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Set the Stage

by Rob Scott

Tips to keep you from going through the motions when you want to throw an event to remember.

If you think all it takes to stage a successful corporate event is cocktails and cold hors d’oeuvres, think again.

Whether it’s a wine and cheese tasting, a March Madness kickoff party, scavenger hunts or paintball, companies are going all-out these days to entertain and impress employees and clients alike. For the former, it’s about “recognizing that a happy employee equals a better bottom line,” says Stacy McGuigan, who describes herself as a “creative celebrations consultant.” And for client-centered events, it’s about “getting your client’s attention, keeping your client’s attention.”

But what separates a memorable event from a “blah” event?

Local event planners agree that, first and foremost, companies need to start by clearly understanding their objective—whether it’s boosting employee morale or thanking clients/fishing for new ones—and knowing their audience. From there, the sky’s the limit.

Not just another happy hour
Keegan Gosik, sales and marketing director for Maple Shade-based Sensational Host, says every so often a corporate client comes in looking to throw a “run-of-the-mill cocktail party … Drinks after work on a Friday.”

Happy hour on the company tab—sounds nice, right? But Gosik says these events more often than not fall flat. At the end of a long workweek, people are eager to get home to their families, not share “just drinks and butlered hors d’oeuvres with the same people they see all week … It’s just too normal.”

Jaime Auletto, of Auletto Caterers in Almonesson, echoes Gosik: “You don’t want to seem generic, like you’re just going through the motions.”

If you’re holding an event where material is being presented, don’t just give a lecture. Punch things up. Make it interactive.

“It can’t just be a PowerPoint,” says David Drubin, director of sales at the Courtyard by Marriott in Glassboro. “You don’t want to be putting people to sleep.”

Rosemarie Mohr, director of sales for Aramark’s Enterprise Center at Burlington County College, says a real estate company that came in to talk about loans brought in celebrity guest stars and veterans (discussing loans for veterans) to jazz up the proceedings.

“They did it right and engaged with the people they were talking to,” says Mohr. Gosik says he urges corporate clients to be “uniquely different.” One of Sensational Host’s larger clients throws a March Madness party each year for employees, setting up multiple TVs playing all the games and a big board with the brackets so employees can keep track of their picks.

“The vibe is comfortable and fun,” he says. “It’s taken off. Their employees love it. It’s a unique event.”

What makes the event really work, Gosik explains, is that it erases—at least for one evening—the artificial barriers that often stand between employees and executives.

Team-building activities are a great way for companies to get creative with their event planning. Mohr says one of her clients organizes a cook-off for its employees, while Drubin helped a client set up a bowling tournament at the end of a multi-day conference.

The takeaway: Whatever your event is, whomever your event is for, think outside the box—and outside the bar.

‘Food makes you feel special’
Of course, a spectacular event can be spoiled by subpar food and drink—just as superior food and drink can sometimes save a subpar event.

Not everyone may be a foodie, but people are definitely more discerning these days when it comes to what they put in their bodies. Offering an eclectic menu, with alternatives for vegetarians and/or vegans, is important, says Mohr. “Food makes you feel special.”

Just as there’s room for creativity in the activities held during a specific event, the menu offers plenty of opportunities for imagination. McGuigan organized one event where each guest was greeted with a signature cocktail when they arrived, with the recipe attached to the glass. Menus built around a theme are also popular, Gosik says.

A guest’s satisfaction isn’t just about the quality of what’s on their plate or in their glass, however. It extends to the timing—if you’re holding a morning meeting, did everyone get coffee when they arrived?—the service and the presentation as well. Drubin says it’s crucial for companies to build in breaks for longer meetings, whether they last one day or multiple days. If food is involved, have it served outside the room where the meeting is being held.

“If it’s all in the same room, the day tends to drag,” he says.

Sweat the small stuff
When organizing an event for dozens, or sometimes hundreds, of people, it’s easy to lose track of the tiny details by only focusing on the big-ticket stuff: the food, the venue, the activities. But event planners stress the importance of dotting all the i’s and crossing all the t’s ahead of time.

Making sure the venue has a projector or extra extension cords might not seem critical, but if you have to interrupt the meeting to track down supplies or ask the host a question, you risk throwing off the flow.

“The priority for an event is the flow of it,” says Auletto. “It’s the little things like that, that are easy to forget, that can make or break an event.”

McGuigan says having someone at the door to greet and guide guests is an oft-overlooked detail, but it can mean everything.

“People come in and they do that look around: ‘What do I do?’” she says. “[Having someone to greet them] gives that warm, welcoming feeling, that feeling that you’re being taken care of. [If there’s no greeter], it doesn’t allow the event to start off on the right foot.”

And finally, after the event is over, follow up with your guests—whether it’s through email, a phone call or in person—to find out how it went.

“Too many times, companies do things just because they’ve done it before a certain way,” says Drubin. “How do you know it worked? That follow-up after a meeting is also very essential, too.”

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Biz, Volume 4, Issue 6 (June, 2014).
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