WHEN THE HOME DEPOT celebrated its 20th anniversary, the company wanted nothing less than to knock the socks off the 2,000 store and regional managers. So they decided to hire a big-name performer — and to keep that name a surprise.

Of course, this being The Home Depot, the company also wanted a good deal from a supplier. They wanted to hire The Eagles, but the price tag for the entire act was $1 million — steep, even for them. As a less costly option, they were offered two members of the band at one-third the price.

Ladies and Gentlemen, please welcome Glenn Frey and Joe Walsh OF THE EAGLES!

“What we announced,” recalls former Home Depot Director of Internal Communications Rob Hallam, “and what they heard were two different things. All the audience heard was ‘The Eagles.’ And we saved $600,000.”

Don Henley was the key missing ingredient. There were a couple of songs that the band absolutely, contractually, could not perform without him, such as “Hotel California.” But nobody complained. Hallam called the performance, organized by New York-based Jack Morton Worldwide, the “emotional cement” of the three-day event — the “perfect crescendo.”

How Big Is Big?

If you are thinking about exploring the world of big-time corporate entertainment bookings, first be sure that your budget and the entertainment world's perception of “big” are on the same planet.

“Some of our buyers financially describe a ‘superstar’ or ‘A-list’ entertainer by $50,000, some by $250,000,” says Mark Sonder, chief entertainment officer of Mark Sonder Productions Inc., Washington, D.C., which provides headline talent for corporate events. “You can spend a seven-digit number for a superstar as well.” For $3 million, Sonder says, companies can have their pick from the highest ranks of pop and rock — such as The Rolling Stones.

“There are some clients that are very savvy,” says Clare O'Boyle, director of entertainment, United States, for Jack Morton Worldwide. “They know what the price tag is, and they feel that it's money well spent. Others want Sting or Elton John, not understanding that there is a high price in terms of fee, production costs, and the cost of the performer's entourage.”

According to O'Boyle, the hottest names in corporate entertainment these days include Sting, Coldplay, and Lenny Kravitz. “Lenny is not on the same tier as Elton John or Sting, but he is up there,” she says. “Lenny would definitely be considered a hot commodity in the corporate world. He appeals to a broad demographic. Coldplay would consider doing corporate. I would say they're selective. Maroon 5 would be way up there. Also Keene — these are all names we're offering to our clients.”

If these are not names from your generation, that's no surprise. O'Boyle says that big bucks corporate entertaining today leans more toward a younger demographic. No offense, Tony Bennett.

General Motors, for example, recently hired the Black Eyed Peas for its product launch of the Hummer H3. It was a great fit for the band, since one of its singers already owned an H2. At the event, there were two vehicles on stage with the Peas; one was a new H3, the other was the singer's personal H2.

“They were a fun act, very accommodating,” O'Boyle said. “They were really into the brand and passionate about it. It was a huge success.”

No wonder: As part of their compensation, band members received new H2s.

What You Should Know

Be warned: Costs aren't as simple as the artist's fee.

“For the extras, such as contract rider requirements, a general rule of thumb is that you should figure an additional 30 percent or more over the cost of the talent fee,” Sonder advises.

The good news: First, some performers will negotiate. Next, there are ways to bring costs down, such as piggybacking on a public performance that the performer is making.

“A good music purveyor should be able to both gather a tour history of an artist as well as tell you if the artist you are looking to hire is within 250 miles of your event site,” Sonder says. “It is in that situation that the organization may be able to save a significant amount.”

For example, in April, O'Boyle managed to book Huey Lewis & The News for a client's event — on just a week's notice. “We piggybacked on an existing show, and we were able to significantly reduce the cost,” she says. “Huey has 20 or so people who travel with him, so that was a big cost savings for our client.”

What can you expect from a big-name performer? For one, that they go the extra mile and include a few strategic references to the organization that hired them. “For the entertainer to understand the audience so they can tie in is very important,” says Bill Morton, chairman of Jack Morton Worldwide. “It's a nice addition if they drive a GM car, or if they take a certain medication, where they can identify with it. This is not a public audience; it's a private audience. The entertainer doesn't necessarily need to do a spiel, but it helps that they can identify with the host.”

“If we feel it's appropriate, we will ask them to underscore a few key points and acknowledge the attendees,” O'Boyle says. “We always give a run-through of who the client is, what the event is, why attendees are there. We want our talent to make attendees feel really special.”

However, don't expect that by signing the check, you get to choose the song list. “These people do not change their acts for your group,” Morton says. “You might ask to put in a song or two you like, but these people are doing their thing that has worked.”

On the other hand, sometimes you just get lucky.

“Pat Benatar performed for one of our pharmaceutical clients to launch a drug administered with a shot,” O'Boyle recalls. “She has a strict set list. Her repertoire is what it is. We asked her to adjust one song, however, and perform ‘Hit Me With Your Best Shot’ as her finale. She did and thanked the attendees at the end for doing such a great job and working so hard. Things like that just make a huge difference. She understood that.”

Another possibility is a VIP meet-and-greet with the talent after the show. “Some performers come and go and don't do that,” Morton says. “But the exclusivity of entertainment and access to that entertainment for your attendees is important.” You shouldn't expect performers to meet and greet all of them, he says, “but if the EVP and president or others want to go backstage, it's important.”

“It's a reasonable expectation,” O'Boyle agrees. “Our clients are paying a lot of money for this experience. It's not a lot to ask that key execs get to press the flesh.”

What Not To Do

Entertainment experts caution their corporate clients away from two genres these days: comedy and rap.

“I have not booked any rap artists,” O'Boyle says. “There's a huge P.C. factor. We're working with a younger demographic, but we need to protect our client's image, too.”

As for comedians, there is a fine line between what the chairman of the board finds funny at home and what his board of directors might laugh at — or not.

“A lot of names look good on television or in concert but are just not right,” says Morton. “Attendees at a meeting or incentive trip are guests. They didn't buy a ticket; they didn't get a choice. Therefore, the entertainment has to be selected with the broadest common denominator in mind.”

While still at The Home Depot, Rob Hallam (now with Pitney Bowes Inc.) had good luck hiring middle-of-the-road comedians such as Rita Rudner and Jeff Foxworthy. Both tailored their material to the audience, which surprised and delighted attendees.

“The groups or individuals that do best take the time to work in some localized material,” Hallam says. “That's easiest for comedians, but even singers can work the crowd by doing a little homework.”

Still, you can't be too careful in selecting comedians. Morton's guide is whether he would be comfortable with that person if his wife and children were in the audience. “If I wouldn't, then I wouldn't hire them.

“I don't remember us getting fired often,” he adds. “But if it happened, it was around us hiring a comic who then offended somebody.”

“From time to time I get a request for Chris Rock,” O'Boyle says, “but always with a caveat, ‘no bad language.’ And I say, if you're going to take all that out, there is nothing left.”

Can't Afford That? Try This

  • Can't afford Harry Connick Jr.?

    Consider Peter Cincotti.

  • Want Diana Krall?

    Jane Monheit is a great alternative.

  • No Gavin McGraw?

    Try Michael Tolcher.

  • Los Lonely Boys too pricey since they won a Grammy?

    Try Frankie Perez or Ozomatli.
    Source: Clare O'Boyle, Jack Morton Worldwide