Creating a theme for a corporate event is serious business. The right theme ties a meeting together and helps focus attendees on their organization’s core objective for the meeting and often the coming year. Well conceived and executed, the right theme can move employees to innovate, ideate, change direction, energize, create, collaborate and tackle the challenges necessary to outshine the competition, raise the most funds or whatever else a company may desire.
One challenge for planners is creating something memorable and new each meeting, especially today when one-offs and extreme customization are the norm.
According to Valerie Meinen, president of Wyoming-based Unimaginable Wows, it’s not only about a unique experience for the group; it’s about making the experience “personal for each attendee.”
For me, she states, “The goal is bringing normally introverted, intellectually brilliant individuals together without them realizing they’re actually networking. Personalizing the experience is paramount.”
Tiffany Eck, CMP, associate director, convention services, with Visit Denver, the city’s convention and visitors bureau, says, “The most memorable events are those that are customized to the group, provide interactive options and have unique surprises and delights.”
Adolfo Solórzano Z., senior creative manager with AlliedPRA South Florida, says interactivity is primary but notes that it’s evolving. “Tech is one of the most popular themes I see with corporate groups,” he says. “Adapting tech, tech and creativity, tech and social, tech and when it left us behind! Meetings and events have become much more interactive, from arts and crafts to graffiti painting to giant Lite-Brite walls to virtual reality simulations,” he says.
“However,” he adds, “live-feed walls, hashtags and such have almost become ‘before and after’ while ‘during’ has shifted toward interactive tech such as virtual reality, which has gotten pretty great, versus social tech, which has become a cliché of not living in the moment.”
In addition to creating memorable experiences for attendees, Eck says, interest in the local has definitely increased. “Meetings can take attendees away from their families and time in the office for days at a time; it is important to ensure that attendees find value in both the meeting agenda and the city to which they’ve traveled. Experiencing local flavor at events adds significant value to productive days.”
Meinen sees an emphasis on the local as well, noting that, “opening visitors’ eyes to the wonder of an area and helping them see the beauty of a region” can elevate a meeting.
Popular culture also continues to drive some themes, which can work in concert with a local aspect as well. Rich Mergo, director of development for the Sunshine Foundation, a nonprofit corporation established to answer the dreams of chronically ill, physically challenged and abused children from limited-income families, went with a Galactic Gala theme for an event held at B Resort & Spa in Orlando, which also brought in members of the local community, who appeared in Star Wars costumes.
When all is said and done, notes Solórzano Z., today it’s about providing attendees with “an emotional and experiential point of view.”
The venue chosen is often key, along with menus, drinks, décor, lighting and activities.
The Roaring ‘20s and a surprise speakeasy after-party were central themes for a reception at HelmsBriscoe’s 2016 Western Regional Meeting in Denver. “As part of our bid, Visit Denver was responsible for hosting the Thursday night event,” Eck says, “traditionally a two- to three-hour heavy appetizer/ food station networking reception. HelmsBriscoe suggested changing the format to a seated dinner. I inquired what everyone typically did after the event and learned that many attendees find their way to a local bar. I asked if we could add an after-party to our dinner, and the clients loved the idea.
“We knew we wanted to use the Seawell Ballroom in the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. We sent an RFP to our DMCs asking for theme ideas that included a cocktail reception, seated dinner and an after-party. Nine ideas were submitted. We narrowed those down to three, and HelmsBriscoe chose the Roaring ‘20s/speakeasy theme, which they felt would best resonate with attendees.”
Eck says the 1920s art deco and speakeasy theme was incorporated into every aspect of the event, “from our amenity cards to the menus and the table décor. We were even able to get servers to wear fedoras, gloves and beads, and our band dressed the part as well.”
During the cocktail reception, guests were able to take photos with a 1920s Rolls Royce positioned under a vintage marquee. Guests were escorted to the ballroom with a brass band. Upon entering, an aerialist was pouring champagne.”
The room was set with three different table configurations — rectangle, square and circle — each shape with its own linen and floral styles. Each table also had “Did You Know” signs with fun facts from the 1920s. “There was a beaded drape separating the dinner from the speakeasy,” Eck notes, “but it simply appeared to be another elegant design element. As dinner finished, a voice over the loudspeaker directed attendees to turn their attention to the drape, which was lifted up to reveal the Denver Speakeasy and After-Party. The band started playing and attendees finished the evening dancing, playing casino-style games and creating lasting memories at the photo booth.”
Attendees also were encouraged to wear cocktail attire, and many of the women went all out in flapper dresses. “While attendees were in their meetings, Visit Denver delivered custom amenities to their hotel rooms,” Eck adds. “Women received either beads or boas, and the men received fedoras. It was fun to watch everyone walk up to the reception dressed as if it were 1920.”
The biggest challenge, Eck says, was strategically trying to fit a reception, dinner and after-party in a three-hour window without feeling rushed. Dinner was expedited with pre-set salads and one menu option, though a vegetarian option was available on request. Dessert was served at the “speakeasy.”
The event was a huge success. Ronnee Levin, coordinator, Western region, for HelmsBriscoe, says, “The biggest ‘wow’ of our three-day meeting was the spectacular 1920s-themed dinner and speakeasy after-party. Tiffany and her team’s attention to detail were impeccable. Our group of 150 seasoned meeting planners raved with reviews of the evening, and their photos flooded our social media pages. Without a doubt, this night was the highlight of our meeting agenda!”
Last August, Meinen worked with GoEngineer, a 3-D printing and design and manufacturing software reseller on an event focused on teambuilding. “Our overriding theme with this annual event is to develop individual colleagues through collaborative interactions,” Meinen says. Based at Westgate Resort & Spa Park City in Park City, Utah, the event drew 175 attendees. Every aspect of the meeting was designed to support the teambuilding objective — not always in obvious ways.
“One of the coolest design elements of this event rests in the beauty of the Westgate Resort and its surrounding mountains,” Meinen says. “It’s important to balance consistency and routine for attendees while still revealing new spaces at the resort they may not be aware of from one year to the next. The game room, for example, helped attendees get off their devices and enjoy interactive time so they could get to know one another better.”
An outdoor raptor demonstration did triple duty. Simply watching these magnificent birds fly and return to the naturalists was an amazing shared experience for the group. But the event was also an icebreaker, putting “everyone at ease and on equal footing for the rest of the week,” Meinen notes. They added photo ops with the hawks and owls, which Meinen says was “super popular and again allowed bonding and shared memories to enhance these colleagues’ future business interactions.”
F&B provided a way to create a local experience and support the teambuilding objective. “No one wants to come to Park City and have a beer they can drink back home,” Meinen notes. “They want to try the local brew masters’ offerings. The same holds true for eats. Using a butter knife to cut into a steak at Edge Steakhouse is a must-do while in the area. Our dinner group of 18 elected to dine on the patio with two huge gas fireplaces roaring on either side of our table. I had no idea it would create such an organic networking environment! It was a touch chilly that evening, so between courses our guests got up, stretched their legs and gathered around these two fireplaces to swap stories.”
While it’s no surprise that branding was incorporated into the event, it was done here with an employee-centric twist. “Throughout the course of the year,” Meinen says, “we track all customer feedback of our colleagues, and we get a boatload of praises and fist bumps. We took the best of these testimonials and created signage everywhere to showcase the talent in this company. Because the testimonials were personal, each was different. To say that we besieged the Westgate Park City with these branded pieces of awesomeness is an understatement. At the end of the week, the attendees got to take their own signage home with them, whether it was a tabletop tent card or a real estate-sized sign.”
Going above and beyond traditional teambuilding and group activities was also paramount. “These folks take their jobs very seriously but themselves not so much,” Meinen says. “Capturing their silly side and offering a release and decompression zone was key.”
Mingling colleagues who didn’t know each other, they combined “great aspects from different experiences and intertwined them” into one super afternoon of fun. The group rode the Red Pine gondola but with custom crossword puzzles to solve on the way. There were flying quad copters, archery, water balloons and other competitive events, and relay races in adult Big Wheels. “We took our competitive nature to the next level and raced these ‘toys’ with reckless hilarity,” Meinen notes. “GoEngineer’s owner, CEO and CFO even volunteered to pedal out on them, creating a huge reveal to a mob of 175 people.”
Meinen believes creating a successful theme is dependent on a planner really knowing the client. “Get to know your client extremely well, recognize what their core values and cultural nuances are and ignore no detail, no matter how small,” she advises.
In January, Solórzano Z. worked with a New England-based technology and security company to create a leadership conference for 40. The theme they chose was “Old Florida,” which provided a sense of place, a sense of history of the area and was appropriately high-end, classic, fun and inspiring — all of which resonated with this group.
“The St. Regis Bal Harbor, where they were staying, is in an area that embodies the classic Miami Beach, Florida and modern-wealth aesthetic,” Solórzano Z. says. “It’s right on the water, across the street from one of our high-end malls in a quieter area and ideal for the demographic of this group.”
The event featured classic Miami and Miami Beach activities, including an art deco tour and a final Rat Pack-themed reception at a historic venue, The Forge, a working forge in the 1930s and now one of Miami’s high-end landmark restaurants. “The main dining room’s chandelier is from the old Paris Opera House,” Solórzano Z. notes. “There are Tiffany stained-glass windows and the wine cellar houses more than 300,000 vintages.” His personal favorite element? Napoleon’s writing desk from the Revolutionary War.
The event began with classic cocktails in the courtyard of the East Room. “The men dressed in suits and fedoras, and the women were elegant in dresses and stoles,” Solórzano Z. says. “They were then taken on a sommelier-guided tour of the famed cellar, where they ‘met’ the bantering duo of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, who eventually led them to the main dining area. Amber lighting, elegantly draped crystal centerpieces on distressed looking copper linens set the tone and tied the classic and old look together beautifully. Frank and Dean entertained the crowd with their improvised comedy routine and were backed by a five-piece band that supported them through their hits.”
This event, Solórzano Z. says, was highly memorable. “It not only had the most history but it brought on nostalgia and humor.”
The AlliedPRA team worked with The Forge to create a menu appropriate to the time period. “The dinner was not a typical modern menu of molecular cuisines or deconstructed who’s it and what’s it,” Solórzano Z. says. “It was Colorado rack of lamb and purée, dry-aged prime New York strip with roasted potatoes and other delicious and elegantly simplistic food.”
The fact that the client had a seasoned planner who “knew her ins and outs with precision,” minimized challenges. One function was moved from outdoors to indoors, but Solórzano Z. says this team “with decades in the business” made that “a minor detour that was barely noticed.”
He believes the most important thing a planner can do to create a successful event is to listen. “I can’t stress listening enough,” he says. ”Your most successful themed events are those in which you invested the time and questions into your client. Research the company. Where have they been and where are they going? Did something great recently happen? Was there a new product or a change in the executive team? As with every creative process, the more you’ve studied the subject the more precise your final product will be. We all know the devil’s in the details.”
Not all events can or should be constructed in the same way. For Mergo, it’s important to set the galas in the Orlando area where the Sunshine Foundation’s Dream Village, recipient of funds raised during this event, is located. “By keeping the event local, we are able to reach a larger number of our area corporate sponsors, supporters and donors, and keep our costs down by minimizing expenses for travel,” he says.
For one event, a galactic theme made sense. “Our gala was scheduled to take place a little over a month prior to the release of “Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens.” The film was generating a lot of media attention and fan interest, and we wanted to tie into that energy with a theme people could be excited to be a part of,” he says. “We have a great relationship with the area chapter of the 501st Legion, whose members had expressed an interest in volunteering appearances. The Star Wars theme allowed a large number of 501st Legion volunteers to appear in costume for the occasion.”
The existing décor of B Resort & Spa also lent itself to the theme. “From the blue-and-gray color scheme of the ballroom to the white, almost futuristic atmosphere of the lobby, it was easy to imagine the hotel’s existing décor as part of our theming. We were especially delighted that the round prism chandeliers in the ballroom were perfect to enhance the galactic theme,” Mergo says.
“We used digital projection to transform the ballroom walls into scenes reminiscent of Star Wars landscapes and ship interiors. Our centerpieces were constructed in designs that focused on futuristic elements and incorporated the silver and crystal highlights of the room. Of course, it also helped to have Boba Fett, Stormtroopers, Darth Vader and other key characters from the films mingling with guests and posing for photos.”
Additionally, Mergo says the B Resort & Spa catering team “did a wonderful job incorporating our theme with their existing menu items. Our guests were delighted to find appetizer choices such as Obi wan Kabob-ies or Chewbacon Candy, and entrée selections such as Boba Fettucine. Even custom cupcakes donated by a local vendor were adorned with likenesses of Stormtroopers and Darth Vader. The bar featured red and blue specialty cocktails, signifying the rebel or imperial side, as well as a green Yoda-themed non-alcoholic beverage for our under-age guests. Drinks were passed on lighted trays and featured glow sticks in the glasses matching the color of the drink.”
Even some silent auction items were themed to the movie, including replica gowns and a custom dress inspired by the designer’s love of the movie franchise.
Mergo’s advice for planners creating a themed event is to immerse guests in the theme from the outset. “Start with the first piece of collateral they receive — save-the-dates or invitations — and follow up with reminders of the theme throughout the event,” he advises. “Party favors, menu items, specialty drinks, table décor — these are all areas that can easily be themed. Even if actual menu items cannot be themed, the names of the items on a menu card can be. Don’t overlook opportunities to sneak the theme in where it’s least expected, such as goody-bag gift items or specialty desserts.”
In the end, a well-executed theme can provide a year’s worth of inspiring moments and memories for those attending, which in turn can lead to positive results in a variety of expected and unexpected ways. C&IT