Think Outside the Box to ‘Wow’ Your AttendeesJanuary 20, 2020

Engaging Entertainment By
January 20, 2020

Think Outside the Box to ‘Wow’ Your Attendees

Engaging Entertainment


Memorable entertainment can be anything from a magician walking among attendees to a local theater group performance to a world- renowned violinist to a big-name musical group. Whatever the budget allows, planners should aim high.

Memorable entertainment can be anything from a magician walking among attendees to a local theater group performance to a world- renowned violinist to a big-name musical group. Whatever the budget allows, planners should aim high.

Entertainment is the heart of any good event, whether it is a convention, an annual association conference, an awards dinner, fundraiser or any planned gathering for any purpose.

Some believe that entertainment is even more important than food in planning a successful event.

“If the food is mediocre and the entertainment is good, everyone will have a great time. If the food is good and the entertainment is mediocre, the evening will fall flat,” says Tiiu Lutter, owner of an entertainment company who writes about entertainment and more for

“If the food is mediocre and the entertainment is good, everyone will have a great time. If the food is good and the entertainment is mediocre, the evening will fall flat.” Tiiu Lutter

Therefore, getting the entertainment right should be an event planner’s highest priority. No pressure.

Fortunately, there are people who specialize in identifying just the right entertainment for each unique gathering of human beings. What you should ask of them and what they should ask of you makes all the difference in a successful entertainment element of your association meeting.

And fortunately, in 2020, technology and entrepreneurship has created a nearly unending smorgasbord of entertainment options. Indeed, the options are so numerous that it may require a professional to properly assess the needs and personality of your gathering and provide the best entertainment for the budget available.

“Entertainment, in the broadest sense, should be a reflection of the mission of the association and the community the association serves,” says Amaia Stecker, owner and lead designer with Pilar & Co. based in Washington, D.C. However, she specializes in associations.

Before coordinating an event, the association director or individual responsible for the outcome should be able to articulate exactly what is expected of the evening.

Whoever that happens to be, make sure they can articulate the answer. Ask the question in a variety of ways until all parties involved can articulate a list of expected outcomes for the week, day or evening you’re are planning.

“It must reverberate a strong benefit for attendees, the dues-paying members of your association, or provide the incentive needed for potential members of your association,” Stecker says.

“You must also ask yourself if you are being respectful of attendees time,” she continues. “Just because they are at your event, they still need time and opportunities to check in at home and with other projects back at work.”

Let down time be some entertainment. Consider setting up a Nerf basketball goal or some similar sporting activity in the hallways or common space of your gathering. That provides entertainment for those who need it without being disrespectful to those who may need to check in at work.

Group exercise, such as yoga or a short hike, also make for good entertainment as well as team building.


Too often, the idea of entertainment is limited to a band or a speaker, but today’s events incorporate all manner of technology and human activity.

Right now, virtual reality (VR) is a trendy, engaging component of event entertainment. Through VR, take guests on a tour of the national park system or allow them to pitch a game in the World Series. Drive a race car or scuba dive the Great Barrier Reef. Whatever the theme, virtual reality can further emphasize the tone set by speaker, work sessions and more.

Take advantage of drone technology. Let guests fly a drone, indoors or outdoors while snapping photos that can be distributed later in the evening.

If the budget allows, forget all manner of décor and invest in 3-D video mapping. For those not familiar with the term, video mapping is when images are projected on the sides of buildings or on every surface of an indoor space.

“It’s so encompassing and immersive that you can literally make your attendees feel like they are in a fish bowl,” says Lauren Grech, CEO and co-founder of New York, New York-based LLG Events • LLG Agency and an adjunct professor at New York University in the Tisch Center of Hospitality. She is working on the curriculum for the first college degree program in event planning.

Depending on the space, the region of the country and the event venue, 3-D video mapping could cost between $10,000-$20,000, according to Grech.

If budget is not an issue, Grech has also noticed a trend toward celebrity appearances at association and other conferences. Billy Joel and Maroon 5 have appeared at events she has helped coordinate. Off-shoots of Broadway shows are another example.

Because she is based in New York City, Grech has access to a talent pool that includes the original cast members of “The Jersey Boys” and “Mama Mia!” among others. She prefers to bring on the show between the salad and main course.

A 15-20 minute musical performance is just about the time it takes to enjoy the main course, then the emcee begins the program. She prefers to have dessert served later in the evening, unless it is preset.

“Our clients are often looking for Instagrammable moments in the evening and a Broadway show satisfies that request,” Grech says.

In New York, such a program would start at a minimum of $5,000 and go upward depending on cast members and show requests. When choosing the show number, consider how it reflects the values and mission of the organization and how it serves the needs of the attendees.

Those located throughout North America, far from Broadway’s bright lights, can incorporate Broadway-style programming for much less than it will cost associations meeting in New York. Look to local repertoire companies, community theaters, colleges and even high schools with a strong theater program.

By booking nonprofit or public education sources, the association and its members then becomes more engaged and knowledgeable of the community in which the conference has been held.

If the destination is a repeat destination for a particular event, working with local theater groups can become a tradition that nonetheless is fresh each year, depending on the Broadway show performed.

But less stressful to most budgets would be the entertainment such as indigenous and local crafts people with demonstrations on the sides of the rooms that can provide energy for cocktail receptions or breaks between conference sessions. Cooking demonstrations also work well in such a setting.

Stecker has had positive feedback recently on ‘walking tables.’ At receptions, instead of wait staff walking through the crowd with trays full of hors d’oeuvres, she worked with a company that creates walking tables.

Basically, think a big bell skirt that straps to a human’s shoulders or a person jumping out of a birthday cake. The table, on wheels, has an opening in the center for the waiter. The wardrobe and table covering blend together and becomes a table carrying the snacks that then move among the guests. It’s all over Instagram.

Glow-in-the-dark and anything on fire is a great choice. Note that fireworks for an outdoor event may be unsettling for many people, including neighboring residents and animals. More and more fireworks are considered inappropriate entertainment other than national holidays.

“Anything that engages the audience is a good choice,” says Lutter, who prefers acts that work the room over a stage show. “Slight-of-hand magicians are fantastic. They can make magic in a group of 5 or 6, leave them talking while engaging the next group.”

Something like magicians or balloon artist also becomes a conversation starter or ice breaker for those new to a group, allowing for a fun-filled introduction to new people. Think carnival activities that include stilt walkers, make-up artists and costumes.

Photo booths are also a lot of fun, providing a few props and costumes for a little thematic fun. That the photos can be printed with association branding is a bonus. These photos may live for years in desktop photo frames or billboards in an office.

“There’s a lot of branding that can be incorporated in entertainment,” says Debbie Arato, CSEP, president and CEO of Toronto, Canada-based Arato Entertainment and Events Inc. “Make give-a-ways and door prizes a part of the entertainment and put a logo on all of it.”

Examples could be take-home cocktail glasses with glowing ice cubes or clothing items shot from a T-shirt gun.

Lutter has also hired dancers to start the crowd moving when a band is the choice. “These need to be people who are good at getting strangers up and involved as well as great dancers.”

And speaking of the band — professional advice is to always, always go with a band over a DJ and sound system when the budget can afford it. While every event planner has horror stories that cover the gamut, the worst always seem to include a DJ gone rogue, creating a playlist that is totally inappropriate for the setting, overpowering the emcee or otherwise inserting himself/herself into the programming rather than enhancing the evening.

“People think they can download a playlist from Spotify and become a DJ,” says Lutter, who tells a horror story about one DJ choosing to play the Chicken Dance and similar songs at a swanky corporate event. She had met with another DJ, who sent a substitute who apparently didn’t get the message about the tone of the event.

“Live music gives people something to watch and talk about,” says Lutter, whose experience tells her that people stay long with live music. “And the longer people stay, the longer you sustain critical mass — 75% of your total attendees — the greater success for your event.”

If a DJ is what the budget or other circumstances demand, ask about adding music videos. It engages those who choose not to dance, and inspires those who do.

“Music is associated with energy,” Stecker says, “but sometimes music can be off-putting if it over-stimulates people after a long day or imposes itself into the event. Music, as with all entertainment, should support the goals of the event and be respectful of attendees.”


Once at a large gathering in the state of Missouri, the tourism director at the time had the opportunity to give a breakfast presentation. In telling the story of Jefferson City, the state capital, she included details about a local dairy that still delivers in glass bottles door-to-door. The dairy’s advertising campaign included a cow uttering the words “Good Mooorning!”

So the tourism director invited a roomful of 300 people to stand up and shout “Good mooorning!” while mooing like a cow.

As one attendee said, “There’s not enough coffee in the world to make this feel right.”

The point is — don’t try to get a crowd excited too early in the morning, or force enthusiasm or activity at the wrong time of day. Sometimes, it’s OK for there to be no entertainment. Sometimes, people want to simply talk and sip their coffee without mooing in the morning.

Another big mistake is waiting until the last minute to plan for the entertainment, Arato says.

Two months out is a minimum, but six months is the best to guarantee you have who and what you want.

If you don’t have an event planner, designate someone to look after the entertainment. For a band, that will be overseeing setup and all needs.


The week of 9/11, Lutter had three events that went on as scheduled. However, she toned down rock bands to light jazz, eliminated comedians and replaced with a vocalist and inspirational music.

Tragedy and disaster are a part of modern life, as is good news. Imagine hosting an event in a city where a World Series is scheduled to be played. Forget any entertainment in the evening other than baseball. Bring in some big screen TVs, make sure everyone has peanuts and Cracker Jack and your entertainment is set.

Flexibility is a necessity in event planning. Pro tips include never having a single individual on stage unless there is a back-up in the wings. Ideally, two people can emcee the event, just in case someone gets caught up in a coughing fit or the hiccups or something more serious such as a heart attack or other medical issue. It happens more often than you think.


Budgets are tight — we get it. So hiring an event planner or entertainment coordinator may seem like an exorbitant expense. Depending on a variety of factors, the event planner will charge 10% to 20% of your entire budget.

The event planner/entertainment coordinator does this for a living, so they can often get bulk discounts because the band or comedian recognizes the opportunity for repeat business.

“A lot of clients attempt to source it all themselves, but the savings I can bring through my negotiation skills and wholesale prices often more than saves the bottom line,” Arato says.

Arato recognizes that associations don’t often have the budget of many of her corporate clients, but that doesn’t mean she can’t deliver an entertaining option.

“The benefit of bringing in a third party like me is that I can forcefully negotiate, because I work with many of these entertainers on a regular basis,” she says.

For example, she’s worked with many of the groups so long, she knows their empty days and availabilities, so she can negotiate a good price just because she knows they would otherwise be without a gig that day or night.

Working with an event planner or entertainment company also keeps you up-to-date on the latest in entertainment options.


When working with an event planner, be sure to share as much information as possible. While the event planner does not necessarily write the script, although it can be included in the service, looping them in on the script helps them be prepared for the slightest details.

This includes keeping them in the loop as far as any VIPs or special announcements in the program. It just makes the evening come across as more polished and professional.

Now that New York University is offering the nation’s first degree in Event Planning, Grech anticipates that event planning in the coming years will become more polished and formalized. Contracts and rates will become more transparent, and events will have more structure.

What that means for associations and their members who attend the annual conference is greater satisfaction and value for the time and money spent attending the meeting, wherever it is. | AC&F |


Back To Top