Many are the strategic elements to meeting planning, from site selection to budgeting to negotiation to marketing. But sourcing entertainment isn’t typically thought of as among those elements: Book a generally appealing musical act to complement your reception or closing night, no strategic thinking required. However, if a planner wants every facet of the program to be engaging and achieve the highest possible overall ROI, “entertainment should not be an afterthought,” as Jen Chauvin, CMP, puts it. “The success of entertainment has to come from a design perspective.”
“We’re always looking for the big-ticket items, someone who can possibly make a difference in our attendance.”
— Brad Bronenkamp
Chauvin, senior director, marketing strategy and event management with Interstate Hotels & Resorts, plans conferences for the company’s hotel leaders that feature experiential atmospheres showcasing the latest trends in the meetings market. Entertainment acts are carefully selected to complement differently themed settings within the conference venue. “Even for something as simple as a reception, we’re always going to have some kind of atmospheric element, so it may be a small-stage piece of entertainment, and there are some events that have a networking or coffee hour afterward with entertainment,” she explains. For instance, a recent conference in Orlando featured a high-tech sensory area complemented by an avant-garde pairing of a DJ and a live percussionist. Thought also goes into the pacing of the entertainment. “I work to crescendo the entertainment throughout the night,” says Chauvin. “From a multi-stimuli perspective, you’re engaging different physical senses throughout different areas of the event, so that way it’s an evolving event.”
A different kind of strategic approach expresses the local destination via the entertainment, as opposed to a theme of the meeting. That’s especially appropriate if the attendees have limited free time to explore the culture outside of the hotel walls. “I try to incorporate the culture of the destination in the entertainment,” says Miriam Davis, partner with Los Angeles, California-based EventPro Productions, a company she founded in 2000. “So if the corporate event is the South Pacific, for example, I’ll bring in a group that will sing, dance and do fire dances and get people up to do the dancing. That spans the generations; everybody likes it.”
Entertainment also should be selected with audience demographics in mind, particularly the varying musical tastes of different generations. When the event includes several entertainment components, as Chauvin’s programs do, “multiple generations can be represented in the entertainment,” she says. But when there is one main act, it can be difficult to please a multigenerational or multicultural audience. It’s often wise to select generic entertainment that will not alienate any segment. Things are different when the demographics are more homogenous: “If I have an audience that’s mostly in their 50s and 80 percent male, I’ll bring in a Foreigner, Styx, Boston or some rock band from the ‘80s, and they’re going to tear it up,” says Brad Bronenkamp, senior director of events for Dayton, Ohio-based Teradata. And while country is a hot genre today, Bronenkamp has found that with attendees over 50, “many times country is not going to resonate with them unless they grew up in the South.”
Bronenkamp has had success with acts such as Keith Urban and Imagine Dragons at Teradata’s incentive programs, and OneRepublic, The Band Perry, Dennis DeYoung (founding vocalist of Styx) and Foreigner at the annual convention. “We’re always looking for the big-ticket items, someone who can possibly make a difference in our attendance,” he explains.
But corporate audiences, especially in more recent times with the onset of the Rock and Roll Fantasy Camp, are looking for more than just a passive concertgoer’s experience. They want more interaction with the performers. A “meet and greet” before and/or after the performance is ideal, especially with big-name acts. “Some are really great about it,” says Bronenkamp. “We had Keith Urban in Paris for our incentive program this past year, and you talk about a down-to-earth, great guy. He was really interested in everybody that came in, talked to them for a few minutes about where they were from, what they liked and so on.”
The personal interaction even can happen during the performance. “At our partners conference we have sponsors for the band so they might get to do the introduction. Imagine Dragons brought many people from the audience up on stage — so you’re even worried about the weight on the stage,” Bronenkamp quips.
Of course, some corporate groups can afford to go far beyond these experiences for select attendees. Davis relates, “For one of my recent incentive clients, a star of a very large rock group met the top 10 salespeople in the group for dinner and then they flew on his private jet with another one of the band members cross country, where they did singing on the plane, etc. And then we got to the second city on the East Coast where they had a big party with the company executives, the rest of the sales teams and invited guests, and they played at the event.”
A different kind of interaction has audience members involved in the performance itself. Circus acts, jugglers and magicians often are adept at using attendee volunteers, but the practice is less common with musicians.
One example is William Close, creator of the Earth Harp, an instrument whose strings extend throughout the performance venue. Interstate Hotels & Resorts featured Close at the company’s annual awards ceremony as part of a “futuristic farm-to-table event.” The theme was the future of locally sourced food, and “in that atmosphere, I needed to complement music that was divided among our courses of meals,” Chauvin explains. “In the ballroom, our attendees actually sat among the Earth Harp. It was performed from the base of the stage, but the strings went back 300 feet across the room. Each of our attendees was a part of that physical entertainment; the room wouldn’t sound the same without each of their contributions in the vibration of that music.”
Out-of-the-box acts like Close’s Earth Harp Collective are becoming more common in the corporate market these days, with highly innovative acts such as Cirque du Soleil and the Blue Man Group leading the way. Nicole Gallub, CEO of Washington, DC-based talent booking agency Pelonkey Inc., has provided her services to Interstate in the past. She observes, “People are really going more avant-garde today; they’re not afraid to push the envelope. There are so many different types of acts out there. Whereas a human lamp (a performer functioning as a lamp) may not have gotten any work in the past, they can now have it on their resume. Performers are getting a lot more creative; they want to stand out and be different.”
Among the acts on Pelonkey’s roster are several DJs, including Gallub herself, who performs as DJ Neekola. She shares some thoughts on how to decide between a live band and a DJ: “It can be better to have that personal touch with a band playing a specific genre, such as blues, jazz or 1930s orchestra, instead of having a DJ playing that genre. Of course, nothing is more flexible than a DJ if you have a wide (audience) demographic, whereas a band has a limited amount of music they can perform. A DJ can also include video mixing with videos of the guests, corporate logo, etc. And a DJ is less expensive than a band. So depending on what the client is looking for, booking a DJ may be better than spending $5,000 or more on a band.”
A disc jockey is just one option for planners on tighter entertainment budgets. “In the corporate entertainment space there certainly are a lot of great resources,” Chauvin says. “For instance, I’ve hired talented bands that within an hour can take on two completely different looks,” thus delivering more bang for the buck. And sometimes the audience is aware it was the same group they saw and sometimes not. I’ve also worked in some markets with schools, bringing in a high school band that wants the exposure, for example. It’s an opportunity to give back to that market and also make a contribution to the school.”
For planners who need a good deal on a name act, there are several approaches to consider. One is to try to book an up-and-coming act while their price is still reasonable; a good booking agent can help to find these opportunities. Once the band hits the big time and starts winning awards, attendees will be pleased to have experienced the act when their star was still rising.
Many of Teradata’s meeting attendees had that experience with Imagine Dragons, One Republic and the Band Perry, all of whom now command much higher prices for corporate gigs, Bronenkamp notes. “Another key — and this is where your agent comes in — is if you can find a band that’s touring and is going to be in your event’s immediate vicinity. You can often get a better deal than what they usually offer because they’re there on a dark night anyway,” he explains. “When we had the Band Perry we were in Nashville, and they just happened to be home and did it for half of what they would charge anybody else.” Bronenkamp also suggests booking a band that a particular venue wants to promote “so they can do a public event one night and a private event the next, where your production costs are minimized.”
Getting value from an entertainer isn’t just about bringing the price down, of course. It’s also about ensuring, to the greatest extent possible, that the act delivers on expectations. And so it’s crucial to clarify those expectations before contracting, particularly with acts that are first timers with the group. “I give a very detailed description of my audience and what my goals for the event are,” says Chauvin. “Because of the way I complement the theme of the night with the entertainment, I work diligently to tell them about that and let them creatively play on the theme to see what ideas they have to contribute to it. Then I’m very specific from a production standpoint. We’re very locked into timing and into exactly what they’re going to look like. So I approve attire before we go on by way of pictures and playlist long before the event.”
An act that is practiced in the corporate market should ask plenty of questions, in addition to being interviewed by the planner. “Definitely we ask, what are you trying to achieve with this event? What kind of atmosphere are you looking to create?” says Gallub. “Do you just want people to dance and have fun, or interact (with the performer) as well? Questions like that help us get a better understanding of what would work well for them.”
Comedians are especially important to “prep” as their material may or may not be appropriate for the audience, and if it isn’t, the results will be unpleasant at best. “You have to know your crowd and what they’ll tolerate and what they won’t tolerate,” says Davis. “You have your ‘clean’ comedians and your off-color comedians. If I get a brand-new client that asks me to get a comedian, I’ll discuss what they like and don’t like and who they’re bringing to the event. For example, I wouldn’t have Andrew Dice Clay at a family event or a religious event, but I might at some of my ‘all boys clubs.’ ”
Bronenkamp prefers to steer clear of comedians in general. “I had a situation when I did events for Anheuser Busch where my people had to pull off stage a comedian that was too colorful,” he relates. “However, the past few years we have used what I would call a carpet MC that is also a comedian.” Such an individual is a known quantity, and certainly comedians who are a good match for a group can be found.
It also bears noting that musical acts can be off color, not just comedians. Bronenkamp had an unfortunate experience with such an act when a senior executive wanted the rock band Blink-182 for the company’s incentive program in Sydney, Australia. “We wrote in the contract a ‘PG event,’ but they used profanity and it didn’t go over well. We probably had 80 percent of the people leave right when they opened up.”
For various reasons, booking the wrong act, or one that isn’t the best fit, “happens to all of us no matter how professional we are,” Davis has found. “You learn and you deal with it when it happens, and you make it a better situation if possible.”
She relates an instructive case of an act that didn’t go over with a group due to a generational mismatch. “I had one corporate client that held an event in Las Vegas and the president said, ‘Miriam, we’re in Las Vegas, I want a Rat Pack group.’ I said, ‘I will find you the best Rat Pack imitators I can get you.’ This group was very well known, very hard to book and very expensive. The audience they were playing for were between the ages of 21 and 65. So we did the award ceremony and then we introduced the Rat Pack, beginning with Sammy Davis Jr.” Davis notes that when she overheard one of the guests commenting to another, “Who’s that?” she thought, “We’re in trouble.” Sure enough, she relates, “It did not go over well, because a lot of these young people had no idea who the performers were supposed to be.”
Davis addressed the situation by first being up front with the performers. “I feel honesty is the best policy. I said, ‘Guys, I’m sorry but half the kids here don’t know who you are,’ and they completely understood. ‘The senior executives know who you are, why don’t you go mingle with them in character?’ So they mingled and took pictures; they didn’t stay the whole time.”
She then had the DJ who was playing background music take over the entertainment, and the attendees ended up enjoying themselves. “So if you are leery of how an act will be received, have a backup in place, have a plan B,” Davis advises.
With a strategic approach to booking entertainment, a planner will seldom need to resort to a plan B. Occasionally a senior executive may call for an act that does not end up being appropriate, but apart from such scenarios, a planner can take confidence in an entertainer who has been matched to carefully considered audience demographics and event theme, and who delivers a personalized, interactive experience. The experience may well be memorable enough to market to potential attendees with photography or video. “We want to show it off and say, ‘Look what you missed,’ ” says Bronenkamp. “When they see an incentive trip where you have a Keith Urban and you’re in Paris, that’s a pretty good sell.”C&IT