When we think of how the recession has changed event entertainment, it’s usually in negative terms. There’s less money to spend. Planners are asked to do more — to keep attendees interested and make them feel they got their money’s worth for less and to skip big names that are no longer in the budget.
The flip side of the increased focus on ROI in association event planning is that it has caused associations to look for entertainment that ties in more clearly and directly the mission of the association and the specific event, leading to a more cohesive schedule that delivers more effective messaging for attendees.
“Association events are unique for corporate attendees, because they aren’t all from the same company, they aren’t all employed by the same place, but they’re together for the same purpose,” says Brian Acheson, CSEP, international president 2013–2014 of the Dallas, Texas-based International Special Events Society and president of VIP Events Inc. in Dallas. The natural focus on commonality lends itself easily to event entertainment with a heavy emphasis on mission integration.
“Today, entertainment needs to be authentic, and it needs to be a conversation. It used to be an afterthought: We should do entertainment and it should cost $X,” he explains. “Once upon a time, keynote speakers tied into theme and relevance, and entertainment was like ‘oh that looks nice,’ but it’s not like that anymore in a conference. There are no elements where someone just says, ‘oh that would be fun.’ There has to be some tie-back, some relevance, hitting a demographic square and creating an emotional connection.
“People want to make sure they’re spending money wisely, but you need excitement and energy for your event. However, you’re not always going to have talent that sings about how to roll out new products to 30-somethings in the juice industry. The most important thing is that it resonates, even if it’s not messaging per se. But it has to speak to your attendees correctly. It has to be a conversation. It’s not going to magically happen.”
“Today, entertainment needs to be authentic, and it needs to be a conversation. …There has to be some tie-back, some relevance, hitting a demographic square and creating an emotional connection.” — Brian Acheson, CSEP
On the surface, it seems that finding talent that fits in with an association’s mission can be harder for some groups than for others, but many planners are thinking sideways to find novel and unconventional ways to use popular forms of entertainment that resonate with their group.
According to Lauren Peck, manager of meetings and events administration for the Fairfield, New Jersey-based Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association (HBA), which is focused on the advancement and impact of women in health care worldwide, “In terms of entertainment, what we go for is anything that helps get the mission across.” The association’s events typically aim to teach business skills to women in health care through seminars as well as interactive events such as panels and discussions, but one of the best received events that Peck put on recently was a fashion show.
“We did a dress for success sort of thing for women who are transitional or just starting out in the work force,” she explains. “It was a fashion-night-out event in New York City, where models came out and showed 12 pieces that could be arranged for different business outfits, and someone came to do attendees’ makeup. We had a great turnout, and everyone was thrilled. Even I learned some great wardrobe tips.”
In other cases, planners find entertainment that resonates with their audience and work with the talent to integrate the mission, the attendees and the happenings of the event into the act. Amanda S. Rushing, CMP, Aff.M.ASCE, of the Reston, Virginia-based American Society of Civil Engineers, often brings in an uplifting speaker or comedian, such as John Foley, Ben Stein or Dave Barry, to close her events.
“I like to figure out a way to end on a high note that ties pieces of the conference together,” she explains. “Prior to the event, we host conference calls with member leaders and the speaker, so they understand what the mission of the organization is, what are the learning objectives, focus, target audience and objectives for that conference, and how we are tying them in. Depending on the speaker, we send them info about the program in advance as well.
“Throughout the event, staff keep a journal so we can brief the speaker on what has happened through the week,” she continues. “We ask staff and key members, ‘What did you see?’ ‘What have you heard?’ ‘What did you think was the best session and why?’ We use that information to brief the speaker before they go on. We also use that to bridge to the following year, what is its focus, what is it trying to accomplish and why should they come.”
When planners want to integrate their organization’s mission into the entertainment portion of the program, one of the easiest ways to accomplish that is to let the attendees take the lead. Interactive elements are increasingly becoming a part of all events, but putting attendees front and center on the main stage as the headlining act is an idea that is just starting to pick up steam.
Mike Burke, CMP, CEM, CMM specialist, meeting and event planner for the Arlington, Virginia-based National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, runs six to seven 300-to-1,200-person conferences and a 15,000-person convention each year for his association, which serves attendees from rural areas of the U.S. For his large convention, he typically utilizes a headlining concert to build excitement among attendees.
“We basically do a private concert with someone like Willie Nelson, Martina McBride or Clint Black,” he says. “Members are from rural America, and depending on the program, the annual meeting attendee average age is about 66. While the musical interest is very varied, a certain demographic may opt more toward country and western, but they all do appreciate live music. There’s a certain energy that we feel the live music brings: You are not just enjoying listening but also watching the musician.”
To unify attendees’ musical interests and inject new energy and tie-in to the evening entertainment, Burke tried a new version of his headlining concert at his Atlanta event: a spin-off of “American Idol.” “We had members submit video entries a certain number of weeks prior to going onsite, and an internal committee selected a certain number of finalists to perform at concert night that year,” he explains. “It was great. The audience got involved, and a couple of them were industry names. We had judging there onsite, and we even had an ‘American Idol’ finalist perform as well.
“It was especially interesting because, our members being where they’re from, a lot of songs ended up being really USA-focused, like ‘God Bless America.’ And our group really responded with national pride. When those songs came on, the performers got bigger applause, and people were standing up.”
Burke also has had great success involving attendees in other parts of his events’ musical entertainment. “Sometimes we reach out to local members or fly in members from certain areas for the morning walk-in music at our conferences and convention,” he says. “Our group is so musical, and some of our members are guitarists or also vocalists. In many cases, they may have just released a CD or may have a message that speaks to the overall theme of the event or organization.”
Sometimes, smaller, more intimate applications of attendee-involved entertainment can be the most effective. “Before, you would have an opening reception and maybe a gala dinner, and you might do some things, but it was always on a larger scale,” says Rushing. “We’ve found that when we do things on a larger scale you can’t really find anybody. It’s nice to offer unique experiences that only a few people really want to go to. We’re able to offer a larger variety and meet more of our target audience’s needs. I’m always looking for something that is unique and local and gets an experience that is just for that city so I’m never really repeating. We’ve brought attendees out to really try to get into the flavor of the city in different ways, especially cooking classes and competitions.
“We had great success for our annual conference last year in Charlotte, North Carolina,” she says. “We were at the NASCAR Hall of Fame, and a lot of people have their receptions there, but we’re engineers, so one of the things that we did that was a huge success was a pit team contest. As the attendee walked into the museum, we gave them a sticker, which was one of the staff positions from one of the big race car driver’s teams. So you might be Jeff Gordon’s wheelman or Dale Earnhardt’s tire man, and they had a little card to fill out and had to go find all other nine positions in an event that was 600 people. It was the best-rated opening reception we had, and we found out later that people that were on the same team would get together for coffee later in the conference.”
The real triple threat is when you can work in attendee involvement, mission tie-in and a novel activity, as Peck is doing with her June program. As part of their leadership development work, Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association has created a Fit to Lead program, which teaches women that the skills used in sports also can be used in the boardroom. “As part of the Fit to Lead program, we’re organizing a dragon boat race in New Hope, Pennsylvania. We’ll have attendees on the boats learning live how to row and then racing. We’ll have three separate boats, and we’ll follow the race with a discussion and dinner. It’s new for us, but people are very excited. You learn key skills being on a team, but we thought, why not do it in a fun way? We’ll get them rowing and see what happens.”
While busy thinking about how entertainment ties-in to mission statement and event focus, association planners still have to stay on the pulse of what is the next cool new thing. While the exact talent or type of entertainment that’s in vogue changes all the time, the need for that timely element doesn’t.
“ ‘Wow’ is the big word my clients like to use,” Acheson explains. “In our general session, some people meet all day, literally in general sessions until noon and then are there until dinner, break to change clothes and then come back for awards for three hours. They’re really in that room, and I’m very cognizant of the fact that they’ve been in that chair all day, and I need to engage them with entertainment. Even the first morning, it’s 8 o’clock, and they were out the night before at the opening party.
“You have to think of what is new and cutting edge for the audience, not for you,” Acheson continues. “You don’t want them to walk in and say, ‘oh, I saw that last week.’ But there is a lot of cachet and goodwill that can be bought if you have talent acts that have recently been on TV just a month or so before, and now they’re on your stage. It’s harder for us though, because it’s harder to sell the committee on someone if they’re not well known. On the other hand, if they want a big name and you say, ‘You can’t afford them, but I can get you this person. They’re really good, and they go to your message, and they cost $X,’ it can be very effective.”
Aside from bringing in up-and-coming stars of television singing and dancing shows, such as the ever-popular “American Idol” and “Dancing with the Stars,” Acheson says, “A cappella is kind of a thing now, and we get a lot of talent acts from Broadway. When we have performers from ‘The Lion King’ walk in from the back of the room, from a talent perspective, that’s a big deal. Steampunk is also in again, and great for events because it’s entertaining and unique, and for the right association can be a great tie back. There’s a company out there that specializes in steampunk entertainment, and that’s the kind of thing that will make your attendees say, ‘I’ve never seen that before.’ I mean, who serves wine off a bicycle umbrella? I can’t even describe it properly.”
Wikipedia describes steampunk as “a sub-genre of science fiction that typically features steam-powered machinery” and “may also incorporate additional elements from the genres of fantasy, horror, historical fiction, alternate history, or other branches of speculative fiction, making it often a hybrid genre.”
When dabbling with the newest, latest acts though, planners must always remember to think first of what the entertainment is meant to accomplish, no matter how outrageous the steampunk costumes look. “I would never put steampunk in just for fun, because it was steampunk,” Acheson explains. “It needs to truly meet as many of those touch points as you can get for it to be meaningful.”
While it may have been born of a difficult period, the new focus on integrating your entertainment closer to your mission offers planners a way to increase attendee engagement and excitement about their events, even though it can seem like more work on the planning end.
“I think the thing that is key is to really know who your audience is, because a lot of times people do the same old thing because they’ve done it every year the same way, but they aren’t looking at what are their demographics, what is their target audience, what is the mean age — most importantly, who is it now,” advises Rushing. “Things are changing. It’s more diversified. Especially if you’re trying to track the younger audience, you have to take their likes and dislikes into play as well.” AC&F