She spent a year at the local office of St. Louis-based Creative Producers Group before setting out on her own.

With the three of them, and Mike King, a Purdue University graduate who earned a degree in horticulture and performs landscape design and installation, Detail + Design is beginning to realize substantial growth. Revenue for 2005 hit $750,000, a 30-percent increase from the previous year. Expectations are that the company will top $1 million this year.

King arrived to provide the exteriordesign element that could contribute to more growth. April Perkins is Detail + Design’s interior designer.

Bigger events

The core trio planned fewer events than usual in 2005, but the scope was larger, Huddleson said. They plan to increase marketing efforts pitching the company as a planner of destination events. Negotiating with hotels, determining locations to visit, and working within a client’s budget are all part of the process.

Besides Rolls Royce, they have traveled to Florida to coordinate a cruise for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indianapolis Racing League.

They are occupied with planning for the 500 Festival in May and the Komen Indianapolis Race for the Cure April 22. They did the decor design for the Dale Chihuly glass-installation opening March 18 at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis as well.

The increase in business forced Detail + Design to vacate its cramped quarters at the Stutz building for the current digs across 10th Street in the Stutz II building. The 3,400 square feet of office and warehouse space is decked out in an urban chic design, accented by the wall shelf displaying the numerous awards the business has earned.

Please enable JavaScript to view this content.

Story Continues Below

Editor's note: You can comment on IBJ stories by signing in to your IBJ account. If you have not registered, please sign up for a free account now. Please note our updated comment policy that will govern how comments are moderated.