One of a planner’s most creative and, yes, challenging chores is themes — conceiving an effective, innovative and entertaining meeting topic — again and again and again.
Guided by such parameters as goals, budgets, demographics and destinations, the lengthy and detailed procedure is demanding and sometimes overwhelming. But it need not be.
Armed with the following input from in-the-know players of some of the nation’s top DMCs, the future for theme-plotting planners can be simple. So relax, enjoy the process and find inspiration in the words of Albert Einstein: “Creativity is intelligence having fun.”
When selecting a meeting theme, Nicole Marsh, CMP, DMCP, partner of Imprint Events Group, a DMC Network Company, Denver, Orlando and Las Vegas, follows a trio of paths. “The theme must be representative of the company’s culture,” she says citing creative themes for creative clients, traditional themes for traditional clients, etc. “The theme should provoke an emotion or action.”
This translates to going with a theme that inspires attendees and serves as a call to action that’s clear during the meeting and lives on after it’s over. “The theme should be the cohesive thread throughout the meeting.” From the general session to breakouts to activities, each should be an interconnected part of the overall program.
“The theme must be representative of the company’s culture. It should provoke an emotion or action.”
Nicole Marsh, CMP, DMCP
Imprint Events Group
How do Marsh and her team start the process? “We begin by evaluating if the client has any overarching company goals for the year that should be a continued focus within the theme. If no such direction exists, we turn to the meeting’s destination for inspiration. What’s the vibe of the destination? What’s unique about it culturally? Historically, what’s significant? If we can’t bring guests to must-go tourist spots, how do we bring the best of the destination to the meeting? Generally, though, we’re always paying attention to the latest trends, major cultural events and what else is being produced throughout our industry to spark additional innovative ideas for our clients.”
Likewise, metroConnections, a Minneapolis DMC, has a basic three-step process when seeking a theme, says Madelyn Ann Arthur, event sales manager: 1) Meet with the client to go over event logistics and goals, 2) discuss group demographics and 3) dive into conference themes the client should take into consideration, as well as the group’s past themes.
With the belief that meeting themes typically fall into several basic categories, Arthur is specific. Creative themes encourage attendees to think outside the box and be innovative. Morale-based themes motivate attendees to do bigger and better things, and competitive themes focus on the client’s competitor.
Along the lines of categorical themes, Casee Safford, senior creative design manager, Ultimate Ventures, Addison, Texas, pays heed to the “where” factor: where you are (destination-oriented), where you are going (motivational) and where you’ve been (nostalgic).
Called the “resident theme queen” by Ultimate Ventures’ director of marketing Val Lenington, CMP, DMCP, Safford has a variety of successful meeting themes under her imaginative belt.
Among them is the award-winning theme, Simplicity Meets Style, a Globe of Excellence Awards dinner held this past June for 80 top hotel executives at the W Hotel Dallas. Inspired by the image of swimming in an abstract koi pond, here’s how it played out. All guests stood on a crimson carpet in the foyer waiting to enter the event when curtains were drawn back to reveal that the red carpet on which they were standing was actually attached to the 50-foot train of a dress worn by an elegant model — a true living red carpet entrance. A combination of blue and gold lighting was used throughout the space to give the illusion of light shimmering on water. Much of the décor was custom-built, including the rotating Japanese silk lanterns, koi fish graphics on chair backs and arranged branches and lily pads on framed displays further tying the theme together.
During Ultimate Ventures’ Camp WannaHavaFunna teambuilding event, another award winner, 170 executive chefs of a large restaurant chain were paired with 25 teens to produce 100 backpacks filled with 4,000 school supplies for Texas’ Collin County Boys & Girls Club. The ballroom setting was decorated with canoe props, Adirondack chairs, tree stump stools, a “flickering” campfire and activities including a crabwalk dash, campfire stories, archery and a marshmallow cabin showdown.
Situated in the middle of downtown Dallas was Industrial Chic, an event for 200 insurance company attendees held in the historical Sixth Floor Museum (the former Texas School Book Depository overlooking Dealey Plaza from which Lee Harvey Oswald shot President John F. Kennedy).
When quizzed about any project’s commencement, Safford is specific. “We start by looking through design books, magazines and websites to spark our imaginations. We try to imagine the big picture of what the room will look like and then work our way backward to fill in the smallest details.”
Taylor Hutchison, director of sales, Hosts DC, Hosts Global Alliance, Washington, D.C., approaches the theme-search process with an around-the-table meeting. “We typically sit down for a ‘think tank’-style consultation with the meeting’s stakeholders. We dig in with them on the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of the meeting. What message, what feeling, would we like to resonate before, during and after? From there, we are able to design a themed experience for all attendees.”
The Hosts DC pro says that some of the most important factors in the development of themes come from the evolution of not only the company but the specific meeting, its attendees and the destination itself.
“The destination is paramount in determining a theme since you want to include the cultural environment of the destination when planning the overall theme of the events,” says Dabney Bixel, president/CEO, Bixel & Company, Los Angeles. Reflective of her DMC’s Southern California locale, Bixel has produced many corporate events at the Dolby Theatre, the home of the Academy Awards. “What could be more authentic than to hold your awards event in the home of the Oscars? Hollywood is the only destination where this can be achieved.” Along those lines, one popular teambuilding activity is Make a Movie on the backlot of a Hollywood Studio or dine-arounds incorporating some of the area’s multitude of celebrity chefs.
Continuing the destination-inspired philosophy, Bixel names Beverly Hills, an area renowned for its glitz and glamour, where she has staged events in its mansions (many to which Bixel & Company has exclusive access), as well as on Rodeo Drive.
“The destination is often the focal point for the decided theme,” says Amanda Tutor, project manager for Texas-based CE DMC. “Here in San Antonio, a favorite theme is Viva Fiesta!” A tradition and celebration of the city’s rich cultural history, she suggests that it can be more interesting to twist and mold this theme to new derivatives. One exclusive-to-Texas activity is armadillo racing. Tutor explains, “Imagine 30 adults surrounding a miniature race track cheering on their favorite armadillo (an odd-looking Southwestern mammal the size of a possum and noted for its leathery armor shell) until he rolls into a ball.” Tutor’s conclusion is that anything that engages the guests enhances the event.
With a location in Colorado, Marsh says it’s easy to work the DMC’s mountain-surrounded terrain into a local meeting’s execution, including rock-climbing teambuilding activities. However, she issues a warning. “It is important to mix it up and provide variety in your theming. If you always choose a destination-driven theme, it may become hokey year after year. Intersperse general motivation and call-to-action themes to continually inspire attendees.”
Expounding on the destination factor and her company’s location in the nation’s capital, Hutchison says, “Fortunately for our team, D.C. offers powerful themes, such as leadership, change and history, just because of what the city stands for.” Being in Washington, D.C., serves up the possibility of producing events in the most significant museums, monuments, memorials and buildings in the country’s history. This on-location perk extends to F&B, giving the option to pull inspiration from many aspects of the past to amplify the menu. “A President’s Circle meeting, for example, may have a menu designed around past U.S. presidents’ favorite foods, the menu of a Future Leaders meeting might include new culinary techniques and an event for Innovators and Influencers could feature culinary experiences still under development, such as 3-D food printing.”
Bixel says, “Often times, we will copy a menu from the Academy Awards if we are producing an awards show.” Continuing in the thematic F&B vein, she mentions that when taking groups to the Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon Presidential Libraries, the DMC frequently replicates famous White House menus used during those eras.
Arthur sometimes extends themed F&B to breakout sessions, as she did to complement a baseball theme with the incorporation of peanuts in the shell, popcorn and a variety of other ballpark snacks into food breaks.
Pushing the envelope in the F&B arena, Marsh describes “the craziest thing” her DMC has incorporated into a theme via F&B. “During a conference themed Limitless!, we had a Fear Factor food station designed to push attendees out of their comfort zone and try out-of-the-norm foods, such as frog legs, Rocky Mountain oysters and chocolate-covered insect desserts.”
Creative director Regina Key with Destination Concepts inc., San Diego, believes F&B is a great way to tie into a theme — from the use of suspended buffets for a Balance event to styling a meal’s entrée to resemble a work of art for an Art of Partnership theme. Recently asked to introduce augmented reality into a financial client’s Farm-to-Fork theme, Key shares her DMC’s solution: “To combine those two very different elements, DCi suggested the creation of a QR code at each interactive food station that guests could scan to both download the recipe and learn where the food was sourced.”
Like F&B, some clients pursue a different twist on a destination, says Key, citing her experience with a financial client planning a California program in Orange County but seeking a departure from the beach. The directive was to showcase the area’s agriculture, so DCi took attendees to a local farm for cooking classes, incorporated citrus trees into the gala’s tablescapes (a creative challenge as they were out of season) and gave gifts of local gourmet food items.
With respect to the destination, Safford says, “Your destination shouldn’t limit you but guide you as to what themes would excite guests. You want guests to experience your home and what you see and love about your city.” She illustrates with an example of a Lone Star state event for a client who didn’t want a western theme. Instead, Ultimate Ventures devised an Oktoberfest theme, incorporating longhorns and local beers.
The theme can no longer be one dimensional and used only in print and the general marketing of the conference, explains Marsh. “It needs to be seen, felt, heard and truly embraced in all facets of the meeting — from the traditional marketing elements to the overall agenda, branding, speaker topics, ancillary special events, takeaways and more.” With that said, she notes there is a fine line between precise execution and going overboard. Her advice: “Don’t cross it.”
“Overall, themes are integrating more experiential elements,” says Arthur of today’s world of themes. “Themes are focusing more on what’s currently happening in the world. Themes also focus more on innovation and what the company’s members can accomplish together. And, as of late, themes have highlighted the importance of diversity.”
Of trends, Key expects meeting themes to continue to appeal to a larger scope of demographics, saying, “Today’s workforce is multi-generational, so a key component of a successful meeting is to develop a theme that is identifiable and hits home with a range of ages.” She adds that themes have become more subtle and creative. “Long gone are the days of predictable themes, such as ‘Ride the Wave of Success’ for a meeting on the coast. Custom is the new standard, and a key way to appeal to savvy attendees is to craft a theme to appear as if it was created for them.”
Hutchison’s bottom line: “Think of your theme as something different; think of it as an atmosphere. What do you want or need guests to feel? Thinking of an atmosphere, I believe, opens opportunities for a more abstract delivery vs. a very literal translation. It allows the positive takeaways to be continuously reinforced long after the meeting is over.” I&FMM