The Meeting Zoo

Meeting Planning

Whether coming up with in-house functions loaded with energy and surprise, or catering to clients’ every request and expectations, planners are multi-tasking dynamos. It’s a zoo out there, especially in today’s climate of budget restraints and general uncertainty. Because we know how hard it is to please a picky audience these days, we asked a handful of seasoned planners what they have done to corral their zoo of attendees—and keep them happy.

Rising to the challenge, as calm and as confident as tightrope walkers, meeting professionals across the West have offered fresh ideas for customizing value- and results-driven meetings, events, conferences and retreats.

According to Dena Freeman, Secretary of the Corporation at KP Corporation, and chief meeting and event planner, she expects the unexpected and always plans for contingencies. She said, “Whether it’s finding a Donald Trump wig in under an hour, or being asked at 4 p.m. to get a 10-foot shower board delivered to our CIO’s hotel room before 8 p.m. . . . . in the pouring rain––I’m always up for it. I never say no, and if I can’t do exactly what’s requested, I try to find an acceptable substitute. I also rely heavily on my hotel to help, and that’s why when sending out RFPs, I make sure that I have a relationship with the hotel. That’s probably the most important aspect of any hotel choice.

Creativity in Red  

Freeman usually gets just two or three months to put together a corporate event, although with the grand opening of KP’s Seattle warehouse, she had the luxury of six months to create a fashion-themed extravaganza to showcase the company’s direct mail, fulfillment and distribution services to their customers, who represent some of the world’s leading consumer brands––from Starbucks to Chevron and Microsoft.

A parade of surprises kicked off the grand opening party for 250 customers, from the red carpet entrance to “paparazzi” photos in front of a Grammy-style, uplighted logo backdrop, to a signature cocktail—the Kosmori, a play on words combining the classic Cosmopolitan with KP’s new Komori printing press. Freeman said, “We used the color red everywhere––on the carpets and table linens, in floor posters and banners hanging from the ceiling and in the inaugural issue of Red, our direct marketing-style magazine.

“I hired graduate fashion design students from a local college to create one-of-a-kind outfits for our high-energy runway fashion show—a Project Runway kind of thing. They translated our direct marketing concepts into spectacular outfits. Our major account executive wore a ball gown made of hundreds of postcards and other collateral that we’ve produced for Nordstrom over the last eight years, while another model wore a ‘wide format’ kimono, and our VP of sales wore a ‘target market’ bulls-eye jacket. Nordstrom loved it all, and now has the dress on display in their corporate office.”

Clients are Kings of the Jungle

Yahoo! clients and advertisers are VIPs at product showcases at the company’s office park headquarters in Sunnyvale, Calif. Senior Events Manager for Corporate Events, Jackie Waldorph said, “Thinking of special ways to make clients feel important is our specialty. Whether it’s showing off their brand or ours, we are always thinking of new ways to make them remember Yahoo! and the experience they had with us.”

For a large pet food company, a purple dog-paw carpet was laid out in welcome, along with bright-colored logoed cupcakes. Waldorph says, “When we welcome clients to our headquarters, we ‘roll out the purple carpet,’ literally. For instance, we added dog-paw magnets to our purple carpet as a fun element and displayed the client’s products to show off their brand and support their business. We also printed facts and fun things about the client on signage around the campus so the employees could get involved and learn about the products, too.”

Warming Up the Home Team

Waldorph and her staff of seven are busy every month producing in-house employee and executive events, from festive lunchtime breaks to annual leadership summits, holiday celebrations and employee family gatherings. Waldorph said, “Our 6,500 employees from around the Bay Area are mostly in the 30–40 age group, so we love to surprise them with fun and motivational activities, such as music on the green at lunchtime, complete with purple inflatable sofas and special snacks and treats.”

Yahoo!’s company color is purple, and they can’t seem to get enough of it. Everyone wears purple on event days and the color is integrated into everything from food and drink to murals, flowers and balloons. Waldorph said, “When we hold events off-site, you can always tell when Yahoo! is there because the purple is prominent. Even our hotel sales managers wear purple when we come to their properties for an event or site visit.”

Dena Freeman also injects fun and games into KP Corporation’s annual company sales meetings. “Since we do so many sales team events, we try to come up with high-energy ideas and surprises for our people to look forward to. We plan literally every minute, and always with lots of theatrics. One of our sales reps said to me, ‘After one of our meetings I am so exhausted, but at the same time so energized. It’s nonstop action from early morning until late at night,’” she said.

Freeman also recounts that for a group of about 70, “We did a ’70s-theme disco party that we called ‘Get Your Groove On,’ at the Grand Hyatt San Francisco. We had high school photos for everyone on display and name tags with the photos. And, of course, a “disco ball” dance. Even the hotel staff got involved in the decorating, just to be a part of it. And, at the absolute last minute, we designed and printed ‘currency’––our Disco Dollars.”

The Budget is the Bear

Savvy planners have the ability to stretch a budget while producing what appears to be a generous, even lavish event. They are attuned more than ever to ROI and to a company attitude—in some cases, that “over-the-top” entertainments and parties may be inappropriate for these economic times.

Waldorph at Yahoo! said, “One of our larger employee events is the family picnic. While in the past we’ve hosted about 7,000 guests, employees and their families, now, many of our events are on a more modest basis. These days, we host a crowd of about 2,000 here on the campus, but we don’t skimp on the fun. The families love the kid-oriented bands and other live music, the “bubble guy,” the inflatable play structures and all the games.”

“My biggest challenge is budget,” said Kathleen Maier, who is Executive Assistant, Strategic Customers, for Dun & Bradstreet in San Francisco. “We try to come up with fun stuff to keep the team engaged and having fun, but the dollars are always the biggest consideration.”

Maier arranges quarterly meetings for a group of three to four dozen employees who work from their home offices. “They don’t see each other except at these gatherings,” she said, “so we combine informational ‘numbers’ presentations about our products with social networking.”

“To keep everyone engaged,” she continued, “I have a ‘Kat’s Chip’ program, which really doesn’t cost much, where if you ask a good question, you get a chip. If you’re on time, you get a chip. If you answer a team-member question (could be as simple as who is a New York Mets fan), you get a chip. The team is very competitive, so everyone gets into it. At the end of the meeting, we have an auction using the chips. Winners get anything from a day off to a suite upgrade at the next meeting to a D&B tchotchke. We don’t have special meeting breaks, but always call the room to order with ‘chip’ opportunities.”

Customize with Choices

Senior Meeting Planner at Liberty Mutual, Lark Nemerever, produces incentive programs and business meeting breaks for customers of the insurance agencies under the LM umbrella. She said, “The customer groups definitely get involved in what we plan for the half-day and evening events and outings that we arrange for them––we usually give them a variety of choices. For instance, at a destination resort we might offer an afternoon of golf, spa, biking and a jeep tour.”  

Nemerever and her staff liven up insurance conferences with some authentic, destination-related activities, such as horse races in Kentucky, rodeos in the Southwest and cooking demonstrations by local chefs. She said, “We gave one group of 35 a special private evening at the home of Chef Kristine Pottle in Seattle.”

Owner of Wandering Café Catering Company, Chef Pottle prepared a giant dish of paella over an outdoor fire on her veranda. She said, “It turned out to be the hottest day on record in Seattle. My thermometer registered 118 degrees on the patio, where I cooked traditional Spanish paella in a very large pan on an open flame. At cocktail hour, the guests got to participate in the preparation while enjoying icy cold, homemade blackberry sangria. They served themselves right out of the very aromatic pan of paella, and all 35 of them sat at a long table in my garden. We passed around grilled bread and heirloom tomato salad, while the sun set and a guitarist strummed softly. It seemed to be a group of people who clearly enjoyed working together and appreciated the efforts of their company to create this special evening.”

Nemerever also put together a personalized meeting break for a recent group of about 100 business meeting attendees at the InterContinental Montelucia Resort & Spa in Scottsdale, Ariz. She said, “It was primarily women, so the focus was on the experience of the spectacular new Joya spa at the resort. One of the most popular activities that afternoon, besides spa treatments and lounging around the rooftop pool terrace, was the lip print reading by the spa’s artist-in-residence ‘lipsologist.’ Everyone loved getting a personality review based on their lip prints! That’s an example of some of the surprises that we try to come up with in addition to what the customer requests. In this case, it turned out to be a great networking opportunity, as the ladies got to know each other while waiting for their lip reading!”

Not Easy Being Green

Director of Sales and Marketing at the InterContinental Montelucia, a Four-Diamond, Spanish-style resort that opened in late 2008, Greg Hanss and his staff are avid “locavores” who make every group experience unique by integrating locally sourced products and Arizona-inspired themes, while matching activities with the corporate culture of his company, and those of his clients. He said, “It’s part of our core sustainable values that we use local suppliers and make use also of our location here at the base of Camelback Mountain. We often welcome our corporate and meeting clients with gifts of the most amazingly aromatic Meyer lemons, grown here in Phoenix at McClendon Farms, along with small bottles of tequila.”

He said, “We recently surprised some sales professionals with an afternoon excursion to the farmers market, escorted by Chef Claudio Urciuoli of our Prado restaurant.”

Chef Claudio guided his guests through the Downtown Phoenix Public Market among the more than 100 vendors of fresh produce from nearby farms and ranches, and goat cheeses, local honey, herbs, bakery goods, vividly colored chiles and heaps of springtime strawberries. The chef carried the strawberries back to his kitchen, where he created three luscious strawberry desserts for the group’s evening meal.

Besides 27,000 sq. ft. of indoor meeting space, Montelucia has terraces and lawns, courtyards and gardens where meeting breaks and parties are enjoyed under the palms in the dry, warm Arizona climate. Adhering to the resort’s sustainable commitment, meeting breaks are often taken on Echo Canyon Trail on Camelback Mountain, which is a short walk from the resort. Guests are often gathered casually for a short trail walk, while others ask for planned hikes to the top, a two-hour trek, where a photographer takes photos on the summit and custom T-shirts are handed out to the hikers.
The first LEED-certified hotel in Seattle, with an all-green commitment from architecture to operation and food and beverage, the sleek, new Hyatt at Olive 8 in Seattle was chosen for a recent KP Corporation gathering. Dena Freeman continued the green theme with a Dr. Seuss book-title inspiration for the meeting—“Oh the Places You’ll Go.” She said, “For our Green Eggs and Ham theme, we incorporated lots of whimsical rhyming and clues. And, breakfast was eggs Benedict with a green hollandaise.”

Special Services for Celebs  

Owner and president of AZA Events in Scottsdale, Lori James, has access to spacious private estates where she arranges private parties for up to 300 people. She said, “We specialize in exclusive experiences that a company or an organization, or just a group of clients, cannot come up with themselves, and the private homes—some as large as 25,000 sq. ft., here in the Paradise Valley part of Scottsdale­­—are perfect for that. The guests love to see the gorgeous desert gardens, the distinctive Southwest architecture, the furnishings and the art—they really feel like VIPs. We often do these private parties for celebrities who want complete confidentiality and exclusivity, as we did surrounding Super Bowl XLII in January [2008].”

James and her team are pros at balancing celebrity appearances with big-name client expectations, such as their Comcast sales staff event in Phoenix that starred Oprah, former Secretary of State Colin Powell and country pop singer, Taylor Swift.

Top That!

As AZA has a steady stream of repeat clientele, James and her staff must come up with entertainment ideas to impress their “seen that, done that” clients. She said, “One of our most well-received live shows was the Broadway show-style ‘Tribute to Billy Joel and Elton John’ band performance, which got everyone up on their feet, dancing and clapping. And, for a medical group, we had them bring their packed suitcases to a huge party in an airport hangar. They were shocked to see the Blue Angels’ jets screaming by overhead. We had NASCAR simulators for them, and an after-party band, and five lucky winners were chosen to leave immediately for a vacation.”

Often when AZA comes into a resort or hotel to put on a multimedia event, they have a “short window” as James calls it, to set up the décor and special effects. For a party that AZA produced for Honeywell’s annual users group conference for 1,000 people at the JW Marriott Desert Ridge and Spa in Phoenix, the pool terrace became available just a few hours before the event, which was a Harry Potter “Wizarding World” extravaganza. James said, “We scrambled to set up our Platform 9 ¾ Station and the steaming Hogwarts train, the magic lessons stations, a make-your-own hat and cape station, and interactive and video games. It was really magic, with broomsticks and spiders in the palms, and hanging candles over the tables, just like in the movie! Harry Potter and Dumbledore look-a-likes mingled with the guests, along with caricaturists, face painters and magicians. At the next conference, we’re doing a cross between Wicked and The Wizard of Oz.”

Escapees from the Zoo

E-mailing from her BlackBerry while watching a Yankees game in New York with a gang of her “homeworkers” from Dun & Bradstreet, Kathleen Maier wrote, “I’m with my team now in NYC, and we’re at a Yankee game! We all took the subway to get here. We’re sitting on the top level in left field, in the nose-bleed seats, and the best part is, everyone is happy and having a great time!”

We thank our planners for their insights and experiences, and hope that you will find inspiration for ideas that will break you out of your cage and, at the same time, satisfy your particular zoo.

The author of The 100 Best Golf Resorts of the World, Karen Misuraca is a freelance golf and travel writer, and the founder of the website