Get Out to Get Together

By: Jeff Waddle

All work and no play makes for a dull conference. Budgets are still tight, but meeting planners are looking for new ways to hold team-building and networking events away from the convention center. The venues are as far away as the desert and as close as a famous department store.

The information and education obtained at association conferences and tradeshows are primary reasons why people are willing to invest the time and expense to attend. But the entertainment and other special activities help make the event memorable—and keep attendees coming back. In recent years, many groups meeting in the West have significantly cut back on special events, entertainment, and team-building exercises. Those activities are making their way back onto the agenda, though with a closer eye on the budget.

"We're seeing an increase in team building in particular," says John McKennon, owner of Meeting Management Services, who has facilitated numerous meetings in Las Vegas and other major Western destinations for associations. "I think everybody is trying to get out of the doldrums and put business back where it needs to be. I think everybody is just plain old tired of being tired."

McKennon says his groups generally want to get outdoors and engage in fun, physical activities, especially if participants can benefit their host community in the process. "We have a thing called 'voluntourism,' where we design a custom program with a social responsibility activity that shows the good side of their organization and what they can do to help the public," he says.

He adds that many of his clients choose Las Vegas as a host city because its built-in entertainment options allow them to scale back on their own receptions. But many planners have learned that great experiences don't require the glitz of the Strip. Indeed, as entertainment budgets have ticked upward, many groups are looking to connect away from the city lights. And if those budgets are still tight, breaking the mold with a nontraditional venue can make for a memorable experience.

Entertainment on a Budget

"Team building for both corporate and association groups has been on the upswing more recently than it has in my past 10 years in the DMC [destination management company] business," says Nicole Marsh, CMP, DMCP, president of The Arrangers. Like McKennon, Marsh sees an increased focus on corporate social responsibility (CSR) projects like "build a bike" events, in which teams compete in different activities to earn tools to build and then donate a bicycle to a local children's charity. "When we're presenting them with traditional team-building options alongside CSR elements, they're choosing the CSR nine out of 10 times," she says.

Marsh says that many association groups are waiting until the last minute to add entertainment to their programs as they confirm attendance will support it.

"We're doing events for groups next week that just called this week. And it's not that I'm encouraging people to wait, but sometimes you do get a great deal at the last minute," she says. "So, my advice is don't just skip [entertainment] altogether, and if you can add it back, it's OK to add something in at the last minute if the money is there, because DMCs are built around flexibility and can adapt to changes as needed."

Marsh adds that groups are also looking for ways to lower the cost of events by sourcing locally and choosing nearby venues.

"They're wanting something walkable so they don't have the transportation expenses," she says. "Fortunately, we have a lot of options, so they get more bang for their buck, whether it's a lower budget or putting that money saved into something else. From an entertainment perspective, we've seen groups in the past bring entertainment from out of state that are now looking for that local source because you're saving quite a bit on airfare and travel expenses."

Others are seeing the same trend. "About 85 to 90 percent of my entertainment is local because we have some great bands and cultural options, so we don't have to bring in entertainment from LA or Vegas," says Lori James-Brownell, president of AZA Events.

Desert Rallies to Mountain Hikes

James-Brownell has noticed another theme emerging: Groups are requesting interactive entertainment for team-building and other events.

One popular activity is a Hummer photo rally, in which teams spread out into the desert in SUVs in a competition that involves taking Polaroid pictures and answering questions about the native environment and Arizona history. Gatherings that showcase Southwest culture are also popular.

Organizations that hold meetings "want something distinctive and unique, and a lot of clients also are looking for venues that already have ambiance and sex appeal so they don't have to invest a lot of money in decor," she says. She adds that social responsibility also is popular, whether it's an offsite team-building exercise or a reception on a property where a game-show element can be added that allows participants to win money for a designated charity.

Nancy Rodriquez, director of sales-global accounts for Origin Event Planning, reports that custom scavenger hunts have been a popular choice for the team-building events the firm has designed recently. "Scavenger hunts have gone to the next level from written clues to now using cellphones and navigation systems to move from one place to the next," she says.

Rodriguez advises that for events like receptions, planners should look for ways to get people mixing. "Look at your crowd and what you are trying to achieve," she says. "For example, at a first-night welcome reception, think outside the box with adding pool tables and racing games to create an area where the ice can be broken and suppliers/buyers and upper and lower management can start dialogue."

Stephanie Arone, DCMP, president of Activity Planners, says she has seen association groups increasingly bring back entertainment. But it differs from years past.

"They are bringing back sponsored entertainment to their programs but at different times than pre-recession," she says. "Rather than having a large hosted reception with entertainment in the evening, my clients have been putting some of their budget toward opening general session or happy-hour entertainment, hosting a brief reception on the tradeshow floor at the close of the day."

Tony Kutch, partner and executive vice president of SH Worldwide, says that clients are spending more on entertainment in 2011 than they have in the past two years, and they are increasingly looking for places that eliminate distractions so participants can focus on team building. "They're definitely not going crazy with it," he says. "But they're certainly back out there, because it's an important element of an event. And they're not interested in traditional team building. They're looking for a more remote location like going up in the mountains and not having TV, emails, and cellphones, so they're really focusing on the team."

Kutch says that by adding entertainment strategically into an event's agenda, groups can vastly improve the experience. "You spend so much money on air and ground transportation, hotel accommodations, and food and beverage, so if you don't skimp and spend a little more on the entertainment and some of those extracurricular activities, you can make it an amazing event as opposed to a good one," he says.

New and Nontraditional Networking

"We haven't seen what I refer to as traditional team building coming back as much," says Rachel Benedick, vice president of sales and services for Visit Denver. "But honestly, what I see is the new version of team building is networking, doing it in different spaces where they're not in the lobbies of hotels or convention centers. We're not talking lavish parties to spend money for the sake of it, but what our clients are doing is creating options for attendees, and it's really all about networking. The economy has created a competition level that most of us haven't seen in many, many years, so our clients are saving money on their meetings in a lot of different ways. They're able to reinvest in different areas and bring back that enjoyable factor to help drive attendance and make sure the meeting becomes the 'you can't miss this' event."

After getting requests from members for more networking opportunities, the Association of Clinical Research Professionals added a special offsite event at its 2011 annual conference in Nordstrom's flagship store in Seattle, says Cindy Savery, meeting planner for ACRP. The store was closed to the public for the evening event, which featured shopping, champagne, and hors d'oeuvres while adhering to a modest budget.

"The Nordstom event wasn't lavish, but our members had such a great time," says Savery. "We're over 80 percent women, and when women shop, they end up talking even if they may not know [the person they're with]. Networking is very important to our members. They're in clinical research, so it's important they talk to see what they're doing, results they've found, and methods they're using. With these events, you need to keep the member in mind and not the 'ah' factor."

Jeff Waddle is a Cincinnati-based freelance writer. Email: [email protected]

Sidebar: Many Meetings, a Mile High

What happens when you have several small events taking place on the same evening but want to make attendees feel like part of a big community? You rent out a football stadium, of course.

That's what the National Cattlemen's Beef Association did last February for its Cattle Industry Annual Convention in Denver. Thad Larson, director of marketing and events for NCBA, says the association rented Invesco Field at Mile High (now Sports Authority Field at Mile High) because it would accommodate several smaller receptions under a larger umbrella event for the convention's approximately 6,000 attendees.

"We had a number of different receptions involving various subgroups and state representations that invited their own demographics, and that worked very well for us for many years," says Larson. "But what we have done the past two years is to have those receptions join forces to give everyone an opportunity to attend a reception to network and socialize while still allowing those smaller receptions to retain their own identity. In previous years, some people wouldn't have been involved in those smaller-group events."

Larson says the stadium offers a number of individual spaces, such as private club-level suites where the smaller groups could host their invitation-only events without getting swallowed by the larger event around them.

"We worked with our production company to create a halftime show with a marching band and used that as a way to introduce a couple of award recipients," he says. "There was also a lot of fun interactive things they could do, like tours of the facility and even going down on the field and kicking field goals."