There are many advantages to theming a meeting or incentive. From an attendee’s perspective, a theme makes the overall event more memorable, even if that theme is only expressed in a slogan that appears on banners, brochures, napkins and the like. From a planner’s perspective, a theme affords a sense of direction for many aspects of the program, from site choice to activities to décor. And given the dizzying amount and variety of options for entertainment, a theme can helpfully guide the planner in that department as well.
Lennox International, a Richardson, Texas-based HVAC company, has long been incorporating well-articulated themes into its national sales meetings as well as Lennox LIVE (leadership, innovation, vision, education), a multisite series of customer-facing events. The themes inform the choice of entertainment, which is sourced and produced by Lennox’s longtime creative partner, The Producer’s Lounge, a full-service event production company in Addison, Texas. Lennox “really puts time and effort into their events,” remarks Leigh Ann Vernon, owner/executive producer. “A corporate event is a major piece of a company’s messaging, and sometimes companies don’t put the time into it that it really needs, because it does take a lot of time and executive focus.”
Lennox’s messaging is encapsulated by a phrase tagged to the event, and Vernon seeks out entertainment acts that are in sync with the phrase. “Last year, our theme was ‘Can’t stop, won’t stop,’ and we had a DJ/drummer that I sourced from the U.K., Afishal, and he had an LED drum kit that was fabulous,” says Vernon. Afishal’s visually impactful style of EDM (electronic dance music) perfectly expressed the program’s slogan. This year’s theme for Lennox LIVE, “Fuel the disruption,” was supported by David Wilk, a corporate emcee with an improv comedy style that “disrupts” the usual approach to hosting corporate events. A founding member of Four Day Weekend Comedy Theater, Wilk traveled with Lennox LIVE to Phoenix, Dallas, Orlando and Mashantucket, Connecticut.
While a single entertainer or emcee can embody the spirit of a corporate event, entertainment is increasingly being decentralized and spread throughout the venue to create a festival-like experience. While considered a trend, the “festivalization” of corporate events is a familiar approach for Vernon. “We’ve been doing that for a couple of years,” she notes. “My goal as executive producer is to create an experience for the attendee from the moment they get their invitation to the moment they are traveling back to tell their families what they saw and did. We’ve done a lot in the ballroom: bold colors, more messaging, LED lighting, fun costumed people, stilt walkers…to create that festival atmosphere. (The performers) are even out in the foyer, walking attendees in.”
Among the latest entertainment features adding to the feeling of immersion is the hologram, which can also serve an educational function in the case of product holograms. “A couple of years ago it was too cost-prohibitive, but now at reasonable costs you can have a hologram that can be anything you want it to be,” Vernon says. “Last year, we had a show with beautiful butterflies and we had children running, trying to catch these 3-D butterflies: The children were real, the butterflies were not.”
Another company that takes a diversified approach to event entertainment is Thousand Oaks, California-based Sage Publishing. Founded in 1965, the company publishes more than 1,000 journals and 800 new books each year. “We use a variety of entertainers/entertainment depending on the event,” says Dana Graham, associate director, corporate events and community relations with the company. Graham’s team sources entertainment primarily for Sage’s annual sales meeting (about 200 attendees) and annual company picnic (about 600 attendees). “The entertainment we book ranges from balloon artists to musicians to teambuilding activities. We even hosted a Scary-Oke (karaoke) contest for employees during our annual Halloween Hullabaloo party. It was a fun way to hear talented employees sing in front of the whole company.”
A cost-effective entertainment element that can promote a festival atmosphere is the SoCalSelfie photo booth, “one of the best entertainment investments we have made in the last two years,” Graham notes. “Their ‘booth’ is a large iPhone that takes a succession of photos and prints out the photo strip. They simultaneously text and email the photos to the guest. It has revolutionized the event photo process for us, and it’s fun, too. SoCalSelfie custom designs the photo strip template to complement the event theme, and they provide fun props for the guests to use as well.” Younger attendees seem to especially enjoy the process. “We have so many millennials that work here (49 percent of the staff) and this appeals to them. It makes my life a lot easier because people are so used to having everything they need immediately, I am able at that party to give them something immediately and then later we circle back.”
Graham takes a wide-ranging approach to event entertainment, going beyond generic ideas such as hiring a band or comedian. She simply seeks to “make a splash with the entertainment budget I have. If I can add a little ‘oomph’ to an event that needs some life in it, I’ve achieved my goal.”
And there are indeed many ways to make that splash: Sage attendees have embarked on a cattle drive at a sales meeting in Tucson, Arizona (arranged through Destination Conference Services) and ridden aboard the Land Shark, an amphibious vehicle, during a global meeting in Santa Barbara, California (arranged through AlliedPRA). The Land Shark tour “was a totally new experience and they loved it. The attendees from India, London and Asia had never seen anything like this. Rather than having minicoaches transport them, I wanted to shake it up,” Graham explains.
The surprise value of entertainment should not be underestimated: Participants tend to remember those experiences even more, and that makes the overall event more memorable by association. Sharon L. Schenk, CMP, director of conventions and event management for Manchester, New Hampshire-based CCA Global Partners, gives an example of an entertainment choice that had that kind of impact. “This past summer we had our convention in Salt Lake City, and for Carpet One (the convention includes both Carpet One Floor and Home and Flooring America/Flooring Canada programs) we did our closing event at Olympic Park,” Schenk relates. “That was six months before the Winter Olympics, and we got to see the potential future Olympians. They were called the Flying Aces, and they did a performance for us at the end of the evening. Our people loved it. So that was an opportunity to take advantage of something that’s local; it hit every demographic in our audience and part of the payments that we made for that entertainment went to support the park. They knew they were going to meet Olympians, but they didn’t know what the performance was going to be. It was certainly different than anything they’d ever seen before.”
The unexpected experience was underscored with a follow-up six months after the convention, when members who had attended received a message: “Remember when you saw these guys in Salt Lake City? Well, four of them are going to the Olympics.”
“We always have our eyes open for something new, something trending, when it comes to entertainment,” says Schenk. “But it’s not just entertainment for entertainment’s sake; we’ve really got to weigh the value for our members. Is it really worthwhile for us to spend this money? What is the audience going to get out of it?” An act that delivered a strong return on a reasonable investment was a country music quintet called Spencer’s Own, who played CCA Global Partners’ Carpet One convention one year. The group’s lack of widespread popularity at that point effectively made them more affordable. “They’re on the country music charts now, but when we hired them people didn’t really know who they were,” says Schenk. “Eventually, people are going to say, ‘Hey, we saw them when’ ” they were rising stars.
Other strategies for saving money on entertainers include hiring local acts or touring performers who happen to be in the destination at the time of the event, thus saving airfare and lodging costs for the act. CVBs and DMCs are good resources on these options.
Ira Almeas, president of Impact Incentives & Meetings, also suggests purchasing non-exclusive entertainment. “If it’s a smaller group with a small budget, you can buy into an existing show, so you do dinner and a show,” he says. His company has taken that approach with tango performances in Argentina. Such local acts can have the added effect of expressing the culture of the destination; for various incentive programs, Impact has partnered with flamenco dancers in Spain, river dancers in Ireland and so on.
In selecting these acts, “we always go by destination, demographic and budget,” Almeas notes. “So there is a system we go through to vet the entertainer; we don’t just say, ‘I’d like to have Charo perform.’ ”
Vernon emphasizes that audience demographics “are the key, because not everything resonates with all audiences. Just as an example, we had an awards evening in Vegas and we had the Rat Pack perform for us. Half the audience loved it, and half the audience said, ‘Who’s the Rat Pack?’ ”
The challenge, of course, comes with audiences of a highly varied demographic, in terms of age and/or culture. One solution is to select an act with very broad appeal. As an example, Almeas cites KC and the Sunshine Band, which he hired for an incentive program staged by a communications company. “They’re a ‘70s act, but everyone still knows a half a dozen to a dozen of his songs. If I said, ‘Get Down Tonight,’ most people would know who sang it. It’s a global company (that held the incentive), and there were a lot of Latinos that knew his music even though he’s not a Latino singer. We did it in the Bahamas and he’s Miami based, so that helped with transportation and all of those details.”
The band’s music is very upbeat, and effectively set the tone for the incentive trip, which is what entertainment does for any meeting, Almeas adds.
Another approach to pleasing a mixed demographic is to provide “mixed” entertainment. CCA Global Partners’ groups range in age from 30s to 70s, and the final night’s entertainment for a convention this past winter consisted of “vignettes of Broadway songs, mostly Hamilton. It’s hip-hop, but still Broadway,” Schenk relates. (“Hamilton: An American Musical” details the life of founding father Alexander Hamilton through sung and rapped lyrics). “I thought that was a good mix for the audience,” she says, adding, “When you’ve got that wide demographic you’re not going to please everybody, but you do your best to find a happy medium in there.”
Graham also does her best to select inclusive musical entertainment. “The process is hands-on as I personally prepare song lists/suggested songs,” she explains. Sage’s holiday party is not a Christmas party, and so “we are careful to avoid playing any traditional holiday music or using red and green in the décor.
“Past Sage Holiday Party themes have included Casablanca and An Evening in Oz, which was held in a hangar at the Camarillo Airport (in Ventura County, California), and the Magnolia Ball, which was held in a refurbished horse barn this year at the Hummingbird Nest Ranch (Santa Susana, California).” Though it is in a planner’s nature to control the entertainment content along with all other aspects of an event, he or she should be prepared for the occasional mishap. “For the company’s Gone Fishing-themed annual picnic at Vasa Park last June, I was horrified when the DJ played Guns N’ Roses’ ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine,’ which was not on the suggested setlist of family fare type music that I had provided,” Graham relates. “The issue was quickly resolved. Whew!”
Apart from a careful consideration of audience demographics, due diligence in sourcing entertainment also includes getting references and actually seeing the performers in action, if possible. “Good reputation, good sound — we do not want to hire any musical entertainment or vendors that we cannot hear, see or research first,” Graham explains, “whether it is in person or electronically via the World Wide Web.”
Precon prepping is also essential for each act, especially those who will be speaking to the attendees. “We start our conversations with them one month to six weeks out, and our leadership are on the call and they give some direction,” Schenk explains. “We do at least two, sometimes three calls prior to the program. We tell them the age demo of the audience, where they’re from — our attendees are from small towns in the U.S. and Canada. They’re usually from small towns; they’re not big-city folk. Some (entertainers and speakers) are very proactive: They’ll ask questions about the product, the promotions that are going on now, and they’ll incorporate that (into their act or presentation). We look for presenters that don’t have canned, inflexible presentations. Customization is essential to us and our audience appreciates the fact that our presenters have some knowledge of their businesses.”
Comedians may require the most prepping of any type of entertainer, in order to ensure their material does not exclude or offend segments of the audience. “Comedians are a tricky one; they don’t appeal to everybody. That’s the one type of entertainment that I’ve always steered away from,” says Almeas. “There are topics that might offend people, or if you have an international group (the humor can be) lost in translation.” Nevertheless, comedians have successfully entertained plenty of corporate groups. “We had Howie Mandel about seven years ago, and he went over quite well,” Schenk notes.
Any comedy act that delves into the U.S. presidential realm must be especially careful to avoid controversy and not alienate or offend its audience. Randy Nolan Artists, a talent agency that specializes in entertaining corporate groups with U.S. president impersonators, successfully pokes fun in a respectful way without delving into politics or policies. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush impersonators played well with groups in the ‘90s and 2000s respectively. Now there’s Donald J. Trump, a decidedly more challenging impersonation to pull off without stirring up controversy. But comedian/impressionist Dave Burleigh manages to pull it off. Burleigh and a group of industry professionals have teamed up to create a funny, “above the belt” one-man show — all about “The Donald.” The material takes care to not step on any toes — on either side of the political aisle.
As with political humor, corporate entertainment that makes fun of the boss could backfire badly — unless it’s a puppet doing the jokes. Entertainer Jack Fiala, founder of Corporate Sidekicks in Dayton, Ohio, uses muppet-like characters in humorous, customized skits for live events designed to resonate with a corporate client’s issues or meeting objectives. For one corporate sales group, “Willie Sellmore” the puppet made fun of the boss and some known product glitches, humorously raising issues on the audience’s mind that the management addressed in the meeting. The result was an engaged audience delighted with the puppet’s inside knowledge of the organization and its sales team. The routine humanized management and reinforced key messages.
Fiala describes another program that really resonated with the audience. “For his presentation at Shanken Communications’ Impact Marketing Symposium, Pete Carr, president of Bacardi North America, had us create a puppet that looked like Marvin Shanken, publisher of Wine Spectator, Cigar Aficionado and Whiskey Advocate among other titles. ‘Mini Marv’ interviewed Pete in the brash style made famous by real Marv. The audience was a who’s who of the wine and spirits industry, and they loved it.”
While her team does not survey attendees on the quality of the entertainment post event, Schenk says the attendees do post comments on a Facebook group private to the company. But entertainers can expect feedback on their performance to also be shared via public social media, and their reputation can quickly heighten (or suffer) because of Twitter posts and the like.
Similarly, a planner’s reputation in part depends on attendees’ reaction to the event; and the entertainment component, like the cuisine, is one of those features that tends to color the entire experience. A thoughtful approach to sourcing entertainment is thus needed, especially given the number of considerations at play: the event’s theme and destination, the festivalization trend, cutting-edge forms of entertainment like holograms, surprise value, the C-suite’s preferences, audience demographics and, of course, budget. C&IT