Traditional awards banquets and galas held within the financial and insurance arena often tend to be boring, repetitive experiences for attendees and awardees alike. We often equate them to a high school graduation where the names of the winners are read, and then the winner is paraded in front of their peers to receive their diploma. In many instances, attendees only pay attention when their name or the names of their friends is read, and then everyone goes back to socializing and drinking the table wine. In most cases, the awards banquet comes across as a “stuffy possession of names” as opposed to a celebration of the company’s top performers. So how are financial and insurance planners modifying today’s award galas and entertainment?
According to Karen Alfonso, CMP, director of conference planning at The Hartford Financial Services Group in Hartford, Connecticut, the main objective of an awards gala is to reward and recognize someone for a job well done. However, the objective always is to do so in a powerful and personal way.
“The key is to create an emotional, memorable connection between the company presenting the award and the person receiving it.”
— Karen Alfonso
“Find out interesting, meaningful facts about the award-winner(s) and weave the details into the award presentation,” Alfonso says.
She sees the trends of enhanced emphasis not only on cost-savings but also event value. If it’s not going to provide a lasting, memorable experience, refrain from doing it.
“Are there different interests of people attending that you are trying to meet?” Alfonso says. “We find that whether or not attendees are seasoned award-winners or first-time winners, everyone likes to feel appreciated and recognized. No matter what the budget, the key is to create an emotional, memorable connection between the company presenting the award and the person(s) receiving it. We also find this to be an effective way to inspire others to achieve and exceed their goals.”
Internally, the Hartford Financial Service Group is placing less of an emphasis on expensive décor. Rather, Alfonso and her team seek creative and cost-effective ways to create a “wow experience.” For example, they produced an opening video to capture the “year in review” with a focus on their accomplishments and created a paparazzi experience as everyone arrived.
Reduced entertainment budgets also are driving enhanced creativity at awards galas. We are helping to create a much more personalized experience with meaningful small touches and by remaining very detail orientated,” Alfonso says. “Based on the chosen theme, find creative ways to name your assigned dinner tables instead of simply numbering them. Reputable dance bands, photo booths (with props), and unique dessert/candy stations with portable containers are also very popular.”
And instead of simply talking about what the award recipient did to achieve the recognition, The Hartford likes to showcase a short video of the person in the field or in their work environment describing the scenario.
“We find it to be a much more effective and intuitive way to ‘tell the story’ and to keep the interest of the audience,” Alfonso says. “Another technique is to personalize the walk-up/sit-down music to the award-winner depending upon where they are from or the interests they hold. Also, with our enhanced technological capabilities, if award-winners are remote, we like to have them participate by live video stream.”
Hillary Smith, CMP, CSEP, partner at Koncept Events in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, says the entertainment component for financial and insurance galas is becoming more and more important because our attention spans in life are changing — we are over-stimulated at all times, and our expectations have risen.
“Our ideas of what entertainment is has changed with the Internet, on-demand TV and shows as well as what restaurants and clubs are doing to separate themselves from their competition,” Smith says. “Especially as this millennial generation moves into the financial world, we need to appeal to them by offering them an experience that they want to share on social media or talk about the next morning at breakfast.”
Indeed, Shelly Archer, partner at 360 Destination Group with offices in California, Florida and Chicago, says quality entertainment with captivating talent is important to their financial industry clients.
“There is a real desire for entertainment that engages the group and enhances the evening on a level that is far beyond background music,” Archer says. “Personal touches are very important and is something 360 DG is always providing to our financial and insurance clients. Past award-winners are either present on stage or present the award to the new winner. Also, special décor for the tables of the award-winners has been popular, too.”
During one of 360 Destination Group’s more innovative evenings, a larger-than-life ice sculpture was the centerpiece of the stage. This ice sculpture was beautifully displayed, lit to perfection and was the exact replica of the smaller glass award the recipients received once they came up on stage.
“Attendees of our financial industry programs are a sophisticated group,” Archer says. “They are well traveled and therefore their taste and expectations in music and entertainment are higher.”
David Ahearn, co-founder of Four Day Weekend Inc., based in Fort Worth, Texas, takes a different approach to orchestrating awards banquets for his financial and insurance clients. “We believe the awards banquet should be a celebration of the company’s greatest asset — their people,” Ahearn says. “Our strategy is called the ‘Four Day Weekend,’ which creates an Oscar-style approach to the awards banquet where we integrate the entertainment into the awards night, and we take the company’s top talent and make them the stars of the night. We always like to say we ‘have fun with’ the people and not ‘make fun of.’ Our job is to make the top performers shine as we celebrate their accomplishments.”
Ahearn created such an event with their client MetLife — incorporating live, improvised songs about the winners, using funny introductions to spice up the procession of winners and interviewing winners to add levity to the night.
“Our goal is to keep the night moving in a fun and innovative way so that by the end, people are longing for more as opposed to looking at their watches hoping for the night to end,” Ahearn says.
“We create a night that everyone will talk about for months or even years after the night has passed,” Ahearn says. “We encourage companies not to make the awards night an afterthought. Instead, make it one of the best moments of your conference.”
Mark Steiner, CEO of GigSalad, notes a trend that one must continually surpass past events. However, bigger and splashier is not always better.
“Sometimes the subtlety of a performance in entertainment is missed,” Steiner says. “You don’t have to go bigger; choose quality talent for a couple of hours instead of long hours of mediocrity. Break out of the box and be diverse in your choices for entertainment.”
Steiner stresses that flow and timing are essential in keeping these events engaging and entertaining. “Not losing track of audience patience and attention span is of utmost importance,” Steiner says. “Audiences today have shorter attention spans and planners must keep up by adding more exciting elements to their events. As audiences change, producers will change. As long as producers know their audience, they can adequately create an event that matters and is entertaining.”
Many financial event bookings through GigSalad currently include outside-the-box acts such as stilt-walkers, strolling magicians, contortionists and other visual entertainment. If the goal is something more traditional, GigSalad suggests that music is universal.
“Try a string quartet or acoustic band for background ambience and setting a mood, or a cover band to add energy to an event,” Steiner says. “Music can almost always be effective and is seldom out of place or inappropriate.”
And when affordable, having a celebrity present the awards is always a lot of fun.
“Some companies on a budget will use a celebrity impersonator instead, which usually goes over just as well with the crowd,” Steiner says.
Many times, as themed events are back in style, the awards follow the specific theme. For example, companies may present an Academy Award-style Oscar statue for a movie theme or have the emcee walk to the award-winner in the audience and escort him/her to the stage to accept the award.
“Again, finding creative, untraditional ways to present awards makes for a much more fun experience,” Alfonso says. “Isn’t it much more fun to have a unique award in your office that will generate conversation?”
It’s always been challenging to keep people engaged at awards programs, especially when awardees may be self-conscious and uncomfortable walking across a stage. And more often than not, the session is hosted by an executive, and unless the executive has the time to spend days preparing, like a professional host would, it’s almost impossible for him or her to keep the session on pace.
“These days attendees have access to everyone they know and all the information in the universe, right in their pockets,” says Sally Allen, executive producer at The Water Coolers, a corporate entertainment company. “Before you know it, the entire room is checking their email, and if you stand in the back of the darkened room, it looks like stars twinkling in a sky of boredom. You need the entire program to win this battle by being entertaining.”
The Water Coolers have provided gala entertainment to a wealth of financial and insurance-based clients including GenWorth Financial, Citi Financial, AFLAC, State Farm, Nationwide Insurance and Pacific Life, to name a few. They recently worked with one client in the financial services sector who hosted their sales channel for an awards evening at The AT&T Stadium, formerly known as the Cowboys Stadium.
“The event planner is a top-notch pro,” Allen says. “She had us create mini-songs about the key winners, who we brought up on stage, and while they were crossing on to the stage, the winners’ names and photos were running through the billboards and in the Jumbotron. That was pretty spectacular. The audience was completely engaged, and the winners felt like they were complete rock stars.”
Smith notes many financial or insurance awards galas often have the same flow — cocktail, dinner, awards, after-party.
“There is also a sense of conservatism to them,” Smith says. “Sometimes it’s tough to get them to shake things up by getting experiential with the menu or the entertainment, but we are pushing for it. Moving in a good direction though, more and more often, quality video production is being incorporated, whether about the winners or the organization.”
In fact, as technology continues to advance, Alfonso feels that it will play a much bigger role in award galas and include features such as live streaming for offsite recipients so that no one is excluded despite their physical location that evening.
Consider incorporating mini-screens or iPads into the centerpieces and let it rotate around the table depicting your company’s branding or show a live feed of the stage through the night. When a winner’s name is announced, show photos and share information about the individual. The night is about them, so let them be the star, suggests Alfonso.
Smith would like to see the financial industry start to mimic more of what happens on awards shows, such as infusing comedy or personal notes about the winners into their overall evening to keep the audience entertained.
“Often, it seems like all of the fun — the music, desserts and cocktails — happen in the after-parties, but the room itself and programming could use more of those special elements,” Smith says. “We need to start to look at these events as a fun-infused tribute to the winners.”
Allen and her team also see financial and insurance-based clients get most creative when they have large numbers of awards to give so having them move across the stage one at a time would be too time consuming.
“We’ve seen people start an evening with a large group of winners on risers onstage in the darkness and then do a light cue that brings them all into light at once on a musical cue,” Allen says.
The trend is shifting to not make the awards night an afterthought. Also, as the work force becomes younger it is imperative that companies take steps to make the awards night innovative and fun.
“We live in a culture where we have all forms of entertainment at our fingertips,” Ahearn says. “Audiences have become much more savvy so it is important to treat them respectfully and give them the very best entertainment available to illustrate how valued they are to the organization. If your company is not willing to do it, there is another company out there that will, and soon top talent will find new areas to support their talent.”
A trend experts are seeing in industries across the board is full sensory experiences, and many believe that eventually we’ll see that crossover into the financial world, too.
“There will be more emphasis on engaging all of the senses,” Smith says. “To do that, we’ll see the galas become more interactive and showcase more special moments and elements that the audience will remember and want to share with their friends.”
Says Alfonso, “The basic concept of rewarding people for exceptional service will never go out of style. The way in which the award will be presented or the technology used to enhance the experience will continue to evolve, but the basic objective will remain the core of the award experience.”
Any company or industry has to be willing to evolve their programming to appeal to their audience.
“Let’s be honest, awards ceremonies with a sit-down dinner and deejay have been done and done,” Smith says. “If financial and insurance companies want their people to want to attend these events — and they should because it’s a fantastic opportunity for brand connection — they have to look at new ways to engage their attendees and honorees. With everything we are exposed to these days, capturing and holding people’s attention will become more and more challenging, and more and more vital. Companies have to be willing to step outside the so-called comfort zone to create truly memorable events, not just another awards night.” I&FMM