Planning the entertainment for a corporate meeting is wonderfully simple: Decide on a well-known performer, pay the performer and wait for the accolades to roll in. Right? Not even close, says Jim Schultze, CMP, director of events for Chicago-based marketing and coaching consultant GKIC-Glazer-Kennedy Insider’s Circle.
“Planners and event sponsors often have blinders on when it comes to big names,” he says. “Everyone wants the name as a draw, but the budget often isn’t there for the performer.” And it isn’t just the performer’s fees, though those can be pretty extravagant: Jimmy Buffett, for example, commands $1 million per performance. With a marquee name, a planner also has to budget at least 50 percent more for production costs such as lighting, and food and beverage riders.
Schultze booked a famous R&B group for a corporate event and remembers, “The food cost for Kool and the Gang — just the food cost — was $10,000 for their 300-person entourage.” Other knotty issues can crop up, too. In just one recent session, “the client’s committee suggested as possible performers Queen, Marvin Gaye and one other performer who had died.”
For intrepid planners who do decide to go for a big name, Schultze recommends creating a memorable experience by focusing on and negotiating for crowd interaction. Sometimes the interaction can be spontaneous, as during an event where he booked Huey Lewis and the News.
“Looking down into the crowd, Huey sees an attendee on the phone,” Schultze remembers. “When he says he’s talking to his wife, Huey asks if she’s a fan. Oh, a huge fan! So Huey reaches out and grabs the guy’s phone, then tells the wife he’s performing right now but she and her husband can come as his guests to the next show and have some signed merchandise. Then he said goodbye, hung up, and told everyone to put their cellphones away. ‘I’m only making that offer one time,’ he laughed. The crowd loved it.”
Schultze advises planners to negotiate riders carefully and contract up front exactly how much and what type of interaction to have with attendees, especially VIPs, and to use their own connections to sweeten the pot with more than money. For example, Schultze once secured time on the links for avid golf fan Kenny Loggins in exchange for extra time appearing in photos with attendees.
“Do a big show with a big band one year; next year do an unplugged performance; next year do a comedian, juggle plates or chain saws, a variety show — so people remember your events in terms of the year they happened. Changing it up is a big deal,” he says.
Schultze says he’s noticed a trend of moving away from headliners and toward entertainment that is more intimate, cheaper, more unexpected or some combination of the three.
Acts like the Neil Diamond cover band Thunder and Lightning, for example, are “plug and play”: Not only do they come minus the overhead and diva drama of a marquee name, but they also tend to “get the place jumping and interact well with the crowd,” Schultze says.
He advises planners who are thinking of booking acts on a budget to “develop parameters as opposed to focusing on names — here’s the kind of person we want, not we want this person — so you don’t have blinders on. It gives you flexibility on availability and price.”
Another way to save a bit is to engage entertainers who perform remotely. For one of Schultze’s events, Evan and Jaron, who sing “Crazy for This Girl,” performed in an hour-long live webcast from their studio for $1,000 vs. the $40,000 plus production plus travel it would have cost had they been onsite.
“No one’s saying this out loud, but we need to do something more on a smaller scale,” Schultze says. “Entertainment on small stages or in the background. You don’t want (attendees) in a seat again; you want them up networking, discussing, sharing, not watching a show for an hour.” Variety shows with multiple five-minute segments or setups with multiple small screens instead of one large screen encourage this, he says.
Changing it up is also the goal for Suzan Jenkins, executive administrative assistant, marketing/North America for Virbac, an animal-pharmaceutical maker based in Fort Worth, Texas. When Jenkins stepped into the role of meeting planner last year, she decided to take her company’s events in a different direction. “Activities were very dull before that; a dinner murder-mystery theater, nothing anyone would look back on and say ‘that was a fun night,’ ” she says.
Although her group of salespeople is naturally competitive, they’re not all sporty, and she wanted something both active and fun that didn’t rely on the group sitting around a bar all night, but also wasn’t paintball.
Her first at-bat was a teambuilding event for about 100 attendees, held at a new Dallas venue called Topgolf. The space offers a three-level driving range and caters to both low handicappers and first-timers. Jenkins had the event catered and hired a disc jockey for the event. It was the highest-rated sales meeting the company has ever had, she notes. “People are still talking about it.” The event offered just the right mix so that “everybody interacted and participated without putting a lot of pressure on any type of skill set, but there was still some kind of teambuilding and camaraderie.”
Especially effective was the chance for low-stakes interaction among people who typically don’t mingle — the salespeople and the corporate officers. Jenkins’ best advice for planners is to leverage their time by letting DMCs and CVBs handle hotel and venue negotiations while the planner focuses on creating a memorable event.
“It’s rare to get the crowd laughing at big corporate meetings during general sessions,” says Dustin Denis, Toronto-based district sales manager for Hayward Pool Products. “Usually the only laughter comes during an expensive guest speaker or comedian skit.”
Every winter, Denis’ company invites 300 of its best customers to attend an all-inclusive trip to a spot south of the border. When he discovered on a Friday that he would be the presenter the following Monday, he panicked. Holding a group’s attention can be difficult enough in a hotel ballroom, but in a meeting room in Nuevo Vallarta, Mexico, on a 90-degree January afternoon? He had to think fast.
To the rescue: the character “Willie Sellmore,” who performed from a script co-written by Denis and Jack Fiala of Corporate Sidekicks. Willie is no ordinary entertainer. He’s a video personality who somehow seems to know all the right buttons to push with specific attendees. He’s also a puppet. “The opening video was a fantastic icebreaker and made fun of my boss a little, and myself,” Denis remembers. “This led into introducing me during the crowd’s laughter. Perfect!” he says. After Denis’ short, funny presentation, Willie delivered a snarky bit on the company’s top 10 product highlights.
“Customers know we have flaws; nobody and no company is perfect. But addressing your problems, correcting them and presenting it all in a humorous manner is the way to do it,” Denis says. “I was a legend all week at this resort, with dealers inquiring about all the products I actually made fun of. So I got my message across to all the customers about all of our new products (while making fun of some known glitches that are now fixed), all while getting laughs. It just doesn’t get better than that!”
Fiala, an entertainer and the founder of Corporate Sidekicks in Dayton, Ohio, points out that one of the biggest trends in corporate entertainment of late has been “trimming the budget,” which means doing more — sometimes doing all — in-house. Where once his clients primarily lined up for live experiences that required an investment of time and money, more and more are opting for more cost-effective custom videos. These videos are either stock — with space to insert the company logo and pictures — or more targeted to the specific company dynamic, as at Denis’ and Cummins’ meetings.
What makes these videos so popular with corporate clients (document-handling company Iron Mountain, for example, chose to continue producing monthly updated sales videos inspired by a presentation he did for them, and Fiala has many such repeat clients), is that they are credible and personalized. “People in the audience think, who’s doing that? Is that Joe from marketing? They think it’s an inside job,” he says. And in a sense, that’s exactly what it is.
“People really want to be able to have a good time at a meeting, and that needs humor that is not external to but an outgrowth of the way they do things.” — Jack Fiala
The themes hit home with attendees because Fiala has researched the ins and outs of the company beforehand, talking to managers and salespeople, learning which issues will resonate. He can use Willie or another character to “acknowledge corporate issues of employees or customers or sales teams and helps to defuse the issues. People really want to be able to have a good time at a meeting, and that needs humor that is not external to but an outgrowth of the way they do things.”
Michelle Crosby, CMP, CTA, DMCP, national sales manager for destination management company AlliedPRA’s Dallas/Fort Worth office in Grapevine, Texas, finds that what attendees want from destination meetings is an individualized experience — “nothing kitschy or standard,” she says. Attendees want an experience they couldn’t orchestrate on their own. For example, in the DFW region, that means instead of visiting the usual tourist spots such as the JFK memorial, hold a chili cook-off at Southfork Ranch, home of the “Dallas” TV show. Instead of visiting the presidential library or a museum, Crosby suggests holding an event there.
Clients want to “live like a local,” and since Dallas is a big foodie region, culinary events often top the list of local delights. Her clients have, for example, held events featuring local celebrity chefs such as Stephan Pyles and Kent Rathbun. Planners can, depending on the budget, buy out half or even the entire restaurant so the chef can mingle with attendees, sign cookbooks or offer cooking demonstrations. Rathbun has even opened up his home to provide a private “chef’s table” of sorts, grilling by the pool and then eating with a small meeting group.
Sometimes, on the other hand, the ones serving are the attendees themselves: working at a food kitchen, building a new playground for a local school, reading to the elderly, volunteering at a shelter — these are all locally based activities that offer the attendees a chance to feel a real connection to the area, to their team and beyond.
Crosby finds the “market is shifting toward maybe a bit bigger than ‘our team,’ ” and that means opportunities for teambuilding that sometimes involve actual building, especially since attendees can spend some time in separate outings, then meet later to discuss their respective days.
Because the area has a lot of culinary schools, there are plenty of opportunities to eat well and to help at-risk children start out in the restaurant business. She’s steered planners to work with Trinity Groves, for example, a restaurant incubator program that offers grants to would-be restaurateurs.
Patrick Sullivan, president of AlliedPRA, New York, similarly finds giving back to the community to be a draw for corporate meetings. His clients have worked with Art Start, a collective of artists who offer children living in homeless shelters the space and education to blossom as artists and musicians.
“Maybe because groups are getting younger, experiences that happen in front of your face have become very popular,” Sullivan says. Seemingly retro entertainment such as illusionists who pull a rabbit out of a hat, acrobats, live wire acts or uniquely weird entertainers such as The Experimentalist — part entertainer, part mind reader — have worked well with groups.
Hiring the cast from iLuminate, a glow-in-the-dark dance troupe made famous from their appearance on “American’s Got Talent,” typically also makes a big impression on attendees.
And in New York, planners also can tap into the talent of the region by hiring Juilliard students to perform, for example, as a jazz or classical ensemble; create a Broadway revue; or form a marching band that spells out the organization’s name.
Planners can use the city’s own vibrancy and even its civil servants in their quest to entertain. Sullivan has organized city tours with entertainment specially planned for the group at each spot — a singer here, a magician there, someone set up at a three-card monte table at a third spot, costumed carolers at a fourth — so the city seems to have sprung up for the day especially to entertain the group.
At one meeting, an event space was set up like a New York City subway, complete with break dancers, subway seats and spray paint cans so attendees could create their own graffiti. For other meetings, actual graffiti artists can “tag” a reception area with a company’s logo. Even local firemen and policemen can be hired to entertain to raise funds for a local charity.
The moral of the story? No matter the form entertainment takes, it’s the level of attendee engagement and the memories made that count. C&IT