THEME MACHINE

Whether it’s a tailor-made circus or your very own pop group, specialists can give a real lift to your event.

Your company wants you to organise a huge post-conference party for 1,000 delegates, with food and a theme. What do you do? Do you go to one of the many professional corporate hospitality companies and ask them to come up with something that will keep your chairman and the chief accountant happy, or do you go straight to the venue itself?

That’s the dilemma facing many companies when they want to host an event. It could be entertainment after a conference, staff team-building exercise, a product launch for the press, or a prestigious awards ceremony. And the choice is on a far larger scale – there are numerous corporate hospitality companies that can offer all sorts of tailor-made packages to suit customer needs. But, increasingly, hotels are getting in on the act.

In the past, companies could get away with seating their delegates in a hotel function room, feeding them, watering them and entertaining them with a witty after-dinner speech from a TV celebrity or a comedian. But as tastes grew more sophisticated, audiences easily became bored. So a huge industry offering all-singing, all-dancing packages was born. During the Eighties, the trend for shipping delegates to sunnier climes in Concorde grew.

Unfortunately, as the recession began to bite, the budgets for such entertaining shrank. And by now both companies – and their audiences – were loath to return to the days of cold sit-down buffets and a speech from the managing director.

Now, conference buyers want more for their money – they will still turn to a specialist company for ideas, but increasingly, to guard that hard-earned budget, they will consult the hotel conference co-ordinators for a one-stop package.

Richard Baker, general manager of The Grand, in Brighton, says: “Companies are investing more to get the most out of their meetings. It is becoming increasingly common to use celebrities as an integral part of proceedings. Nick Ross and John Humphries are the two TV personalities used most frequently. They play an active part in the proceedings by interviewing company executives on stage.

“Celebrities are also used in a more considered way,” he adds. “Entertainers such as Rory Bremner, who provide an intellectual content, are more likely to be used than a downmarket TV personality.”

The hotel industry realised there was an opportunity here. Theme parties had been on the menu for some time – it was just a case of going a little bit further by learning a few tricks from the corporate hospitality “professionals”. However, opinions differ on who does the job best.

“The hotel should be a brilliant place that offers food and drink and comfy beds,” says John Sullivan, senior consultant of Kit Peters Extraordinary Events. “It can act as a broker for a company and get in a band, a cabaret and put people in touch with a specialist organiser, but it should not get involved with specialist events itself.”

Nicky Curran, the sales and marketing manager at MWA, a company that has organised large-scale events for software giant Lotus and drinks company Britvic, disagrees. “I’m aware hotels are offering all sorts of things,” she says. “They are quite right to get a piece of the action and seem to be offering a good range of entertainment.

“Obviously, there are companies like us that can help sort out entertainment for them,” Curran adds. “But often companies will want to let one venue do all the work.”

As well as the budget, much seems to depend on the numbers involved, whether it is straightforward entertainment or an actual message is to be conveyed. Parties with themes pertinent to the company are still popular after conferences.

Much also depends on the skills of the organiser. A good one will be able to assess whether his or her idea is feasible and who would be best to carry that through.

“When we’ve delivered what the client wanted, and he or she says, ‘that was just right’, then you know you’ve done well,” says Andy Hardy, the managing director of Beeton Rumford. “But it does take planning. Some clients will come to us and say, ‘I cook this dish for four at home and it’s very popular – can you do it for 2,000?’ If it won’t work you have to tell them straightaway.”

Beeton Rumford specialises in catering and entertainment for a whole range of companies. It mostly handles large-scale events at Earls Court and Olympia, but it also offers specialist events in the City and within the M25. Recent clients include the Brit Awards, Camelot and Reed Exhibitions.

“A lot of cost goes into the construction of the event,” says Hardy. “The food part will take up only a small part of a 200 ticket; a larger part for a personality or a comedian. Yet at the end of the day the guest will look at his or her plate and gauge from the meal whether or not they’ve enjoyed the whole event.”

Software company Lotus wanted a futuristic event to entertain 2,000 delegates after a conference at the Brighton Conference Centre. MWA set up a room complete with a star-twinkling tented roof. Inside there were virtual reality machines, computer games, mime artists and fire-eaters who mingled with the guests, as well as a cabaret in the spirit of French circus act Archaos.

Kit Peters Extraordinary Events will go to great lengths to come up with an exceptional entertainments package for a company, by finding out from the client what exactly they want to achieve from the event, whether it’s a reward or a team-building exercise. It can offer spoof game shows, a Fawlty Towers-style stay at a hotel, and most recently, a Battle of the Bands team-building exercise. Sixty-six people from a transport company split up into teams, and each team became a pop group – Take That, Abba, The Clash, The Sex Pistols. Each team took on the persona of their allocated pop group (The Sex Pistols even went so far as to decorate the toilets with graffiti) and spent the afternoon learning choreography and their songs and miming with their instruments. In the evening the competition took place, with the audience voting for the best band.

Another job the company did was for the press launch of a video camera for a brown-goods company. Says Sullivan: “The company could have taken the journalists to Japan, but instead it opted to do something with us.”

The Kit Peters team swung into action. The plan was to take the guests to the production line at the factory to see the new camera being made. Then the journalists were transported to an atmospheric, “haunted” castle in Scotland, for a spooky supper, complete with strange noises, rattling props and apparitions.

“They didn’t know we had rewired the place and had fitted cameras to film them. The journalists mingled with castle ‘staff’, who were in fact actors who told a ghost story about the castle. They then had to find out if the story was true.”

The result was the journalists had ample opportunity to test the new product, and went away with memories of an unforgettable press launch. “There were rave articles about the video camera, which sold out within weeks of being launched,” says Sullivan. “The launch was so different to what they expected. No hotel could ever have put on such an event.”

However, the De Vere chain of hotels is giving the professionals a run for their money. Recently The Grand in Brighton hosted an event for a pharmaceutical company, for 300 guests, where the venue became a circus for the evening, complete with acts, clown balloons, and a local operatic society providing entertainment. The Grand has themed dinners most weeks, including Australian nights and gangster nights, and everyone enters into the spirit of them.

A number of hotel chains are able to trade on heritage alone, and over the years have risen to the challenge of providing excellent client entertainment. One is the Savoy Group, which can boast Claridge’s, The Berkeley, The Connaught and the Savoy in London, and the Lygon Arms in the Cotswolds.

For Buick, the US car company, Claridge’s was the venue to entertain two groups of its top achievers and their partners with a week-long London Passport Experience. The Savoy Group came up with a programme for the guests, which included a Thirties ball to welcome them to London, dinner with MPs at the House of Commons, trips to the theatre, shopping and an evening at Spencer House. Every day Claridge’s provided newspapers, flowers and little gifts for the Buick guests.

The Savoy Group can also offer a selection of London tours for clients, and at the Lyon Arms, medieval banquets complete with jesters, jugglers, minstrels and authentic Elizabethan music, murder evenings, as well as treasure trails, carriage driving, clay-pigeon shooting and hot-air ballooning.

While gala dinners will never be entirely back on the menu, hotel groups are indeed giving companies specialising in corporate entertaining some stiff competition. Ultimately, what companies get comes down to the budget and the imagination of those charged to put the event together – the onus is on the client to come up with an idea to fit the purpose.

As with everything in life and business, you pay your money and take your choice. Corporate entertaining is no exception.

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