Closing the annual meeting or incentive program with the big-name musical artist may be a cliché form of corporate entertainment, but it’s also undeniably effective. Not only do such artists have mass appeal, but they also indirectly increase company engagement. An attendee will think, “Thanks to my company, I’m able to experience this dream concert.” The company thus appears both attuned to an attendee’s entertainment wish list and powerful enough to fulfill it. As Brad E. Bronenkamp, CMM, senior director, global events with Teradata Corporation, puts it, “Your big-name artists are going to get you the most credibility with your attendees and your employees.”
Big names come with big price tags, of course, and Bronenkamp has seen artist fees rising. “They are realizing what the corporations are willing to pay,” he says, observing that acts that used to command $150,000-$200,000 are now costing $350,000-$400,000. And it’s not just contemporary groups making more money on the corporate circuit. Many classic rock bands, such as Foreigner and Styx, “are more popular today than they were back then,” he notes. “They have a full calendar, and are getting a lot more money with fewer of the original artists.”
“They are realizing what the corporations are willing to pay.” Brad E. Bronenkamp, CMM
Fortunately, there are several strategies that can help soften the financial blow for companies that want to source a top-tier act for their meeting. One approach is to look for groups whose tour schedule includes stops that coincide with the meeting date and site. Such a group may be willing to play a private event at a lower fee since logistical expenses are greatly reduced. For example, when Teradata Corporation held its incentive program in Singapore last year, Bronenkamp was able to book Nickelback, who happened to be on tour in Australia. “If you’re going to pull a band from the U.S., you’re almost paying them for four days so you’re looking at probably a lift of 30 to 40 percent on top of an artist’s fee for them to come over to Singapore and play,” he explains, estimating that Teradata Corporation saved about $200,000 in booking Nickelback due to their proximity.
Another cost-saving strategy is to leverage the buying power of a major entertainment company, such as MGM, AEG or Live Nation. This approach can be pursued when partnering with the entertainment company’s venues. “A year ago, we were at the MGM Mandalay Bay and Delano, and we utilized the entertainment marketing staff of MGM to book REO Speedwagon, which came in at a lower price point just because of how much business MGM does,” Bronenkamp recalls. Similarly, Teradata Corporation is utilizing AEG’s new Mission Ballroom in Denver, Colorado this year and is leveraging AEG’s artist connections for the entertainment.
A third route to booking a big-name artist at a lower cost is to book them when they’re on the brink of becoming a big name. “You want to pick a racehorse before they win the Kentucky Derby,” Bronenkamp says. “In entertainment, it’s the same thing: If you can get somebody before they win the Grammy you’re in great shape. We had The Band Perry at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, and the following week they got a Grammy so their price went up threefold probably.” He advises using agents and other entertainment industry insiders to learn of the up-and-coming acts.
Even with some cost savings, the price tag for the level of artist that Bronenkamp sources is significant, but the ROI in terms of the attendee experience and reward value justifies the expense. The ROI may not work out for other types of meetings, so it’s vital not to just assume that a big-name act will drive engagement.
Colleen Bisconti, IBM vice president, Global Conferences and Events, has found that the big-name band was actually not delivering enough ROI at the company’s annual business and technology conference, Think. Networking among peers is one of the conference’s main value propositions for attendees, and “you don’t network at a concert,” Bisconti says. Neither did a major concert cohere with the educational objective of the event. “Our conferences are really about enabling our clients or prospective clients to understand the technology, to do more with technology, to be better at their jobs. So going to a big concert didn’t really facilitate that.” Indeed, “the percentage of attendees that were attending the concerts was going down year over year,” she relates. “So we made a really bold move when we moved our flagship conference from Las Vegas to San Francisco this year: We didn’t bring a big-name band in, and I was shocked that we didn’t get backlash on attendee post-event surveys. And then I was also shocked that I’m not seeing other IT companies go in that same direction. So as we’re planning our 2020 events, we’re thinking about entertainment in a very different way: entertainment everywhere, in unexpected places, not one big-name band that we thought in the past would have been a draw.”
Her team’s new approach requires booking a variety of smaller acts. “We do lots of DJs around the spaces, so as you’re walking from session to session or venue to venue, there’s a level of excitement. But when you get to a reception or more of an evening destination, then it becomes a background musician or a comedian for a half hour, something that complements the environment,” she explains. That kind of entertainment does not intrude upon networking, and ends up saving money that will be invested in other aspects of the attendee experience.
To source and negotiate with these entertainers, Bisconti relies on several agencies, although the ideas for entertainment often come from the attendees themselves. Corporate entertainment booking agents can also help a planner brainstorm these ideas. “We always start with the customer to understand the end product they’d like to look for as a result of the entertainment,” says Kerwin Felix, CEO and president of Marietta, Georgia-based KLF Pro Entertainment. “And then once we understand what that is, we talk about the options that would best fit their needs, whether they need a ‘wow’ factor or something a little more subdued. We talk about the demographics of their folks, but we also talk about what they want to see visually and make sure that comes across.” KLF offers entertainers of every stripe, from musicians, comedians and magicians to acrobats, body painters, caricaturists and cigar rollers.
Apart from agents’ savvy in helping to select acts, partnering with them can be advantageous insofar as they also vet those acts. “As a planner your name is on the line, and you want to make sure you know what you’re going to get,” says Felix, who has a 31-year corporate background. “One thing I’m really adamant about as a business owner is that we make sure the artists we represent are reliable. Our name is on the line as well as the client’s.”
Regardless of an agency’s abilities and professionalism, there will inevitably be sourcing challenges when dealing with the big-name acts. “You may not get an answer right away; they have big egos and they don’t need the money. So they might hold you out for two months without giving you an answer,” Bronenkamp says. “The artist’s manager may say, ‘Well, he really wants to do it, he’s really interested, but we have to see what his schedule is. Can we have another week to let you know?’ Everything’s going positive and all of a sudden, ‘He’s not going to be able to make it; he has a personal commitment.’ Then you’re back to square one. You have to go back to your leadership team and say, ‘We thought we had them, but we don’t.’”
Compensating for these frustrations is the satisfaction a planner gets when landing a stellar act, and then watching attendees revel in the experience — or most of them, at least. You can’t please all of the people all of the time, as the old adage goes. But you can strive for that ideal, and doing so requires close attention to shifting attendee demographics that impact tastes in entertainment, particularly music. “In our tech world, it’s always been kind of ’70s and ’80s rock ’n’ roll, but now it’s changing to more of the DJs and ’90s/2000s bands,” Bronenkamp observes. A top-tier DJ, such as Zedd or Marshmello, will certainly be a hit with many younger attendees. But while more millennials are entering Teradata Corporation’s sales force, most of incentive qualifiers are still middle-aged, and so classic rock remains the entertainment focus, he explains.
Bisconti’s team also faces the challenge of appealing to a mixed demographic. “Our demographic is a lot of young techie types, but it’s also men and women in their 40s and 50s that are line-of-business leaders or IT leaders. It seems you need to find something that is appealing to both, but what we found is you don’t,” she says. Whether booking an iconic act like Aerosmith or booking two bands that would appeal to different age groups (e.g., The Chainsmokers and Train, which Bisconti booked for a past meeting), her team has found it hard to captivate attendees across the generational spectrum.
It’s also challenging to find an act that will engage a multicultural audience, such as Teradata Corporation’s incentive participants. “You really need an international name if you want people to stay, but I can tell you the moment dinner’s over and the band steps up on stage, I don’t care who I booked, I probably lose 30 percent either from Asia or from the Middle East,” Bronenkamp says. “They’re just not into the music.”
For that reason, it can be very effective to combine the entertainment with an impactful venue that will engage attendees who don’t happen to be drawn to the performer. Teradata Corporation had Keith Urban perform at the Louvre in Paris one year, for example. “You can’t go out and buy that,” Bronenkamp says. “We hit two major milestones for people, and they’re just blown away.” He gives a similar example from his time at Anheuser-Busch: The company booked Styx to perform at SeaWorld.
Apart from the venue, the entertainment can also be enhanced with an interactive element. For big-name artists, meet-and-greets are a traditional way to provide added value for attendees, and agents can advise the planner on which artists are inclined to agree to that. Performances that involve the audience are also becoming more popular, Felix observes. “Many corporations spend a lot of money on events, but people tend to check out if you don’t have some kind of connectivity. Whether a band or a magician, they have to have ways to connect with the audience,” he says. “One way is going out into the audience and getting them involved, bringing people on the stage. There are a plethora of ways that you can really entertain folks and keep them involved — obviously singalongs, dance contests, etc.” He adds that Latin dancers tend to be a cost-effective and visually impactful form of entertainment: “People like the high energy, the interaction; the costuming.”
Engagement is also increased when the performer personalizes the act, or at least the onstage remarks, to the host company. “If you have a band that wants to be engaged, that makes all the difference in the world,” Bronenkamp says. “But you have some that don’t even care; they may say your corporate name wrong. But then you have some great guys like Train or Imagine Dragons who are really into the corporate world. And Nickelback was great too; they pulled a guy on the stage that probably knew the words as well as they did.” Bisconti notes that in her experience, bands very rarely go the extra mile and personalize. “We’ve only had one band that’s taken that seriously — Barenaked Ladies. And I know they do this for other IT shows as well. They actually wrote a song about IBM and IBM’s clients. It was a wonderful song about big data, and really pulled the audience in. It sends the message that you’re not just here playing your standard 10 songs; you’re here because you want to be here with IBM. So that completely changed the experience of the attendees versus other groups that you’re lucky if they say anything between songs.”
On occasion, inappropriate things will be said on stage, and unfortunately, there isn’t a recourse apart from not booking that act again. “We’ve had some bad experiences where we’ve put a PG rating on our contract and the guys came out and were cursing,” Bronenkamp says. He doesn’t book comedians as he believes there is a greater chance they will say something objectionable, if not offensive. “It’s very high risk and very low reward,” he says.
Most of the surprises with corporate entertainment are positive, however. The main act itself can be a surprise, which is a traditional way of creating a buzz throughout the event with rumors swirling. And there is nothing quite like the moment when a name act is revealed and takes the stage. Such acts may not be right for every meeting — such as IBM’s conference — but when the environment is right for an enthralling performance, it’s best to put your attendees in the hands of an act with an illustrious career. By the time Foreigner finished playing for Teradata Corporation, many attendees remarked, “I knew every song they played,” Bronenkamp says. “You can’t go wrong with acts that have a lot of major hits; they can light it up for an hour. If you have a big-name act, it’s like going to the Masters. Did you ever hear anybody complain about going to the Masters?” C&IT