Judy Ivie, president of I.C.E. Events, has been planning special events for 23 years, so she has plenty of experience booking entertainment for a wide variety of corporate events. The instructions she most commonly receives from her clients are these: “Here’s our theme. Create an impact package.”
Ivie frequently works with David Thomas, president of the Oklahoma City-based event entertainment firm Shows In A Box, to book entertainment for her clients’ events. “What is so wonderful about David and (producer) Angie Sellers is that I can give them the most off-the-wall concept, tell them that it has to be impact, it can only be 10 minutes or 15 minutes to open, five minutes of the finale and four shows in two days, and it’s done. It’s choreographed; it’s perfect. They’re the most professional crew in the United States.”
“As far as entertainment,” Thomas explains, “we’re there to set the mood and enforce the theme. Usually, the hardest part of any kind of program is getting people’s attention to the stage, so many times we’ll ‘wow’ them with a highly produced seven to nine minutes. At that point, it’s turned over to the VIP or master of ceremonies.”
Thomas is also a magician, and he says that magic is a common theme used for corporate events. “Usually, in that situation, the message is ‘creating the magic in you.’ On a personal level, you’re raising your family, and you have to reach your goals and help the company. Really, it is magic.”
“They took our VIPs and made them the magicians,” Ivie describes. “It was unbelievable. Then they’ve done Chinese acrobat shows, cirque and industrial movement. They actually brought in the crew from Stomp from New York for me. Always, the best you can find.
“They also brought in The Groovaloos,” she continues. “They’re a famous dance group that has been on ‘Dancing with the Stars.’ They choreographed a dance production to our theme.” According to the group’s website, a theater production based on the group’s history has been called “the Hip Hop Chorus Line of our time” and “The Cirque du Soleil of the street.”
Thomas says that Chinese acrobats are a good choice when the theme involves teamwork. “A Chinese acrobat team really works closely to create their act,” he states. “Basically, in a general session, entertainment is not ever used for entertainment by itself, but as a way to reinforce the theme.”
Ivie described some of the keys to choosing the right entertainment for a particular group. “First off, it’s knowing your audience, your demographics and your age range. Also, knowing the theme of the event and not just trying to fill space — no fillers. Take the time that you have (and give it) maximum impact. Have a strong opening and a strong close.”
Thomas cautions planners not to assume that all entertainers know how to work with a corporate audience. “There’s a special approach that needs to be taken when it comes to corporate entertaining. There are lots of entertainment options out there that may be great for private functions, but aren’t appropriate for a business environment. Corporate entertainers who have experience know exactly how to work with your audience.”
Thomas explains, “If it’s a situation where people are driving up to the valet parking area, you may have ambience entertainment. We’ve had our Chinese lions greet people as they’re getting out and plate spinners down the foyer. You’ve seen these Chinese girls. It’s quite artistic. They have four rods of plates and they’re beautiful. It’s not like plate spinners you’d see in a circus.
“One area where entertainment is used quite a bit is during the cocktail hour,” Thomas describes. “Many times, our cirque (performers) and our Chinese acrobats are in the cocktail area, maybe on a small six-by-six-foot stage in the round. You can bring a contortionist out. It’s just to give kind of a tease of what they’re in store for the rest of the evening.
“It also works very well as an icebreaker because if you can bring a great act in there, and do three to five minutes and ‘wow’ people. It gives them a chance to turn to their neighbor who they might not know and say, ‘Did you see that? I’ve never seen anything like that before.’ It gets people talking.”
Thomas explains that entertainment also can be used to keep things lively during awards dinners. “We’ll open the evening with a ‘wow’ five to seven minutes, then in between courses, we’ll present small vignettes and end up with a big show at the end. In that case, the entertainment is not necessarily to give a message, but it’s there to help the evening along. Awards can get very boring. By interspersing entertainment in between, it breaks up the monotony and makes it more entertaining.”
He also says that entertainment can be used effectively at the beginning of the day. “If you have a multiple-day event and you want something in the morning to wake everybody up, you can do something really cool. That works well if you’re bringing the talent in for the evening, anyway, so it really doesn’t cost much more to have them come in and do a ‘wow’ in the morning.”
Philly Mendelson, booking agent for Blue Moon Talent Inc., which has offices in Nashville, Denver and Asheville, is a self-described “talent go-to girl and fast, responsive workaholic.” She says that entertainment trends go in cycles, but that recently she has seen a big increase in the number of requests for celebrity impersonators.
“Usually, these impersonators are inexpensive. We just had an event last week. It was a fundraiser for the YMCA. We had a Rhett Butler and a Marilyn Monroe. They did a meet-and-greet for an hour and a half and The Three Waiters (opera-singing waiters) were the main act. If people are looking for something to happen during the cocktail hour, let’s say, this is one type of ambient entertainment. Another type would be cirque performers floating around. Living statues are also a great ambient-type of performance.”
Mendelson says that impersonators are great for red carpet events. “It’s a lot of bang for the buck. Certain entertainers are very good value for the money. We have a great Stevie Wonder. He’s like a clone of the real Stevie Wonder and he’s actually blind. He’s the next best thing.”
She listed a few impersonators that seem to be perpetual crowd-pleasers. “The Rat Pack never dies. Frank Sinatra will never die, and Elvis will never die. Marilyn will never die. Johnny Depp doesn’t die. Sean Connery doesn’t die.” She also notes that while she gets an occasional request for a political impersonator, most corporations shy away from politics.
Mendelson adds that the best impersonators are usually based out of Los Angeles, Las Vegas or Orlando, which are the main hubs where they can get work.
Mendelson says that requests for female string acts — those with three or four violinists — are also strong. “Acts like the String Angels are really popular right now. It’s totally a twist on classical. It’s very upbeat.
They play Mozart to rock. Nobody doesn’t love those acts. They’re very, very popular and fairly affordable. We also have a young solo ‘hip house’ violinist. It’s a cross between hip hop and house music. He just performed at the Denver Art Museum to absolutely rave reviews. He was also on ‘America’s Got Talent.’
“Performance painters are also still very popular,” she continues. These are artists who create a painting on stage while the audience tries to guess which celebrity they’re painting. “They’re also a very good value for the money, because for a fundraiser, you can auction off the painting.
“Dance bands are always big,” Mendelson continues,” and black-light acts like Fighting Gravity and Lightwire Theater are also still very popular.
Fighting Gravity was one of the most sensational acts to come down the pike.” She notes that black-light acts are very pricey, “But, for the three-minute show opener or closer for the company that has money, you cannot go wrong with that kind of an act.”
Mendelson also says that people always want music headliners. “They want to see if they can get somebody who’s a name, and we can get anybody they’re looking for, from Jennifer Lopez to Jason Mraz, anybody at all. If they can afford Elton John or the real Paul McCartney, they’re just going to go with the real deal, rather than a tribute act.”
Once you book big-name entertainment, keeping it a secret until the “big reveal” can add to the excitement of the event. That’s the strategy used by Interline Brands Inc. for its Annual Partners Conference, which was held this year at the Gaylord Palms Resort & Convention Center in Orlando.
“We keep the identity of both our Thursday keynote speaker and our Friday night entertainment secret, and that makes both events the object of conjecture from one year to the next,” explains Janet Searcy, executive assistant for Interline Brands. “We believe this element of surprise creates an anticipation in our conference attendees who not only look forward to finding out who it will be, but also in trying to guess identities and even to trying to get us to slip up and reveal the info beforehand.”
This year, Interline’s management team succeeded once again at keeping their secrets. Attendees were wowed to discover that their keynote speaker was retired General and former Secretary of State Colin Powell and that the headline entertainer for their Friday night awards dinner was none other than rock star Sammy Hagar.
“Since moving the event from Jacksonville to Orlando in 2007, we have tried to provide progressively better entertainment and the reaction has been phenomenal,” Searcy explains. “We have had the Blue Man Group, Cirque Dreams, Tim Allen and last year, Frank Caliendo. This year Sammy Hagar was a huge hit. It is an increasing challenge to come up with something new each year, but the response makes it very worthwhile.”
“Everybody was speculating about who it was going to be,” comments one district manager who attended the conference. “That’s a good thing. It keeps everybody talking about Friday night. Awards dinners aren’t the most exciting things for most of the crowd, but the speculation about who the entertainment would be kept the buzz really going.
“The first response (to seeing Sammy Hagar) was shock,” he continues. “We thought ‘Are they kidding?’ The next response was that people got out of their seats and rushed the stage to get as close as they could. That was the reaction. You knew that this worked.”
A theme party on Thursday night got the group in the right frame of mind for Friday night’s surprise. “The theme was ‘Rock Stars Wanted’ and was planned as a mystery hint targeted at our Friday night entertainment,” Searcy says. This package event, which was orchestrated by the event planning firm Benchmarc360°, included rock star lookalikes, karaoke performances and a green screen setup where attendees could make their own music videos.
“This event is a B360° signature event and was designed to give the 1,400-plus guests an opportunity to be true rock stars,” explains Terry Dougherty, CMP, director of Benchmarc360°. “The hotel ballroom was transformed by décor, extensive staging and lighting all created by the B360° team. The event was very interactive and gave the guests an environment in which they could dance like a rock star, play like a rock star, perform like a rock star and party like a rock star. The stations kept them engaged through games, dancing and karaoke as well as a specially designed menu reflecting the theme.
“This not only encouraged crowd participation,” she adds, “but it kept the energy level high throughout the night. All guests, including client executives and associates as well as their clients, had an evening that reflected most positively on the Interline brand, reinforced key messages of the overall conference and is still being recounted and relived through the images that captured the fun and event highlights.”
So how can you be sure that the act you’re considering will be a good fit for your group? Thomas gave a few pointers. “Usually, what we recommend is a real-time video, not a video that’s cut up, but a video that has a wide shot, so they can really see the show. That’s very helpful. When it’s cut up and a montage, you really don’t know what you’re getting.”
He also suggests checking references from other companies that have used the talent being considered. “We have recommendations from very reputable companies that have used the act and we say, ‘Hey, call them.’ We work with Fortune 500 companies all the time.”
Thomas also offered a few words of advice on how early a group needs to book its entertainment. “We are able to pull things together pretty quickly, but, of course, you’re at the mercy of your talent and when they are available. The more leeway you give us, the better chance the talent you want will be available. We always bring in the best of the best. Most of the talent we use are actually working in shows.” Also, he adds, “If you book late, you’re going to pay more for travel.”
Mendelson noted that TV shows like “America’s Got Talent,” “So You Think You Can Dance” and other talent competitions are making their mark on the corporate entertainment world. “I think that just like on the television programs, acts are crossing over. Let’s say that instead of just being a BMX bike act, there will be acrobatics, bikes, flame throwing, juggling. It’s like ‘bring it on.’ This is what’s happening as a result of these talent shows.
“People have to keep thinking, ‘How can I make this a little better, a little more unusual than the act that was on last season?’ There are only so many ways to reinvent the wheel. So things are becoming more and more blended. I think that is definitely a trend that’s going to continue, and we’re going to see more and more of it. You’re going to see musicians that are also doing hip-hop dancing. You’re going to see jugglers that are juggling black-light balls. I really do think that neon and black light and lasers and fire and smoke and all of those things are just going to play a bigger and bigger part,” Mendelson says.
Ivie regularly gets the kind of response that every event planner hopes for when booking entertainment. “A standing ovation every time,” she states. “What always thrills me is a standing ovation at 8 a.m.” Now that’s entertainment. C&IT