A Grand Finale by Elisa Williams
It's wasn't difficult to guess who was throwing the party at the RMS Queen Mary in early January in Long Beach, CA. The historic ocean liner was bathed in pink lights for the evening, and the sign on the bow of the ship was amended to read "Queen Mary Kay." The 4,700 national and international guests of Mary Kay, Inc., who gathered for the Dallas, TX, company's leadership conference, were welcomed with a massive neon marquee. Once inside, the bash spread throughout the multiple decks of the ship, with various salons hosting different themes of entertainment. The Observation Bar turned into the Comedy Store; the Queen's Salon became The Brown Derby; the Promenade Deck was turned into the Moulin Rouge; the Britannia Salon became Gilly's, a country- western bar; the Royal Salon became the Cotton Club; Grand Salon was turned into the Roxy Theater; the Windsor Salon was turned into Studio 54. How do you top a night like that? You don't - you send everyone home the next day and wait until your next gathering to wow them once more. That's what Ron Trammell, vice president for special events at Mary Kay, did. At Mary Kay's annual seminar in Dallas in July, a series of five final night banquets spaced out over several weeks accommodated the 53,000 partiipants who came to town in groups of 10,000 to attend three-day meetings. Each included an award ceremony with the sales force in formal gowns, as is the tradition at Mary Kay.
Meeting planners like packaging their events with a set beginning and end. "The purpose of a kick-off affair is to heighten people's anticipation of the coming event - be it the week of a trade show, a few days of high level meetings, or a series of seminars," says Joanne Ireland, president of Ireland Presentations, a meeting planning company in San Francisco, CA. "The final banquet serves to wrap up things. The work is done; attendees are relaxed - and ready to go home. You want to bring them together for one final event that is memorable, enjoyable, but still that is directly related to the overall theme." For many, the final night banquet is the time to bring out the always memorable "Wow" Factor. "That's what you're trying to send attendees home with," says Jan Hennessey, manager of meetings and conference services for health services provider Kaiser Permanente in Oakland, CA. "The final night should be the occasion when all the stops come out - the best meal, the best entertainment." At Starbucks Corporation, the last night of multi-day meetings is a time for corporate partners to enjoy dinner, entertainment, and a smattering of awards. "We like to do something interactive and emotional at both the welcome reception and final night banquet," says Marty Fisher, director of retail product development, who plans and produces the Seattle, WA, company's meetings. "At Starbucks we always like to make sure that we start - and end - everything with a real bang." The challenge has been to protect the tradition of honoring standout employees at Starbucks in the face of enormous corporate growth, which means there are so many more attendees to mention than in the company's early days. Fisher said he has found that the key to mixing the work and fun is to choreograph the event down to the minute, with speeches interspersed with meals and music.
"Our goal is to make it as seamless as possible," says Fisher. "Most people have no idea how much work it is." At the January meeting of 1,500 global leaders in Seattle, WA, the speeches and food were also broken up with magic tricks in keeping with the company's "Magic Moments" theme. The theme was then duplicated and taken on the road for last night galas at four regional events held for store managers.
As with many companies, Starbucks likes to give its guests the chance to unwind on the last night. At the end of this year's Starbucks final night banquet, the cover came off the DJ tower, the stage morphed into a dance floor, and the room was transformed into a disco, complete with fog, a strobe, and rave-style glow necklaces. "At the 1:00 A.M. curfew we still had 300-400 attendees there," says Fisher. "It was an incredible night because we kept everyone together." Dancing is a tradition at many final night events, but it's not always appropriate. In July 2001, Microsoft Corporation technical employees from around the world converged in Miami, FL, for a major global conference, indeed, the largest corporate meeting in the company's history. With a guest list that was 85 percent male - spouses weren't included - a final night dance wasn't a viable option for the company. The initial venue of choice was a cruise ship, but none was available that could hold 6,000 people. Instead, the Terminal at the Port of Miami was transformed for the night into the temporary luxury liner MS Microsoft. There was gambling - for fun, not money - in the casino, massages to relax with at the spa, beautiful young women cavorting by a pool to ogle at, music to hear from ports of call such as Puerto Rico, the Bahamas, and Key West, and fireworks to watch launched from the floating theatre outdoors.
Sand And Software
As brash as that was, the MS Microsoft party wasn't even the biggest bash of Microsoft's Miami conference. As well as the 6,000 technical executives, the meeting also brought in more than 5,000 sales executives from around the world. The two groups overlapped at a giant beach party for 11,500 delegates which was held along the beachfront the first evening that the tech executives arrived. As you might guess, this wasn't just a few hot dogs, and beers. Spiro Kafarakis, who then was Microsoft's director of corporate event marketing, worked with Miami, FL-based meeting planners at Logistics Management Group in North Miami Beach, FL, to create a beach party dedicated to all play and no work. Each group had business meetings during the day surrounding the launch of Windows XP, says Kafarakis, who is now the managing director and owner of the strategic event planning and marketing company K2ES in Los Angeles, CA.
"We have to consistently bring large groups of people together and convey a marketing message to them," says Kafarakis. "The theme was 'The Power of X.' This was a notable celebration of the brand." The celebration divided the beachfront into three distinct party settings along a stretch of the beachfront the length of three football fields. In the 50's-themed Beach Blanket Bingo environment, Go-go dancers strutted on the nose bridge of 12-foot sunglasses while bartenders served drinks through the eyes. In the Rainforest area, there were tropical fish in an aquarium at the bar, exotic reptiles and birds to watch, and music from a variety of tropic locales. Food included fried alligator bites. For the requisite futuristic section there were Cirque du Soleil-style performers and rave-style dancing. "There was something happening everywhere. People could stay the whole evening and not get bored," says Susan Gladstone, vice president of Logistics Management Group. "We literally had to throw people out at midnight."
It was the final night for the Microsoft sales team, but the first night for the tech team. Complicated travel schedules has meant that many companies are now moving their traditional last night events to other nights of the schedule.
Melinda Erickson, manager of administrative and office services at sportswear company Pacific Trail Inc. in Seattle, WA, says the meetings she plans often have a very laid back opening and closing, because the attendees are tired from long flights from New York, NY.
Cocktail Party Blues
"We used to have a huge opening night cocktail party for the more than 200 attendees," says Erickson. "They are tired and we were getting little to no participation. Now they trundle down in sweats for pasta and go up to bed. By the end of the week of meetings and forecasting they are exhausted, and ready for an early night. They enjoy a quieter, more intimate affair, usually comfort food, before getting up at the crack of dawn," Erickson says, adding that spouses aren't along for the trip. "As the years go on, these guys want to get in, do their forecasting, and get on the road." Business And Pleasure What was formerly the final night banquet has been moved to the middle of the week, and still includes awards and a much more formal setting. Recent Pacific Trail conferences have been held at the Semiahmoo Resort in northern Washington, Bell Harbor Conference Center at Pier 66 in Seattle, WA, and at the Coeur d'Alene Lodge in northern Idaho.
"You have to know your attendees and their schedule," she says. "At one of our most successful last night events we served sliced beef sandwiches, mixed salad, and onion rings. Everyone kept talking about how great those onion rings were."
"They should be more relaxed. The key ingredients are ambience, food, and socializing." The French Touch And where is there better food and ambiance than in France? Kaiser's Hennessey used a French theme for a final night banquet for 150 at The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel, in Dana Point, CA. She recreated the streets of Paris, with artists, flower vendors, and of course, wine. "It was artful, European, and entertaining," Hennessey says. "You don't have to have steak, lobster, a band, and dancing at the end of every event. People really liked it." That doesn't mean the addition of foreign food and the lack of a band wasn't somewhat controversial. "You can be sure that everyone debated it ad nauseum," Hennessey says. "It ended early, and people weren't all drunk."
Ending early by design isn't necessarily a bad thing. Hennessey says a common mistake she sees is for the dancing to begin too late - it shouldn't start after 9:00 or 9:30 P.M. - or having the band take a break too early. Attendees then start to filter out thinking the party has faded, rather than deliberately leaving together or staying longer. The music at the French-themed night at the Ritz was opera selections sung by The Three Waiters, who performed between courses.
Remember: As fun as the event may be, it's still business that has brought them to the table. C&IT