Those were the days

Corporate hospitality is about giving clients a day to remember – one they will always associate with you and your company. James Luckhurst talks to clients who were left with that buzzing feeling

Corporate events are an investment that carry risk. Ideally, a lavish reception strengthens client relationships and a team-building exercise leads to rising sales figures. However, it is vital to make sure that key people do not pull out at the last minute, or perhaps send junior colleagues in their place.

Whatever the aims, target market and budget, the ultimate success of a corporate hospitality event depends on the amount of thought at the planning stages. Whether organising a fun day to thank customers, or a networking event where a large group of people to get to know each other, the common thread must be that the organiser has really thought out what the intended guests will enjoy.

Part of the planning process involves understanding what is likely to work for each individual. What will lure them away from the office? Is it better to play safe with a traditional event invitation, or would the guests prefer to be active, perhaps participating in some elegant pastime at a classy venue?

For a sales team, for instance, an element of healthy competition may be most appropriate, with a view to recognising and rewarding individual and team success. As far as delighting potential guests is concerned, it is difficult to hit the jackpot every time. But in order to get the right people to say “yes” and then for them to make that all-important future link between the company that invited them and their memorable day out, the first step is very simple, but often ignored. Do enough research to find out their tastes and their schedule so that the event fits into their life, and enhances it.

There is nothing that compares with learning from experience, so below, organisers, and attendees of a wide variety of memorable events, share their wisdom.

Paul Williams, marketing director, Lion Laboratories

We hosted a three-day visit for ten senior members of the Chinese police, and we wanted a “real-life” environment for them to try out our breath-testing equipment, as well as offering them some memorable hospitality. Some of our guests found it a nerve-wracking experience: it turned out they had never used knives and forks before.

We opted for a traditional Welsh dinner at Miskin Manor. The highlight of the menu was roast Welsh lamb, which they all devoured enthusiastically. There followed a session of learning a couple of Welsh phrases – quite hard for those who didn’t even speak any English. The Chinese introduced their “one-on-one” drinking ritual, where one host and one guest would stand, take their glasses and down the contents in one go. Then, at the end of the meal, when everyone was fairly well oiled, we managed to include some product familiarisation by giving them the chance to blow into one of our breathalyser machines.

Oral communication may have been well-nigh impossible, but it certainly seemed as if we were close friends when the meal was over. Josie Jordan, marketing consultant I particularly remember a series of inspirational talks known as “Utopian Nights”, hosted by the agency Interbrand Newell & Sorrell. John Sorrell really hit on a successful format with his series of motivational, inspirational evenings featuring great speakers.

I was working for InterCity On-board Services and was invited to hear the likes of Sir David Puttnam, Lord Sebastian Coe, Professor Steve Jones, Antonio Carluccio and Helena Kennedy speak.

I was lucky enough to attend every event. It was fantastic to be able to hear such inspiring people in an intimate environment – and to be able to ask questions as well. Even better, after the event I received a beautifully produced booklet – the Utopian Papers – providing a transcript of the talks.

Of all the speakers I heard, I think Brian Keenan gave the most memorable performance. I think it was not long after his release, and the things he described can still make me shiver today.

The way the whole event was managed ensured it felt so much more than a corporate freebie – it seemed to tap right into my emotions, and made me feel inspired at the end of the evening.

Matti Linnoila, Finnish Tourist Board

More than ten years ago we wanted to organise an event to tie in with the American Society of Travel Agents, who were having their convention in Hamburg.

Several thousand delegates were attending, so it was a challenge for a destination like Finland to lure enough people to attend our invitation-only function. But we did it. Our Finnish Sauna event brought in travel agent and media guests to a venue that had to be seen to be believed. A hotel with a new gym and sauna complex that stood about six storeys high. The opportunities for a great sauna were truly excellent.

The purpose of the party was purely getting to know people, with no hard sell. We greeted guests at the hotel door wearing only bathrobes. We offered everyone the opportunity to enjoy the sauna in the same way that the Finns do… naked. Anyone who didn’t want to was directed to the buffet area where there was traditional Finnish food brought in for the event.

It was a huge success: people talk about it even now and I am still stopped in the street by people who say they almost didn’t recognise me with my clothes on.

Edmund King, executive director, RAC Foundation

The day that really worked for me was a driving event with Subaru. I think it was such a success because it involved driving cars at very fast speeds on a test track in dry and wet conditions. I was bruised beyond belief being driven around a walled circuit at 120mph in a Subaru Impreza Turbo by a rally driver. The event also involved driving other Subaru products at more sensible speeds on local roads.

I will never forget the exhilaration of driving the Impreza Turbo very fast, even though the event was some years ago. OK, I may not have bought a Subaru car as a result but I certainly appreciate and respect what they can do. I guess the secret to success comes with linking the “hospitality” as closely as possible to the product.

Inga Rose, Air Marketing

A catering and logistics company I worked for organised an annual Christmas party at its Euston training centre. It was always something of a challenge to find an attractive theme for the occasion, as the venue itself was nothing to write home about.

But we surpassed all expectations one year by employing a party planner who helped to create a spectacular Arabian interior: palm trees in the entrance hall, tent fabric lining the walls and Arabian hookah pipes. It was entertaining watching some of our distinguished guests – company directors in suits – trying to look comfortable on the huge cushions.

The food – Moroccan and African themed – was amazing. We don’t repeat ideas year on year, but such was the success of that event – in terms of quality, originality and guest feedback – that we almost repeated it the following Christmas.

Lesley Milne, Volvo Cars

When we launched our S40 and V50 models in the UK last year, our objective was to get the real decision-makers in the business to try them, as well as building the relationship between them and Volvo. After all, traditional “ride and drive” events proved very expensive, with no guarantee that the right people would turn up.

So we briefed our agent to come up with a series of highly targeted non-transferable invitations, giving our guests the choice of five exciting weekend break options for two – including a luxury spa weekend and a gourmet cooking experience. Everyone who accepted received one of our cars on a Friday for use all over the allotted weekend, giving them the chance to try the car at their own pace.

Take-up was very good among those who were allowed to accept the invitation. It was highly cost-effective, as we paid only for those who accepted. It was one of our most successful launch events. Harold Wilson, Grant Thornton

We all know how to drive don’t we? After ten minutes with former British Touring Car champion Robb Gravett the answer was: “No.” At the “Ultimate Driving Experience” we began the day using toy cars, which doesn’t sound very exciting, but Robb distilled his driving skills in a clear methodology using the toys to explain his theories -Âwhich all seemed logical in the classroom.

Then we had a fantastic time putting the theory in to practice, with some tasty cars and enthusiastic instructors by our side. We now understood much better how a car performs in more extreme situations, and we could exploit that understanding.

Not only was it great fun for everyone, there was a serious message as well – the skills picked up on the day could one day save my life. Couldn’t this become a compulsory annual event for everyone?

Nick Simmons, business development director, IT IS Holdings

The hospitality that really excites me is the event you would not otherwise get anywhere near. I was taken by our client Hutchison Telecom to Wembley for an England versus Scotland football match. There’s always a lot of drama in a match like that, so the atmosphere was fantastic. About 50 of us sat down to dinner before taking to the stands. I do remember thinking we all looked a bit out of place there in suits. However, it was a great evening – and therefore something of a surprise when Hutchison put our account up for review a couple of weeks later.

Craig Thomas, Active Consultancy

It’s not often you get Tower Bridge opened for you – but that’s what we experienced on a James Bond-themed day event on the Thames. The idea was to lure the 50 or so guests into thinking they were in for a pleasant day trip on a barge along the river.

But things quickly changed. One guest revealed himself as an arch-villain and took control of the barge. Then a fleet of fast inflatable boats appeared and an action-packed day of tasks and challenges unfolded. The best thing about this was the element of surprise – but everyone responded really well, and the atmosphere on board at the end of the day was terrific as Tower Bridge lifted and we steamed through.

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