FORGET THE AFTER-dinner speaker and the three-piece, standards-only band. For special events to be something special, the entertainment now much offer some more.
MUSIC, MUSIC, MUSIC Live music still sets the pace at special events, both social and corporate. But the best bands are the really big bands. Bands today "have to have more performers, so they can perform all styles of music well-everything from Sinatra to Sting," explains Paul Creighton, who serves as senior executive vice president for Orlando, Fla.-based T. Skorman Productions.
He books plenty of business for Dance Express, a 17-piece group featuring four front singers, four dancers, eight musicians and a stiltwalker. The group's repertoire runs the gamut from Motown to funk to country to disco. "Sixties music used to do it for everybody," Creighton says. "But today's audiences grew up on music from the late '70s to early '80s."
A buzzword for successful entertainment today is "interactivity," and for bands, this means pulling the audience into the act. "Dance Express brings people from the audience on stage a half-dozen times" during its three-hour show, Creighton notes.
Bands that are no longer at the top of the charts still hold great appeal."It's the prestige factor," he explains. "Guests can say, 'Last night, I saw Hall and Oates at an event for only 200 people, and I was this close to them.'"
What may be surprising is that some of today's top performers are fixtures on the special event circuit. Special events "used to get the tried-and-true groups, people past their prime," says Craig Leitner, vice president and creative director with St. Louis-based event producer Contemporary Group. "Current stars used to turn their nose up at the idea." But now, he says, top acts know "the reality is [that] there's a lot of work out there."
"We serve many clients in the Silicon Valley," explains Richard Garwacki, vice president of Bill Graham Special Events, based in San Francisco. Their high-tech work force is "a younger demographic. We get requests for Beck, Blues Traveler, Hootie and the Blowfish, and Jewel-and yes, we can get them. The world of special events reaps benefits for artists across the board." The lure of presenting current name acts is potent-the corporate sponsor is giving guests "the real thing," Garwacki says.
Partnering with the arm of his company that promotes public concerts, Garwacki's firm will try to piggyback on the public concert dates. "If we know an act is being routed through a certain part of the country, we'll let our clients know," he explains. "It all depends on an artist's availability." Having the act play both public and private engagements "is less costly to the client. By the same token, if we have an artist set up for a corporate date, we might build a public appearance in with it."
For the 30th anniversary celebration for a major supplier of semiconductor materials, Garwacki's firm staged a concert for 12,000 guests featuring music legend Bob Dylan and the Wallflowers, a group fronted by Dylan's son Jakob. "They had never performed together in public before," Garwacki says.
The special event concerts run the full hour to 90 minutes that a public date does and include the same special effects "eye candy," he says. "In today's world, music is so important to our culture, and the marriage of music, entertainment and technology continues to grow. It's great to offer in a social setting or a corporate event, such as a new product launch."
GOING TO EXTREMES Along with popular music, special event audiences like acts from popular shows, especially what Creighton calls "rhythmic dancing." Like cover bands, there are groups that perform in the stirring percussive style of the River-dance and Stomp dance troupes-"if you can't afford the $100,000 to get Stomp," Creighton says. "It's very hip."
The impact of big groups making a big noise illustrates another trend in special event entertainment: going to extremes. "We're dealing with an audience raised on MTV," he says. "They're used to three-second cuts. They want things to be very visual, very in your face." Creighton books young skateboarders performing dramatic stunts-the "extreme sports" style-to energize corporate general sessions.
The Passing Zone-a pair of "extreme" jugglers who toss such edgy items as chain saws-offers customized corporate entertainment. "We can emphasize messages such as teamwork or learning from mistakes, or the introduction of a new product," says Passing Zone partner Jon Wee.
At a recent social event, the host went to the extreme of recreating more than a dozen scenes from the 1997 spy-spoof movie Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery in a private home for his wife's birthday. David Stephens, president of Los Angeles-based California Celebrations, watched the video "over and over" before creating swinging '60s decor and hiring performers.
Each room offered different music, including the "psychedelic" lounge complete with 10-piece band and two go-go girls. Performers dressed as "Dr. Evil," the "Fem Bots" and other campy characters from the movie hammed it up with guests. They could also have their photos taken with a leering "Austin Powers" lolling on a revolving bed. Others had their palms and tarot cards read by fortune-tellers. In one room, "Andy Warhol" body-painted all comers. The movie itself screened in two rooms. The 350 guests were supposed to leave by 12:30 p.m.-"but stayed until 2 a.m.," Stephens says.
Not all performers have to appear in such elaborate settings to be entertaining. Karla Ross Productions of Santa Monica, Calif., relies on a little interactivity and a lot of whimsy.
For a major software vendor's event, company founder Ross dressed a woman in a showy costume, then sent her wandering through the crowd painting guests' fingernails-both women and men. For a jungle themed event, her performers will show up in loincloths. One character is a "strolling tattoo parlor"-a performer who slaps decal "tattoos" on guests. "We're hired to come up with cool ideas," Ross says.
Ken Jury, executive producer with Amber Entertainment of San Antonio, calls these unscripted performers "street-mosphere"-"and we sell a lot of that," he says. "We hire comedic actors and work with them to create a character and a costume to reflect that character. Then we might sit the character at the same table with the company's CEO and let the character create a ruckus. The outcome all depends on the actors.
"That one-on-one interaction is so important," Jury says. "Clients are willing to spend more money to get something special. It sets them apart."
Although the performers often come up with their own material, Jury also creates scripted presentations to carry a corporate message. "For one event, we had the performers divide the group up and stage a limbo contest," he says. "This taught teamwork, but in a party atmosphere."
IT'S ALL IN THE GAMES The ultimate in interactive entertainment is game-playing. And games today prove that as little kids become big kids, their games get bigger, too.
It used to be that "inflatables were a party on their own," notes Dave Peters, president of Orlando-based Absolute Amusements Rental Co. "Now, you have to put it all together in one room-the sports bar with the arcade games with the inflatables with the virtual reality games."
Skip Smith, president of games supplier Plan-It Interactive of Concord, Calif., agrees. "You haveto provide something for everyone today," he says. Some guests enjoy the physical rough and tumble of an inflatable mock boxing ring, "but that's not true for everyone," he cautions. In any case, those games had better not look as though they were ordered straight out of a catalog: "We're spending a lot more time creating custom applications to go with our clients' themed events," he says.
The interactive video arcade games so beloved by teens translate well to grown-up special events, notes Curt Lindbert, games manager for Namco. The Bensenville, Ill.-based company manufactures games and operates arcade centers nationwide. Popular games include units that simulate downhill skiing and snowboarding. Players watch a video while standing on special platforms; their body movements affect their course. "We recently offered these games at a big celebrity black-tie fund-raiser," Lindbert notes. "Finally the organizers had to ask us to turn the games off, because the prospective donors were so busy playing that they were missing the silent auction."
But games can mean more than fun and games. For corporations, "they help build teams," notes Linda Whitlock, executive vice president of Chicago-based Corporate Event Enter-prises, which stages special events. In the Racer's Edge game, teams of eight strategize how to build a soapbox derby "car" in 45 minutes. Whitlock says: "Salespeople are so motivated by individual goals, they need to have team-building."
Staging games on a grand scale is the business of Total Rebound, based in Benecia, Calif. The Incident on the High Seas game involves teams scurrying around a decommissioned aircraft carrier on San Francisco Bay. Using global positioning satellite tools, the teams go through an elaborate scavenger hunt on the ship. The game ends with the teams shooting the 6-foot rockets they have built off the stern. "Our take is to make things a little more high-tech, a little more equipment-intensive," says company founder John Wilkinson. "People are wowed by that."
New technology is making games ever more sophisticated. Los Angeles-based Sega GameWorks has created a high-end event facility offering state-of-the-art games along with a full bar and restaurant. Eight GameWorks facilities, ranging in size from 20,000 to 35,000 square feet, are now open in the United States.
GameWorks is soliciting corporate special event business with cutting-edge games such as Vertical Reality. Here, eight to 12 players are strapped into seats that rise up to 24 feet as the participants race the clock to rid a video skyscraper of criminals. A player's success in killing off the villains determines whether he keeps ascending or plummets. In the Virtual Arena, guests kickbox against a video opponent, who reacts to the player's punches. The game's motion-recognition technology eliminates the need for joysticks or attachments, the company says.
THE JOY OF LEARNING In sharp contrast to high-tech play, other special event sponsors are turning to educational, enriching experiences as entertainment.
Jeanne Berg, principal with event producer Real Time Productions in Seattle, recently took a group of 400 to Alaska, where she staged appearances by local artisans. "We had dancers, totem pole artisans and Chilkat blanket-weavers-there are only about 15 of these artists left," she notes.
Jim Skiba, president of San Francisco-based Incentives to Intrigue, takes corporate groups to ranches in Costa Rica and to ruins in Mexico to learn more about native plants, food and customs. "People want education, adventure and culture," he says.
Adding an education component to entertainment is the new frontier, Peters says. "We could take team-building to the next level. We could set specific goals and measure the results," he says, "and give participants new information they could use later." Besides, he notes, "by developing 'edutainment,' there would be a huge change in the taxation situation of an event."
'60s psychedelic music and decor
A cappella singing groups
Star Wars-style intergalactic game bars
The evening of "white wine, canapes and talking heads"
Measuring ROI of team-building entertainment
Bigger, better virtual reality effects
"Immersive-based" motion technology
Teams building networked computers