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A CHANGING WORLD demands changes in corporate events. Here, the executive vice president/development for powerhouse event and communications agency PGI outlines the new event essentials.

SPECIAL EVENTS MAGAZINE: The corporate world has taken quite a beating in the last two years. What is the outlook for the corporate event market?

C.B. Wismar: I've heard, optimistically, it will be six to eight months more before we're really going to see any wholesale lightening up. I don't think that it's going to get worse than it is now, but I don't think that we are out of the woods yet.

Q: How is this playing out with special events?

A: Senior executives need to have the assurance that the money they are spending is well spent. So what we've seen is diversification of that spend. It's not going to be a lot of big glitzy things; there may some smaller events, some smaller communication opportunities. I see executives saying, “Do we really need to spend that much money on the entertainment side?” — whether that entertainment is a special trip or headline entertainment or some fantastic program. Instead, they are taking their event to places that are entertaining. So you're going to see a ramp-up in Las Vegas, for example. I can buy a block of hotel rooms and put an event in that town and let the town entertain my guests.

Q: Which corporate events remain strong and which are falling away?

A: The companies that are spending against their marketing and sales programs will survive the best and come out the quickest. That kind of direct-marketing spend stays in place. What has gone by the wayside are some of the broader, less focused incentives. Part of that is the economy, part is also an awareness that our entire social fabric has changed. We now communicate in an entirely different way, and our social options are significantly different. The company picnic, the company Christmas party, the company bowling league — anything that the company was trying to enhance the life of its people by creating programs and events — most of those have gone away.

Q: What are your corporate clients demanding today?

A: The technology now has allowed us — once the need for or the focus on an event has been established — to then go out to the people who are the target audience and to take their temperature. The notion of top-down communication in corporate America has very quickly eroded when folks realized that corporate headquarters is not always the place where all the intelligence and all the ideas are. Asking them upfront, “What are the things that you need to hear and understand?” and then giving that information back changes the dynamic of those events. It changes the way in which things are communicated, it changes what is communicated. And, as a result, it will change the event.

For example, one of our clients — a pharmaceutical company — established a joint venture with another pharmaceutical company so that they would get the advantage of both sales teams. So we went to both groups as we registered them and asked them what their greatest concerns were. We found out very quickly that the apprehension was not that they wouldn't be able to learn about what the drug was so they would be able to sell it sufficiently, but about joining two sales teams together. So we created a learning environment that was 100-percent a team-building exercise. They came out of the event with a real sense of not two companies, but one team, and that was absolutely essential to moving that product forward. I'm not sure that would have been done had we not gone out and said, “What are you concerned about?”

Q: What is the core of creating great corporate events?

A: We need to be somewhat analytical before we are creative. Sometimes we miss that first step. It is no longer Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland saying, “We'll take over the barn and put on a show.” That is not this business anymore. This business is: What is the end result we are looking for, what are the circumstances from which we are beginning, and how best can we communicate and get to the point of saying that we have been successful? Now bring in the creative thought — is it a party, is it a Web cast, is it a balloon ride, is it an arm-wrestling contest? I don't know what it is until I know what we are trying to do.

C.B. Wismar is based in PGI's Alexandria, Va., headquarters; 703/528-8484;

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