Orchestrating entertainment at any meeting or event can be challenging. Just ask Danielle Berman, founder and CEO at DB Consulting Firm in Baltimore, who has hosted several events for corporations of all sizes.
At a recent conference, Berman embraced the entertainment component by running logistics for a casino night-themed cocktail hour. In addition to overseeing a casino company, which brought tables, dealers and the games along with them, Berman managed the food and drink for the evening. Winners at the tables received raffle tickets for a chance to be awarded more prizes.
The result? “Guests thoroughly enjoyed it,” Berman says. “It was a fun and exciting way to have a networking cocktail party and close out an event.”
As Berman explains, entertainment is becoming a bigger part of corporate events, especially on a larger scale. “Nearly every corporate event I throw has some kind of cocktail reception, from small networking cocktails to themed casino nights or musical entertainment to close out the agenda,” Berman says. “Even more so, there is a push for engaging speakers or inspirational entertainment from outside of the industry.”
Amy Grace Collins, event planner and owner of Amy Grace Events, says that today’s event entertainment trends are moving toward intimate and meaningful experiences that participants feel use their valuable time properly and walk away with action items that can be immediately implemented.
“Main speakers are still a large draw, and VIP experiences to meet and greet with speakers can be added to help entice your attendees to register early and/or pay an additional fee for intimate access,” Collins says.
Over the years, the types of entertainment gracing stages at various corporate events has changed significantly. Creating big blowout bashes were the trend a few years back, as attendees began to want to feel a part of a movement of people — and size mattered.
“Event organizers would feel a sense of panic if the event wasn’t filling up or the seating had the image of being sparse,” Collins says. “Now, the more intimate the entertainment lineup, the better.”
“Planners are now designing in unstructured moments for serious play, creating experiences around food consumption and delivery … and selecting unexpected venues that are an entertaining adventure for the attendee.” — Brent Turner
In addition, corporate events have gotten more comfortable incorporating event entertainment over the years. Now you see appropriate event entertainment often closing out corporate events; whereas before, there was pressure from big companies not to just “throw a party.” Rather, more meeting planners are trying to make sure the entertainment is applicable to the group meeting and the industry in which they are found.
“Attendees also want small groups. They want main stage speaker access and the ability to ask questions in breakout sessions,” Collins says. “They are willing to pay a significant amount for this access over a cheaper experience that’s less intimate.”
Brent Turner, senior vice president of marketing strategy at Cramer in Norwood, Massachusetts, says the corporate meetings and events industry is now in a “festivalization” era for all types of meetings and events.
“The hallmarks of large-scale music festivals, with experiential pillars like end-to-end music, experiential food, campus-like environments to explore and unstructured time for community collaboration, is changing how we design and build our events,” he says. “This festivalization-shift is best embodied at scale with Dreamforce and in-depth with C2 Montreal, but is also being deployed in small leadership meetings, large sales meetings, external launch events and across the meetings and events landscape.”
As Turner explains, the tried-and-true structure of “Sit in Ballrooms in the Day, Move Around with Entertainment at Night” does not align with the expectations and behaviors of today’s attendees. People want a much more active experience, regardless of the type of meeting or event they are attending.
The biggest shift being experienced in corporate meetings and events is one from “passive” to “active” entertainment. Turner says that while classic entertainment acts — where the attendees passively sit back and watch — still have their important role in meetings and events, attendees don’t want to sit still all day. They multitask. They move. And they want their moments of entertainment to be self-directed and interactive.
“The best results, as we’ve heard from attendees, have been in some smaller explorations,” Turner says. From adding entertainment to food (like blender bikes) to bringing in unexpected selfie stations (like tiny rooms) to having roving talent (like an improv troop walking the halls during breaks) — these are moments of surprise and consistently delighting attendees in ways that traditional entertainment investments have been lacking.
“To hit these shifting attendee expectations and capture this festivalization trend, meeting planners are also reimagining how entertainment is designed into a program,” Turner says. “Planners are now designing in unstructured moments for serious play, creating experiences around food consumption and delivery, bringing in pets — especially puppies — for moments of levity, and, where possible, selecting unexpected venues that are, in their own right, an entertaining adventure for the attendee.”
Samantha Hoffer, account manager, Event Services at metroConnections, says she is seeing several different types of entertainment options being embraced by corporations and their subsequent meeting attendees. These include:
Entertainment and activities at events that interact with guests get them involved in the program and networking with each other. “This is huge with corporate incentives since attendees are at a recognition event, interactive entertainment coupled with a giveaway is very popular,” Hoffer says.
Entertainment with some type of social tie-in is also favored. Live entertainment acts that were featured on well-known TV shows such as “The Voice,” “America’s Got Talent” and “American Idol” are big selling points to clients. “Entertainment acts will travel anywhere, so the sky is the limit,” Hoffer says.
Attendees are also drawn to entertainment that ties into the location. This applies to both live and interactive activities at events.
“For example, if the event is taking place in the south, clients will tend to ask for a more country-style band and then maybe we will tie in a Southern-themed photo booth and/or an interactive oyster-tasting,” Hoffer says.
According to Cindy Lo, DMCP, president and event strategist at Red Velvet Events, corporations are asking for entertainment that is “Instagrammable” because those that work with a marketing eye understand the power of good visuals.
“Attendees are asking to be inspired,” Lo says. “So for creative event agencies, it’s so important to really understand who the audience is and how they are wired to get that right mix. Remember, everyone is NOT going to be inspired the same way. And since there’s always a budget to stay within, know that NOT all inspiring ideas are crazy expensive, either.” It’s really important to know the client and the audience and approach each client’s event entertainment needs.
Having been in the industry now just shy of 16 years, Lo and her team at Red Velvet Events are very fortunate to have experienced quite a bit of success in this area.
“Recently, it’s been the interactive custom experiences that have won over our clients’ hearts,” Lo says. “For example, recently for an alcoholic beverage client, we dressed up our walking greeters as ‘walking limes’ to be in theme with the evening’s event vs. just having our standard company uniforms on the greeters holding custom directional signs. We wanted to make it fun and on brand to their company culture.”
Some types of entertainment trends Nicole Chattin, CMP, senior program manager at Brightspot Incentives & Events, is seeing for corporate and incentive travel events include technology, keeping it local/authentic, interactive, magic/illusion and food and beverage.
“Event entertainment has gone high-tech in recent years,” Chattin says. Drone shows come to mind, with hundreds of synchronized drones dancing in the sky to spell out a company’s logo. 3D projection mapping is popular and a way to use technology in place of traditional décor and entertainment. A video or image projected onto a wall provides a moving backdrop for a performance. Instant gratification plays out with audience-controlled bands that let guests request songs live via a touchscreen kiosk or smartphone.
“Why hire a regular DJ when you can hire a visual DJ?” Chattin asks. “Build the stage backdrop and DJ booth with LED panels and hire a visual DJ who plays exhilarating music that is complemented by videos.”
Magic also is becoming popular again with magicians, hypnotists, illusionists and mentalists allowing an audience to unleash their intellect.
“Keep entertainment local and authentic to the destination — a country band in Texas, junkanoo dancers in The Bahamas, Mayan-costumed greeters in Riviera Maya and Polynesian dancers in Kauai,” Chattin says. “And get creative food and beverage-themed entertainment with living tables and champagne skirts.”
During a recent dinner event that Chattin helped manage, entertainers, such as aerialists, dancers and jugglers, performed vignettes on different small stages between each course, keeping the audience engaged. At another event, dueling pianists played while guests sang along, allowing audience participation. At a Kauai Welcome Reception, a cast of 12 Polynesian dancers and musicians performed, which was a hit especially when the executives went on stage to learn to hula dance. During a Farewell Dinner in a Portuguese monastery, a Gregorian choir sang while guests arrived, creating a unique, authentic experience. At an Awards Dinner in Riviera Maya, guests were welcomed with Mayan-costumed greeters, video-mapping swirled around the temple backdrop and Mayan dancers performed.
“The goal with event entertainment is to keep the audience engaged, interested, excited and inspired year after year,” Chattin says.
Thanks to social media, finding entertainment ideas can be very forthcoming, but finding unique entertainment can be challenging. As Lo explains, it used to be those planners that were well-traveled usually brought the coolest and newest ideas to the table. But now that we have social media, the new ideas are shared so quickly that meeting planners have a much smaller window to use the idea before it becomes what she calls, “been there, done that.”
“And to be completely honest, there is no idea that is 100 percent completely new in my opinion,” Lo says. “It’s about how a planner can take something that once was a great idea, and updating it to the current way we take in entertainment.”
One of the biggest challenges facing meeting and event planners who are orchestrating entertainment for soirees of all sizes is ensuring that guests stay engaged in the process and that their work world doesn’t suck them back into the mundane of the day.
“Make sure the breakouts are as excellent as the main stage and create space for them to connect with the right people to foster business connections worthy of returning to the same event year after year,” Collins says.
Speaker schedules can also prove to be difficult to orchestrate. In-demand speakers can take months (or sometimes years) to book and having the time and the funds to put out ahead of ticket sales can sometimes be problematic.
Another challenge with event entertainment is making sure that it fits with the audience. Meeting planners want the audience to enjoy it, not feel like it’s completely out of place or a show to distract them.
“It’s important that the event entertainment is a value add for the event and doesn’t completely take the event over,” Berman says. “In a corporate event setting, event entertainment should complement the event, not overpower it.”
According to Turner, when shifting from the classic “entertainment goes here” structure — for example, when entertainment is a set activity or at a set time in the agenda — to an “always-on” activated experience, where there are moments of entertainment throughout the meeting or event, the biggest challenges are buy-in and coordination.
“As with any large shift to a tried-and-true structure, getting buy-in from all stakeholders is always a challenge,” Turner says. “Then, once there is buy-in, these smaller-but-always-on entertainment moments require more coordination and management to fully deliver on their potential.”
For Lo, timing of entertainment is perhaps the most challenging aspect of entertainment orchestration. “This is not just how long of a performance, but understanding where the attendees are coming from and how fast can you get them organized and seated — if that’s how they are supposed to view the entertainment — so that you can begin your actual planned entertainment,” Lo says.
For Chattin some challenges in orchestrating event entertainment include budget constraints, travel challenges, sufficient rooms in room block for added entertainment, audio-visual needs, indoor vs. outdoor events and power needs, appealing to corporations, key stakeholders and attendees’ needs and wants.
Meeting planners need to get the schedule of events out early. This will allow people time to fully research the breakouts and speakers. The earlier a planner can confirm and lock in event entertainment the better, as usually there is an added layer of logistics that has to go into their segment of the event.
“A planner doesn’t want to leave it until the last minute, or all the hard work they’ve put in to planning a smooth event will fizzle when people see how unorganized the entertainment part is,” Berman says.
“Allowing them the time to create their perfect day is paramount,” Collins says. “Take the time to create amazing descriptions of each aspect of the event so that people want to attend.”
If the budget allows, invest in an event app. This will allow a meeting planner the opportunity to push updates and fully communicate with attendees about event entertainment options.
“Communication is key,” Hoffer says. “There are a lot of logistics that go into entertainment, so asking all the right questions about needs, time lines, etc., up front, will help a planner budget correctly and help with those last-minute requests or changes onsite.”
Also, Hoffer suggests taking notes from previous years. Pay attention to what worked with the group and what didn’t work with the group. Apply that knowledge to future programs.
“Use one band in multiple ways,” Hoffer says. “This will save on budget and also provide a dynamic experience for guests. Use a couple of band members for an acoustic duo during cocktails, then add more band members for a full live band experience during dinner and for the after party.”
Chattin recommends streamlining the event entertainment process by submitting an RFP with general information about the program, history of previous destinations and entertainment hired, objective and goals of the program, demographics and budget.
“Communication is imperative throughout the planning process,” Chattin says. “All details should be outlined in a signed agreement between both parties, including event date, travel and hotel requirements, green room, rider and rehearsal needs and more.” C&IT