In the never-ending quest for elements that can make a meeting special and memorable, more and more planners are using theme parks as venues. And although there is a long list of destinations across the country that offer theme park meetings, the holy trinity of theme parks — Walt Disney World Resort, Universal Orlando Resort and SeaWorld Orlando — are all located in Orlando where the climate allows for year-round events.
Gregory J. Butler, director, global supply chain stewardship at Franklin Lakes, New Jersey-based medical technology provider Becton, Dickinson & Company, heads the 12-person team that plans and hosts the company’s biennial global sustainability forum for 100 attendees from 15 countries.
Butler has used a Disney venue in Orlando for his meetings in 2010, 2012 and 2014. Last year, he became the first planner to use the Wild Africa Trek attraction at Disney’s Animal Kingdom for a very special three-hour VIP event for his colleagues. “It was partially a teambuilding event for the group and partly a ‘thank you for a good year’ event,” Butler says.
At each meeting, every other year, he stages something special for his fellow employees from the company’s Office of Global Sustainability, which hosts the important event. In 2012, that something special was a private dinner and viewing of the acclaimed IllumiNations fireworks display at Epcot Center.
The opportunity to have such unique and memorable experiences is what sets theme parks apart from other offsite venues, Butler says. “A theme park allows attendees to experience something as part of the group that they might not be able to experience as individuals,” he says. For example, for our main group this year, we went over to Hollywood Studios and dined at the Fantasmic! show.” The popular nighttime show highlights Disney’s most iconic storybook characters in a spectacular high-tech, interactive environment. “That’s not something you can do as an individual,” Butler says. “So doing something like that gives people an experience they couldn’t have on their own.”
“That’s not something you can do as an individual. So doing something like that gives people an experience they couldn’t have on their own.” — Greg Butler
For meeting planners, a venue such as Disney provides infrastructure and support services that make their jobs easier. “The event staff at a theme park is used to working with large groups and therefore can react very rapidly to change,” Butler says. “For example, our dinner plans changed very suddenly this year because of unseasonably cold weather for Florida. And Disney was able to move us indoors very seamlessly. That kind of logistical support is another reason why theme parks make it very easy for me as a planner.
“My colleagues have the utmost confidence in me to surprise them at every meeting every two years,” he says. “So they just let me go with it. And I always surprise them.”
This year, Butler wanted something truly unique that would make his coworkers feel special. “We wanted something that was different enough that they would feel it was a ‘thank you’ for the hard work they have done all year,” he says. “This time around, I really wanted something out of the ordinary.”
And the Wild Africa Trek delivered for this year’s VIP event.
“We started off on foot through the savannah,” Butler says. “Then we were on a shaky rope bridge about 10 feet above a river bed with hippos and crocodiles. It was safe because we were all wearing a harness that was tied off to an overhead track. But it was still exciting. And it also served as a type of teambuilding, since we were all encouraging each other across the rope bridge. Everybody pulled together.”
At the end of the walking tour, the group climbed into a safari vehicle and ventured past elephants, giraffes and rhinos. “Then you have a sunset dinner out on the savannah,” Butler says. “We made arrangements to have South African champagne waiting for us, and our vice president toasted the group and thanked us for a good year. The dinner was served camp style, out of metal containers, but it consisted of dishes like curried chicken, tandoori shrimp and air-dried beef — really authentic food accompanied by South African wines.”
The evening earned kudos from his VIP attendees. “They really felt like they were immersed in an adventure,” Butler says. “That’s because we felt like we were really off the beaten path. Everyone also commented on the fact we were so ‘up close’ with the animals. And that experience was enhanced by the fact we had great guides. One of them was from South Africa, so with his accent and personality, you really felt like you were on a real safari. The experience really transported you.”
Butler also praised the quality of the F&B. “Everything was great, from the quality of the food to the quality of the service,” he says. “And even though it was served in so-called ‘camp style,’ it was a first-class dining experience.”
Jeff Sacks, CMP, vice president, strategic account management, at major independent meeting planning company Experient in Fenton, Missouri, is a veteran planner who has used theme parks successfully over the years.
Last February, Sacks used the new Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin facility at SeaWorld Orlando for Experient’s annual 50-attendee strategic account management and sales summit.
“One reason why meeting planners use theme parks is that when you go to a destination like Orlando or anywhere else where an outdoor event is a good option, you want to do something that is outdoors and interactive, and something that will just be a good experience for your attendees,” Sacks says. “It’s just a good way of taking them out of the meeting room, out of the hotel and doing something outdoors. There are certainly other ways when you go to a destination like Orlando where you can choose a venue and do a reception or a party outdoors. But that’s completely different from going to a place like SeaWorld, where not only are you taking advantage of the opportunity to do something outdoors, but you’re also doing something that is totally interactive.”
Unlike fairly typical outdoor events at a hotel or other offsite venue, where attendees simply gather around food stations, a theme park offers attendees the opportunity to explore a facility that offers a number of different entertainment options, Sacks says. “It’s about people being out and enjoying the park and doing the things they want to do together.”
Another key advantage of theme parks is that they address the multigenerational issue that has become such a hot topic in the meeting industry over the last few years. “Theme parks really offer something that appeals to every generation or type of person,” Sacks says. “There is something for everybody. And I don’t know that it is necessarily a generational issue, but at a theme park you can find something for thrill-seekers to do and you can also find something for more passive people to do, like going to a show. But one way or another, it delivers an experience for everybody.”
Somewhat surprisingly, Sacks says, even though Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin offers a unique opportunity to get up close and personal with the magical sea creatures, two-thirds of his attendees opted for the Manta — the only flying roller coaster of its kind in the world — fashioned after another fabled sea creature and recently voted the best roller coaster in Orlando.
“It’s an incredible roller coaster,” Sacks says. “But there were also people in the group who were not thrill-seekers. So while three-quarters of the attendees were riding this great roller coaster, the rest of them could go out and do different things that appealed to them, like seeing the manta rays or penguins.”
And those various options are among the things that make SeaWorld so unique, Sacks points out. “You have the combination of a theme park and an animal attraction. That’s something very unique.”
Like Universal and Disney, SeaWorld also works hard to tailor the venue to the specific desires or preferences of individual groups, Sacks says.
“In our case, we went to them and said, ‘This is our group. This is who they are and why it’s important that they understand what the park has to offer,’ ” he says. “And they took it from there. And one of the pleasant surprises for us was that once we got to the Antarctica exhibit, all of the food stations were set up within the Antarctica venue. And the food was really, really good, which was a bit of a surprise for us because most people think a certain way about the quality of food you’ll get at a convention center or a theme park. But SeaWorld delivered high-level catering.”
Jennifer Ruthig, CMP, corporate meeting planner at global crop nutrition manufacturer The Mosaic Company in Plymouth, Minnesota, has used Universal Orlando Resort as a venue three times — most recently in January 2014 — for the company’s annual education conference for 425 attendees.
Last year, Ruthig did a buyout of a portion of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Early in 2015, Mosaic will return to the park and enjoy a buyout of Marvel Super Hero Island, which features The Incredible Hulk Coaster.
Ruthig makes the theme park excursion the highlight of the second day of her meeting.
Why is she so loyal to Universal?
“The No. 1 reason is that they take care of their customers,” she says. “They have a fantastic product. But they also truly listen to the goals and objectives of their meeting customers and they want to fulfill those needs. For example, my goal when I use Universal is to create a unique networking event, where after a full day of meeting sessions you bring a fun component into it. It brings out your inner child. And in my experience, that means that after people have been screaming on a roller coaster the night before, come Wednesday morning and the final day of my meeting, there is just a buzz in my sessions because you’ve broken down so many walls and barriers the night before by having people have fun. And that is a unique form of networking.”
Universal understands that dynamic, Ruthig says. “So they sit down with you and say, ‘How can we help facilitate that effect?’ ”
That kind of networking is especially important to The Mosaic Company because of the ever-increasing dialogue among customers from different countries as the agricultural industry continues to become more global. “We want attendees to talk to one another and say, ‘Tell me what’s going on in your country,’ ” Ruthig explains. “Those kinds of discussions are also more and more important in places like Brazil, which is becoming more and more of a force in the market. And we find that using a theme park like Universal Orlando as a venue for our meeting just naturally stimulates those kinds of important conversations because it’s a shared experience. It also allows people to get to know one another in a more personal sort of way that is just not the same as what you get when people sit in a meeting room all day.”
The other key factor for Ruthig is that because the annual meeting is for customers, “We want people to say, ‘Wow, Mosaic cares enough about us to bring us here,’ ” she says. “I can put on a great meeting that people will remember. But I can’t build a roller coaster. So that makes it something truly special.”
The other practical reason why Ruthig is so loyal to and enthusiastic about Universal Orlando Resort is the quality of its food and beverage and overall service.
“For our Harry Potter event last year, the catering department just blew me away,” she says. “The quality of the food and the quantity of the food for the price we paid was just incredible. And the food was perfectly themed to the attraction, with very British dishes like fish and chips and bangers (sausage) and mash. It felt very global, and that was important since so many of our attendees are from outside North America.”
As a planner, Ruthig gives high marks to Universal for the quality of its service. “I rate them extremely highly,” she says. “And one reason I do is that even though a theme park is, by definition, a highly branded product, they always look for creative ways to incorporate your brand into their product. And they come up with a lot of ideas that help really make your meeting work. And even though they do events for groups almost every day, they never treat you like yours is just another event. They always do everything they can to make your event special.”
And in turn, that generates enthusiastic feedback from attendees. “People just appreciate the fact that you go to the trouble of doing something special for them,” Ruthig says. “But it also relaxes them and brings them back refreshed for the meeting the next day.”
The vast Universal Orlando Resort also features the Islands of Adventure Theme Park; the Hollywood-themed Universal Studios Florida; Wet ’n Wild Orlando, a premiere water park; and the sprawling Universal CityWalk dining and entertainment complex. Among CityWalk’s newest attractions is the Hot Dog Hall of Fame where visitors can choose an iconic frank from Chicago, Boston, New York, Los Angeles, or create their own dog.
Although more and more meeting planners are becoming aware of the unique advantages of using a theme park venue, it’s important for first-time users to keep some practical advice in mind in order to get the most from the experience.
“If you’re going to use a theme park, lean on their staff to help make sure you do it right,” says Experient’s Jeff Sacks, CMP. “They are the experts when it comes to their venue. So don’t take too much on yourself to figure out how to use the attraction. Use the experts that are there to help you do that. They know from past experience what has worked and not worked when it comes to groups that are similar to yours. And you should also make sure to ask what all of the options are so you can make an informed choice.”
And most important, Sacks says, make sure to tailor the experience to your group.
“Make sure the facility will deliver the kind of experience that really fits your group. Not all groups are made to go offsite and do an event at a theme park. Quite honestly, there are groups that just need to be indoors at a hotel. But there are also a lot of groups that are a good fit for a theme park. For example, something that a lot of meeting planners are talking about today is that meetings need to be experiences. And a theme park allows you to make a meeting an experience.” C&IT