ZEN and the Art of Partying

Throwing keggers is a rite of passage for most high-school students. But for Jason Donovan of Plantation, party planning was vocational training.

Donovan, age 25, began lining up venues, DJs, and bands for underground parties when he was just 16. By the time he was a Broward Community College student, he had turned party promotion into a successful business. He also owned the printing company Fluid Graphics and used both ventures as models for business-class projects. In fact the genesis of his thriving ZEN Group, a stable of entertainment-related companies that puts together the electronic-music ZEN Festival every year, was a business-club field trip to Orlando.

In the mid-'90s, the Central Florida city was the hotbed of dance music in Florida. During the trip Donovan attended a rave and was amazed. "In Fort Lauderdale 1000 people was a packed party," he says. "Firestone [a club in Orlando] was exploding at the time; 5000 people at a party was commonplace."

The savvy young entrepreneur conceived a mega-rave, which he dubbed ZEN. The 1995 concert at the Central Florida Fairgrounds in Orlando featured hometown headliner Rabbit in the Moon and various DJs, and with an attendance of 7500, became the largest electronica event in Florida to date. The festival has since taken place each year at various Central Florida locations and drawn larger crowds and bigger acts, including the Crystal Method, Josh Wink, and Überzone.

But recent legislation governing all-night parties has made it hard to find a venue in much of Florida, except, ironically, in Donovan's own back yard. So this year ZEN will take place in Coconut Grove and feature headliners the Chemical Brothers and some 30 other acts. The roving rave has not only changed Florida locales, it's gone national with a slate of U.S. shows this fall. The Chemicals will appear on select ZEN dates as part of the British band's own tour, and ZEN Group is handling promotion for both tours.

In addition to its expanding promotions role, ZEN Group has grown to encompass an advertising agency, an event consulting firm, two recording labels, and Zenternet, an online division (www.zenternet.com).

Donovan explains all of this by phone between other calls, which are coming in at high speed on three cell phones as ZEN approaches. But one recent call wasn't ZEN related. "I just got a call from the student government president of my high school telling me about a class reunion," says Donovan, a graduate of Western High School in Davie.

Guess who's in charge of the ten-year reunion party.

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John Ferri