Gift suite success

Backstage Creations blends stars and swag in burgeoning biz

When Karen Wood coordinated talent for major award shows in the 1990s, she booked celebs an hour early just to make sure they’d be on time. Soon, stars were on to her tricks. So she wooed them with designer gifts.

“At the time you couldn’t get direct access to celebrities. (Designers) would send things to their offices, but never really know if it got to the celebrity,” Wood says.

Wood opened Backstage Creations, the first celebrity suites company, in 2000. Today it’s a sizzling business, with a dozen or so competitors on its swag-strewn trail.

A five-year award show veteran — she worked on the Grammys, the American Music Awards and SAG Awards, among others — Wood breezed into business with tons of contacts: producers, publicists and the media. Her personal phonebook helped a great deal.

“When I first started charging money for this, people would say, ‘Are you kidding me? You want me to donate product and pay you a fee?’ ” Wood says. “Of course, our first event we were in People magazine twice. And we were in Women’s Wear Daily, with a third of a page.”

Product reps changed their tune in a snap. Interior designers volunteered to set up elaborately decorated greenrooms as an opportunity to pass out business cards.

“Suddenly, people were calling me back going, ‘Maybe this isn’t so crazy. I just saw you on ‘Entertainment Tonight.’ ”

Now Wood reaches out to roughly 8,000 brands — each show guest snags 15 to 20 items per event.

Wood picks and chooses items based on the roster. In 2003, when Clint Eastwood received his SAG career laurel, she secured Stetson hats for all. At the Teen Choice Awards this year, Backstage Creations’ swag included Neutrogena skin care, Guess watches, Nokia phones, Hello Kitty skateboards and a year’s supply of Willy Wonka candy.

Wood gets gobs of sparkly product samples by mail. She makes gut choices based on her years of celeb shoulder-rubbing.

“One of the clients we seem to have at practically every show is Hello Kitty,” Wood says. “At the Billboard Awards, we gave Fender guitars by Hello Kitty. Even if you don’t collect, it’s a guitar, come on.”

Is this word-of-celebrity-mouth marketing trend here to stay?

“As high as 40% of advertising budgets are being yanked and integrated into different types of marketing,” Wood says. “Celebrity marketing is a very viable means because you’re getting editorial content and brand names are being mentioned — they’re looking at a picture of the celebrity with the product.”

Thanks to a contract with Backstage Creations, Sanrio’s Hello Kitty gear has appeared on “Entertainment Tonight,” “Access Hollywood” and “E! Entertainment News”; it’s also been featured in People and Us Weekly.

“Sanrio is not a big traditional advertiser, and word of mouth is an integral part of our marketing for the Hello Kitty brand,” says Bill Hensley, Sanrio marketing director.

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