There is a reason why so many meetings and events seem to be cookie-cutter productions. There are people to please and placate, funds to be allocated, guest lists to be trimmed and complex rules of etiquette to be followed. It is no wonder that so many people end up with the same event year after year. Whether you’re organizing a weekend corporate event or an offsite annual sales meeting, creating a distinctive themed atmosphere can play a key role in its success and help these meetings stand out from the crowd.
Nowadays, corporations are moving toward themed meetings because they offer a consistent message to the attendees about the mission or objective of the meeting. Themed meetings also allow meeting planners to create a roadmap with a clear meeting message that is communicated to attendees through the event’s theme.
Hillary Smith, CMP, CSEP, and partner at Koncept Events in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, says that themed meetings set the tone for the meeting and build experiential components based on the themed elements you select.
“This helps underline and reinforce the overall message,” Smith says. “With themes you can get more creative with the way you display and purpose content. The challenge is making it a consistent message. A lot of meeting planners don’t take the time to build on the theme and thread it throughout the whole event. It’s confusing for attendees if you don’t highlight the theme throughout and creates the reverse negative effect.”
Industry experts agree that larger meetings are the most appropriate setting for themed meetings, and they are usually best for reorganizations, incentive groups or sales meeting settings that have a motivational tone.
“Well-produced themed meetings motivate employees to get more engaged in the company culture, perform at high performance levels and represent the organization in a positive way.” — David Caruso
“Themed meetings are becoming a hot idea, especially when groups select a reoccurring destination,” says Karen Shackman, founder of Shackman Associates New York, a destination management and special events planning firm. “Using themed meetings is a great way to keep regular meeting fresh and exciting. Millennial attendees love face-to-face interaction at meetings, so any theme that encourages networking could be a home run among that group.”
Shackman stresses that themed meetings are ideal for corporate incentive travel program groups. “Because these kinds of programs are designed for top performers, adding themed elements creates more excitement around the entire meeting,” Shackman says.
Shackman Associates recently ran a music-themed meeting that included elements throughout the week that focused on New York’s rich history of musicians who either got their start there or moved to the city during their careers.
“We incorporated a unique team-building idea where attendees went into a studio and recorded their own rock songs,” Shackman says. “Many top instrumentalists are in New York when they are not on tour with major stars, so we were easily able to pair attendees with talent. The attendees then performed their new song live at their corporate gala later in the week. They loved it.”
Kara Leodler, manager of conference and travel for Kansas City Life & Old American Insurance Company in Kansas City, Missouri, prefers to use a theme for meetings for her company.
“Themed meetings have a natural progression from the tag line and logo design, to marketing plans, to room décor, tours, speakers and menus,” Leodler says. “It makes planning the meeting fun, and as a planner, you get to wear your creative hat, connect the dots, create the flow and allow hotels and vendors to wear their creative hats, too. This year I had two meetings in Colonial Williamsburg and the themes included Capture the Colonial Spirit and A Walk through Colonial Williamsburg. Both lend perfectly to the area, the hotels, the recreation and education the area has to offer.”
Koncept Events creates themed meetings by including the theme’s creative in every detail of the event from start to finish. This includes things such as the teaser invite to the online registration, décor colors, event gifts, entertainment, group activities/teambuilders, education sessions, etc.
“Any communication to the attendee or audience of any kind would all be branded with that theme,” says Smith, “The entire environment would exude that message. And importantly, the ending of the event would be a catalyst to the theme. It would touch on some manner of recap, reporting or marching orders with that theme in mind so it all comes full circle. This ensures attendees walk away with one consistent message.”
Kelly O’Neil, events manager for CMA Association Management, Princeton Junction, New Jersey, says that one of the biggest benefits of a themed meeting is that the attendees’ overall experience is enriched as they engage deeper and participate more through group activities, teambuilding and networking.
Themed meetings also are likely to encourage attendance as prospective attendees look forward to what is to come.
“Themes can also tie into messages and vital information that the company is relaying to the group in a more exciting format than just a PowerPoint presentation,” O’Neil says. “Theming can build the excitement and relay and reinforce a message all year long, not just for one event a year.”
O’Neil has planned 20 large themed events with more than 500 attendees and many other themed events on a smaller scale.
From this experience, O’Neil has learned that attendees are more likely to remember information that is presented in a new, exciting and entertaining way as the theme will trigger the memory when the takeaways need to be implemented back at the office.
“Theming is an important part of the meeting follow-up,” O’Neil says. “Themed giveaways or email messages afterward can trigger employees to remember what the meeting was about and put into action what they learned. And remember, at the end of one year’s event, the reveal of next year’s location and theme is always a highlight of the closing ceremony. This creates buzz for the next year.”
One meeting in particular that O’Neil orchestrated espoused the far-reaching impact themed meetings can have on attendees. This meeting celebrated the 25th anniversary of an annual client conference.
As O’Neil explains, the meeting was kicked off with a welcome reception that encompassed stations of previous cities that the group attended for this conference, representing the client’s global reach. Stations included themed décor, food and beverage as well as activities that echoed past annual client conferences and brought back those memories. To set the stage, the registration table included street signs from several different locations from previous years.
The conference’s final farewell reception was held at a ranch and included activities and food stations that tied the current year’s surroundings with fond memories from previous years to link the past with the present. Some examples included mechanical bull riding, a favorite country and western band returned, face painting, cigar rolling, armadillo races, whiskey tasting, ranch tours, character sketches and photo opportunities with a live bull.
“Themed meetings tend to have higher satisfaction ratings because guests are engaged and entertained in unexpected ways, which leads to more positive results,” O’Neil says. “Attendees walk away refreshed and excited for what comes next in their company.”
Themed meetings are appropriate for corporate groups wishing to send a message to employees. “This can be done in the form of creating a fun setting or a teambuilding experience,” says Linda Ilsley, CMP, president and CEO at Winston-Salem, North Carolina-based LPI Events. “Companies that are restructuring, rebranding or merging with another company provide an opportunity to send a corporate message through a theme.”
From Ilsley’s perspective, themed meetings are becoming more prevalent as corporations use the opportunity to spread the message about sales of new products or logo launches and the like.
Ilsley also suggests the key is to “show ROI to the key planners and the attendees.” Yet one of the challenges is in selecting the proper venue, especially one that lends itself to enchancing the theme experience. She says her area is fortunate to have a venue such as the Millennium Center in Winston-Salem, which has a number of options for a themed meeting including “a courtroom, speakeasy, ballroom with a large stage area and an elegant setting. The space also allows for theme transition, which is not easy to find,” she notes.
Examples of successful themed meetings produced by LPI Events include Prescription for Success, which used a logoed, customized prescription pad for notes, a 6-foot prescription pad meeting agenda posted outside the ballroom, ink pens shaped like hypodermic needles, and a character actor in a lab coat who handed out prescription-messaged candy bars inscribed with the meeting message.
Moreover, Ilsley suggests theme meetings can create an energy that comes from the group working together on a CSR project or drumming teambuilding programs, both of which also have lasting impact. “Drumming for the Future teambuilding programs also create awareness of the corporation moving as a team into the future,” she adds.
Lisa Schaibly, operations coordinator at Front Burner Brands, a restaurant management company headquartered in Tampa, Florida, recently coordinated the firm’s annual franchise reunion, which typically has a theme that pertains to the event.
“Our annual franchise reunion combines aspects of what is relevant to our business at the time, usually playing off something our host city is well-known for,” Schaibly says. Some examples from the past have been a Path to Greatness in Cancun, playing off the Aztec compass; Mile High Success in Denver, playing off the mountains; and a pirate theme in Tampa, incorporating the theme in breakouts such as Counting Your Coffer for inventory and Salvaging Sunken Treasure for guest recovery.
Front Burner Brands also did a Dining in the Dark dinner for one of the company’s smaller meetings at the Epicurean Hotel in Tampa.
“The diners were blindfolded and then served three courses, each paired with a wine, and they had to guess what they were eating,” Schaibly says. “It was really funny to watch them poke around for their bites and hearing some of their guesses.”
While Schaibly embraces themed meetings, she also stresses the importance of not crossing the line of being too cheesy or childish.
“You don’t want to make someone feel patronized,” Schaibly says. “You want your theme to be relevant to their business at that time and the theme should carry throughout your meeting and presentations. Don’t just slap a luau theme on your meeting and make them dress up in the paper grass skirts you found at the party store. You are catering to business professionals, not a summer barbecue with the kids.”
The key to making themed meetings an attendee favorite is knowing your group. For example, if you are planning a destination meeting in New York City, it might help to start a conversation with potential attendees about what would make them most excited to go there.
“If you start getting common feedback, then that can set the table to be creative and incorporate a really exciting theme,” Shackman says.
For the Capture the Colonial Spirit themed meeting that Leodler planned, she developed a marketing plan the year prior to the meeting, highlighting important characters, locations and events.
“Simple things like highlighting the importance of taverns as a social and meeting location in the day were fun and educational to those on the receiving end of the plan,” Leodler says. One of the tours incorporated lunch at a tavern in the museum of Colonial Williamsburg with the locals who are in character. Some of the speakers for the meeting were “Mr. Thomas Jefferson, former President of the United States” speaking of his time in office and his love of Virginia.
“The meeting space at the Williamsburg Lodge is perfect to work with. The look and feel lends itself to theming and décor of any kind,” Leodler says. “Of course we went to patriotic red, white and blue with a hint of garden for the décor, linens and flowers. The sleeping rooms of each property, Williamsburg Lodge and Inn, lent itself to this theming as well. Menu design with servers and staff dressing the parts of old-fashioned garden party, to formal, black-tie events were spot on.”
Ilsley cautions planners to always stay focused on the goal and objective of the meeting. It is a good idea to “survey or have a clear understanding of who the attendees are as well as the best way to convey the information to appeal to the recipients’ learning mode,” she advises.
Ken Malquist, show director, Disney Event Group, says theming, no matter how extravagant, is always in the details.
“For example, let’s say a client chose ‘ignite’ for an event theme,” Malquist says. “Through colorful lighting, electrifying graphics and engaging keynote speakers, the theme can ‘ignite’ attendee imagination and drive action to help the client achieve their meeting goals.”
Not surprising, most everything the Disney Events meeting team does at Walt Disney World Resort is themed. They look at an entire event and the client’s key messages and goals, and tie those elements into every aspect of the meeting. From pre-event communication to onsite décor, entertainment, signage and presentation platforms, they use every detail in creating not only an event but also an unforgettable experience.
“Themed meetings ensure that every aspect that attendees see, hear, touch, feel, taste and experience reinforce the client’s purpose and business needs,” Malquist says. “It’s a holistic view that drives greater engagement, retention and utilization. Just like a score in a movie should not distract from the emotion of a scene, the theme of an event should not overshadow the message. All event elements should work in harmony with each other to support the intent of the meeting.”
In his meeting planning experience, Malquist has found that meeting attendees engage more with event content and activities, and with each other, when event elements are uniquely themed.
“Walt Disney said, ‘I would rather entertain and hope that people learned something, than educate people and hope they were entertained.’ Our Disney team has found that when people are taken out of their regular rivers of thinking, they become more focused and engaged,” Malquist says.
David Caruso, president of Dynamic Events in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, agrees. Caruso has found that well-produced themed meeting experiences help to achieve strategic goals and to differentiate organizations in the areas of creativity, culture and commitment to excellence.
Recently, Caruso orchestrated a national sales meeting in Miami for a company that sells medical devices. Based on the location of the meeting, the company’s strategic plan and the demographics of the audience, they branded the experience with the title “Ignite.”
“The tagline, ‘Excellence. Passion. Performance.’ supported the energizing title and provided a framework for the meeting topics that were focused on how team members can ignite excellence, passion and performance in all areas of their career,” Caruso says. “Ultimately, well-produced themed meetings motivate employees to get more engaged in the company culture, perform at high performance levels and represent the organization in a positive way.”
When it’s time to prove ROI, a creative, well-executed themed meeting will make you stand out from the crowd. C&IT