By Christina Fuoco-Karasinski
Photos by Dana Gibbons Photography
Karen May has an imagination and creativity that would make anyone envious.
As vice president of marketing for Scottsdale Private Event Venues, May turns hangars and event spaces into something truly magical.
She sees “Top Gun”-themed parties with a Tom Cruise look alike rappelling from a helicopter. “The Most Interesting Man in the World” arriving via helicopter. Hangars filled with classic cars and lights dimmed to mimic a drive-in theater.
“It’s a blank slate,” she says. “I can do whatever I want.”
For her work, May was given a 2019 Smart Women in Meetings Award in the Visionary category last month at the Smart Woman Summit in Las Vegas. The prestigious awards platform honors women who are making significant impacts on the meetings industry and inspiring female meeting ambassadors worldwide. Her profile ran in the March issue of Smart Meetings magazine.
The Shadow Mountain High School graduate was thrilled.
“I don’t know who nominated me,” says May of Phoenix. “They don’t tell you. I went to the conference and it was crazy fun. These really neat women came from all over the world. The lady (Marin Bright) who runs the magazine is incredible.”
She’s a planner
May has been planning events since she was 16, when she was working at the then-Scottsdale Country Club, and hasn’t left the industry.
“My dad got a job for me at the Scottsdale Country Club, which is now Starfire,” she says. “It was a Ramada then as well. It had 50 little guest rooms and a private club. There was a wedding one day and the lady who was supposed to put the wedding on got in a car accident.
“She called me from the ambulance, telling me what to do. I grabbed her book and decorated the pool for a wedding.”
After years in the event industry, she founded Scottsdale Private Event Venues, a Scottsdale-based event production provider and exclusive venue rental agency that offers access to privately owned airplane hangars, equestrian ranches and amphitheaters for hosting private and corporate events to groups from 300 to 2,000. May’s company throws unique, industrial chic events ideal for private parties, incentive or experiential events, fundraisers and photo shoots. She and her team provide concept-to-execution consultation and production, managing every detail of guests’ experiences.
“Full service is the best service,” she says. “A full-service event venue can cover and coordinate several details in-house that might otherwise be a hassle, such as catering, alcohol services, setup and breakdown, marketing, and event décor and design.
“Venues are my passion and transforming them into magical spaces is my gift.”
The signs were there
Specializing in hangars is a relatively new thing for May, but all signs pointed in that direction. Clients called about using hangars for their events. She married a pilot last year.
“I had airports coming at me from every direction,” she says with a laugh, “I thought, ‘What are you trying to tell me?’ I think I’m meant to do this.”
May throws parties in hangars of all shapes and sizes—open and closed; with air conditioning or without; full of cars or empty. Then there’s the air-conditioned Vehicle Vault, with its 1950s-style diner entrance; a drive-in theater movie screen with projector; store-front facades and collector gas pumps; a cigar lounge; and a “killer” car collection.
“We’ve had some great events in there,” she says. “It’s a really fun venue. There are huge cars in there around the perimeter, a John Deere tractor and a ticket booth.
“It’s just fun. It has high ceilings. You just get tired of the ballroom and trying to cover up ugly carpet. Our clientele is the conventions coming to town. I don’t do social events very often.”
May is a self-taught talent. She has a vivid vision. Companies’ laser logos float through the air, instead of stagnant on a wall. At an eBay party, she made the logo two stories high. At helicopter hangars, guests are invited to go on tours over the Valley.
She’s thrown parties for Roger Riley; the White House deputy director; and Tiger Woods. May planned the Celebrity Game Night fundraiser in 2017 with Kurt Warner and Shane Doan at Ross Aviation.
“We had all the guys in the hangar with a sports theme,” May says about Celebrity Game Night. “We games and giant adult games. Archie Bradley stood next to me and Kurt launched a ball at him and he dropped it. I turned the other way.”
Her wedding was the antithesis of her day-to-day job. She and her husband were married by the justice of the peace in shorts and flipflops. The witnesses were a judge and janitor. They hosted a happy hour at The Covenant on Shea Boulevard in Phoenix and a party at their home.
To get her creative juices flowing, May spends time with her six rescue dogs, friends and family. May is a big sports fan as well, so much so she wanted to be a physical education teacher when she was older.
“I played every sport,” she says.
May is still surprised the runways pointed to her opening a business.
“It’s been a really interesting couple years,” she says. “I like to do the planning, but I don’t like to do the taxes and that. I’d like to sell it in a couple years and stay working there or just run it. I like to keep my hands in it, with the linens from beginning to end.”