In the history of corporate meetings, many an attendee has walked into an annual meeting, executive retreat or sales kickoff with only a vague idea of what the company intends to achieve via the event. Perhaps they are to get a sense of the current state of business, discuss strategy for the coming year or get motivated for the next sales cycle. When a theme is identified, however, attendees walk into it with a clearer sense of the thinking behind the program. And they get that message immediately, without needing to read and analyze an entire agenda. While incentive travel programs have long featured themed meetings and branding, it is arguable that many other types of meetings benefit from carrying a theme.
Lynne Esparo, senior director, face to face experiences, with Burlington, Massachusetts-based Nuance Communications Inc., is one planner who makes that argument. Esparo and her team plan more than 300 events a year for the speech-recognition software company, the largest being the annual sales kickoff. This year, the company is even deliberating on whether to call the event a sales kickoff in addition to the moniker that expresses its theme, Esparo notes, since the generic title has relatively little meaning. “To me, the significance of a theme, whether it’s an internal or an external audience, is that it gives attendees an expectation of what the emphasis of the meeting is. It says where the company is right now, and what’s going to be the focus of the meeting,” she explains. “For example, if the theme of a sales kickoff were to be ‘Command Your Destiny,’ then as an attendee I would think, ‘OK, so that’s where the company is right now: They’re wanting me to take command of my own destiny as a salesperson.”
The same point applies with an external audience. “We do a big user group for our health care attendees every year that we call Conversations, and the theme there says something very important about where we think their heads should be at and what the focus of the meeting is,” Esparo continues. “And that’s really important, because immediately a customer is going to make a judgment call based on your theme: ‘I see where they think the business is, and that relates to me. I think I should attend this conference.’ So the theme really influences people and helps them get their head around the core message of the event.”
While a theme is typically expressed in a slogan or catchphrase, brainstorming that expression isn’t the starting point to determining a theme. Rather, the process begins with a discussion of the business climate and goals among the meeting’s stakeholders. “If it’s a sales meeting for example, (one should consider) what’s the rallying cry for my salespeople for this year? From there you can come up with a couple of words (to express the message),” Esparo explains. “But that’s secondary; first, where is the business at? And so we spend a lot of time with our senior leaders asking, where are we at this year and what is the main core message? The idea should also be vetted by our sales leaders, because they’re out there every day with our clients. We shouldn’t be sitting back at corporate and saying, ‘Here’s the theme.’ We should ask the sales leaders, ‘Is this spot on? Does this resonate with you?’”
The theme follows from that interaction, and then the slogan or catchphrase. But it’s seldom that one discussion will bear that fruit, Esparo adds. “Rarely it happens that everybody agrees right away, because it’s a very personal thing; different words mean different things to different people. The CMO may disagree with the head of sales, who may disagree with the CEO, and so on. So we cull it down, get a top five, and then send that around to our sales leaders. The process might take two weeks to a month due to people’s schedules.”
The next step is determining how to execute the theme, how to express it via the program’s marketing materials, destination, choice of speakers and other elements. “The theme should drive everything you do,” says Esparo. For example, if our theme was ‘Command Your Destiny,’ every touchpoint of the event should play off of that theme. My motivational speaker should be someone who is the epitome of commanding his or her destiny. I might do a special event such as a sailing expedition where attendees are commanding their destiny on the seas.”
The challenge is to make an abstract message concrete. “The more you bring it to realism the more it makes sense to people,” says Esparo, who played upon the theme of “Amplified” for last year’s sales kickoff. “We were at a place where we felt as though the salespeople had the tools that they needed, but they needed to amplify their efforts. We have a great company, we have wonderful solutions, we have the people to support the sales organization. It’s now time for the sales organization to use all of these things and amp up their efforts to make their quota,” says Esparo, adding, “That’s very different than saying ‘band together’ or ‘born to perform.’ ” The “Amplified” theme was expressed, in part, by staging the event at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Las Vegas.
Richardson, Texas-based Lennox Industries Inc. expressed a similar theme (and utilized the same hotel) for its latest national sales meeting, bearing the slogan “Turn It Up.” Cecilia Daddio, CMP, senior manager, events and incentives, explains the thinking behind the tagline: “ ‘Turn It Up’ as far as sales, as far as heat (Lennox provides HVAC products), as far as customer service. And when we took it on the road to implement it for our dealer customer base, it was ‘turn it up’ with their internal sales. So for a year when we really didn’t have a lot of new product to release, (we focused on) utilizing what we already have and kicking it up a notch.”
And like Esparo, Daddio interpreted the tagline musically, branding the sales meeting as “Lennoxpalooza.” Embracing the popular music of many genres and generations, the program featured everything from marketing elements such as concert-style posters and USBs shaped like guitars, to interactive elements such as post-breakout musical trivia quizzes, teambuilding exercises where participants had to come up with band names, and onstage performances by Lennox staff. The program even had its own original song. Daddio says Lennox used their official production company partner, Dallas-based The Producer’s Lounge, to execute the event.
The results were “off the charts,” Daddio says. And the proof lay in how sales “skyrocketed” afterward. “Customers left placing orders at the dealer meeting roadshow, and became highly motivated and enthusiastic, asking if they could have the Lennoxpalooza song to play in their shop when customers come in.” Lennox created a stage for live performances at all stops on the road show, with the most memorable installment taking place at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Las Vegas.
Customers left placing orders at the dealer meeting roadshow, and became highly motivated and enthusiastic, asking if they could have the Lennoxpalooza song to play in their shop when customers come in.” — Cecilia Daddio
While Lollapalooza was originally an alternative music festival, Lennoxpalooza was conceived as much broader in musical focus, covering styles from the 1950s to today. Daddio’s team even brought in hip-hop dancers from local schools. This approach was essential in order to ensure that participants of all ages and musical tastes could relate to the program. In addition, those who were not musically talented had plenty of activities they could participate in, such as the trivia games and creating band names.
Ensuring that a theme is not exclusionary can be a bit tricky with a diverse multicultural audience. When Reston, Virginia-based Nextel International was staging its incentive program for 600-700 participants that included both North and South Americans, a disco theme was found to be something all English-, Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking participants could relate to, although in slightly different ways.
“We realized that disco didn’t necessarily mean the same for all of them: for some it meant a record or a nightclub,” relates Ivan Montalvo, Nextel’s senior director of sales and distribution. “But once they were there, they realized the theme was reliving the ’70s era and its music.” Called Club NII, the program was held at the JW Marriott Cancun Resort & Spa, sourced by Florham Park, New Jersey-based Impact Incentives & Meetings Inc. Impact’s president Ira Almeas managed the local DMCs in Mexico and brought in KC and the Sunshine Band for the Studio 54-themed final night.
But the theme of Club NII also found its way into the details of the group’s experience: communications pamphlets that looked like vinyl albums, disco music playing in the background during check in, best-of-disco CDs as gifts, “beachside” cardboard cutouts with head holes stationed around the hotel, ’70s-style wigs for qualifiers to wear at the final night party, and so on.
The biggest impact came during that evening when Nextel senior executives came out on stage in full disco gear. Their initial reaction to the idea was “Oh you’re kidding me, you’re going to make me do this?” Montalvo recalls. “But the fact that they did it was culturally impacting to the participants. Typically Latin Americans see North Americans as very formal, kind of Germanic in that they really don’t dance. So when they saw these two executives actually come out and do this (they thought), “They are making this extra effort to better relate to us and our culture. This additional detail by these executives created better camaraderie and developed stronger, long-lasting working relationships with these international participants,” states Montalvo.
Sans the cultural impact, Lennox regional managers made a similar splash when they concluded Lennoxpalooza by performing as KISS in full makeup, Daddio relates.
Some themes are designed to motivate attendees themselves to make an impact, such as Arlington, Virginia-based Interstate Hotels & Resorts’ “The Power of One: Ignite, Inspire, Impact.” The weeklong leadership conference in downtown Atlanta convened about 1,200 Interstate attendees from across the globe, representing upper management, sales, finance, HR and other areas of the company.
The goal was to “inspire our hoteliers about what can be done when they go back to work with our clients,” explains Jen Chauvin, CMP, senior director, marketing strategy and event management. That included “modeling our unique creative event management and F&B trends with our partners.”
Toward that end, Interstate hosted a special event at the Georgia Railroad Freight Depot that showcased the cultural elements of new and old Atlanta (see sidebar). “The Freight Depot is one of the most historic buildings in Atlanta; the city was kind of built around it,” says Chauvin. “So it was the power of one building around which a city was developed, and that matched our theme.”
Chauvin collaborated with Atlanta-based WM Events to create an atmosphere within the Freight Depot that would immerse attendees in the city’s history, cuisine, music, art and craftsmanship. “We try to train our leaders on driving that local destination, and they could take pieces of what they experienced to replicate in their own local markets,” she notes. The ROI for the event became especially clear when “over 850 folks gave us a positive post-event survey response. Some of them said there were so many learnings that they could apply to (events such as) weddings at their hotels.”
Given that a theme is such a powerful vehicle for transferring a message, “it shouldn’t be taken lightly,” Esparo advises. Some companies may leave the creation of a theme to a single marketing rep or meeting planner, without any input from other departments or serious brainstorming. And the result might well be a theme that is not as relevant to the company’s goals as it could be. “That’s an opportunity loss,” says Esparo. “You squander an opportunity to improve your meeting (with a resonant theme) if you don’t think it through.”
For Daddio, the purpose of theming is not only to communicate a message in a memorable way, but also to get attendees emotionally engaged with that message. During Lennoxpalooza, “as we went from one roadshow to another, it got more electrified. They began dressing like they were going to a concert; the word spread, and they couldn’t wait to be there,” she relates. And while the company tries not to repeat a theme, she notes that the success of Lennoxpalooza may justify a Turn It Up II. Some themes don’t deserve to be one-hit wonders. C&IT