You have been summoned from Mount Olympus by Zeus himself to embark on a heroic quest. So reads the first line of an invitation addressed to 11-year-old Jimmy and nine-year-old Jennifer, who are about to beg their parents to attend a corporate family event.
It's the late 1990s, and Jimmy and Jennifer's dad is a successful corporate executive who receives invitations on a regular basis to attend many different types of appreciation and client events: golf outings, wine tastings, parties, sporting events — you name it. But when Zeus himself summons you to join your children at Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History — all as part of your vendor's client-appreciation event — suddenly it's a whole new world.
This adventure in creative event planning began years ago at Arthur Andersen, where I was working as man-ager of corporate events for the Chicago office. At the time, Andersen was actively pursuing different corporate event initiatives from golf outings to large private dinners, executive retreats and sponsorships — all geared toward building business-to-business relationships at the executive level.
IT'S ALL RELATIVES
While these types of events had proven worthwhile, I often felt there was an opportunity to create a deeper emotional and professional connection. So while sitting in a partner's office discussing different client relationship events, I started thinking: Why don't we host a unique event for the families of our partners and their clients?
My partner embraced the idea, and together we set about developing a concept distinctive to Andersen. Right away, we opted to avoid conventional family events such as picnics and carnivals. We kept three distinct goals in mind: Create an event that was captivating, entertaining and original; build upon the firm's reputation for high standards; and reflect the firm's dedication to Chicago's cultural institutions.
So we turned to classic children's books for creative inspiration. What better way to capture the imagination of children and promote family togetherness — all within the context of professional life — than to build an event around children's literature? This approach opened the door to a plethora of thematic options, with infinite opportunities to be highly creative. It also presented a unique shared experience in which partners could form a special bond with their guests and families. Family events generate goodwill that applies to all relationships, professional or personal; in other words, when families are happy, the client is happy.
Our first client family event was inspired by “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone,” at a time when Harry Potter was becoming a global sensation. The venue: Chicago Children's Museum at Navy Pier, which provided the perfect backdrop for creating a magical environment. By selecting a museum, I was also able to accomplish Andersen's goal of promoting Chicago's cultural institutions.
Given the copyright issues surrounding Harry Potter, we had to avoid using any names or references to the book when developing Andersen's printed materials. This presented a creative challenge but one that was easily overcome by creating a different, parallel story line that incorporated some recognizable elements, such as invitations printed in green ink on parchment paper and mailed to the children of partners and clients. This idea alone was unique to the corporate world — I was not aware of any companies who took the time to obtain names and mail invitations to the children of their clients.
Since the invitation acts as the initial point of contact, it must be unique enough to capture attention in a crowded market and enticing enough to get your clients to attend with their families. Then, from the moment they walk into the event through the end of the evening, every angle of entertainment, food presentation and visual stimulation should unite in a cohesive thematic package that leaves a lasting impression.
Keep in mind that a great way to connect with this market on a deeper level is by interjecting a subtle educational element. When it comes to successful executives at respected firms, you're dealing with highly educated individuals who appreciate any efforts to promote learning and cultural understanding — particularly when directed at their children. Even when working with themes unrelated to books, we design a complex network of elements that are significantly more intellectual than a company picnic. You'll find that when you respect the intelligence of your target market, it tends to pay off in spades.
The Harry Potter-inspired event was a tremendous success and essentially created a corporate event formula whereby children's literature and cultural appreciation became the key ingredients in inspiring memorable family events. It proved that bringing families together in the spirit of fun could create lasting memories and inspire new dimensions of commitment and trust.
With pressure mounting for a great follow-up event, the next year we turned to Greek mythology for creative direction. Using “Gods, Men and Monsters from the Greek Myths” as a guidebook, a team of talented set designers, florists and lighting professionals transformed the renowned Field Museum of Natural History into an ethereal playground complete with all the gods and goddesses at the foot of Mount Olympus. An elaborate invitation was designed for the children, which was presented as a summons by the god Zeus to embark on a heroic quest: “A Journey in Search of Adventure.” The kids loved this mythological event, and Andersen even won a Gala Award for it in 2002 at The Special Event in Phoenix.
Both events were overwhelmingly well-received not only by those who participated but also by those who received invitations but couldn't attend. Clients were very happy to be invited to an event in which families were the focus — for many of them it was a first, a welcome change from the typical corporate event. As the balance of work and family is recalibrated every day (particularly at the executive level), there is a growing need in the marketplace for initiatives that achieve positive results in a family-friendly environment.
By their very nature, most corporate events are designed to promote interaction between the executive and the individual client or clients. But what we discovered is that taking family priorities into account — sharing time together, enjoying creative experiences, exploring the imagination — can really enhance business relationships. Not only does it help to promote positive family values but it also positions the company favorably with the next generation, thus laying the foundation for future business and continued loyalty.
Fast forward to 2003. I had gone independent with my own event-planning firm — Karen Hansen Event Group — and had recently been hired by the prestigious Katten Muchin Rosenman law firm to produce a client family event for their Chicago office.
“An Evening of Exploration” was held at the Museum of Science and Industry, a landmark dedicated to the glories of innovation and inspiration. We evoked the many trailblazers who forever changed the world. Set design and invitations were inspired by the relationship between explorers — discoverers, scientists, inventors, pioneers, astronauts and entrepreneurs — and the four essential elements of fire, earth, air and water.
In response to “An Evening of Exploration,” Katten received numerous accolades from clients, who raved about the family focus of the event. Several were thrilled to take their children to the museum outside of business hours, and more than one appreciated that the event took into consideration everyone in the audience, from the youngest to the oldest.
A WHOLE NEW HALLOWEEN
More recently, we again staged a Katten family event at the Museum of Science and Industry, this time with a Halloween theme. With “Worlds Away,” I instantly resisted the conventional route of a haunted house — the event called for a more sophisticated execution so adults without children would enjoy the experience as well. The creative process was driven by four Halloween themes proven through generations as most popular among young and old alike: fantasy (as in fairy tales), future (including space travel), warriors (soldiers, samurai, Indian chiefs), and wizardry and witchcraft. Bringing this theme to life involved creative input and coordination from multiple vendors, including food catered to each theme. It was the equivalent of executing four themed family events at once.
Human beings have always formed their strongest organization and deepest connection on a tribal level — with family, close friends and those who command unquestionable loyalty and trust. So as business transcends from person-to-person to organization-to-organization and now family-to-family, the key to bonding with your best clients is creating a memorable experience they can share with the ones they love.
And a little magic never hurts.
Karen Hansen can be reached at 312/819-9705; her company's Web site is www.enhansevent.com.