How the Other Half Meets: Planning Special Events for Fortune 1000 Firms

From the May 1, 2006 issue.

"Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me," wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald. And if you don't believe him, you've never been to one of their corporate shindigs.

One man who can vouch for that is Barton G. His last name is Weiss, but much like Cher and Liza (both past clients, not coincidentally), he is so well known he doesn't need a surname. Based in Miami, his full-service special-events company produces high-end blowouts for the likes of American Express, the Ford Motor Company, and Ritz-Carlton. "Clients are looking for the 'wow' factor," says Weiss.

Successful Meetings interviewed several special-event planners who focus on creating that 'wow' factor at corporate get-togethers for Fortune 1000 firms and other household-name companies. These high-end happenings sure are a far cry from ho-hum cocktail parties—snowshoe trekking? acrobats? aromatherapy? They're all here; read on for a sneak peek at life behind the velvet rope.

Apart from the Crowd

"My clients want attendees to remember this event as opposed to one they went to, say, two years ago," says Weiss. To achieve that, he and his team of 435 Barton G. staffers focus on outstanding entertainment, decor, and, most of all, cuisine: "The food becomes the star of the event," he says.

For instance, as part of American Express' sponsorship of the South Beach Wine & Food Festival, Weiss recently threw a party for the travel giant at Casa Casuarina, the former Gianni Versace mansion in South Miami Beach. Since the guest list included several difficult-to-impress celebrity chefs, nothing was ordinary, says Weiss: "It was all design driven." Thus the food was served in miniature shopping bags on what Weiss calls "an alternative plate-up"—not china but Lucite creations that he'd handcrafted himself. During dessert, a server with an ice-cream freezer strapped to his waist walked around dishing out mini ice-cream cones to which people could add their choice of toppings (whipped cream, sprinkles, chocolate sauce), much like a mobile buffet station.

"On a daily basis, we try to create a memorable experience," says Weiss (who spoke to Successful Meetings just hours before the start of a high-profile charity event for Gloria Estefan that he'd managed to pull together in only 24 hours). "It could be through entertainment, or by bringing out an entree with smoking dry ice. It's visual—but also, can they touch it, feel it, taste it? It's all about the sensory."

Are You Experienced?

Much as you'd expect from the creative director of a company called XA, The Experiential Agency, Darren Andereck says that special events for his clients (which include McDonald's, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Sears, Motorola, and other household names) are about "creating an experience." Like Barton G., the head of the Chicago-based agency does this by relying on "elements that appeal to all the senses," including entertainment and even aromatherapy.

With a focus on atmosphere, Andereck's special events tend to be less formal, featuring buffet meals rather than plated dinners and, of course, plenty of entertainment. At a recent holiday party for a hedge fund, XA used the spectacular rappelling troupe Project Bandaloop, whose dancers hung off cords tied to 40-foot-high steel truss boxes while doing a choreographed dance high above attendees' heads.

"It's about creating an experience that's unexpected," explains Andereck. "At the same party, we had acrobats on trampolines doing flips while they were hooked into snowboards." Better yet, the extreme-sports theme fit the company's demographic of young, athletically minded employees.

Another trend Andereck has observed at high-end corporate events is the use of local culture as part of the entertainment. For the January grand opening of the Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman, he featured top names like Sheryl Crow and Tony Bennett but also brought in the elaborately dressed "festival queens," who parade in Cayman's Carnival every year, and had children from neighborhood schools on hand to sing and play drums. The use of homegrown entertainment had the added benefit of helping his Ritz-Carlton client achieve a key goal: creating a positive working relationship with the locals.

Doing Good . . . and Doing Well

Whether they're white-shoe law firms or pharmaceutical companies such as Johnson & Johnson and Novartis, Nicole Bumpus' clients make sure they get a return on their investment in events, says the president of Washington D.C.-based National Events, Inc. "There's such a public relations aspect to special events," explains the 10-year industry veteran. "The public perception is that these are big, money-grubbing institutions, so there's a strong trend of showing that you're a socially responsible entity as well as looking closely at ROI," she says.

For example, one of Bumpus' legal clients was looking to target female executives from Fortune 500 corporations as potential customers. The law firm invited public speaker Nancy Brinker, a former U.S. ambassador to Hungary and founder of the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, to give a speech to women at a networking luncheon held in New York City's historic National Arts Club. Brinker talked about the importance of being a good corporate citizen. "She's a fantastic speaker and we had a great turnout—55 people," says Bumpus.

At the Democratic National Convention two years ago in Boston, several of Bumpus' pharmaceutical clients held cocktail receptions and other events for the delegates. It was Bumpus' job to make sure these parties were appealing without appearing frivolous: "It has to be something interesting that will attract guests, but not over the top and wasteful." Given that there are dozens of parties a delegate can attend on any given evening, that's a tall order, and Bumpus decided to differentiate her event by holding it away from the center of town, across the harbor.

To make it easy for delegates to attend, she had water taxis pick people up at the convention center; in 10 minutes' time, they were standing under tents on a docking area in Boston Harbor, sipping cocktails and enjoying a view of the suspension bridge. Was it successful? Do the math: "The event was supposed to be for 600 people and we ended up getting 1,300!" she says.

All Work and No Play

Whether she's planning a holiday party or an executive retreat, Anne Thornley-Brown of Executive Oasis International says that her clients, which include Air Canada, IKEA, and other top companies, like to mix work and play: "That's a trend—to combine business with recreational and social activities," observes the Toronto-based planner.

For instance, Thornley-Brown recently organized for a footwear company a teambuilding event that played off the reality show Survivor. The company wanted its employees to get out of the office for some recreation and bonding but also for newer hires to learn more about the business and what other teams did.

"The client was also looking for new target markets, so to fit with the idea of 'uncharted territory,' I used an Arctic-survival theme," explains Thornley-Brown. And since the event took place during a cold Canadian winter, she decided to use the environment rather than re-creating it. The premise was that attendees had gone on an Arctic vacation, lost all their belongings, and had to figure out how to survive in the harsh environment and also identify a product they could market and sell upon rescue to raise money for their return to "civilization."

The first evening, participants were briefed on the weekend's activities and objectives, then joined in a snowshoe relay race after which they got "lost," built shelters, and had a bonfire. The second day, Thornley-Brown taught them some business tools like "mind maps" (word/picture combinations used to jump-start attendees' brainstorming about products and target markets) and "force field analysis" (used for assessing challenges and opportunities for any project or goal).

While everyone was outside playing a teambuilding game, Thornley-Brown simulated a "rescue" by redecorating the meeting room with a tropical flair. The idea was that once "rescued," attendees were taken to "thaw out" in a tropical environment during their debriefing, which she playfully called a "defrosting."

After a reception inspired by her native Jamaica (think rum punch, reggae, and beef patties), Thornley-Brown
had groups make presentations using the business tools they'd learned over the weekend to introduce their imaginary products, such as bottled Arctic water and shoes made from the skins of Arctic animals.

The event finished up with guest appearances by some of the footwear company's key customers, who talked about how they used their real products. "That showed the employees the value their products added to the client's business," notes Thornley-Brown, adding that it was her client's idea: "I thought it was a very nice touch."