Budgets have stabilized, but events and entertainment at insurance and financial meetings have changed forever. For the first time since the crash and the resulting cuts and spending restrictions, 2013 has given meeting planners a glimpse of the new status quo. Luxury is back, but with a different look: refined rather than extravagant, emphasizing local over imported, and firmly focused on individual engagement, due to a need to prove ROI at every turn.
The crisis brought stark changes to the types of destinations planners chose. International bookings fell, destinations were selected more with price tag in mind than possibilities, and past destinations were reused in new ways. Doing more with less was not just about budget, but also about a destination’s entertainment options.
“Meetings and events in the finance and insurance sector are back to pre-recession levels but are impacted by the ‘new normal,’ ” says Padraic Gilligan, vice president of industry relations at MCI and vice president of MCI’s destination services division, Ovation Global DMC. “They’re quieter, more modest affairs anxious not to draw any attention to themselves. Company logos are often replaced by the name of the program or event and parties are muted with generic or folkloristic entertainment.”
While the shift in musical acts is in part a financial issue, Gilligan says it highlights a larger shift toward highlighting local culture. “It’s rare now to have big name acts or at least to have folks talk about it. Companies are now less likely to hire name brand entertainment — like Aerosmith — but to concentrate on the cultural aspects of entertainment. This isn’t necessarily because they’ve suddenly become culture-focused; it’s merely the fact that perception increasingly plays a central role in what is included in a program. So name brand entertainers are out, golf is out, spa treatments are out, and culture is in.”
In the post-recession environment, planners’ experience digging deep and finding the unusual, exciting and, most important, budget-friendly options in a given location has had an unexpected side effect. Planners continue to substitute local entertainment options for the headliners of the past — often to rave responses from attendees.
Katie Wiesner, global meeting services program manager at Caledonia, WI-based M&I, says, “I have groups that will fly-in the same bands everywhere we go, which can be very expensive. This past year I was able to talk the client out of it and found that YouTube is a great way to introduce local bands to my clients and allow them to view the bands’ performances before hiring them. Just this past March we used some local bands in Mexico and they did an outstanding job at understanding their crowd and putting on a great show. After the event, my client admitted that, ‘As much as I love the band we typically bring with us, I don’t think I’ll do that anymore. This was a huge success and a great cost savings.’ We’ve also hired famous musicians that cost $1K for smaller groups of only 80 people, but for the amount of money you spend on an entertainer like that, you’re still better off hiring local bands.”
For planners, highlighting what is available locally can uncover activities that come pre-packaged with an event location at no extra cost. Daniele Menache, managing director and global head of marketing events at AllianceBernstein LP, has found that incorporating the unique aspects of a destination is both “a good way to stay within these locales and save money. In August I’m going to L.A., and I’m going to do a Dodgers game for one of the nights and go to the Grammy museum. I’ll use the entertainment that’s already there; they have a lot of interactive exhibits. I’m trying to save money, but also highlight what they have. There’s a booth where you can sing a song or play drums with Whitney Houston.”
Nowhere is local integration more evident than in menu choices. For Menache’s Los Angeles event, she did a night of Mexican food and a Little Korea night, because, as she says, “I think people want that, they don’t want to go to L.A. and not have Mexican food.”
While serving the special dish of the location you’re in — lobster rolls in Maine, anyone? — is not new, planners are turning more and more toward FLOSS (fresh, local, organic, seasonal and sustainable) when considering menus.
Kelly Parisi, solutions development manager at Irving, TX-based Spear One, insists that you have to “get food that is locally sourced or organic and make sure attendees are aware of it. You can display cards on dining and buffet tables with interesting tidbits about menu items or, even better, have the chef or farmer come to tell attendees more about the food they are eating. You don’t have to be a part of the ‘green’ revolution to appreciate fresh, local produce.” The influence of local food in today’s menus betrays another key trend: nature is in.
As Gilligan observes, “CSR and sustainability are becoming more and more mainstream with companies anxious to be seen to give back.” While the discourse in recent years has centered on keeping sustainability in mind early in the planning process, the recent trend in greening events is much more visual and literal.
“If it’s green, it’s good,” Menache says. “I went to something that was like a kale event — kale lettuce as the decoration centerpieces surrounded by kale chips and kale with lemons. It was both part of the decoration and part of the food that you are eating. Today, you don’t just have a salad, you have five lettuces that are put into five different containers as a decorative and edible element.”
Parisi says it’s time to “bring the outside in and the inside out, such as using elements of nature to decorate a table or using traditionally inside furniture for an outdoor event or lamps for lighting outside.” Both for budget and effect, it’s even better to keep it simple. “The environment or surroundings are the impact — the décor is just there to enhance,” Parisi continues. “Sometimes it is better to pay a little more for a unique location outside the ballroom,” such as a rooftop bar, sporting arena, barn or flower shop.
“I think ballrooms are out and using outdoor spaces is definitely in,” agrees Menache. “There are so many places where you can use the space in a different way than it is supposed to be used. A barn is a space where you can do an event or even a meeting; you can sit on haystacks. A flower shop can turn into a meeting space. The flower shop is definitely something I’ve seen more than once, and it allows you to use flower arranging as both a favor and a group activity. You have all these different flowers in buckets and you tell the people to take some flowers as their arrangement for their room, and that’s their welcome gift,” Menache says.
If you’re using a ballroom, showing attendees exactly how their food arrives on their plate is one of the easiest ways to bring nature in. “Interactive experiences like dine-arounds, cooking classes, mixology sessions and progressive dinners are great ways to spice up a dinner event in a hotel ballroom,” Parisi shares.
At a meeting in Florida, Menache says “the chef brought in big snapper and grouper from the water outside, took the fish and showed people how to clean it and cut it, and prepared it right there. We had the fish that we just saw, and they had a fabulous area where they cooked so you could watch.”
But one of the most inventive approaches to uniting attendees with the people who make their food that Menache has experienced was a high science take on the juice bar. “They had people in charge of juice who ask you how you are feeling this morning and if anything is bothering you. The other day I smoked a cigar for the first time in my life, so I said to the woman, I have a cigar headache, and she prepared something with acai and certain berries, vitamins, herbs and juices that were perfect for that particular ailment. Someone else came in and said they were feeling a little weak in their muscles because they had just worked out, so she gave them a protein drink with components like spinach, cucumber, and honeydew. She’s a specialist who creates a health and wellness component for the meeting.”
All of these novel ways to play with your food are versions of the latest trend in event entertainment: participant-focused entertainment.
On the surface, the new trend of participants as protagonists and interactive rather than passive entertainment looks like a reactionary move to event budget cuts or negative perception issues of high-end entertainment options. But it runs much deeper. An important side of the “new normal” is a firm focus on ROI. Activities and entertainment that draw participants in, bonding them in ways a cocktail hour or networking game never could, are a high-value addition to any program.
Some of these activities give participants something to physically bring (or ship) home with them, so the meeting and any important bonds and lessons stay front of mind.
For events in Napa Valley, Menache likes to have participants make their own wine. “They blend it how you want, bottle it and ship it to you. It’s usually one bottle or two. The bottle has your name, and you name the wine what you want, and they give you crayons, watercolors and pastels to make your own wine label. Now I have my own wine in my apartment.”
Others still create an intimate, once-in-a-lifetime performance — even without a big headliner. Shapeology, which is produced by Doreen Collin’s Event Show Productions based in Tampa, FL, performed at the MPI 2011 General Session and on TV shows “America Got Talent” and “The Rachel Ray Show.” Shapeology creates custom performances based on the objectives and content of each event using digital projections and silhouetted performers to tell a company’s story, such as a performance visually creating a history of events that have transformed the world, culminating in the client’s product.
While the shapeologists can perform on their own, with their custom approach, they specialize in integrating both unsuspecting audience members, award winners and company VIPs into their show.
Some participatory events have the potential to create a deep and lasting impression on participants. “In Mexico this March, we did a teambuilding activity building bikes for a local shelter that brought tears to everyone’s eyes,” said Wiesner. “The attendees had no idea what the activity was. They were just told to wear casual clothes. The company that I worked with put the bike parts on banquet tables lined up around the room, and we assigned groups of four to each table and asked them to begin putting together the parts. It was a race, and they knew there was a prize at the end, but had no idea they would be putting the bikes in the hands of precious children that reside in the local shelter. The connection the attendees made with the children was breathtaking and a tearjerker for everyone.”
When participants are involved in the event entertainment, and especially when they derive some tangible benefit in terms of skill development, networking or teambuilding, it’s a huge change in the take-away value of entertainment. Next to teambuilding events, one of the best ways to draw participants into your events is through integrated technology.
“It’s the way of the future. Technology to me is the biggest improvement in the meetings area,” confesses Menache. “I use and rent iPads for a lot of my meetings now. You don’t need as many screens.”
iPads are “a great platform for meeting clients where they want to be met,” Menache continues. She has found that technology doesn’t just connect participants during the content portion of meetings and events. “I love using the iPads to put in a lot of information about not just the content, the agenda and the bios, but also things like, if you enjoyed the recipe at the function, the chef puts the recipes online.”
“Mobile apps are almost a must for a large enough event or conference. Mobile apps are especially useful when the right features are included based on the audience demographic,” Parisi agrees. She uses “QR code scavenger hunts that utilize QR codes in a gamified way to create a scavenger hunt at events like trade shows that gets attendees to collect all the necessary information.”
Menache also has used tablets to revolutionize her scavenger hunts, both for participants and planners. “The cool way to do a scavenger hunt is to use iPads and have those photos go directly to a shared server. You create a program that takes all the pictures from the scavenger hunt and creates a montage that plays as participants come back. Someone at home base sifts through and decides what to put in the montage.”
According to Wiesner, “Live touch screens are something that is really picking up as integrated decoration and a great networking tool. You can line up the bars and tables so it almost creates a type of infinity bar. During a cocktail reception they’ve used baby photos of the attendees and the attendees had a blast guessing.”
Technological integration even allows you to connect meeting participants in ways that seemed impossible before. Menache uses tablets to submit questions during panels for her clients, because “some clients don’t want to ask questions live. We have an Asian client we tried this with, and we have never had more questions. It’s fantastic when you have different languages, and you can have people ask and answer questions in different languages,” she says.
The extra bonus of app and Web-based activities? Participation, completion and team interaction are easily measured and turned into reports to demonstrate event ROI. Because while planners have and will keep creating inventive, eye-opening, enjoyable insurance and financial events in any circumstances, the new status quo demands that companies can easily see and digest the benefits of their events. I&FMM