Ask event planners what is hot in event entertainment and they will say it's much more than guests sitting back watching a show on stage. Instead, guests are getting involved in the entertainment, and the entertainment is getting involved with them.
BEYOND CENTER STAGE "We put performance up close and personal so that shows don't happen only on the stage, they also happen in the audience," says Andrea Michaels, president of Sherman Oaks, Calif.-based Extraordinary Events. "Dorothy, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion and the Scarecrow are much more effective dancing down the yellow brick road that traverses the room rather than merely performing on stage."
Similarly, Martin van Keken, president of M. Van Keken & Associates, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, says his company has been placing many satellite stages throughout the venue, rather than just one big stage. These smaller stages feature satin or chiffon curtains; often, the company projects gobos or computer-generated images onto them. "Then we'll do a Kabuki drop, where the whole curtain drops to the floor," van Keken notes. Lighting changes and sound effects or lasers and pyro often accompany the curtains' fall. "We might drop all the curtains at the same time, or have them drop in sequence," he says. The falling fabrics reveal performers such as unicyclists and stilt walkers. "What seemed to be part of the decor a moment ago transforms into entertainment," he says. "And because the effect is multi-directional, the whole audience has this experience."
Bedford, England-based The Full Effect also uses alternative stage locations to bring guests closer to the entertainment. To ensure that all 1,200 guests could see the entertainment from their seats for a recent event in London, the company set up a stage that wove through the tables. "No table was more than three tables away from the stage," says Mark Harrison, managing director. The final entertainment sequence featured roller skaters. At the end of their act, they skated into the audience and encouraged guests to hit the stage, which now served as the dance floor. "This was an ideal way to ensure the atmosphere continued."
THE IN CROWD The old song and dance routine is over, says Michaels. Instead, "making performance pertinent is what works. Demonstrating 'in' jokes and information with original songs or through an improv group, such as Second City, lends customization. The more inside information, the more it means to the audience."
Van Keken agrees, adding that audience participation is an effective way to get guests involved. "Guests want to see their own people on the stage interacting with entertainers."
Patti Coons, CSEP, head of Orlando, Fla.-based Patti Coons & Associates, stresses the importance of entertainment to emphasize a corporate message. She cites a recent survey that revealed "what people remember most is what was in the event, not in the meeting. People learn by playing."
A case in point is a recent event Coons produced for a pharmaceutical company merger. "The name of the meeting was 'Taking Charge of Change,'" she says. "The 1,000 attendees all had to work together and deal with many changes, so we themed the party around enjoying change." To playfully incorporate the idea of sudden change, Coons and her team created a casino with games that would abruptly change rules. "The whistle blew and suddenly, instead of 21, guests now had to play 31."
To make light of the topsy-turvy conditions a merger can bring, the team painted the dance floor as a sky and surrounded it with upside-down park benches hovering above. "The idea was that guests were dancing on the sky; their world was turned upside-down," Coons says.
Meals were served out of order, and "we even played music backward, and guests had to guess what it was. 'Change' became a fun challenge."
Entertainment doesn't need to be restricted just to evening events, says Steve Kemble, owner/founder of Dallas-based Steve Kemble Event Design. "Using entertainment as part of a meeting is a hot trend."
He cites the opening general session of the recent MPI Professional Edu-cation Conference in Nashville, Tenn., as an example. "The conference was titled 'A Matter of Balance.' To start the general session, the Cirque du Soleil acrobats performed, demonstrating balance. To close the session, country singer Martina McBride performed. Not only was this a tie-in to the fact that we were in Nashville, she also spoke about how she balances her life on the road as a country star with her family life."
HOT HEADLINERS What are the hot names clients are asking for?
Kemble receives many requests for '70s acts, such as The Commodores, KC & the Sunshine Band, Kool & the Gang, and especially Donna Summer. "I think she is one of the hottest corporate acts in the country now," he says. "Crowds love her."
For more serious entertainment, "Keynote speakers are still effective in bringing over a corporate message," says van Keken. He enlists famous military leaders such as Gens. Colin Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf to speak at events for newly formed e-commerce companies. "They pepper their speeches with such metaphors as 'It's a corporate war, and to stay ahead you have to train people to combat the competition,'" he says.
Name act dance shows continue to be popular, says Michaels, especially for multinational events. "Stomp, Lord of the Dance, Riverdance, Tango Argentina, Blue Man Group and the Cirque shows are all big for international audiences because they don't need language."
Although name acts may add a big wow factor, Michaels cautions against assuming that any hot new talent will translate into great entertainment. "The most popular acts and the best ones for corporate events are often not the latest and greatest. Just being a hit record artist doesn't ensure knowing how to personalize and customize a show, involve the audience and pose for a zillion meet-and-greet photos."
Resources: Extraordinary Events, 818/783-6112; M. Van Keken & Associates, 604/708-0085; Patti Coons & Associates, 407/290-9499; Steve Kemble Event Design, 214/943-5949; The Full Effect, +44 1234 269 099