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Welcome to Gulfstream, can I take your order? Yes, I’ll have the float…a very, very big award-winning float!


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Courtesy of Visit Newport Beach

Gary Sherwin

And to think that it all started with a nice lunch at Gulfstream.

As you’ve probably seen, Visit Newport Beach won the Extraordinaire Award at this year’s famous Tournament of Roses Parade® in Pasadena for our 165-foot float, “Jingle on the Waves.” It was by far the longest float in this year’s parade and may be one of the longest in parade history.

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Courtesy of Pasadena Tournament of Roses

The award-winning Visit Newport Beach float headed down Colorado Boulevard

But as one of the riders on that float, I can tell you there was nothing like it, and to experience that excitement on the parade route was truly awe-inspiring. But before I get into that, here’s a little background:

The reason we were even in the parade was because of two people. Greg Custer, a Newport Beach resident at Whitter Trust, who serves on the Tournament board, and Steve Perry, who vacations in town and is a volunteer in charge of float solicitation, did the initial outreach. They invited me to that Gulfstream lunch in the spring and reminded me of our city’s long connection with Pasadena and the parade.

For many years, the Tournament brought Rose Queen® candidates down to Newport Beach for informal interviews during a weekend to see who was suitable for the honor. But it goes even further. You could argue that there would be no Newport Beach if it weren’t for vacationers in Pasadena and San Marino taking the old Red Line Streetcars down to stay and ultimately buy cottages during our earliest days.

There was also an important marketing component too, as more than 70 million people globally watch the iconic parade, and it would be a wonderful platform to tell our story.

I can’t thank Greg and Steve enough for reaching out and suggesting this to us, as this was clearly one of the most high-profile projects we have taken in many years.

When we decided to go in on the float, we were told that to get maximum exposure, we needed to think creatively and bring our imagination to the table. That meant a nice 35-foot entry wouldn’t do much and probably wouldn’t have generated any awards or be attractive to the media. So, essentially, we needed to go big or go home.

It was our float company, Phoenix Decorating, and its fantastic president, Chris Lofthouse, that helped us turn our idea of bringing the Christmas Boat Parade to the Rose Parade into a reality. Our concept was to do a “Parade Within a Parade,” so we could not only promote our iconic event but tell a grander Newport Beach story. Chris’ team made the entire process pretty easy, and their floral design was breathtaking.

I also want to thank local journalist Amy Senk, who unknowingly provided us with the title of our float since she suggested that as a Christmas Boat Parade theme a few years ago. Since this year’s Rose Parade theme was music-oriented, we felt we needed to tie that in, and Amy’s idea fit the bill nicely.

One of the most striking things about the Rose Parade is that what you see on TV is very different than real life. The floats in person with all their detail is something that looks significantly better live and up close than what you see during broadcasts. I think ours was no exception.

Ashley Johnson, Visit Newport Beach’s Senior VP of Marketing, ran point with Chris and the team and handled all the float logistics, and I give her much of the credit for us securing the award.

But there was another element to our entry in the parade that many people are unaware of. We used the float, which required seven people to navigate as it went down the street, as a device to help generate meetings business for the city.

Many locals watching the parade didn’t recognize three people who were front and center on our float. But to Visit Newport Beach, we felt they were pretty important. They were three key meeting industry clients from Philadelphia, Dallas and Chicago, all of whom represent millions of dollars in potential business to the city. Before the parade, they stayed in Newport Beach and toured some of our hotels, and a couple went on a guided harbor cruise.

Michelle Donahue, our Senior VP of Group Sales, promoted the opportunity to be on our float during national meetings and tradeshows, and the client engagement was incredible. It gave us another great opportunity to talk with people who have the influence to bring valuable meetings to town. Michelle masterfully managed this, and our three clients were charming and so appreciative of being our special guests.

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Courtesy of Pasadena Tournament of Roses

Waving to the crowd are Newport Beach residents and former Rose Queens® (in blue blazers) – (L-R): Nancy Skinner, Robin Sanders, Anne Wortmann and Ann Hall, joined by Ashley Johnson, Visit Newport Beach’s Senior VP of Marketing (second from right)

But our real secret sauce was our four former Rose Queens®, all of whom are Newport Beach residents. Anne Wortmann, Ann Hall, Robin Sanders and Nancy Skinner served as our centerpieces, sitting atop the “crown” we created as one of the five mini-floats that made up our mega float. This all started with an informal conversation I had with Anne’s husband, the always personable John Wortmann, when I floated (yeah, I went there) the idea with him, and I am so appreciative of his support.

Perhaps my favorite story of that special day was before we boarded the float for a long ride, the Queens wanted a restroom break and Tournament House, headquarters of the parade, was a short walk from where our float was parked. Once parade officials knew the four Queens were in the house, the sea parted, and they were warmly welcomed in to use the facilities which were a huge improvement from the Porta Potties outside on the street. They also got to spend time upstairs with the current Rose Queen®, Naomi Stillitano, and her court, who also just served as Grand Marshals of our Boat Parade on Saturday night.

As we left the building, Nancy Skinner wanted a group photo in front of the building where she had first entered when she was Queen back in 1952. She spontaneously reached out to a gentleman, gave him her phone, and asked him to take a shot. He happily complied. As he returned the phone to Nancy, I noticed his name tag. It turns out that he was the Mayor of Pasadena, Victor Gordo.

Our Queens, a couple of whom are in their 80s never complained and gladly and skillfully represented us. They were wonderful.

It was also at Tournament House that Ashley and I learned that we had received the Extraordinaire Award that had just been announced a few minutes earlier. It sounds silly, but we jumped up like little kids to celebrate.

Nothing quite prepares you for standing on the float while turning the corner from Orange Grove to Colorado Boulevard, facing massive crowds and all the broadcast booths. While it might sound a bit ridiculous, it felt like you were the center of the universe at that moment. And the only advice to prepare for this moment we got from tournament officials was not to bring our phones out to take selfies while the cameras were on us, a thought that hadn’t even occurred to me.

As to the award, that was decided the day before during the judging when everyone, including the Queens, had to make our way to the Phoenix building in Irwindale. At 10:30 a.m. on New Year’s Eve, we had to be on the float and pretend it was parade day as the three judges walked around our float for exactly (and it was timed) five minutes. Everything had to be working on the float, including our holiday music as well as the digitally lit Balboa Fun Zone Ferris wheel. We had to act as if we were in the parade, including extended waving to the imaginary crowd. It felt a little strange, but I guess it worked.

After waking up at 4 a.m. and almost four hours on the float on New Year’s Day (including 15 minutes when the parade was stopped due to a Palestinian protest), we were done. Our arms were tired, and I must have yelled Happy New Year to the crowd dozens of times.

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Courtesy of Pasadena Tournament of Roses

President & CEO of Visit Newport Beach Gary Sherwin on the Visit Newport Beach “Extraordinaire Award” float, joined by three key meeting industry clients from Philadelphia, Dallas and Chicago

But perhaps the best part of this project has been the response we have received from Newport Beach residents, which has been so heartfelt. That includes the dozens of volunteers from our city who made their way up to Irwindale to decorate the float. Thank you to all of you who made our award-winning entry so special. This recognition belongs to all of you, too.

This was certainly an epic way to kick off New Year’s and to tell the world about our special community. In the end, it was so appropriate that we received the Extraordinaire Award because we are truly an extraordinary city.

Gary Sherwin is President & CEO of Visit Newport Beach and Newport Beach & Company.

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