Corporate entertainment is back and it intends to get results.
Three-hour lunches at the Savoy, weekend flings in the Caribbean, product launches with dance troupes and laser shows ... The lavish corporate entertaining which typified the 1980s went into a tailspin in the recession, and many thought it had gone for good. But corporate entertainment is making a comeback - albeit with a difference. As Nick Cooper, managing director of events consultancy Sledgehammer says, 'The budgets are returning but the days of the extravagant jolly are over. Companies expect entertainment to make a point and get business results.' Indeed, the very word 'entertainment', which to some smacks of excess, is often dropped in favour of commercially correct expressions like 'partnership building' and 'interactive events'. But whatever they call it, companies are rediscovering the value of mixing business and fun. Vauxhall Motors showed off the approach at this year's launch of its new Vectra model.
In place of the traditional glitzy show of dry ice and dancing girls, Vauxhall and its consultants Spectrum Communications mounted an elaborate 'experiential learning' event to convince dealers and fleet owners of the car's unique selling points. Over two weeks, some 9,000 existing and potential distributors were put through an intricate set of activities to give them hands-on experience of the product. After a conventional introduction to the car in a theatre setting, the audience was walked through the Luton assembly area to see and touch the £150 million invested in retooling. The dealers then piled into 50 of the new Vectras and, accompanied by Vauxhall 'navigators', motored over to the company's Millbrook proving ground where for several hours they drove through a series of exhibits illustrating economy, comfort and safety - crashed Vectras being used to demonstrate protection of the passenger compartment.
A team of 27 launch consultants then worked with dealers to replicate the experience for nearly 100,000 people at local events across the UK. Although the total cost was not much greater than an '80s style auto launch, the 12 months of planning required was nearly double. 'You spend enormous time determining what you really want to say and how to get it across,' says Vauxhall communications manager Bob Gill.
When British Airways launched its revamped Club World and First Class services earlier this year it hired Sledgehammer to devise an event that was a cross between a living room and a science museum. Visitors played with Newton's cradles and other scientific toys, underscoring the science behind the newly designed cabins and seats. They dipped into bowls of mini Mars bars, demonstrating the new policy of letting premium passengers 'raid' the galley throughout their flight.
When it comes to more routine entertainment, instead of hosting clients at conventional business lunches BA is increasingly using its resources to convey memorable messages. Important guests are often treated to a session in a flight simulator, or allowed to watch BA's wine panel, which includes such luminaries as Hugh Johnson, select vintages for in-flight service. 'One of the big shifts from 10 years ago is that entertainment has become far more focused and targeted,' says BA's manager of corporate events Bob Scobling. 'We realise that our top client is everyone else's top client, and we research carefully to give them something special.' Does this mean that the old standbys like Wimbledon and the Varsity Match will be discarded? Probably not, but savvy companies will be asking how such events match client profiles and their own corporate messages. Reuters has a list of dozens of events geared to specific audiences: wine tastings for stockbrokers, Porsche racing for young analysts, seats at the Bolshoi, and - yes - Wimbledon tickets for tennis-mad senior directors. 'People are working so much harder now, that it's harder to get them out of the office,' says David Gandy, a Reuters director.
Effective does not necessarily mean expensive. Although some companies are actually spending more on corporate entertaining now than they did in the high-rolling '80s, they are typically spending less per event, according to Martin Harvell of Martin Harvell & Associates, and most want to avoid appearing too lavish to their clients. The premium on creativity, however, means that even big companies with in-house event managers regularly retain outside specialists to advise on both strategy and detail. 'I think you'll be seeing this sector growing dramatically in the next few years,' says Spectrum's chairman Peter Berners-Price. 'But clients will be very demanding - and margins will be tight.'.