A Feast for the Senses

Turn up the thermostat; toss the fluorescent lights; dump the coffee. Keeping attendees alert and engaged during a meeting doesn't have to be a battle against the senses. In fact, working with the senses is a better way to go. Experiential events integrate communication with a pervasive theme, helping attendees soak up the message.

Following are the stories of three such events. The creators' modus operandi? Let the message permeate the event's environment; create a total sensory experience. Location, food, and entertainment are involved in giving guests a 360-degree interpretation of a concept.

Twisting the Night Away

Smirnoff Vodka has a long history of sophistication. Over a century ago, it was awarded the honorary title of Official Purveyor to the Imperial Russian Court. Through various incarnations, mixes, and owners, it has been sipped by the likes of Woody Allen, Zsa Zsa Gabor, and Buster Keaton. In the 1960s it secured a place among savoir vivants when it was imbibed by James Bond as a vodkatini, shaken not stirred.

But as the decades pass, and new generations get bombarded with a plethora of sassy drink alternatives, such plaudits no longer hold the mystique they once did. The makers and marketers of Smirnoff found their drink's hip quotient drying up, and the world's largest premium international vodka brand had to reposition itself.

The challenge: Shake off a stuffy image (Granddad draining a glass of Smirnoff while listening to Mel Tormé). EventQuest, a New York City-based full-service special event company, was charged with promoting the latest of the company's flavored vodkas, Smirnoff's new Twist line, to an audience of hospitality and beverage industry folks. "Vodka with a twist" provided the launching pad for ideas, and the overarching theme dreamed up by EventQuest (aided by vodkatinis?) was Twistotica. The party would include everything twisted, odd, or downright bizarre: a mix of things that don't normally go together, but when arranged in this setting create a curious motif that guests can't help being drawn in by.

A glut of stereotypical themed events in the 1980s prompted John Schwartz, business manager at EventQuest, and creative director Mark Veeder to bring their brand of artistic expression to the corporate world. "Experiential meetings have been a vision of ours. We founded our company on the notion that people should be experiencing, not just viewing." Their cocktail for a good event? Get to know the client's corporate culture, add whimsy, and mix. The product isn't always the main draw, says Schwartz, it's the event. "People are begging for something different. They want to be exposed to things they haven't been exposed to before."

The first indication attendees were in for a twisted event was the location, an abandoned bank building in the trendy SoHo section of Manhattan, whose hallowed doors were guarded by a pair of convoluted pieces of metallic art. People crossed into a "twisted wonderland," complete with screaming colors and high-tech graphics. Front and center was a video screen flashing logos of vodka with different film clips of twisting heads and bodies. "It was like Austin Powers meets The Exorcist," says Schwartz. "We wanted it to be short and quick to catch people's attention. We wanted to make people say, 'How bizarre!' "

Schwartz and Veeder twisted everything, right down to the funky furniture. "The look serves as a teaser and sets up [the scene]," notes Schwartz.

As guests milled around, slurping cocktails like Twisted Kiss and A View with a Twist, and munching unusual food combinations (hot was served with cold, spicy with bland), a Cirque du Soleil performer dangled from above, contorting his body on twisted ribbons of material. In one corner of the room a patent-leather-clad grinder skidded power tools off her body, sparks flying all around her. Twisted and bizarre? From the look on attendees' faces, they'd never seen anything quite like it, nor cared to again.

So was this a successful event? "Our goal was to change how Smirnoff is currently viewed to a whole new demographic," says Schwartz. If the product starts flying off the shelves, finding its way into a new mix of hipsters' drinks in the coming months, he'll know he succeeded.

Accountants Count

Andersen, one of the Big Five accounting firms (formerly Arthur Andersen), is another giant with a long-standing, solid reputation in its industry. Yet last year, the business world was in the midst of a dot-com revolution. The young, the bright, and the ambitious were deserting traditional jobs in hopes of becoming millionaires faster than you can say, "Is that your final answer?" Andersen needed to convince employees that it provided an environment where professionals could learn, grow, and prosper.

The challenge: Put on an event that would show current employees that Andersen is hip and happenin' and in tune with the new economy. When the 20- and 30-somethings went home at the meeting's end, they should feel that their positions are just as prestigious, important, and, gasp, lucrative and exciting as dot-com jobs.

To help with the task, Andersen executives recruited Nils Huehnergarth's company, New York City-based Static & Motion. "Andersen was looking to reach employees through nontraditional channels," says Huehnergarth. "They wanted to relay a positive message while stating information in a credible fashion." The meeting's theme, "Tools for Success in the New Economy," had to be expressed as compelling, fun, and at the heart of what the company has to offer. Would Andersen's New York assurance division bite?

Says Huehnergarth, "The 'tools for success' were things like new ideas and technology, which can be hard to present in an interesting way." Additionally, the entertainment had to have a dual purpose: Get the message across, and keep attendees awake for the day-long meeting. Rodney, a smart-alec puppet, was created as a counterpart to the emcee, Joseph Berardino (then a managing partner, now CEO). In between company and guest speakers, audience members participated in interactive games. A Family Feud scenario pitted one department against another, quizzing participants on the new economy, new challenges, and the needs of the marketplace. For added levity, and to show that Andersen is on top of what's cool, the Budweiser "Whazzup?" guys emerged from the audience reciting their favorite line.

Choosing entertainment that's on the cutting edge of merriment, though, has its dangers. "You've got to ask yourself," says Huehnergarth, "if something is cool, will it still be cool when the meeting happens?" Luckily, the humor and antics were met with laughter and applause throughout. ("Accountants respond to the same kind of entertainment that we do," he deadpans.)

Unlike themed parties, which are more for entertainment, explains Huehnergarth, themed events are constructed to convey a business message. "To get an event from the content," he says, "you have to ask, 'What's the single most important thing we want attendees to come away with?' Then, 'How do we package that?' " The content drives the event.

Andersen's goal was to motivate valuable employees. "As the firm's mouthpiece, we wanted to give the rising stars a vision of where they could be in the company," says Huehnergarth. By putting the corporate message in an exciting environment, he says, it has impact.

How does Huehnergarth know if he's succeeded? Tarek Elalaily, a staff analyst, had been at Andersen for only two weeks when he attended the meeting, but was reaffirmed in his choice of employer. "The meeting left a good impression of my new company," he says. "I didn't previously think they were cutting edge, but it seems like they're going in a new direction. It makes you feel better about your company—that the quality and talent you're working for is top-notch. It's real enforcement, not just management-speak."

American Beauty

Ellis Island is the keeper of a million stories. Year after year, immigrants passed through its Great Hall. Their origins were varied, but their reasons for coming were similar: All sought a life of freedom and opportunity that the new land promised.

On a Saturday night in May 2001, the Island again brought together thousands of people of different backgrounds, but this time to celebrate the fulfillment of success, rather than the hope of it. The National Ethnic Coalition of Organi-zations (NECO) held the 15th annual Ellis Island Medals of Honor Ceremony to pay tribute to the ancestry groups that make up the American landscape. The 138 medal recipients were recognized as distinguished Americans who have made significant contributions to our nation's heritage.

The challenge: Join up cultural diversity and Americana and create an entertaining event that plays host to thousands. "Events like this take a lot of coordination, productive meetings, and detailed scheduling," says Patricia Ahaesy, president of New York City-based P&V Enterprises, which produced and managed the event. "Any meeting is detail oriented, but this is very complex."

More than coordination, though, was the challenge to create an environment that reflected the journey of immigrants, from arrival to establishment. Not merely a flagwaving affair, the event needed to portray the people who shaped—and continue to shape—the nation.

"This event is about patriotism and the realization of the American dream," Ahaesy says. "People tell so many wonderful stories about coming to the U.S. The atmosphere tried to reflect that." Transportation, decorations, entertainment, and location all contributed to the experience.

Events that are experiential don't need to be "twisted." They don't need to feel cutting edge. But they do need to make attendees feel. Gathering at Manhattan's Battery Park, Ahaesy's guests were treated to ethnic entertainment mixed with American fanfare. Children performed native dances and bands played a medley of tunes—including rousing numbers such as "76 Trombones" and "Anchors Aweigh"—while people lined up for the ferry. Making their way past the Statue of Liberty, tuxedoed sons and daughters of immigrants felt themselves traversing the same harbor that welcomed their ancestors to American soil.

Guests made their way to a huge tent. Inside, red, white, and blue banners draped the sides, and ushers donned the tri-colors. From the ceiling hung flags from the more than 40 nations represented at the event.

The ceremony included an interfaith blessing, musical stylings of the 82nd Airborne's military band out of Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and a selection of notable speakers who reflected on their ancestors' arrival to the new land. Opera soprano Renée Fleming, author Mary Higgins Clark, and Baseball Hall of Famer Yogi Berra count themselves among the lucky descendants.

Eric Bembenek, a police officer for the NYPD who worked the event, got a thrill he didn't expect when checking in for work that day in May. While walking alongside the American Immigrant Wall of Honor, he spotted his family's name. "Bembenek's a Polish name, and not very common. I didn't know I'd find it here." His forefathers, like so many others', entered into this country by way of Ellis Island.

"The first time we did this, eight years ago, there were 500 in attendance," says Ahaesy. "This year's total was around 1,400." All communication was backed up with exhaustive documentation so all 17 of her on-site employees—and the many other people who worked the event—were on the same page.

Glancing around the room through which 40 percent of Americans' ancestors passed, Ahaesy has a look of satisfaction on her face. Immigrants' descendants are converging upon the Great Hall to wine and dine in a tribute to the sacrifices and determination of their ancestors.

"It's great to see people enjoying something you planned—even applauding during the ceremony or giving a standing ovation at certain parts of the event." Her client, NECO, gave their seal of approval, too. But, as any experienced planner realizes, Ahaesy says, "You know inside if it's been a success."