When Gerald G. Longo, CMP, director, global congresses and events at medical products company Abbott considered hosting an event at Universal Orlando Resort in Orlando, Florida, he recognized the theme park’s appeal to a wide and vast audience with a mix of demographics.
“Theme parks offer turnkey, built-in interactive and entertainment features to keep your group entirely engaged,” Longo says. “We held a closing party of our national sales meeting with 1,300 attendees at Universal Orlando Resort.” And it was a great success.
Theme parks appeal to planners for their “one stop shop” advantages for meeting venues and entertainment options.
Recently, Bernadette Stark, vice president of conference and events for Travel Leaders Group, the parent company of Travel Leaders Network, held the company’s 2017 Travel Leaders Network International Conference at Loews Royal Pacific Resort at Universal Orlando. Nearly 2,000 attendees enjoyed several planned events at Universal’s theme parks. In fact, Universal closed Universal Studios Florida to the general public so that the Travel Leaders Network attendees had an exclusive night of dining, shopping and entertainment.
During the company’s conference, Travel Leaders offered behind-the-scenes tours, allowing attendees to experience new attractions, as well as some pre- and post-conference activities.
“We have held other company events at theme park locations in previous years,” Stark says. “This year is different because of our sheer size. We are a larger company now and, in fact, our conference is sold out with a waitlist. With a higher number of attendees, we were able to negotiate more opportunities for our participants.”
At SeaWorld Orlando, many companies rely on the theme park’s variety of offerings that appeal to corporate meeting attendees.
Asking to remain anonymous, a corporate meeting planner who frequently turns to SeaWorld to accommodate various events for her large company, says theme parks provide a great deal of variety.
“Most theme parks provide activities that are great for all ages — allowing everyone in a group or family to find something they will enjoy,” she says. “The built-in décor and capacity to create culinary delights for large groups is a huge benefit for planners looking for an inclusive option.”
The planner’s Orlando events have included using sections of the park with thrill rides and animal encounters for her corporate group; and the entire park for family-friendly events that ended with a memorable show and fireworks.
“Know what your group is looking for from their experience, such as rides, education, fun, distance and exclusivity,” she says. “Planners need to understand the size of the group may not lend itself to a buyout and, in fact, might be better (off) containing the group to a specific section of the park to make if feel full and festive. Ask what’s going on that time of year. For example, will the park be decorated for a holiday or special event? These decorations can be an added benefit for the group and create a built-in theme for the food and fun.”
Jennifer Olsen, CMP, senior manager, event sales at SeaWorld, explains that SeaWorld offers something for every attendee — from thrilling roller coasters to inspiring animal encounters and shows, along with unique spaces for meetings and events.
“Theme parks are a great option because they offer experiences that most times attendees can’t get anywhere else. They also offer efficiency as the backdrop is there, with no need for the additional expense of theming,” Olsen says. “We have a wide range of group packages. Smaller groups love our plated dinner at Sharks Underwater Grill, and a favorite for mid- to large-size groups is our Thrill and Chill package featuring the backdrop of Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin, and our amazing coasters, Kraken Unleashed and Manta.”
Forums Inc., a corporate event planning company that focuses on planning forums, conferences and other events for Fortune 500 corporations, is based out of Miami and has done several events at Orlando theme parks.
According to Crystal Fernandez, event coordinator at Forums, theme parks are a good option because they provide a relaxed, fun experience for attendees.
“When an organizer offers a free pass, it makes the attendee feel like they are being taken care of. In the case of a planned activity at the park, the experience is not only fun, it allows for networking,” Fernandez says. “We normally suggest that clients pair at least one executive with each group of attendees so that they can get to know their partners, customers, etc. These types of activities create unforgettable memories, and clients want their attendees to associate their company with the experience. It also allows executives to create a bond with the partners, employees and customers.”
Forums Inc. often allows attendees to enjoy the parks with their families at venues such as Universal Studios where there are plenty of roller coasters for the families to enjoy.
“We either provide the attendees with a complimentary ticket to enjoy with their family, or on other occasions we give the attendee an entrance and meal voucher that they can use during their day at the park,” Fernandez says.
Forums Inc. also has organized teambuilding activities including scavenger hunts at theme parks, which have proven to be popular experiences for attendees of all ages.
“In this case, we would set it up similar to the ‘Amazing Race’ where attendees split up in teams, and we hide clues,” Fernandez says. They have to search for the clues and then find certain items and take photos with them as proof. We provide them with cameras and selfie sticks. The winning team wins a prize.”
When Sharon Fisher, CEO of Play With a Purpose, a meeting planning company that offers teambuilding events, orchestrates events in several theme parks in Orlando, she embraces the atmosphere of fun.
“While many of the events we do in the theme parks are teambuilding events, many are unique training and learning events using the parks as a backdrop,” Fisher says. “One group we were working with was undergoing Six Sigma/Lean training, and we custom-designed an entire training program at a theme park that put their learning to use. We also do ‘Experience Excursions’ that benchmark great experiences and then facilitate discussions on how to incorporate that learning into businesses.”
Recently, Fisher and her team created a customized learning excursion for a client advisory board meeting. Attendees visited various venues and theme parks in Orlando for an inside look at their approach to customer service, which helped to give the client a benchmark for their own services. Then Fisher facilitated an innovative thinking session around those examples, which translated the ideas they had gathered into practical services they could provide in their facilities.
“We have also held charity-based iPad hunts whereby teams explored the theme park while gathering items to be donated to a charity,” Fisher says. “And a recent ‘Lean Thinking’ practicum included a client working on learning the principles and steps involved in implementing Lean Thinking/Six Sigma into their business. We created a six-step event that mimicked the process, and they visited specific areas in the theme park to practice the steps.”
Fisher stresses that attendees love theme parks because they provide a novel and out-of-the-ordinary place for networking and learning. And even though attendees may be “working,” it feels more like play, so it can spark creativity and innovative thinking.
“Theme Parks make great ‘learning labs’ — if topics for the conference include customer service, logistics, lean thinking, innovation, engagement or any myriad of topics, you can use what happens at theme parks to benchmark against and learn from,” Fisher says.
“For incentives, most parks have behind-the-scenes tours and opportunities that give guests an exclusive and VIP experience they couldn’t have on their own. Plus they offer after-hours events for privacy and group exclusivity.”
When meeting planners attempt to plan an event at an expansive theme park, it is vital that they take advantage of onsite event planning expertise, which large parks such as Universal Orlando and Disney have down to a science.
For example, at Universal Orlando there are five hotels, three theme parks, and the CityWalk entertainment complex on a single, compact campus. Vincent LaRuffa, senior vice president resort sales and marketing at Universal Orlando Resort, says, “We provide experiences that connect organizations to their attendees in a way that is truly remarkable, taking every opportunity to engage, inspire and entertain attendees by finding ways to reinforce corporate messages in ways that are unforgettable and unbelievably immersive, creating excitement surrounding the event and message. Corporate meeting planners are working with the same team that brings our TV productions, ride openings, concerts and internal events to life, so they can rest assured we are dedicated to making their meeting the best it can be.”
LaRuffa adds, “Because our destination is compact and easy to navigate, when attendee schedules call for free time, they’ll enjoy convenient access to an outstanding collection of dining, nightlife and entertainment options by way of water taxi, shuttle bus or walking paths around the resort.”
Universal Orlando’s 5,200-room Loews Meeting Complex contains 295,000 sf of indoor meeting space and 97,000 sf of outdoor space. Plus, all five hotels in the complex are within walking distance or a quick shuttle ride to the Universal theme parks and Universal CityWalk, the resort’s shopping, dining and entertainment district.
If planners are looking for a smaller theme park experience, Hersheypark in Hershey, Pennsylvania, is a great fit. Kristin Maneval, director of sales at Hersheypark, says they can offer groups discounted admission tickets, a company picnic and a catered event in a private space; or a private, after-hours experience with rides and catering.
“The park includes private caterings, customized food and beverage offerings, entertainment options and exclusive VIP after-hours events,” Maneval says. “We utilize six covered, outdoor catering locations to host groups to build team camaraderie.”
Likewise, Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Virginia, customizes events for groups according to their needs. The park is situated on the banks of the James River surrounded by the Historic Triangle of Colonial Williamsburg, Yorktown, and Jamestown.
“We don’t have meeting spaces like you would find in a hotel, but we do have theater space that might be open in between shows, and we also have a large outdoor picnic area,” says Lynn Fisher, account executive at Busch Gardens.
“We offer three different types of picnic packages in spring, summer and fall where groups can choose from an array of food options,” Fisher says, noting that teambuilding and awards ceremonies also can accommodated in picnic area. “The best thing about having a meeting with us,” she says, “is that once the meeting is over the group can enjoy everything our park has to offer.”
Attendees can experience Busch Gardens’ nine villages centered on six countries, such as the Parisian streets of France and hamlets of Scotland; seven roller coasters including the new hybrid wooden coaster InvadR; Sesame Street-themed attractions; animal conservation education; and more.
The many theme parks across the country offer a range of unique experiences, from reliving American life during colonial times at historic Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, to basking in Bluegrass music and Southern-style dining at Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.
Considered to be the “Entertainment Capital of Los Angeles,” Universal Studios Hollywood is the only theme park to offer guests access to a working movie and television studio, in addition to two hotels, turnkey event venues and an immersive entertainment experience. They also offer partial or complete buyouts to groups of various sizes.
“It’s a great place for anyone, particularly groups, to visit because we bring film and television shows to life with attractions and thrill rides guests from all over the world can experience,” says Crystal Williams, manager, international publicity at Universal Studios Hollywood. “Depending on the type of event, we offer different options to make group events memorable. For example, our Globe Theatre is a great location for customizable meetings, luncheons, dinners, receptions, award shows or charitable events.”
Longo at Abbott points out that there are some special planning requirements that meeting planners need to consider when orchestrating an event at a theme park destination.
“These include cost, convenience, quality, value and ROI,” Longo says.
According to Williams, when planning a meeting or event at a theme park, meeting planners need to be transparent in what the desired goals are for each event and/or meeting. “Be sure to communicate group and event specifications and allow for ample time to plan every detail of the event,” Williams says. “And be flexible with dates and event start times.”
Fernandez also recommends planners suggest to the client that attendees sign a liability waiver in case they become injured due to any accident caused by their behavior.
For planned activities in a park, event staff should be available to assist attendees. A “help” phone number should be given to the attendees as well as a predetermined meeting point where staff will be on hand to help. Attendees also should be provided with plenty of sunscreen and water.
Also, planners should be sure to compare apples to apples when it comes to proposals from theme parks. Different venues use different styles and standards when outlining the event inclusions and options.
“Details are everything. Think about the small stuff,” Fernandez says. “What will make the experience unforgettable? Get as creative as possible so that the activity is fun. Also think about networking — you want the attendees to be able to make strong connections with each other.” C&IT