NEW YORK — When “Will & Grace” resumes taping this summer, Debra Messing will make a reported $600,000 an episode, which amounts to $13 million to $15 million for the entire season. But, as the actress proved Monday at the second annual Lucky/Cargo Club at the Ritz Carlton, money can’t buy you free stuff.

The suite was set up to offer complimentary shopping for celebrities in town for the upfronts, the week when networks present their fall lineups to advertisers. Messing and a handler walked out with three tote bags filled with Le Tigre polos, Bose noise-canceling headsets, iRiver MP3 players, sunglasses by Safilo, Frye boots and James jeans.

“I don’t have a lot of time for shopping or to stay abreast of new designers or new trends,” Messing said. It’s one thing when publicists send merchandise, she added, “but to be able to talk to people here about their products is even better.”

The hospitality suite is a fairly recent beast, one that started cropping up a few years ago at the Sundance Film Festival and backstage at major awards ceremonies such as the Golden Globes and the Oscars. Recently, the model has trickled down to more minor celebrity-driven events such as the upfronts, the Z100 Zootopia concert, the Independent Spirit Awards, the MTV Video Music Awards in Miami and even the Daytime Emmys, which air tonight on CBS.

“We looked at the calendar and nobody was doing anything at the upfronts,” said Ariel Foxman, the editor in chief of Cargo. “Now we own it and we’re proud to own it. You have a great bunch of celebrities trapped in Midtown in a big fashion city and we can be their shopping hosts.”

Jessica Meisels, a Los Angeles-based partner in Fingerprint Communications who developed the idea with Cargo and Lucky last year, said, “The upfronts are an untapped market. It’s not on every brand’s radar yet.” She and Conde Nast are working to change that by bringing in labels that seem right for the Lucky/Cargo market and have a certain recognition with their level of celebrity. (Patrick Dempsey, Lindsay Lohan and Patricia Arquette visited this year.) Conde Nast, like WWD, is owned by Advance Publications.

This story first appeared in the May 20, 2005 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Placement in a suite, often called a sponsorship, can cost between $10,000 to $15,000, not counting the product given away, said Meisels. Some vendors, such as Lia Sophia, a costume jewelry company, and People’s Liberation, a sweatsuit company, were brought in by Fingerprint; others came through editorial connections at the magazines, and, in a new template this year, iRiver, Le Tigre, Grey Goose, Keds and Solstice Sunglasses joined through Conde Nast’s added value advertising program.

“For these brands, it’s invaluable to get 60 or 70 celebrities taking photos,” Meisels added. “It’s the next wave of advertising. If they have to pay someone to wear their clothing, it’s going to cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

“We wound up giving Lindsay Lohan $3,200 worth of sunglasses,” said Eden Wexler, the manager of public relations for Safilo USA, a sunglass company that also places products in lounges at the Grammys, the People’s Choice Awards and, most likely, the next Toronto Film Festival. “When you send [celebrities] sunglasses, you don’t know if they’re getting to them. This way, we can meet with them one on one.” Safilo USA hired its own WireImage photographer to document all three days of the suite.

On 3 Productions has been putting together gift suites for three years, said Samantha Haft, its co-founder. “Now we get maybe 15 to 20 interested phone calls a day.” Haft and her team ask for product samples and then decide by committee what to include as chief giveaways and what to put in their suite gift bags (placement for bags runs between $3,500 and $5,000). Staples include a free pass for a year to Loews theaters, a lifetime Netflix membership, and free LASIK surgery by Dr. Gary Kawesch of Silicon Valley.

“I get referrals from the exposure, whether the celebrities come in or not,” Kawesch explained, admitting that only about two or three stars from every event take him up on the surgery. But, he added, “if a well-known person has surgery with me and the public knows that, it’s an implicit approval.”

When developing suites, Haft says she takes into consideration not the celebrities who’ll be passing through her tent, but rather, the kinds of people who’ll be reading about it. Since the Daytime Emmys are going to have a largely female audience, Haft is featuring the Keurig Gourmet Single Cup Coffee Brewing system in that suite. She thinks it will go over well with housewives. Dior Beauty will showcase new products at older, more sophisticated events such as The Independent Spirit Awards and the Tonys, while Mary Kay will buy space at the Z100 Zootopia concert.

Still, you can’t just invite any old boot company into your suite. “Hollywood is used to the best of the best,” Meisels explained. That said, celebrities do seem to take nearly anything as long as it’s free. “There are certain people who are greedier than others, but that’s life,” she added. “Do celebrities really want to promote a mattress? Probably not. They don’t want to take pictures on a Trimspa motorcycle, either.”

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