It takes guts to set up a business in a country where you barely speak the language, but that’s what Sarah Balfour did when she made aliya a year and a half ago.
She’s been running her party- and event-planning business, Orchid Events, more or less since the day she arrived and has already produced some highly imaginative bar mitzvas, weddings and birthday parties. Not knowing much Hebrew doesn’t faze her.
“I’ve worked all over the world in places where I don’t speak the lingo, and it hasn’t stopped me,” says the petite, 36-yearold Londoner, who has already had several successful careers in her native England.
She was born into an artistic family. Her father, Alan Balfour, is a playwright, and her great-grandfather, Al Tabor, wrote “The Hokey-Cokey” (known in the US as “The Hokey-Pokey”), the famous song-and- dance number that still gets crowds up and wiggling their hips.
“Poor Al didn’t have a business head and never made any money from the song,” says his great-granddaughter.
That may even be one of the reasons that propelled Balfour from her first career as a session musician, playing piano and accompanying well-known performers such as Seal and Charlotte Church, into becoming an agent and setting up her company Music by Arrangement.
Like her forebear, she saw musicians being exploited and treated unfairly by their agents.
“As a pianist, I saw nothing but greed and ruthlessness among the agents who represented me, and when I couldn’t find a fair agency, I decided to set up my own.”
In October 2003, she founded Music by Arrangement on the premise that if she treated the artists fairly, they would flock to her – which they did.
Today MBA has more than 700 artists on its books, including a party band called Xtatic, which was asked to perform in London’s Trafalgar Square in celebration of Prince William and Kate Middleton’s wedding.
“It was a real buzz to see Trafalgar Square partying hard to them,” she recalls.
Soon after establishing the agency, she opened Orchid Events and describes the “eureka” moment that led to it.
“I was playing piano at a party given for Hugh Grant and the launch of Bridget Jones’s Diary, and it was a 1940s-themed party. Everything – the clothes, the makeup, the props and decorations, the food stations – every detail was authentic. Even I was dressed in wartime gear with a blonde wig and heavy fringe, playing Gershwin and Cole Porter – and suddenly I thought to myself, ‘I can do this,’” she remembers.
She knew she had what it took to become an event planner: organizational skills, creative and artistic talents, lots of experience performing and handling other artists – and a vivid imagination.
Orchid Events took off toward the end of 2003, with a permanent staff of two plus a group of freelancers, and was an instant success.
“We’ve done Arabian Nights-themed parties, James Bond, Moulin Rouge – there’s no limit when it comes to creating special events,” she says enthusiastically.
She was so successful as a wedding planner that it wasn’t long before she was appearing as a regular presenter on Wedding TV and being asked for her opinion on the royal wedding, appearing in a sixpart documentary on the subject.
So why drop it all and come to live in Israel? “I’ve always had an incredible affinity with Israel,” she says. “I even began my music career here, when I came to Jerusalem in my gap year [after high school]. I played the piano in the Hyatt [hotel], and did gigs at Café Rimon.”
After that, she went back to England to get a degree in music, majoring in piano, and her career as a pianist took off.
“But I never forgot Israel, and I decided to come back and open an office here. I’d often visited and was always checking out wedding venues and the music scene here, doing the groundwork. Then I just packed up and came.”
She went straight to Tel Aviv, crashed at a friend’s place for a week, found her apartment and opened for business.
Most of her clients are English-speakers or people abroad who want to hold their celebrations in Israel. With her nine years of experience, Balfour believes she has a lot to offer, although she knows the field is crowded already.
“I listen to what the person wants, and I don’t impose my own ideas, just advise and make suggestions,” she says. “My job is to make their vision into a reality on the day.”
In spite of working hard, including traveling all over the country, she finds time to volunteer to play the piano at Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center at least once a week.
“They are the most beautiful, appreciative audience, and it is wonderful to see the sick children getting pleasure and smiling,” she says. “It’s the most rewarding thing I do.”
She still manages to study Hebrew privately in between her work and travels.
“It will help to speak the language, although for the moment I get by just fine,” she says. “Wherever you put me, I’ll make it work.”