Another of Parker's techniques is to issue request cards to discover which items will be in demand. Parker likes to set the tone of her auctions with an item that she knows will generate some lively bidding. She also uses the cards to make sure an item sells before the interested parties have to leave the event. "I've had people tell me they really liked a certain vacation package, but it's number 20 on the list and they have to go to another fundraiser tonight, so I'll change the lot order for them."

Beverly Hills-based auctioneer Izzy Chait takes the concept a step further, and advises clients to pre-sell items. "Clients often know who might want to bid on that trip to Australia or the dinner for two at the trendy hotel in Las Vegas," Chait says. "A volunteer can call them and offer it in advance, or let the auctioneer know who wants it."

One final note on pacing and timing: Don't wait until after dinner to begin the auction. "Sell during dinner," says Fiske. "When you finish a meal, that's a sign of stopping, and people start worrying about getting home after dinner."

The timing for dessert is just as important. "It should be orchestrated like a play, with precision," Fiske explains. "Use the dessert to make sure everybody is in their seats before you sell the biggest item. The whole evening must be choreographed. That means lighting, sound, and even musical bumps between items."

Silent Success

Less complicated is the silent auction. Although it may not be the center stage event, it still contributes much to the evening, and of course, the bottom line. It's all in how you get the items, says Lisa Eells, PTSO treasurer at John McLoughlin Elementary in Oregon City, Ore. "I know some people struggle, but I don't have that problem because I am very excited about it and I write letters to many businesses." Eells doesn't solicit local businesses. Instead, she targets major corporations such as Nintendo and Circuit City. She began sending her letters in May last year and received more than 100 donations by August 15.

"Establish what you're going to ask for and personalize each letter," Eells advises. "Companies might think you're asking for more than they can give, so I only ask for one thing and they usually respond. Our letter states that we will take any donation. Sometimes they can't give us what we ask for, but they may donate something else."

For pricing silent auction items try this tip: Print the suggested price plus higher bid increments next to the items on the bid sheets, and offer a box to check for a guaranteed win at 150 percent above the suggested price. This technique increases profits by eliminating small bids.

As for the items, you don't have to stop at the donations from manufacturers. From dinners to haircuts, any service is fair game. How about putting a special spin on a car wash and wax by offering to have a team of students make a house call?

One last point about your event: Make sure to include special courtesies that show your audience you value them. Start with parking; it should be convenient and if valets are warranted, include them. Next, avoid any situations that would cause your guests to wait in long lines. That means staffing the registration and settlement desks with enough volunteers. Another nice touch is having a photographer with an instant camera for free photographs of your attendees.

No Small Difference

So are you ready for a blockbuster but concerned that the techniques of the professionals might be too much work or out of your league? Don Webber says his group worked just as hard to earn $8,000 as it did to earn $250,000. And no auction is too small to start, according to Fiske.

"I try to approach them all in the same way," he says. "I have a baseball team and I've been doing (an auction for them) for nine years. When I started they were doing $12,000 a year, and now it's over $70,000. That just comes from treating it like a business, building a five-year plan, and not reinventing the wheel every year."

As for finding the right auctioneer, you can get a referral from the National Auctioneers Association (NAA). The association's 6,500 professionals are accredited and adhere to a strict code of ethics and standards.