Post-Academy Awards, you can bet the A-list will flock to the legendary Vanity Fair afterparty. But two days before the big night, when everyone's in town and the pre-award frenzy is reaching fever pitch, you'll probably find them touring Kari Feinstein's epic style lounge. 

Held on the second floor of the sleek Andaz West Hollywood hotel in Los Angeles, this year's style lounge will feature businesses large and small who pay big money--as in tens of thousands of dollars--to showcase their products and services to celebrities.

For the uninitiated, a style lounge is essentially a swag suite, or as Feinstein puts it, a glorified "trade show." But this isn't about pampering stars and free gift bags: When Feinstein, a publicist by trade, spends between $80,000 to $100,000 to produce a style lounge, celebrities might get free swag but they are expected to chat with the businesses and pose with their products for WireImage, a wire service that collects celebrity photos. The result is the kind of social media catnip that can change a business overnight. In return, the celebrities get to make contacts that can turn into lucrative sponsorships.

What You Pay For

Scoring a booth in one of Feinstein's swag suites will set you back somewhere between $8,500 to $75,000. A small price to pay for the chance to catch the attention of celebrities? That's what entrepreneurs like Megan Smalley say. This year she paid to get her Auburn, Ala. stationery shop, Scarlet & Gold, into lounges for the Golden Globes and Emmy Awards.   

"Social media has built my business," Smalley says, recalling the time Miley Cyrus's sister Brandi tweeted a picture of herself holding the brand's Watercolor Dots notebook. Sales of the item exploded and celebrities starting following Scarlet & Gold on Twitter. "From August to December of 2014, we probably grew 25 percent a month," Smalley says of her nearly two-year-old business. "Is that credited toward [Feinstein's] suite? A portion of that is, for sure." 

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In the early 2000s, swag suites were free-for-alls where celebrities scored fine jewelry and dresses to flaunt along the red carpet. It was like "a blind giveaway," Feinstein recalls in her whisper-soft voice.

The brands angled--mostly in vain--for more time with the celebrities, while non-fashion brands were shut out. Seeing a demand for more product diversity, more time with the A-list, and wire photos of celebrities, at 23 Feinstein launched her own PR agency, KFPR, to put to use the people skills (and contacts) she'd acquired as an assistant at Creative Artists Agency two years before.   

Not long after, E! Entertainment paid Feinstein $20,000 to produce its nighttime party at the Sundance Festival, secure talent to attend, and coordinate gift bags. She also brought in photographers, which gave businesses the best kind of brand exposure: pictures of stars holding the products, which quickly spread on social media and celebrity blogs like Just Jared and Perez Hilton.

Seeing an opportunity to charge brands after she saw their reactions to the photos, Feinstein went on to produce her first swag suite during the Emmys at the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles. Total revenue: $70,000. "We charged much lower fees at the time," says Feinstein. There, the brands went beyond high-end jewelry and red carpet dresses and included LORAC cosmetics, Jamba Juice, and Robert Marc eyewear. And celebrities stopped by the booths to learn a bit about every business, Feinstein says. 

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Soon other brands began pestering Feinstein for ways to get involved.

A Booming Business

Today Feinstein produces five to six lounges a year, with each featuring just 15 brands. She says she's become much more selective and wants to be sure the products are something celebs will genuinely enjoy since, after all, "the brands reflect our events."

During the typically two-day affair, the stars meet with brands one-on-one and pose here and there for WireImage photos. "They're on a tour, so to speak," says Feinstein of the 35 to 40 stars who attend each day's lounge, noting "they're not roaming freely" like before. "Companies think they need to wrangle celebrities to their booth, like a trade show, and I tell them we'll bring everybody to them." 

This is true: "Ninety-nine percent of the talent stops at every table, and I appreciate that," Smalley says. "At other suites I've done, people hardly stopped by and weren't willing to take pictures." Having spent $5,000 for a discounted Golden Globes' booth--Feinstein lowered the price because they'd worked together before--plus $1,500 on travel, and still another $2,000 on products, it's not something the stationery shop owner takes lightly. 

Kelley Baker, whose L.A.-based brow styling salon, Kelley Baker Brows, also worked the Golden Globes this year, says the biggest advantage of Feinstein's suite is getting to say "I've done so-and-so and add them to my roster." Among those clients are model Amber Rose, actor Jeremy Piven, and actress Alicia Witt. "Our phones have been ringing off the hooks ever since," Baker says, and "when anyone on Instagram posts about us, our phones start ringing." 

Indeed, the social media opportunities that arise from the swag suites are gold for a fledgling company. "Young women between 18 and 35 are so interested in these celebrities' lives and if [the stars are] using a product, [women] want it," Smalley says. "One post on social media and the product sells out. One retweet can change a business overnight." 

As for Feinstein, she's expanding her business by taking on more clients looking to secure celebrity endorsement deals, product placement, and red carpet styling, among other projects. Still, the style lounge is ideal for making longterm clients, she says, and at least two to three brands from every style lounge do more than one.

Eventually she hopes to take her style lounges global to other high-profile events. Coachella is one option. Fashion Week would be a no-brainer. As long as celebrities are involved, businesses will want to be as well. And Feinstein is aiming to be the one who connects them.

Published on: Feb 18, 2015