By Robin H. Phillips
It’s time to start celebrating again—with friends old and new, and family near and far. Events, wedding receptions, milestone birthdays, and graduation parties—they are all being planned for this summer and beyond. When most of us return to these gatherings we will bring with us a newfound joy for how wonderful it is to be together again. No one is more delighted about this hopeful return to some normalcy than Rosinne Chlala, the president of Festivities, an award-winning event planning and catering company based in Norwalk, Connecticut. In business for over 36 years, Roe, as most people call her, and brother/co-founder and executive chef Bill Kaliff are busily planning many special occasions. “All of us are over the moon to be putting our energy back where it belongs,” says Chlala with a big smile.
While the pandemic put much of Festivities’ event and catering business on hold, Chlala found plenty to do. She spent time researching and brainstorming about her field and ways to make it better. She devoted time to expanding one of her best ideas: a soon-to be trademarked wedding-planning program called Considered Chic. “When I first sit down with a bride, or for that matter, any client, I show her a square, then I draw a star in the middle. I explain that that is the center of the event and that’s where she will put the details that are most important to her. Then around that I place connecting circles of different sizes. Inside those circles we write the other elements of our plan, food, music, beverages, dress,” she explains. “As they visualize the map, we begin to move items and their price tags to different circles until our client can see exactly what is most important to her. We build the event from there.” She and Bill, who happens to be a French Culinary Institute grad and one of Bon Appetit Magazine’s Leading Chefs of the Nation, also created a gourmet meal delivery service to help those pandemic fatigued families from cooking for so many at-home meals.
But you’d be underestimating Chlala if you thought that was all she would accomplish this past year. Chlala, knowing that her industry would need support to restart safely, became a founding member of The Connecticut Event Industry Coalition. “Along with four other leading event professionals from different parts of the industry, we began working on a plan to get both our officials in Hartford and our representatives in Washington to hear our voices,” she says. At the very least, they hoped that politicians would learn more about the event planners’ circumstances and take them into their considerations. “Our visionary goal was to get them to agree to a plan: in Hartford, a plan with protocols to re-open, and in Washington, federal aid that would sustain us during the shut-down of our industry.” After several months of developing a working relationship with state officials at the Department of Economic Development, Chlala and the coalition were able to not only keep abreast of the most current thinking about re-opening policies and protocols, but also got a seat at the table, advising on event protocols.
“For those of us in the off-premise catering business, whether producing events at private homes or in a venue, our responsibility was and still is to be aware of the constant revisions in the reopening plans, and be willing to adhere to the protocols necessary for safe and fun events,” she continues. So now, Festivities’ expertise extends beyond making a great party and into ensuring that a great party is as worry-free as possible for her clients. “Trust us, and trust the process,” says Chlala.
Growing up in Fairfield, Connecticut, as a Lebanese-American girl, Chlala experienced what it was like to attend a party and not feel comfortable. “I always found it hard to walk into an event and see little groups chatting. I couldn’t always find my comfort level,” she explains. “When we first started creating events, I always scanned the room to watch the guests and their reactions. You could see the ones that were uncomfortable. And so, no matter how beautiful or exciting the event, these guests were not going to enjoy it,” she continues. “That is part of what made me into someone with a passion for understanding how important the guest experience is—from parking the car to a welcome drink, our goal is to have each guest feel that great feeling, “Yes, I am invited to this party!”
Chlala’s father was a successful international businessman who, as a Lieutenant Colonel in the US Army stationed in Cairo, became a trusted advisor of President Eisenhower. “My parents knew how to entertain all kinds of people and how to make everyone who entered their home feel special,” she says. A graduate of Fairfield public schools and Stamford’s King School, Chlala went onto study at Sweet Briar College. For her junior year abroad her father urged her to go to Beirut. “I wanted to go to Italy, but my dad said no – we had relatives in Beirut and he assured me it would be more interesting. And it sure was!” As a college student, Chlala made a tight group of friends from the West Bank and Saudi Arabia. “It was very eye-opening for an American in the 70s to learn first-hand about the lives of these women,” she explains. “It gave me the most expansive world view and I learned so much.” It’s also where she met her future husband Antoine Chlala, ten years her senior, and a successful French-Lebanese business man.
After graduating, Chlala joined an English newspaper in Beirut, The Daily Star, as a features editor. “I am inquisitive and always want to learn someone’s real story— what makes people tick,” she says. “I was embedded with journalists like Peter Jennings as we covered the rising tensions in Lebanon.” In total she spent 10 years in the Middle East. From Lebanon, she and her husband had a stint in Saudi Arabia. There Chlala had a crash course in finding creative ways to occupy herself when there wasn’t much she could do in the outside world. “I’ve lived in the desert. I lived through war in Lebanon. I had no phone, no TV, no car, and I had a little baby,” says Chlala. “I learned how to bake and decorate cakes. I macraméd. I promised myself that I’d be creative and not let a day go by without learning something new.”
With war breaking out in the Middle East, it was time for the family to return to the States. Back in Fairfield, Chlala, along with her husband and brother decided to open Festivities, a retail store in Norwalk. It soon blossomed into a full-service catering and events business. “I found myself taking on the design, planning, and execution of more and more events and loving every minute of it,” says Chlala. “Hospitality is in my blood—it is ingrained in my DNA!” Chlala says cheerfully. “I am Lebanese! That is what we do!” But like everything Chlala embarks on – she finds real meaning in the work. “The power of hospitality is creating events where people feel good about being there. Where they feel taken care of and even honored,” explains Chlala. It’s not just a job — it is a craft that Roe and Bill take very seriously. What makes a party unforgettable? Chlala says “love.” Love? “The best parties and events are all about love! Love of family and friends, love of entertaining, love of wonderful cuisine and drinks, love of the craft of creating a personalized experience,” she says with her trademark enthusiasm. “No matter the type of event, making everyone feel welcome and showing them a great time, that is always the underlying mission for us.”
Returning the Favor
Chlala’s passion may be parties – and helping people create the most memorable and meaningful ones – but it is truly matched by her lifelong desire to give back. A longtime volunteer for several local charities, and a board member for the Center for Family Justice in Bridgeport, Chalala founded the Festivities Foundation six years ago as a way for her, Bill, and their team to give back to the communities they serve. “Through donations of party and home accessories to our retail store, our goal is to create a sustainable repurposing of items from happy occasions,” says Chlala. “The proceeds from these sales will, in turn, fund our mission of aiding local programs that support safe and healthy homes for those who need them.” Since their beginning, the Festivities team has been acquiring donations of gently used items from celebrations such as weddings, bar/bat mitzvahs, anniversary parties, and birthdays, corporate and charitable events. She calls this the “Pass on The Love” campaign and welcomes donations and collaborations with local charities to further the message and goals.
Many of Chlala’s clients are repeat customers. “I love getting to know families and helping them create their important events,” she explains. One of her biggest fans is Christina Lake, Interior Designer of Forehand & Lake. “We have done several events with Roe and Bill. Each one had a different theme. As an interior designer and entertainer myself, my standards are always very high, and Roe and Bill surpass them every time. The absolute best part is how fun she makes the process. Now, whenever I plan a party, I just let them do what they do as I trust Festivities implicitly,” says Lake.
It is no wonder Festivities and Chlala have won so many accolades. Most recently CT Bites honored her with its prestigious distinction, Top Five Women of Influence in the CT Culinary Industry. “I was so touched and surprised,” she says. “Most of these women were chefs themselves, so I was even more honored to be included among so much culinary talent.” She’s also been named Best Wedding Planner for six years straight in Moffly Media’s Best of The Gold Coast Awards. “Since 1984, Roe Chlala has wowed guests and clients,” the award team noted. “She’s known as an outstanding caterer and event planner which is why brides turn to her and her dynamic team for their big day. From the big picture to the smallest detail, Roe infuses her natural love of giving, providing, and showering others in love.”
Many of Chlala’s brides tell her, years later, how special she made their day. One recently wrote to her: “It was an evening to remember, not only because the food, the team, and the décor were so magical but because every detail embraced all the love in the room.” Feedback like this fills the Festivities team with gratitude, and validates what so many already know— that they are among the best in the business. “Navigating the world of gatherings has been challenging with rules and protocols, but hopefully soon we will be back to normal. No matter what, we will always strive to make celebrations the best they can be,” says Chlala. ☐
For further information, visit: Festivitiesevents.com @FestivitiesCT (IG & FB), @RoeChlala (IG)