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Corporate Events Are Spending Smart in Tight Times

AFTER A STEADY stream of bad news — a floundering stock market, war worries, financial scandals, the specter of SARS — it's no wonder that corporate event professionals aren't in the mood to party.

As a Special Events Magazine survey taken early last month shows, in-house corporate event pros are far more likely than the event industry as a whole to see a continued downturn in events this year. (See charts, page 34. Note: Complete survey results will be presented by Special Events Magazine publisher Lisa Perrin and editor Lisa Hurley at the ISES Conference for Professional Development, Aug. 9-12, in Minneapolis.)

But few tools communicate or motivate as effectively as special events do. So event pros are working hard to spend what budget they have effectively.


Concern about costs has stalled the practice of spending big bucks for big-name entertainment. “Rather, [corporations] are looking at up-and-coming artists, or a combination of performers that really ties into the event,” notes Guy Thibault, president of Alymer, Quebec-based Festivex. Thibault got all of the star power of the film “Moulin Rouge” without spending stellar dollars with a gala dinner in September concluding a conference for 120 Montreal-based sales reps of pharmaceutical giant Pfizer.

The goal of the event was to prevent the reps from growing complacent with their top-ranked product, Lipitor. To urge the sales team to go over the top, Thibault capitalized on the over-the-top imagery of the 2001 film.

Without splashy effects, a team comprising dancers, magicians, human statues, aerialists and a comedian kept up guest interaction, greeting guests, performing tricks, and handing top hats to men and feather boas to women, along with bubble wands and bubble bottles bearing the Pfizer logo.

The high-spirited event won high praise: Guests received an extensive questionnaire after the conference, and more than 85 percent of respondents gave the Moulin Rouge event top scores.


How to keep up the prestige of a landmark event without a budget landslide? The Events & Entertainment Department of Daytona Beach, Fla.-based International Speedway Corp. relied on the maximum impact of a minimalist look for its Grand Marshal celebration.

Some 900 guests attended the February event — the kickoff for the Daytona 500 auto race — including CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, politicians, local dignitaries and celebrities including actor John Travolta. This year's event, presented by energy powerhouse ConocoPhillips at the Adam's Mark Daytona Beach Resort, centered on a theme celebrating 100 years of racing in the Daytona Beach area.

Guests entered the cocktail area through a 24-foot “time tunnel” constructed of curved projection screens that depicted the history of stock car racing, complete with sound effects. With design input from Megavision Arts, Santa Monica, Calif., ISC kept the drama up and costs down with a sleek “Delano” lounge look; “We relied more heavily on lighting for effect,” notes Katie Busby, ISC event coordinator. After a lavish buffet (including ravioli patterned like a checkered flag), guests enjoyed a program featuring comedian Wayne Brady and pop superstar Mariah Carey.

The brand was the decor at a February event for consumer products giant Unilever, created by the North American arm of London-based Imagination Ltd.

At the closing night celebration of the Consumer Analysts Group of New York conference in Scottsdale, Ariz., suspended globes bearing the company's brand logos, along with orbs glowing in “Unilever blue,” illustrated Unilever's global reach. The 450 guests also saw the message in their menu: The eclectic mix of international dishes was created using an array of products from Unilever's Food Division brands.

According to Mark Shearon, account director of Imagination USA, New York, his company meets the challenge of getting top value for money spent by creating “multi-use events.” Such events might not only engage a client's employees, “but their customers and possibly press and future clients too — all in one area,” he says. “The events are also multi-use in the idea that they are created to stimulate all of the guests' senses — taste, touch, sight, sound and smell. With each event we produce we hope to relate to audiences, involve them, engage their emotions, motivate and inspire.”


Although the attendee list has grown by 100 each year the last few years, the budget for AFLAC's annual sales and marketing conference has remained the same. To Keep up the impact for the 1,000 attendees at the insurance company's four-day conference, Atlanta-based Aspen Productions developed two themed events in December at the Atlanta Grand Hyatt that were long on style while strict on budget.

To underscore AFLAC's strong financial performance, Aspen created a “Wall Street” theme for the opening-night sales rally, with percussive performance group Crash Boom Bang posing as hotel janitors on the “trading floor” to clean up ticker tape. The general session on Day Two revealed an “In the Zone” sports-oriented theme, which included live “play by play” commentary and video clips of famous athletes.

AFLAC continues to get the most for its money from the event; according to Aspen president Phelps Hope, AFLAC's territory directors have adopted the graphic identity of the event and many of its creative elements for their smaller regional meetings.


Aspen Productions, 770/955-6656; Festivex, 819/682-0905; Imagination USA, 212/813-6400; International Speedway Corp., 386/681-4018

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