“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”
That’s not a meaningless phrase. For more than 300 years that proverb has been part of Western culture with good reason: It’s true. In order to thrive and to succeed at the highest levels, humans need to balance work and play — not just in everyday work and life but also at business meetings and conventions. That’s where entertainment comes in.
But it’s not just about play. Entertainment is a valuable business tool. The right entertainment can: increase attendance; engage attendees; draw clients; and support a company’s values, brand and vision, not to mention enhance employee morale and bond colleagues in the shared experience.
So how do planners ensure they get the most business bang for their entertainment buck?
Colleen A. Rickenbacher, CMP, CSEP, CPC, CPECP, co-founder, Global Protocol, Etiquette & Civility Academy, a company dedicated to helping current and future leaders improve their communications skills, business etiquette and professional image, thinks there are three major things planners should consider before booking entertainment. “They should keep in mind the goals, needs and purpose of the specific program or conference, the demographics of the attendees; and budget.”
She adds that, “Entertainment is a key factor to increase attendance at an event. It’s a great way to bring an entire company together from the top down, and entertainment can change the entire outlook of a corporation regarding attitude, morale and even productivity.”
Rickenbacher says entertainment should be incorporated as part of the overall program and part of the agenda and planning from the start.
“The entertainment should always be a necessary tool to the program,” she continues. “It should have a major tie-in to the program and relate to the overall purpose of the meeting and the end result. Attendees should easily see this tie to their goals. Of course, if the entertainer is a well-known artist, than all the better for incentive building, camaraderie and boosting attendance.”
On the downside, Rickenbacher notes many things can go awry with entertainment when performers don’t show up. “Illness, a death in the family, flight delays, weather, simply running late, only half of the performers arrive or they arrive drunk. They may show up dressed inappropriately for the event or use language not appropriate for the audience. They might be no-shows, for no reason at all.”
Consequently, Rickenbacher says planners must always have language in contracts to protect themselves for any and all events that impact fulfillment of the contract.
“Protect yourself in your contract with a clause that states that if the performer or speaker cannot perform, a substitute of equal or better quality will perform. Additionally, the client will have access to interviewing this substitute, if possible, before hiring. If that’s not possible, a video and/or references must be provided.”
Perhaps most importantly, she adds, “Planners should always be prepared with a Plan B.”
Another thing to consider: You may not need a big, expensive name to meet your objectives. “At times you may need that name for the draw,” Rickenbacher says, “but you would be amazed at the number of speakers and entertainers out there that are excellent and not nearly as expensive as someone ‘famous.’ They may even be in that same city as your program, thus saving you thousands of dollars in travel expenses.”
That said, she adds, “Always get good references, try to go and listen to them speak or perform and make sure they’re a match for your goals, objectives and the purpose of the event.”
Lindsey Wolf, DMCP, lead creative design manager at Texas-based Ultimate Ventures, part of the Hosts Global network, adds other considerations planners should have top of mind when booking entertainment.
Flexibility on-site, price point, guest engagement and interaction with the crowd, and a fast response time are among her top-five recommendations. To those she adds the necessity of an entertainer’s quality promotional photos and videos.
“It’s really hard to sell an entertainer that doesn’t have quality promotional material. I find that photos do not always cut it, and most of the time clients need to see a video before being able to pull the trigger,” she says.
Like others, Wolf thinks the right entertainment can increase guest engagement and “help drive the energy in the room.” And though some events may need a big name to drive attendance, she says, “If the entertainment is engaging enough, it doesn’t matter if they are lesser known.”
There’s also this fact: Entertainment is not a one-size-fits-all proposition.
“What works for some groups doesn’t work for all,” Wolf says. “The more information the client has beforehand about demographics, the better. While one group may live for line dancing and photo ops, another group may find games the best way for guests to interact and bond. No two events should be treated the same.”
Locale can also impact entertainment choices. “When groups come to Texas, nine times out of 10 they’re looking for a ‘Western’ experience.” Wolf says. “They want that rustic, laid back, southern hospitality that Texas is known for. As a planner, I always try to find the right balance of a Texas feel without the event feeling too kitschy or cliché.”
Among the western elements Wolf has successfully used are a mechanical bull, armadillo racing, rustic backyard games, a country-western band with line dancing lessons, and whiskey tasting or craft-beer experiences.
Regardless of location, Wolf thinks live music is always a good idea. “Guests don’t want to spend time in a stale, quiet environment. A live band or DJ can read the crowd and know when to turn the energy up or when to fade into the background.”
Considering the potential impact entertainment has on a meeting, how much of the budget should it have? “Twenty-five percent is a good starting point,” Wolf says. “Dedicating a portion of the event to providing quality entertainment is well worth it. In conjunction with great décor and lighting, your guests will remember the total experience and how you made them feel.”
And that will keep attendees generating conversations and social-media buzz about an event long after it ends.
For Robyn Bass, DMCP, owner and president and CEO of Maple Ridge Events in Tennessee, a Hosts Global partner, the primary considerations to keep in mind when deciding what kind of entertainment to book are company culture, attendee demographics, past entertainment options and selections and client expectations.
“Entertainment is more than just music or a performance,” Bass says. “It’s an experience serving as an extension of everything a company strives for the other 364 days a year. Achieving a ‘wow’ factor doesn’t mean overshadowing or stepping outside of company culture. We aim to tie in custom branding or interactive elements so employees truly feel the entertainment was created especially for them as a part of everything else happening. Nothing is by accident; every experience has a purpose.”
Being clear on purpose is one way to determine how much of the budget should be allotted to entertainment and what that entertainment should be. “Every program should prioritize its event and which components are the most important,” Bass says. “From there, you can start assigning percentages, ranging from 5-50 percent for entertainment. Here in Music City, there’s a wide price range of acts. Without knowing your priorities, you cannot effectively build your budget.”
Once priorities are established, next decisions include whether to book big-name or relatively unknown entertainment. “Our philosophy goes back to what is dictating the purpose for your event. “If the purpose is to drive attendance, it might make sense to engage name-act entertainment you know your attendees would love. But as far as entertainment value, it’s not necessary to have name acts. If your purpose is to ensure your attendees have the most fun ever, it opens up so many more opportunities.”
And you can mix and match. Bass recently worked on an event that mixed name-act entertainment with local/regional bands with great results.
The biggest decision, however, may be how to find the entertainment you want. Pointing to that same event, Bass says, “The biggest reason it was so successful was the ease of the process. Our entertainment buyer handled the heavy lifting on the entertainment portion. With so many acts it was a lot of heavy lifting and we wouldn’t have been able to do it alone. Having vetted and trusted partners allows us to do our job well.”
Which brings Bass to the best way for planners to protect themselves should something go wrong with entertainment. “We exclusively use entertainment buyers when booking. They’re the experts in entertainment negotiations and have specific entertainment contracts and insurances to cover all foreseeable and unforeseeable eventualities. Serving as an extension of our team, entertainment buyers allow us to look like rock stars to our clients, including the mirroring of their legal contract verbiage. This is imperative so all sides have a clear understanding of force majeure clauses and are covered using the same language when contracting. It ensures cohesiveness and consistency through any and all layers of service.”
Yet like other experts, Bass says a ‘Plan B’ is imperative, even in a place like Nashville where, as she notes, you could throw a rock and hit incredible musicians and performers. “A ‘Plan B’ of qualified and vetted entertainment acts is crucial to emergency preparedness and the overall success of a program. The entertainment buyer becomes your best friend in these unusual scenarios, able to enact your backup plans at a moment’s notice, giving the guests a seamless experience.”
Among the things that can go wrong: members of a performing group may change, something Bass says clients don’t always understand. “While an Electronic Press Kit (EPK) may have a band photo with certain members, the members are often plug and play. If a client books an act because of the look of the lead guitar player, for example, it may be that a different lead guitarist plays at the actual event. Obviously, we educate our clients on this, but if they don’t express why they chose someone, especially a very specific reason like eye or hair color, style, wardrobe and so on, it can lead to misunderstandings. This just serves as another example of why we always try to find purpose and reason behind everything the client asks for and selects.”
Jennifer Munoz Perez, account manager at Cream of the Crop Events & Logistics LLC in Florida, echoes other experts in noting that group demographics, budget and a company’s messaging goals are important factors in choosing conference entertainment. She also says planners should look closely at the agenda and decide where a live performance can best enhance the experience.
Perez says there are many ways for entertainment to enhance a corporation’s message, culture and values. “We use a lot of branding and logo-color identification in costumes, DJ surrounds and giveaways provided by performers. Custom song lyrics are highly effective for building cohesion in groups and these custom songs can be used long-term to stimulate great memories when attendees are back in the home office.”
Perez notes that one of the big challenges is “discovering new performers and concepts for savvy corporate planners and their attendees who have ‘been there, done that.’”
Sometimes, however, the right entertainment is not front and center but in the background. “Sometimes a background musician is absolutely perfect to set the mood in a room where colleagues can come together to collaborate and celebrate. This personal interaction is recognized as the highest benefit of meetings and events.”
In terms of a ‘Plan B,’ Perez notes, “At a minimum we always have a sound system with backup music ready to play.”
Perez doesn’t believe there’s a set percentage of a budget that should be devoted to entertainment. However, she says, “There’s a growing understanding that entertainment spend is proportionally of high value. Attendees remember what they saw, heard and felt during a live performance. Breakfast talk often centers on the spectacle of the previous night. Attendees remember a great band and dancing for hours, not the linen that was on the table.”
While providing name entertainment isn’t always necessary, Perez says if the budget allows, using name entertainment sends a message to the audience that they’re valued.
Like Rickenbacher, Perez says local culture is often the go-to because groups want an authentic experience. “Every destination is defined by its culture, history and specialties. Planners demand the authentic experience for their well-traveled and valued attendees because it makes an impact emotionally that builds memories.”
She continues, “South Florida is flooded with unique cultures and locations, including: the newly revamped Wynwood Walls, Florida’s Everglades ecosystem and our huge population of varying Latin cultures, including Cuban, Puerto Rican and Colombian. We highlight the Wynwood district with ‘Live Graffiti’ artists creating custom artworks within an event. It’s an especially cool way to bring branding into our corporate events with a fun Wynwood spin. Our compassionate animal handlers and ecologists can also come on-site with unique creatures of the Everglades to teach guests about each animal and its habitat — always a fun photo op. And Latin dancers who joyously share their culture through music and costumes embody all of the Latin cultures represented in South Florida.”
As an example of successful entertainment, Perez points to the dramatic reveal of a new executive at an event. “We designed an on-stage reveal that seamlessly integrated into the theme of a Miami ‘White-Hot Party.’ The choreographer created a video, which the executive was shown in advance in order to learn the dance moves. Results? A crowd of attendees watching a stage performance and then recognizing it was also the reveal of their new executive.”
Perez offers planners three strategies to consider when booking entertainment for their events. “Work with a reputable, experienced agency, so you’re hiring the most talented and dependable performers. Corporate event work is a specialty; great club DJs do not make great corporate-event DJs. Next,” she says, “ask detailed questions about costuming to make sure the entertainers are in alignment with your corporate culture.”
Finally, she notes, entertainment isn’t just for the big functions. “Use live performers liberally. A solo background performer during peak registration hours can set the tone for the entire event. A musician or duo at the morning breakfast or coffee break makes an impact because it is unexpected and delightful.”
Those who actually provide entertainment view corporate entertainment much as planners do. Annette St. Onge, director of entertainment management/talent buyer for Aspen Ridge Entertainment, encourages planners to consider all those things mentioned by other experts here when thinking about entertainment for their events.
She also puts an emphasis on addressing every conceivable issue — band attire, custom lyrics, logos, brand colors and more — ahead of time. “It’s crucial to have these conversations before you go to contract, so any additional work and/or fees can be negotiated on the front end. Once you go to contract, ‘no’ becomes an easy response from the entertainment. And we know in the event world, ‘no’ is a four-letter word.”
And she emphasizes preparedness. “We work with vetted artists and always have a force majeure clause in our contracts.” If entertainment falls through, “Our first call is to the artist’s agent and management team to find out if anyone else on their roster would be available to step in.”
St. Onge says planners should seek out interactive entertainment experiences and team-building experiences as bonding options. One example is a song-writing workshop. “We bring in hit songwriters who will not only perform their hits but also work with small breakout groups to write a song on-site. To end the event, they’ll perform the song they just wrote with their team.”
While it’s true that most companies want an authentic local experience, St. Onge says there are exceptions. For one of her events, set at the Country Music Hall of Fame, a non-country headliner was requested. “We were fortunate to have a great relationship with an agent who represents a super group of three mega-stars from the pop/rock scene of the ’90s, with two of the artists living here in Nashville. After the show, the CEO said he couldn’t have asked for a better event to captivate their diverse audience.”
The take-away for planners? Just because a city is known for one thing doesn’t mean other great options aren’t available.
As for budget, St. Onge says “10 percent for entertainment is average across the board, but at least in Nashville we’ve found that percentages increase when groups want to weave entertainment through an entire event.”
She points out that there is also a cautionary note when it comes to booking big-name entertainment. “Once you bring in high-profile entertainment, that’s going to be the expectation of attendees going forward and planners have to be prepared to continue to book that caliber of entertainment in the future.”
St. Onge’s best advice for planners is to build a team of partners to rely on. “You don’t have to be an expert in the entertainment field. A solid talent-buying partner can be your biggest collaborator, an ally on your side representing you as an entertainment liaison.”
As is true with so many other elements of planning, the best course of action is finding and working with trusted partners and vendors. C&IT