It doesn't take much to throw a meeting off course. Just ask Steve Nosek about the 2001 annual dealer meeting he planned for Mohawk Industries, Dalton, Ga., where he then worked as director of advertising and merchandising.

The trouble began with the entertainment, a takeoff on Blue Man Group. The talent never did a dress rehearsal, and when they showed up with spiky hair, pointy ears, and bodies painted in, not blue, but lime green, Nosek was not the only one surprised by the performance. To make matters worse, difficulties with the electrical equipment delayed a part of the show, and from his seat, Nosek could hear band members arguing with one another.

Not only did the act run 40 minutes over, at the end, the group threw 2,000 bouncy balls into the audience, which the event production company never cleaned up. So afterward, people coming up on stage had to dodge a minefield of little rubber balls. “The whole thing was a nightmare,” he says.

Nosek attributes the mess to his choice of an inexperienced event production company that did not take the time to understand the culture of his organization. “The company had done our exhibit setup for a while and was looking to get into events. Because I knew the company and the salesperson, I didn't pay as much attention as I should have. I thought I was in good hands.”

It was a mistake Nosek won't make again. For his next event, he did his homework, and partnered with Los Angeles-based EventWorks. He hasn't looked back.

EventWorks came prepared with new ideas for meeting themes, creative ways to keep attendees on the trade show floor, and a variety of talent acts to wow the 2,000-plus dealers who come to the convention each year. Last year, the company's creativity helped Nosek to re-engineer the convention program to include a large warehouse sale where dealers could take advantage of “blue light specials” during the first night's event — a change that has boosted sales and generated new excitement around the company's flooring products.

Nosek is grateful to now have a production partner that he can trust. But as he can attest, gambling on an outsider with the message and theme of your meeting — especially if the event is high-profile — can be risky.

Can They Talk Strategy?

Because each production company markets itself differently and has different skill sets, it is critical to do your research. “There are tons of production companies out there,” says Deanna Wong, former executive producer for Intel, Santa Clara, Calif. “Anyone can buy a piece of equipment and say, ‘I'm a production company,’ but very few are solid event-production companies.”

The fact is, with a production company, planners need to look for multiple skills. The top ones focus on the logistics of producing an event as well as its creative and thematic elements — and they are usually well-versed in the technical aspects of production, including AV, lighting, video production, stage design, and set design. Many also book talent acts, offer services in speech writing and speech coaching, and even handle catering and décor.

For Kathy Miller, president and chief creative officer of Schaumberg, Ill.-based Total Event Resources, a big difference between event companies is whether they are task-driven or strategy-driven. Julio Campos, founder of Santa Monica, Calif.-based Campos Creative Works, agrees. “We treat an event as a mini-campaign. It involves creating a theme that contains the messaging of the event, and that carries through to the attendees from the moment they receive the first ‘save the date’ to when they walk out that door and go home.”

Most production companies have a core team of in-house experts as well as multiple freelancers to assist with projects. In the case of Campos Creative Works, the company has a staff of 30 as well as 25 to 30 “perma-lancers” who work almost exclusively for the company. While services offered vary from company to company, Campos notes that a good production company does not limit itself. For example, he says, for the dealer meetings of Volkswagen of America, where attendees get a sneak preview of new models, “we essentially have to become a security company because we can't allow anyone to take pictures of those new models and concept cars.”

“I would be in a lot of trouble if a picture of one of the vehicles surfaced in the media,” says Steve Neder, Volkswagen of America's general manager of product marketing, Auburn Hills, Mich., who is responsible for making sure that the events go off seamlessly. “I value how CCW executes the security plan for those meetings.”

Make Everyone Look Good

Intel's Wong relied on event-production companies to make sure that her chairman's and CEO's speeches went off without a hitch. “We're not in the business of putting on events, so we really have to trust a production agency to act on our behalf.”

Because these speeches were often overseas and included very prominent attendees, there was no room for error. “Intel is a high-profile company, and these were very high-profile individuals,” says Wong. “I couldn't afford to let them down.”

Wong firmly believes that you need to have a lot of trust in whom you hire: “If something goes wrong, you are going to have to look to your production company to back you up. If you don't have a good company behind you, you don't look good.”

Wong says she got it right when she selected a production company to help her pull off a keynote in Istanbul, Turkey, in July 2006, where Intel's president and CEO addressed a large group that included many of Turkey's most prominent ministers of finance and communications. Intel flew all of the technical equipment in from the United States and relied on the production company to resolve technical issues and sync up equipment on-site.

“As a client, I want to be able to fly to Turkey and feel confident that things are going to go as seamlessly in Istanbul as they would if I were in New York,” says Wong. Luckily, they did. “Our colleagues at Intel Turkey told us that they had never seen a keynote done that way before. We incorporated local people into the demos, and our venue staging was beautiful.”

First Dates

Finding an event-production company usually begins at the request-for-proposal stage, where meeting planners put an event out to bid to three or more companies. But once the field of candidates is narrowed down, working with a production company is not about turning the event over to someone else and letting them run with it — it is a collaborative effort.

Says Total Event Resources' Miller: “It involves a lot of gathering information and listening. Every client that comes to us has a different need and objective, so we really start by learning as much as we can about the goals of the event.”

At CCW, the process involves getting both sides together for a creative input meeting at the outset of a project. “We meet with the meeting planner or marketing executive and have a kickoff to discuss what the meeting is going to be about,” says Campos.

From that point, a creative director, and often an executive producer and a writer, are assigned to the project. Those two then assemble the rest of the core team, which can include a lighting director, a speech coach, video and sound designers, and others. At this point, the production company typically presents the client with another, more formal proposal that includes specific pricing.

Dollars and Sense

“In the special-events industry, pricing is really a controversial issue and a hot topic right now,” explains Lisa Hurley, editor of Pacific Palisades, Calif.-based Special Events magazine (a CMI sister publication). “Some companies charge an hourly fee for services, and some charge a markup on everything that they source for you, but there are really a million ways to do pricing.”

With Sarbanes-Oxley and procurement forcing more transparency into invoices, clients are looking for production companies to provide line-by-line costs of each service. “Clients want the invoice to specify the cost of each service and the production company's fee next to it,” says Hurley. “It is causing the event-production industry to open up its books a lot more.” It's also raising more questions, she says. Production companies are asking, “How do you put a price on creativity?” and “How can we charge you for a service in a way that makes sense to procurement?”

Steve Nosek says that he asks his event-production company for an overview of the aspects of his meeting that require their expertise, such as a themed dinner on the first night or entertainment for the farewell gala. They then come back to him with a presentation on the creative, as well as pricing based on the meeting's budget. “They usually give me pricing in three different increments.”

A good way to determine if the production company is sensitive to your bottom line is to pay close attention during the proposal stage. “I once had a company come in three times higher than my budget,” says Nosek. “I had given them my budget up front, and they came in with a proposal at $800,000 for a budget that was between $250,000 and $300,000. I thought, ‘How good could they be at maintaining cost if they can't even present an idea that is within budget?’”

Price integrity is also critical to Volkswagen's Steve Neder. He likes working with a company that provides a detailed estimate from the start and understands budgetary restrictions. “They should be able to find a way to make your program just as good with the budget you have.”

Neder understands that events can go over budget despite everyone's best efforts, but he's a firm believer that unforeseen costs should be dealt with right away, and that's what he expects. “[The executive producer] always comes to me immediately and explains the situation,” says Neder of his current production company, CCW. “He will come up with alternatives and give me the option to make a decision on the spot based on the facts at hand.”

While cost is among the most important factors to address when partnering with an outside company, it is not the only thing that Intel's Wong considers. “When I am looking over bids for potential agencies, I tell myself two things: Never settle, and you get what you pay for.”

At the end of the day, it's about finding that trusted partner that will maintain the integrity of the organization and create a memorable experience for attendees.

“The client needs to walk away knowing that they spent $100,000 and got a return on that investment, and a return on the experience,” says Miller. “We try to integrate the marketing and communication pieces of what companies are looking for and then to deliver those pieces in the most exciting and dynamic way.”

What Kind of Event Will $100,000 Buy?

CLIENT: Mohawk Industries, Dalton, Ga.

PRODUCTION COMPANY: EventWorks, Los Angeles

TITLE: Mohawk Idol

VENUE: Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center, Nashville, Tenn.

OBJECTIVE: To grab the attention of the company's dealers during the annual convention's opening general session.

DESCRIPTION: The company turned the microphone over to employees and let them shine on stage, complete with a panel of judges made up of client VIPs and a guest appearance by singer Diana DeGarmo from the American Idol television show.

6 Tips to Finding an Event Pro

  1. Lay the Groundwork

    Be as specific as possible about the meeting's goals and objectives, and provide details about your company's culture to ensure that the creative adheres to your brand.

  2. Trust Your Gut

    Meet potential companies face-to-face. Ask yourself if the salesperson and executive producer are interested in learning about your company and its goals or are more concerned with selling you on an idea.

  3. Who's Your Contact?

    Find out who your main contact will be at the production company. Will he be solely dedicated to your event? If your production company is not locally based, find out if there's a local contact person who can be available for meetings and conference calls on short notice.

  4. Send an E-mail

    This is a little trick that Deanna Wong, former executive producer for Intel's chairman and CEO, Santa Clara, Calif., likes to use to test out potential companies. “I send the company an e-mail with a question,” says Wong. “If it takes them more than one day to get back to me, they don't get the job. You don't want someone on your team who sits on an issue for more than one day. In the production world, one day means everything.”

  5. Check References

    Ask references about the level of service they received, budget integrity, and if the event was executed to their specifications.

  6. Keep an Eye on the Bottom Line

    Ask about the company's policy on services that go over budget. Scheduled budget review meetings can also help to mitigate surprises.