Mixing work and pleasure

Companies are beginning to spend more on corporate events, but they want tangible results. The pressure is on for organisers to create events to remember while proving it is money well spent. By Victoria Furness

Every organisation strives to create the corporate event people will be talking about for months. Whether it is the must-have location, sensational food or superb service, events should be memorable for the right reasons. But each year, the challenge to create the “wow” factor becomes harder. “You have to give people something unique,” says Philip Hughes, president of the International Special Events Society UK. “Whether it is a magician, ice-sculptures or an amazing display, guests must leave with something to remember that exceeded their expectations.”

In the late-Nineties’ boom, lavish parties were as common as dot-com start-ups and money was thrown into creating memorable corporate events. But as the cash dried up, so did the extravagant socialising. Few companies were willing to invest in lavish events at a time of mass redundancies. “A City client pulled a £40,000 event at five days’ notice – when they were liable for 90 per cent of the fees – because the US parent company was cutting jobs,” recalls John Strachan, managing director of events company Maximillion.

Fast-forward to 2004 and companies are again delving into their purses to fund events. A recent survey from catering management company Sodexho Prestige and researcher NOP Business, found that in the past year, 34 per cent of hosts increased spending.

The old favourites

But organisations are no longer willing to spend money on events without tangible benefits. Now, the challenge is to create an experience that is impressive and improves business in accountable ways. So with many marketing departments wary of risk, traditional formats remain in vogue. Cavendish Hospitality chairman Chris Bruton says: “We keep predicting the market will get bored with Wimbledon, Royal Ascot and so on, but it does not happen.”

Leigh-ann Wilson, director of PR company Golin/Harris, says that “money can’t buy” tickets are the most effective. “If you can offer your guest an event that they might not otherwise be able to attend, the impact is far greater,” she says.

In an effort to create a memorable event within the confines of tight budget scrutiny, many organisations are turning to the traditional basics – such as location – to stand out. Unique Venues of London (UVL), a group of 56 venues in the capital, offers visitors to its website the option to “pick and mix” locations and activites for their event.

“A company could have a reception on the London Eye and then travel across the river and have dinner in the Gilbert collection at Somerset House,” explains Charlotte Reeves, head of marketing for UVL and of corporate events at Somerset House. “It is not just the venue but what you do with it. Whether it is a new exhibition or an event, it is about creating something unique.”

Even seemingly staid events can be enlivened. “Golf days, for instance, can be enhanced by asking a famous golfer to talk or by inviting guests to play a famous course,” says Alastair Scott, board director at the Corporate Events Association (CEA) and sales and marketing director of Sodexho Prestige.

Offering “engagement” and “interactivity” at an event can make it memorable for guests and hosts alike. When running horseracing events packages, Cavendish Hospitality gives a free bet to each guest and guarantees that one person on each table backs a winner.

Last year, Ultimate Event Company (UEC) organised a product launch for Siemens. To make the event memorable for guests – mobile-phone distributors who are regularly and entertained by handset manufacturers – Silverstone was booked and racing driver David Coulthard hosted the event. “He gave a motivational speech and one of the prizes was to go on a lap of the track with him,” explains managing director Sue Martineau. “There was a two-hour presentation before delegates were able to try racing, go-karting and testing simulators.”

Providing a weird and unusual event might not be the first choice for an organiser, because of the risk involved, but sometimes the only way to get noticed is to do something different. “There is constant pressure for something new and organisations spend a great deal of time on ingenuity,” says CEA’s Scott.

However, the NOP poll found that a special or unusual venue was only important to 36 per cent of guests, and Martineau says unusual events are less attractive to clients today. “There has been a shift from asking: ‘What is the wackiest thing I can do?’ towards people looking for high levels of service,” she claims.

A life less ordinary

Providing something out of the ordinary is something Launch Pad Events prides itself on. “Last November, we organised a party for a company that provides a trading platform for shares, celebrating its first anniversary in the UK and thanking clients,” explains creative operations director Jo Wales. “We suggested the party be held at Cargo, a trendy bar in Shoreditch, because it sat well with the different approach the company took to its market sector.” Guests were provided with illuminated champagne flutes and could compete in mini-speedboat racing. “The next day, the company had more trades through its network than ever before, something that was put down as a direct result of the party,” adds Wales.

Themed events have been a staple of corporate entertainment for many years, but do these offer a memorable evening for guests? “No longer can you just theme a party for theming’s sake,” says Hughes.

UEC’s Martineau adds: “Organisations want more customised themed packages than they did four or five years ago. They want more choice on menus, lighting and so on.”

Indeed, Launch Pad has dropped the term “themed” and now refers to “styling” instead. “We had a space theme at our launch party, but billed it as an ‘intergalactic space lounge’,” says Wales. “We had retro furniture, bubble chairs and projections on the window, and some members of staff wore mirrored contact lenses.”

This might have made the night memorable for guests, but how memorable was it for the hosts? According to the NOP survey, hosts deem an event exceptional if it was popular with guests and offered an opportunity to build relationships.

Such an emphasis on the return achieved from a corporate event, is forcing the hospitality industry to work hard to provide events that are successful in exceeding targets and expectations. But if that hard work results in the year’s most talked-about event, clients will continue to make the investment in corporate entertaining.

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