Their budgets aren't shrinking. The corporate brass is behind them.
Even so, the professionals charged with creating corporate special events feel pressure to stage events that not only entertain, but also deliver value to their companies.
"You have a responsibility to deliver an event that is first-class," says Renee Shaw, director of corporate and special events for Crown American Realty Trust, a shopping mall management firm based in Johnstown, Pa. With glizty entertainment on television and in movies raising the bar for special events, she notes, "the pressure is on."
Brevard Fraser, CMP, meeting and event planner for the Atlanta office of accountancy firm Deloitte & Touche, oversees as many as 40 events a year. And, "whether it is retention, education or a reward, every event we do has a purpose," she says.
As Jeff Salmon, executive vice president of Los Angeles-based Dick Clark Communications, puts it, "It's never a party for a party's sake."
IN YOUR FACE
"As means of communication have improved so much even in just the past 10 years, it's much easier for companies to stay in touch without doing huge meetings," notes Kevin Molin, a partner in meeting production firm Remes Molin & Associates, Minneapolis. "So when you finally get people face to face, it has to be truly impactful."
Remes Molin delivered impact for client Aveda Corp.-a body-care product manufacturer with a strong commitment to environmental and spiritual principles-by creating a dramatic launch two years ago for new product lines based on fire, air, water, earth and infinity. Before an audience of more than 3,000, Remes Molin staged a show characterizing each element.
For the water products, models dressed in neoprene gowns moved through a rain shower on stage. Guests in the front rows felt a faint mist and caught a whiff of the line's scent as blue lights bathed the house. "We didn't say a word; people just understood what elements we were portraying," Molin says. "And the audience gave a standing ovation in the middle of the show."
Impact can be just as strong on a small scale. "For the Aveda sales meeting last fall, we had a tribal blessing from a Native American chief," Molin says. As the chief said the blessing, staffers tied handmade bracelets on each of the 750 employees present to help them remember what they had learned during the four-day meeting.
MARK THE MESSAGE
Successful corporate event planners use every element in their events to drive home corporate messages, notes Michele Wierzgac, president and CEO of Michele & Co., an event production firm based in Oak Lawn, Ill.
"A lot of the dotcom companies call for an event and say, 'Hurry up and do it,'" she says. "But it's important to think strategically. You need to make the central message prominent and use it throughout your event-not just spend money."
Event producer Extraordinary Events, based in Sherman Oaks, Calif., put the event venue to work to carry out the corporate message of an automotive manufacturer.
Extraordinary Events vice president of sales Rebecca Coons was handed Del Mar horse racing track in Del Mar, Calif., as the venue for a dealer recognition event in March. "We really played up the idea of horsepower and cars," she explains.
Through an arrangement with the California Equine Retirement Foundation, Coons arranged to bring in "magnificent" racehorses and jockeys to meet the dealers. The company also scripted a live narration of a horse race, pitting dealers against one another to see who would be the winner in various sales categories.
Dinner was held in the grandstand of the members-only Turf Club, where tables were dressed in brilliant jockey silks. At the end of the meal, a trumpet fanfare announced the showcase of eight vehicles, which came roaring onto the track.
"We took our guests into areas they normally couldn't go," Coons explains. "We emphasized both the phenomenal facility and the fact that the 420 guests did a great job; that's why they were there."
THE HOOK OF THE LOOK
Decor is another important event element that can transmit a corporate message.
For the holiday party of the New York office of a major consumer products corporation, New York-based event producer Wilson & Kreulen relied on one simple decor element: ice-blue electroluminescent fiber "wires" snaking up floral centerpieces and around the ceiling.
"The client wanted something futuristic to illustrate the company taking its next step," explains president Dennis Wilson. The contrast between the Baroque ballroom and the high-tech wires "had the 500 guests gasping when they saw the room. The event was such a smashing success that we repeated it two months later for 800 people in a division in another state."
Guy Genis, president of Los Angeles-based Eventmakers, and his partner (and twin brother), Mark, put decor to work on a grand scale to illustrate the worldwide sales network of one of their corporate clients.
The client manufactures juices from a fruit indigenous to Tahiti; the drink is sold throughout the world. For the client's international convention last summer at the Anaheim (Calif.) Hilton hotel, Eventmakers created a general session underscoring the Tahitian theme. Company officials presided over an 80-by-40-foot stage created to resemble a Tahitian beach, complete with a 15-foot waterfall, black rock formations shaped like a volcano, huts and two 20-foot palm trees.
Eventmakers also designed a welcome reception for 4,000 guests with five food station zones representing five regions of the world: the tropics, the Great White North, Latin America, Hollywood and the Pacific Rim. Each station featured entertainment, including glass blowers, Asian koto players, cloggers and jugglers on stilts.
The stakes get higher next year. "The event will double in size," Guy Genis notes.
Besides venue and decor, the location of corporate events can help drive the corporate message home to guests.
For the 150th anniversary of Pfizer, celebrated in September in 27 locations worldwide, Montreal-based event producer Atmosphere was slated to produce a daylong event for the company's Canadian operations, also based in Montreal. "Although the client had originally booked the Molson Centre, it decided to move the event back to its offices," explains Atmosphere CEO Jason Katz. "Pfizer wanted to create an environment that supported a sense of corporate family."
The move required Atmosphere to build carnival grounds complete with a Ferris wheel, inflatables and games on the company campus, as well as set up an amphitheater to receive satellite communications from worldwide headquarters in New York. Employees from Toronto and Ottawa were bused in to attend, bringing the total to more than 600 guests. After the satellite broadcast, the Canadian employees and their families enjoyed the rides and games. "And the IT people finally relaxed," Katz says.
Tim Wade, CMP, manager of events and incentives for Dallas-based Lennox Industries, a major manufacturer of heating, ventilating and air-conditioning equipment, stages roughly 100 events a year all over the world. He notes, "I see more of an emphasis for special events to take on the local nature and flavor of the event destination."
For a recent program for 4,500 guests in Las Vegas, Wade bought out three stage shows in the area, inviting employees to attend whichever they wished. "It's not so much about showing guests a wild time," he says, "but giving them a taste of the culture and what that destination offers."
REALLY BIG SHOWS
While the location of the event might send the corporation's message with subtlety, the event entertainment can shout it.
Pharmaceutical manufacturer GlaxoWellcome had a primary goal in mind for the finale of its three-day meeting of 3,000 sales representatives in March at Mandalay Bay resort in Las Vegas: "to inform and motivate the sales force and ultimately propel the sales of its new drug Lotronex," explains Michael Paxson, executive producer with New York-based event company Kaleidoscope Productions.
With technical services company Entolo, also of New York, Kaleidoscope created a stage that seemed to collapse, accompanied by pyro and sound effects. As the smoke cleared in the wake of a shower of confetti, a "burning" sign reading "Lotronex" rose up.
Why the high drama? "If the audience gets bored, you won't get results," Paxson says. "You will lose their attention, and that affects sales. A one-day event may not need entertainment, but you need to break up longer conferences." Trends in entertainment include "anything techie," Paxson says. "That is popular now, probably due to the millennium and the Internet boom."
Minneapolis-based First Light offers a techie look with its Luma light shows, in which performers manipulate illuminated objects. For the September launch of Cadillac's "Night Vision" technology-which allows drivers to see beyond the range of their high beams-glowing Luma figures danced in the dark.
"Our role is to translate new technology into something people understand," explains First Light president Marlin (who goes by one name). "We depict it, giving it tangibleness. You remember 10 percent of everything you read, 20 percent of everything you hear, but 30 percent of everything you see."
Craig Kenyon, event manager for the Plantation, Fla., office of Motorola, had a tangible goal for one of his corporate events. "We really had to wow them," he says. The company, which manufactures the system used in the popular Nextel phones, had seen its stock rise 151 percent in 1999, "and we wanted to show our employees how special they are."
With decor and stage production services from Event Management Group of Hollywood, Fla., Kenyon staged a dinner and show dubbed One Step Beyond for 3,400 guests in April at the Greater Fort Lauderdale (Fla.) Convention Center. The show included cirque-style performers, a white Bengal tiger and a pyro-packed illusion that made two top-ranking corporate executives "materialize." The Future of Magic, based in Miami Shores, Fla., provided the illusions and the tiger.
The elaborate show exemplified one of the greatest draws of special events: Guests enjoy an event created exclusively for them. "This was a show our audience couldn't have seen even in Las Vegas," Kenyon notes.
THE STRENGTH OF A SOFT SELL
Gina Whetsel, manager of corporate meetings and special events for New York-based Loews Corp., sticks to custom entertainment. "I don't use generic entertainment," she says. "I could put the money into celebrity appearances, but then they're gone. I'd rather spend money on something that is effective and has meaning for our audience."
In November, Loews held its first companywide meeting to introduce members of the five subsidiaries to one another and to show the passing of the torch from the founders to the next generation of the Tisch family.
With help from Production Resources of New York, Whetsel recruited a trio of singers to parody the Three Tenors. To the melody of "La donna e mobile" from "Rigoletto," the trio sang a lighthearted song introducing each corporate division and saluting the three co-presidents.
"I prefer a soft sell," Whetsel says. "I want to get the audience involved in ownership of the event. It should be something memorable that they can understand and feel part of."
Resources: Atmosphere, 514/735-0041; Crown American Realty Trust, 814/536-9581; Deloitte & Touche, 404/220-1278; Dick Clark Commun-ications, 818/841-7300; Entolo, 877/ 436-8656; Eventmakers, 323/848-9100; Event Management Group, 954/986-0077; Extraordinary Events, 818/783-6112; First Light, 602/266-0027; Future of Magic, 305/948-0057; Kaleidoscope Productions, 212/219-3200; Lennox Industries, 972/497-5039; Loews Corp., 212/521-2000; Michele & Co., 708/598-6600; Motorola, 954/723-5590; Production Resources, 212/366-1358; Raleigh Studios, 323/871-4430; Remes Molin & Associates, 612/378-9398; Wilson & Kreulen, 212/633-9658
How big is a big special event? How about one that could reach out to more than 200 million guests?
That was the potential of the event staged Feb. 29 to launch the Web site of "Spider-Man" comic book co-creator Stan Lee. To mark the debut of what the site's backers describe as the first global entertainment franchise, Los Angeles-based Dick Clark Communications created an event that combined live entertainment with satellite teleconferencing, Web-casting and Internet access.
DCC turned a sound stage at Raleigh Studios in L.A. into an "immersive, global, cyber-techno experience," says DCC executive vice president Jeff Salmon. "It was the first convergence of film, radio, television, music and publishing with the Internet."
The expected crowd of 500 guests swelled to nearly 900, reports Raleigh Studios manager of special events Jane Holland. They enjoyed food and a martini ice bar set up beneath splashy projections of new, online comic book characters.
The evening's activities ranged from presentations by corporate executives to performances by Jerry Lee Lewis and Chaka Khan. "Roving reporters" interviewed executives and guests for the broadcast audience.
"We utilize our strategic entertainment expertise to help clients tell their story in original and unique ways," Salmon says. "It's hard to hold people's attention for three hours, but we know just how to grab them, weave in key messages and create an experience that has a lasting and dramatic impact."
Even with the power of high-tech tools, successful special events still rest on the basics of caring for guests. "You can't have people saying, 'It looked great, but I waited an hour to get a drink,'" Salmon says.
To the melody "La donna e mobile"
Sings of tradition
And as a family
Greets the millennium.
Like the three tenors
You have your mighty three
Andrew, Jon and Jimmy
Singing in harmony....
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