Do hotel ballrooms offer lim-ited options for themed events? Only if the hotel catering department has a limited imagination. The Renaissance Vancouver Hotel Harbourside in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, started with a "jewel" theme and created a dazzling evening, transforming its ballroom into a tent out of the Arabian Nights.

The client, one of Canada's leading financial institutions, wanted to honor its top employees with its Black Diamond award. To make them feel as precious as jewels, the hotel catering department pitched the theme of Aladdin and the Arabian Nights. It also promised the client that guests would be in for a surprise.

OPEN SESAME The event began with a typical reception. Guests sipped champagne in the second floor ballroom foyer, enjoying the spectacular view while a classical pianist serenaded them.

But the surprises started quickly. Suddenly, two bejeweled belly dancers clad in harem pants burst into the crowd, as the music changed to the plaintive strains of the Middle East. The guests watched and wondered as the dancers moved to the large doors of the ballroom and knocked three times. The doors opened with a cloud of smoke. A genie, dressed in lavish robes and jewels, appeared and read a proclamation welcoming them to "Aladdin's Cave" for a night of celebration and fun.

From the foyer, guests entered a "welcome tent" of brocade and organza, guided by hotel staff dressed as harem girls and sultans in turbans.

This prelude led to the drama of the ballroom itself, transformed into Aladdin's tented pavilion. More than 300 yards of blue and gold lame cascaded from the walls and ceiling and puddled on the floor. Uplighting added to the drama, with star gobos dancing across the room. The company president got into the act, accepting a big red turban from two harem girls, which he wore while greeting the guests. Elegant Decor Rentals of Vancouver provided props, curtains and lights.

Although it provided great drama, the draping posed many challenges. "The most time-consuming element in the decoration was hanging up the gold fabric," notes Cynthia Fakstorp, the hotel's catering director. Even after the fabric had been treated with fire retardant, the authorities required the hotel to post an extra security guard in the ballroom.

KEEPING IT MOVING A challenge to sustaining the magical mood was the fact that the event was an awards dinner, with more than 90 awards distributed among the 195 guests. To break up the program, the awards were presented in groups after each course. Harem girls escorted each winner on stage and off.

The dancers also kept the evening moving, with a routine after the main course and a sword dance after all the awards had been presented. This dance kept the guests entertained, while the audiovisual staff quickly removed the screens that had been used for projecting winners' names to make room for the dance band.

Floor-length midnight-blue tablecloths and chairs set off the centerpieces-bowls lined with gold lame and filled with real fruit that had been hand-painted with 24-karat gold. "We tried different options-such as spray-painting the fruit-but nothing else gave the heft and solid-gold look that we wanted," Fakstorp says. Strings of "pearls," golden beads and chains, and "jewels" decorated the tabletops, which had been sprinkled with gold dust. White votives cast a soft glow.

A navy-blue menu printed in gold and accented with a "diamond" graced each place setting. The evening's award winners received special attention, their places set with gold chargers and jeweled napkin rings.

STAFF SYNERGY Fakstorp gives credit to the full staff of the hotel for pulling together to pull off the event. "We had the entire hotel involved; our engineers painted the fruit gold," she says. "This wasn't an everyday black-tie event. Our staff had a lot of fun with this. They were even taking pictures of themselves before the event because they were having such a good time."

In the end, the hotel created a jewel on a modest budget. The price tag for the reception and dinner, entertainment, audiovisual, decor, flowers, and photographer came in under $45,000 (Canadian).

Fakstorp sees plenty of room for wonderful theme events within a hotel ballroom. "This is just one of many themes that we have done," she says. "There are endless possibilities within our existing facilities."

Renaissance Vancouver Hotel Harbourside 1133 W. Hstings St. Vancouver, BC V6E 3T3 Canada 604/691-2738 www.renaissancehotels.com