Waiting in the wings: Best Dressed Ball board members Tonya Toups Gautreau, Michelle Lanoix, Brooke Bickley and Chantelle Larussa look to their laptops at Baton Rouge's Manship Theatre as, along with fellow board member Dallas Cockrell (not pictured), they plan for the nonprofit’s reimagined annual fundraiser August 8. Photo by Jeannie Frey Rhodes.

Virtual reality: The Best Dressed Ball shifts its focus to online fundraising

For 53 years, the Baton Rouge Best Dressed Ball has been about major moments. A helicopter landing. A floating runway. Exotic animals from the Baton Rouge Zoo. Million-dollar donations. Every year has brought with it countless memories, each more fantastic than the last. However, at its inception in the 1960s and even throughout its theatrical heyday in the 1980s, no past board or committee could have anticipated that one day, there would be an event so literally showstopping that it would put a halt to the year’s production.

Board members, along with committee members, honorees and community volunteers, will take to the virtual stage this year to raise money for the American Cancer Society. Photo by Jeannie Frey Rhodes at Manship Theatre.

Unfortunately, that day came in early spring of this year when COVID-19 crashed onto the scene, bringing along with it widespread stay-at-home orders and social distancing mandates aimed at stifling the virus’s spread. With the measures put into place in March, though, the Best Dressed committee didn’t immediately see the pandemic impacting the August event. After all, months separated the onset of the crisis and the night when this year’s honorees would hit the runway.

“We were pushing full steam ahead with our plans,” explains board member Michelle Lanoix. “We were waiting for some solid direction but we couldn’t get that—things, even now, are still changing daily. We considered all the options, sat down with the American Cancer Society and decided on a new plan.”

Looking to other events across the country that had already made the change from in person to online, Lanoix and the rest of the Best Dressed team just couldn’t see their format, which emphasizes the fashion that goes along with a black-tie affair, translating seamlessly to a virtual experience. Instead of compromising the integrity of the decades-old fundraiser, they decided to imagine something completely new, with only a few months left to plan.

“That’s the beauty of having such a strong and creative group,” explains board member Dallas Cockrell of the decision that was finally made in the second week of June. “We can take this switch that is now necessary and make it the best it can be for our community and for ACS.”

Zoom conferences have replaced in-person meetings as the team works to bring the online event to fruition.

Raising $1.1 million for the American Cancer Society last year, the event is one of the biggest local fundraising events and in the top 10 ACS galas in the country. Because of this, funds from the annual night of glitz and glamour are essential to the continuation of local and national ACS programs, which touch nearly every aspect of care, from patient support through a 24-hour helpline to a free wig program to funding research for a cure.

“People often think of ACS as just a national organization, but we do so much locally,” notes Errin Viguerie, executive director of the Louisiana ACS branch. “We have taken a big hit due to COVID and have to raise money in order to continue our work. Cancer patients are one of the most vulnerable populations in regard to the pandemic. They need our support now more than ever.”

While this year’s event won’t include confetti cannons or custom gowns, the team and its honorees look forward to resuming these traditions next year. Pictured here are past honorees Ryan Clark and Kim Truesdale at the 2018 ball. Photo by Wil Norwood.

Moving forward with the mantra “Cancer doesn’t stop so neither do we,” the Best Dressed team decided to dial back the fashion element that has long been a hallmark and instead emphasize the cause at its core.

“The ‘why’ behind the event stands no matter what,” remarks Chantelle Larussa, board member of three years. “It’s great to get dressed up, but this is an opportunity for people to take a step back and see all the great things that are brought to the community through the donations.”

However, before the hourlong live show, titled “The 2020 Essential Experience,” takes place on Facebook Live at 7 p.m. August 8, the five board members, 24 committee members and 20 honorees—who will be hitting the runway in 2021—are taking it upon themselves to lead a grassroots fundraising effort. Reaching out to those friends and family members who would have taken seats beside a confetti-covered runway, as well as others throughout the community, the team is working to raise money the old-fashioned way: by picking up the telephone.

“Everyone has been touched by cancer in some way,” says Larussa. “By going back to the basics and reaching out to friends and businesses, we want to encourage a dialogue that keeps the cause in people’s minds for much longer than one night.”

“We have been so blown away with how supportive and encouraging everyone has been,” adds Cockrell, noting the retention of 95% of sponsors. “So many people have told us that the event is great but that’s not why they’re involved, which has been such a welcome response.”

“It’s so rewarding to work with sponsors who truly care about the mission behind the event,” says Michelle Lanoix. Some of the 2018 committee is pictured here at that year’s Best Dressed Ball with presenting sponsor Dave Roberts, CEO of Excel Group, who has been a dedicated partner of the ball for years. Photo by Sean Gasser.

For all the challenges posed by the move from in person to virtual, there have been some unexpected silver linings. An online event costs much less than Best Dressed’s annual, in-person soirée—which typically includes a large venue, a band, seated dinner, photographers and more—allowing the team to still set their fundraising goal at an ambitious $600,000 to $700,000, despite an inevitable drop in donations due to the financial impact of COVID-19. In addition, going virtual allows the slate of local and national speakers, scheduled to discuss their personal experiences with cancer and the resources provided by ACS, to reach not only those who frequent the black-tie event, but also those who prefer to stay home or those in other states.

“We’re looking at the glass half full,” says longtime board member Tonya Toups Gautreau, who also notes that the team is encouraging committee members and sponsors to host intimate watch parties with friends and family in order to add to the night’s excitement. “We have a lot of creative energy and we’re doing our best to embrace the change and make the best of it.”

And despite all that seems to separate 2020 from anything in the recent past, the commitment to making a difference in the community through creativity, positivity and determination is the same as it was at the founding of the Best Dressed Ball all those years ago. In many ways, COVID-19 has brought along with it the disruption necessary to help realign values and priorities, allowing what’s truly important to take center stage.

“There’s a first time for everything,” says Cockrell. “But that doesn’t have to be negative. This has given us the opportunity to take a step back, reflect and remember why we’re here. And we’re here to bring an end to cancer, regardless of the pandemic.”

2020-2021 Best Dressed Honorees

• Katie Baron               Sebastian Alvarez

• Mindy Bowie             Michael Conners

• Juliet Boyce               Hess Crockett

• Betsy Campbell          Ozzie Fernandez

• Joanie Montelaro      Rhoman Hardy

• Ann Piazza                 Jeff Koonce

• Kristi Robert             Tommy LeJeune

• Diamond Sherrod    Derk Lockhart

• Alli Sims                    Jimmy Morris

• Sarah Smith             Justin Vincent

The Baton Rouge Best Dressed Ball’s 2020 Essential Experience will take place at 7 p.m. August 8 online at facebook.com/BatonRougeBestDressedBall.