How To Dress Up a Ballroom That Isn’t, Well, Versailles

Lets face it, every venue can’t be Versailles. Every planner isn’t Martha Stewart. But when tasked with re-purposing an odd space or hotel boardroom into an environment suitable for a sit-down dinner, minus budget for an event designer, it’s time to get creative.

Recently, when faced with a three-figure decorating budget and a room that could at best be described as stunning and not in a good way, I polled a few of my event industry cohorts for inspiration, put my decorator hat on and got busy with the transformation.

To follow is some of our collective wisdom on how to dress up a challenging space, quickly and inexpensively. Think of these tips the next time you’re handed a room makeover emergency and Martha’s nowhere in sight:

1) Load up on big flowers.
And by big flowers, we mean hydrangeas. They’re affordable and elegant – and just 3 or 4 blooms will amply fill a 5-inch pillar vase. Consider white hydrangeas to avoid adding more visual chaos to rooms where crazy rugs, wild wallpaper or too much color is an issue. Keep arrangements on the low side so people can see over across the table – and save the pricier, taller topiary for weddings and society fund-raisers.

2) Rethink the venue tablecloths.
No matter where in the world you plan, most hotels and conference spaces won’t have a wide assortment of in-house table coverings on hand. From Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong, to LA and DC, all I’ve ever been offered by the venue is black, white, off-white, burgundy and a Vegas-ready metallic (um, no thanks). What’s the alternative? Run the numbers, then buy or rent overlays to get the exact color you really want. If you need a small quantity, it will often cheaper to buy than rent, once you factor in delivery, pick-up, cleaning, taxes, etc. For super-inexpensive overlay purchases (shipped quick!) my go-to’s are and

3) OMG! The chairs are a nightmare!
May the gods bless whomever it was who invented the banquet chair cover, which, in addition to dressing up a room instantly, are brilliant at hiding stains, dirt and dings for roughly $2 – $7 a pop to rent or buy, depending on quantity. Dress the chairs up further for another dollar or so with a colored sash or wide, stretch fabric band wrapped around the chair back. Keep in mind though, the biggest challenge with chair covers and sashes is getting the right fit, so insist that your banquet manager provide exact specifications and photos so you can order the perfect size from your vendor.

4) Hit the lights – fast.
The fastest way to completely change the look and feel of a room? Uplights. Rent as many as you can afford. Kill all overhead lighting particularly if it’s florescent. Among the most complimentary uplight colors are amber uplights and to a lesser extent, pink (which can be easy to over-do). Rent as many as you can afford to bathe the room is a beautiful amber glow.

5) Would it be OK to rip up the carpet?
Yes, it is a suggestion I made not long ago, which was not appreciated by the banquet manager who, not surprisingly, turned down the idea. So how to camouflage an offensive carpet? One way is to cover the offending fabric with a dance floor, budget permitting. Another option is to buy or rent carpeting. However, the good news is that you may not need it at all – as long as you have uplights, which, fortunately have the effect of not only casting the room in a different light but also is great for neutralizing rug colors so they’re virtually impossible to decipher. Granted the pattern will still be visible, but the colors won’t be.

6) Go a bit candle crazy.
Candlelight – everyone looks good in it, so load up your tabletops with them. Be they real flame, battery-operated or a mix of the two, the more the candles the merrier. Eight-to-twelve votives per table round will supplement the glow from the uplights (see above) and add an intimate feel to each table. Word to the wise though – make sure the air-conditioning is available to cool the room should it get a little too cozy. Also keep the votives a safe distance from the flowers to prevent scorching the blooms.

Cheers to a beautiful event!


Photo credits: Prasit Rodphan /

Kate Doyle Hooper

Kate Doyle Hooper

Since establishing her own company over a decade ago, Kate has produced just about every kind of event imaginable, from executive meetings and conferences to live music performances, mobile tours, fashion shows, celebrity gifting suites, and retail events for companies such as American Media, Bloomingdale’s, Conde Nast, Cosmopolitan, ELLE, Harper’s BAZAAR, Hearst, Macy’s, Perry Ellis, Time Inc., Wilhelmina Models and Rodale, to name a few. Kate's editorial and advertising work has been published in Budget Living, ELLE, Fit, Civilization, Conde Nast Traveler, Esquire, Essence, Harper's Bazaar, Marie Claire, Men's Fitness, Men's Health and Shape, as well as on and

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