Entertainment can mean the difference between a meeting or convention and an experience. That’s why savvy meeting planners not only think about an association’s overall event goals and objectives, but the audience and purpose for the entertainment.
“Conventions are an environment for learning and collaboration, but above, all the purpose is to provide opportunities for shared experiences,” says Sarah Maio, vice president of marketing and communications for the Wisconsin Center District (WCD) in Milwaukee. “That kind of team building can come in many forms. Shared ‘out of office’ social experiences are proven to increase motivation, collaboration and creativity. What better way to integrate positive reinforcement into the workplace than with terrific entertainment?”
In 2019, that could mean bringing in everything from the latest Ted Talk sensation, to a top act from “America’s Got Talent” to a celebrity chef everyone is talking about.
“As a venue, we see creative entertainment ideas all the time,” WCD’s Maio said. “They can range from ancillary pre-function enhancements to private full scale A-list artist performances. You know you’ve got a winner when people are posting their professional moments on their personal social media channels.”
Event professional Peter Salib, chief relationship officer and co-founder of Denver-based Event Integrity, says providing entertainment for meeting attendees adds to the overall experience and leaves an impression.
“We all know how meetings create strong, personal connections centered around education, but the most memorable moments come through attendees leaving inspired and not just informed,” he says. “After all, when was the last time you were inspired by a branded notepad and water bottle?”
Not every entertainment option includes a performer. Some more typical but timeless entertainment options, when done well, include photo booths, food art and table/attendee activations.
“Photo booths are great for smaller meetings because they can provide group photos of stakeholders and they can be branded,” Salib says. “Food art is great when it can also double as the food you are serving at a meeting. The build your own, mini-doughnut conveyor belt was a major hit. Table top activations are fun and help provide better meeting interaction. They also allow for a branded experience and provide a take away that is attached to a story. With larger meetings and budgets, group recreational options, especially in meetings lasting more than a day, are a typical favorite.”
Christine Erickson, senior vice president, US Events Solutions for Chicago-based BCD Meetings and Events, says however one defines entertainment — whether it’s virtual reality, group activities, live performances, visual artists, gamification, keynote speakers, etc. — it can be used to build brand love, reinforce a narrative and drive business objectives.
“Entertainment comes in various forms. Typical ways to connect with your audience might be through keynote speakers, live bands and performances,” she says. “Whatever you opt for, the feeling you want your guests to walk away with needs to map back to your objectives and make sense to your audience.”
For example, at a recent leadership summit, BCD Meetings & Events brought in The Second City as an opportunity to connect its audience with its business objectives.
“The customized sketches were intentionally written to tie back to our business objectives, and the relatability made the experience incredibly meaningful,” Erickson says. “Lighthearted delivery and insightful messaging were an ideal combination for the audience, resulting in a memorable, authentic experience.”
Not every entertainer will be right for every convention, which is where hiring a superb meeting planner brings value.
“A great meeting planner will carefully consider their audience when adding entertainment to their event,” Maio said. “There will always be an educational component and function to a convention, but a professional planner will bring real value by thinking carefully about the group and their work when considering outside entertainment. Not everything has to be grandiose, but if it speaks to the audience then it’s a memorable success.”
While there will always be a time and a place for effective keynote speakers and live entertainment, at the same time, there is an opportunity to think outside the ballroom with trending forms of entertainment such as social walls and customizable gifting stations.
“Unconventional ideas aren’t always better in every situation; it’s really a matter of determining the best fit for your audience at that portion of your event,” Erickson says. “Your entertainment options need to fit your budget, space and itinerary. But above all, it won’t work if you don’t know your audience.”
Depending on the goal of the entertainment, whether to help attendees become inspired, relax, have fun, let loose, or bring them together, something different or something typical might make the most sense.
“You don’t know what will work for a meeting until you evaluate the educational content and attendee needs,” Salib says. “It’s important to know your audience and play by the rules. If you are hosting a formal event, something like a mechanical bull doesn’t make sense. Your entertainment plans should honor the brand’s core values, be feasible for the guests and consider reasonable risks involved in the selection of one option over another.”
Jeff Consoletti, founder, principal and CEO of JJ|LA, an event planning and production company in Los Angeles, notes live entertainment can certainly be a great addition to a convention’s atmosphere and can leave guests feeling very excited about the performance. However, live music is not always compatible to the event being produced.
“It is also important to select live entertainment that resonates with guests as well as the event itself. Selecting the correct live entertainment can be a challenge, but if properly executed can really elevate the guest experience and give guests something to enjoy,” he says. “The type of live entertainment that is best for an event really depends on the event itself and the guests in attendance. Whether it be a live performer, a DJ, a fire blower, a magician or a musician, it all really depends on the overall event aesthetics and audience.”
Lindsey McKee, communications manager for VISIT Milwaukee, has seen several recent events bring in some unique entertainment options to the city.
“For Northwestern Mutual’s annual meeting, they had several entertainers,” she says. “They worked with Cirque du Soleil, iLuminate Dance, and their own adviser-led band for some of their morning sessions. Then they also have an annual show that has had entertainers such as Imagine Dragons, Lady Antebellum, and Maroon 5.”
Meanwhile, Milwaukee-based Harley-Davidson, the popular museum and the motor company, uses entertainment at their anniversary events every five years across multiple locations and stages citywide.
One of the most popular entertainment performers for conventions lately has been comedian Dave Burleigh, who does a President Donald Trump impersonation. What started as just a bit in his standup routine, has turned into a full-fledged imitation with prosthetic make-up that takes up to 5 hours to apply. It really enhances the impression from the human hair wig, to the fake teeth, to the exact eye color contacts.
“I’ve done corporate conventions and meetings for most of my career,” he says. “The attendees are drawn in immediately. The visual with ‘Secret Service’ agents in tow is always a sure way to generate a buzz while walking into the room. Then, the vocal impression at a podium with all the bells and whistles really brings the performance to its peak. Taking photos with the audience afterwards is always fun and a big hit as they get to meet the ‘President’ and have a brief fun chat as well.”
Randy Nolen, Burleigh’s manager and co-producer, signed him up originally four years ago to do a Joe Biden imitation because he never thought Trump would win the presidency. Looking forward to the 2020 election, Nolen is working on other political personalities like Bernie Sanders and possibly Joe Biden. Trying to be politically current and trying to please audiences of different political persuasions is not any easy task.
“Most of our shows are a surprise, so the audiences are shocked to see him walk into the room with a Secret Service detail and Hail to the Chief on the sound system,” Nolen says. “Normally by the time he gets to the stage, most of the people figure out that it is not the president and that it is a comedy show. They quickly realize that the material is not mean-spirited or disrespectful, but just silly/goofy, yet clever.”
Each show is also customized — sometimes with a Q&A — so the convention attendees feel they are a part of the show. And afterward, Burleigh is available for photo ops.
“It is so unique and different from a normal comedy show and I have found, over the years, that people love to have their photo taken with ‘The President,’” Nolen says. “It’s an opportunity that they will most likely never have in the future. And today, photos can be shared with family and friends via social media within seconds. I had one CEO recently tell me that his photo still hangs proudly on his office wall and is the topic of conversation almost every time someone new visits his office.”
Over the years, Burleigh has found that people enjoy taking a break from the meetings and networking to enjoy his act.
“People are able to share a laugh together and relax a bit before getting back to business,” he says. “Besides providing comic relief from what might otherwise be a rigorous day of serious speakers and presentations, I think that this type of show is one that attendees will always remember.”
John Smyth, director of sales for Puzzle Break, which provides escape room adventures for conventions and meetings that can be played anywhere for groups of 10 to 2,000+ players, thinks meeting planners are just starting to see the value in this entertainment option for association meetings.
He recently demonstrated the possibilities at several Meeting Professionals International (MPI) events in Northern California. He regularly works with meeting planners and venues and has found that most events have some kind of team-building activity set aside as a break from learning or as an ice breaker event to get people engaged and working together.
One of the escape rooms they offer is entitled “A Hollywood Mystery” and is set in 1940s Hollywood when a murder occurs. Another is a fantasy adventure where guests are trapped in an enchanted forest by an evil witch.
“Each event includes an exciting escape challenge that can be made to be competitive across teams or a fully relaxed experience to best fit an event,” Smyth says. “Puzzle Break has captured the magic that makes escape rooms the ultimate team-building activity. We bring it to you in a unique experience that you can’t find anywhere else.”
When planning entertainment for a convention or meeting, planners need to think about the budget as some of these acts tend to be very pricey. In addition to the talent, often other costs are associated with bringing someone in, such as equipment, lodging and transportation.
Thinking of budget constraints, Event Integrity created a scent bar for guests to make a custom scent according to the business coaching they received during the team meeting and company training event, which was an innovative form of entertainment.
“It was customized according to the meeting goals but included different types of scents in different mediums and each attendee interacted with and created their own mix,” Salib says. “It was simple, on budget, and helped the client enhance the meeting. Although scents can be a touchy subject, in this circumstance it fit the bill and the client has had people share how they still have the takeaway they received from that meeting and they reference it regularly.”
Additionally, cutting corners on entertainment hiring or regulatory compliance can make for a logistical nightmare for a planner and increase risk to their client or employer.
Give Them Something to Talk About
The right entertainment also creates plenty of buzz, but to leave attendees talking after an event, one must give them things to talk about.
“Think about what they want to see, and engage them early in your planning process when you ask them to save the date,” Salib says. “This literally is the secret and it’s simple. Engage your audience and do the research. If you aren’t sure how to do this, get help from a digital marketing strategist.”
The secret to having attendees talk about the entertainment is making sure the act is so compelling that employees want to share it on their personal platforms. That act shows that what they’re participating in is a major source of pride. When people are proud of their work and their employer, they stay longer and work harder. It’s a win-win.
“Entertainment can be a crucial aspect of the attendee journey before, during and after the event,” Erickson says. “Choose entertainment that resonates, and then put your communications campaign to work. Utilize your event app and social media touchpoints to extend the life of your event and maximize post-program engagement.” AC&F