Stop pretending you can engage your staff with the promise of doughnuts and coffee in the conference room. That’s not the room, nor the right food, to get folks amped for your annual brainstorming seminar or quarterly progress report. Take them somewhere fun — do something fun — and feed them something good. After all, you like these people, don’t you?
Seriously, there really are so many creative ways to engage your audience no matter what event you’re planning or its purpose. But don’t take it from us; steal (or be inspired by) the following ideas from your Arkansas peers: facility managers, event-goers and party planners who’ve seen firsthand how creative events yield incredible results.
Play with your food.
In spite of industry statistics and expert testimony claiming certain types of food shouldn’t be served during certain corporate functions because of dreaded food-weariness or crashes — it’s usually the stuff you actually want to eat that they don’t serve — the staff at Pinnacle Country Club in Rogers believes the menu is an important way to excite attendees and entice them back for future events.
“We hosted a Blue Moon Dinner for Miller/Coors,” said Carole Schultz, director of events at PCC. “They flew the creator of Blue Moon in and we paired food with Blue Moon and several other beers he had created.”
Jennifer Boulden, communications and event services manager for the Fort Smith Convention & Visitors Bureau, said that in light of the recent hit Hollywood remake of “True Grit,” the bureau has been putting on more “True Grit”-themed events. For instance, at the Fort Smith National Historic Site, “We had a national convention a few years ago that had dinner in the original ‘Hell on the Border Jail,’” she said. “[We served] a dinner of stew and cornbread and sweet potatoes with molasses on tin plates, as men in the 19th century might have. This summer the Hell, Grit & Justice on the Border Conference also recreated one of these dinners in the jail.”
Beth Boyd, corporate director of sales for Crowne Plaza–Little Rock, recalled how one company’s safari-themed event lent itself to fun with food. “We sold Safari Breaks where we made ‘huts’ out of straw/bamboo and served macadamia nut cookies, skewers of marshmallows, brownies, tropical fruit and, to top it off, we had someone in a gorilla suit handing out bananas,” she said.
Skip the silent auction.
Fundraisers have grown rather predictable these days. Silent auction, golf scramble, raffle tickets, live auction during dessert — it’s time for fresh fundraising ideas for your next event. Patrick Hall, general manager of Fred’s Hickory Inn in Bentonville, touts a particularly popular fundraiser hosted at his facility: the Bentonville/Bella Vista Telethon Executive Lock-up.
“Local community leaders and business owners are pre-recruited to join us at the Inn to participate,” he said. Recruited participants, otherwise known as “jailbirds,” are picked up by local officials (fire fighters, police officers and sheriff deputies) and brought to the Inn, where they are greeted, “booked” and photographed (souvenir picture) by the “judge.” Jailbirds are then given a cell phone so they can “raise their bail” (funds for charity) while having a bite to eat and networking with other community leaders. The money raised benefits local Muscular Dystrophy Association research and events.
The NEA Baptist Charitable Foundation of Jonesboro’s annual Duck Classic, which benefits five Northeast Arkansas charities, is another great example of an Arkansas fundraising event that’s outside the box. Simply put, it’s a duck hunting competition in which teams pay to compete. Teams of four hunters are put together by raffle during a pre-event banquet, and local landowners donate spots to hunt and provide guides; there’s a point system, shell limit, time limit and other guidelines.
“Part of what makes the event so special is the interaction it gives us with the community,” said Kim Provost, the fundraising coordinator for the NEA Baptist Charitable Foundation. “It gives us an opportunity to reach out and make people aware of the purpose our different programs serve in their town, [but more than anything] everybody looks forward to getting together and having fun.”
Set a (cool) theme and run with it.
Using themes is nothing new. Many themes commonly used are good, yet they’re common and just need to be taken to a whole new level. Don’t simply denote the theme in the program, on the projection screen and in the tablescapes — pull it all the way through your event.
Boyd has helped execute some elaborate corporate-function themes at the Crowne Plaza–Little Rock. “We had one group that did a ‘Wizard of Oz’ theme. Some employees dressed up as the characters from the movie. They had yellow brick roads leading to the meeting rooms. They used Courage, Heart, Brains, etc., as themes for their breakouts for training in customer service and other areas,” she said. “Two [other companies] did ‘Boot Camp’ training. The facilitators were dressed in fatigues; and we had camo overlays on the meeting tables, used canteens for water on the meeting tables, had part of the break food served out of ammunition boxes, and fake grenades, ammo, etc., for decoration.”
As Boulden at the Fort Smith CVB said, Fort Smith is seeing more “True Grit”-themed conventions and meetings these days — for obvious reasons. This Western-type theme can be taken to so many levels. She recalled one group giving all the attendees marshal badges and eye patches, then taking a group picture of all the “Rooster Cogburns” in front of Judge Parker’s gallows at the National Historic Site.
Ramona Moon, senior sales manager at the Holiday Inn City Center in Fort Smith, also has seen this theme done well. “‘True Grit’ has sparked the use of such items as eye patches, colorful bandanas, toy pistols and lots and lots of cowboy hats of every size, shape and style,” she said. “Saddles, hay bales and Wild West storefronts made of painted of cardboard are usually everywhere. Most [companies] wanted posters intermingled with bouquets of daisies in mason jars, gingham table cloths, kerosene lanterns and ropes and lariats everywhere.”
Don’t skimp on décor.
You don’t necessarily want a Wild West-themed seminar on new media marketing trends (or do you?) — that’s more straightforward. However, if you opt for an interactive or engaging backdrop for your event, go all out. Transform the room. It will make a major statement to attendees.
Shawna Young, executive designer and producer for Young Designs, says dramatic décor is the way to go. “Working with Arkansas Children’s Hospital Foundation last year on their fundraiser, the theme, a winter wonderland, was created in the ballroom with 16-foot-tall white trees,” she said. “Extensive décor surprises guests from the moment they enter the room. They feel like they are in a different city.”
Even more than decorations, Young said, interactive décor — a champagne chandelier, slot machines, blackjack tables, wine pulls or activity stations like photo booths — is a great way to engage guests. “If they get bored they will leave, and who wants to spend a lot of money on an event for everyone to get bored and leave?”
Moon said the Holiday Inn City Center in Fort Smith has used interactive décor, which helps make the room look more like its theme while also engaging attendees. “We’ve had mechanical bulls, bull-roping contests, and [Western] reenactment groups are always popular entertainment options [that fit the theme].”
Young’s goal of not boring attendees is a good one, although sometimes that’s inevitable given that the purpose of your event may, in fact, be to get some work done. Nevertheless, if you do have the time to spare, entertain your attendees. Here are a variety of activities recommended by the Arkansas facility managers and corporate event planners we surveyed: geo caching, digital scavenger hunts, round-robin cook-offs, rock climbing, horseback riding, live music, and adventure races like the CBS TV Show, “The Amazing Race.” Scott Whited with Simply the Best Catering of Little Rock said Cirque du Soleil-style aerial acrobats and performance artists make for incredible entertainment at events.
Jean Heslip with the Arkansas Arts Center recalls an enlivening Maybelline program at the Center. “Maybelline did a fun event for the kickoff of one of their computer programs. It just happened to be called the Isis, who of course was an Egyptian goddess, and they did this during the World of the Pharaohs exhibit. They dressed up in costumes and toured the show — lots of fun,” Heslip said. “And JPMS Cox did an employee fun day that involved making art in the museum school, participating in a hands-on workshop through the education department and touring an exhibit.” n