TENSE TIMES, TIGHT budgets and tough ROI demands may not be cause for applause in the event arena. But in the entertainment sector, many professionals see the current state of affairs as an opportunity for creative solutions. Increasingly, event entertainment providers and producers are turning to custom shows, interactive programs and scaled-down celebrity performances to meet clients' needs.
Asked what acts are selling well in today's corporate entertainment market, industry veteran Michael Boltzman doesn't mince words. “Budgets have been cut back,” says the director of business development for St. Louis-based Clear Channel Entertainment Special Events, which offers national entertainment buying and production services. “What's hot right now are things that are affordable.”
But affordable doesn't need to mean anonymous, Boltzman insists. Well-known stand-up comedians, for instance, are ideal for budget-strapped clients seeking a national presence at their events, he says. Following a comic's routine with a local dance band provides a well-rounded evening of name recognition and good old-fashioned fun, he adds. “You're still bringing in a national act, but you're doing one or two airfares and some basic sound and lights versus a huge production with 30 airfares and a 40-by-60-foot stage.”
According to Boltzman, even famous musicians can be priced right under the proper circumstances. In particular, he points to “unplugged”-style shows — the intimate acoustic concerts made popular by MTV in the mid-'90s — as performances that balance name cachet with cash-conscious production. An un-plugged show may feature pop duo Hall and Oates, for example, “but just those two up there with guitars and a microphone,” he says. “That's a little more affordable, due to the potential high cost of production to do a full band.”
Even when corporate clients have money to spend on high-profile acts, smart entertainment selection is still critical, says Elliott Feigenbaum, director of speakers and entertainment for New York-based Jack Morton Worldwide. For Feigenbaum's firm, making the most of the client's money means matching speaker or performer to client message, as well as negotiating with entertainers to deliver more-focused entertainment.
He points to a partner and user event for software-maker JD Edwards where “the client had a lot of money to spend in terms of speakers and entertainment.” But, with the company's need to address “successes they'd had and what kind of future they would bring together,” mere glitz wouldn't work, according to Feigenbaum. Instead, he brought in veteran journalist Walter Cronkite “as a means to address a historical legacy.” Feigenbaum adds, “He had this wide-ranging view of what we had been confronted with in the past and where the future would take us.”
Jack Morton's Clare O'Boyle, who works closely with Feigenbaum to serve corporate clients, cites a recent event for a major pharmaceutical company that featured headline rocker Pat Benatar. With the company launching a new drug intended to increase white blood cell count in chemotherapy patients, Jack Morton worked with Benatar to coordinate a performance that closed with the song “Hit Me with Your Best Shot” — a nod to the drug's single-injection application. “It was a major wow — she rocked the audience,” while being able to “underscore client messaging and support their brand,” O'Boyle says.
TIME AND PLACE
Keeping in tune with event location and artists' schedules can go far in ensuring more bang for the client's entertainment bucks, according to many pros.
For Peter Berliner of San Francisco-based talent agency and production company Innovative Entertainment, there's much to be said for thinking locally while planning globally. A California-theme event in San Francisco for an international client whose group included many non-English speakers prompted Innovative to key on the state's inherent diversity. A fully interactive entertainment lineup included mariachis, Chinese dragons, doo-wop singers and weight-lifters — all representing “everything from Napa to San Diego to L.A. and San Francisco,” while enhancing theme and avoiding translation issues, Berliner says. He adds that the grouping of multiple smaller, interactive acts is part of a growing trend: “A lot of my clients are saying, ‘Bring it out into the room. Let [guests] touch it, let them feel it, let them experience it for themselves.”
When it comes to booking the best act for the price, knowing the location of a touring performer is as important as knowing the location of a client's event, says Mark Sonder of Chantilly, Va.-based Mark Sonder Productions, which regularly books such classic acts as the Drifters, Bad Company and the Byrds. With information on the event venue, “I can search a 250-mile radius in that marketplace,” Sonder explains. “If someone is working the day before or after the event, I may be able to pull them in for this private event, saving my client round-trip airfare, saving them backline because the truck is already there, and possibly saving them the cost of sound and lighting as well.”
In the area of custom entertainment, hot-ticket productions are giving made-for-event acts a boost, creators and producers report.
Jeffrey Kalpak says a 1996 Broadway stage revival of the musical “Chicago,” followed by last year's hit film, has fueled demand for his company's custom theatrical shows. “We have a lot of clients saying, ‘Give me musical numbers from the show “Chicago.” Give me that sexy, [choreographer Bob] Fosse-looking movement,’” reports the co-owner, with partner Lynnette Barkley, of New York-based Barkley Kalpak Associates, which casts working Broadway stage performers in its acts. Not only does the Roaring '20s-era musical lend itself well to an overall decor and lighting scheme, he adds, but also, “Nothing really beats that emotional kick you get from watching Broadway entertainers, especially when they're at your event.”
Sam Trego of San Diego-based Imagination Entertainment, which creates custom theatrical productions, agrees that audiences are excited to see acts that pick up on the popularity of “Chicago,” along with recent Broadway revivals of musicals “Oklahoma,” “The Music Man” and “Flower Drum Song.” Plus, Trego says, Imagination's Broadway- and cirque-style shows are a great bet for beating the high cost of celebrity entertainment. “If you can spend $10,000 to $65,000 instead of $350,000 and you have a cast of 23 people with 140 costumes, and the cast is singing and dancing and flying over your table, that's a huge perceived value.”
Barkley Kalpak Associates, 212/947-1502; Clear Channel Entertainment Special Events, 314/962-4000; Creative Artists Agency, 310/288-4545; Imagination Entertainment, 619/640-6500; Innovative Entertainment, 415/552-4276; Jack Morton Worldwide, 212/727-0400; Mark Sonder Productions, 703/968-8670
SPECIAL (EVENT) AGENT
Robert Norman of Beverly Hills, Calif.-based Creative Artists Agency tells what CAA sells and who's buying in the world of events — where, he says, headline entertainment “still creates sizzle” like nothing else can.
10 OF THE MOST-REQUESTED ACTS ON CAA'S EVENT ENTERTAINMENT ROSTER
Earth, Wind and Fire
Hall and Oates
CAA'S LEADING EVENT-CLIENT CATEGORIES:
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