By choosing creative partners and collaborating closely with them, companies can reach the goal of engaging employees at meetings.
Take a good story. Add time, a creative team, plenty of trust and communication, and set the whole thing to music. Sprinkle in a little magic and a lot of rehearsal. Then raise the curtain on a meeting experience that delights, teaches, and leaves a lasting impression—even on an audience of 350 accountants (and their guests).
That’s what happened at the BDO USA annual partners meeting in November 2010. BDO is a network of 49 U.S. accounting firms, and its annual meeting is usually a straightforward business event for 300 partners. But last year was different. After all, the company was turning 100.
“The 100th anniversary represented a rare opportunity,” says Marty McLaughlin, a BDO national director who plans the annual partners meeting. “We had to do something unique.” The culmination of three years of planning, the meeting kicked off with a general session in a hotel ballroom. Sounds typical, but this session consisted of a fully produced musical complete with six actors, eight singers, 10 dancers, a 50-person choir, and a 55-foot-wide plasma screen standing in for cityscapes across the decades.
Telling the Story
Helping McLaughlin and Mary Anastas, BDO’s director, meeting event services, bring the company’s history to the stage was Disney Event Group, the event planning and production team at the Walt Disney World Resort. DEG is like a destination management company, but one that has all subcontractors—and every bell, whistle, and pixie dust sprinkle—right there in-house. Which simplifies contracting and communication. “Everybody is dialed in, from the convention services manager to the production team to the script writer,” McLaughlin says.
So let’s get to that script. “We knew we had a great story that goes beyond the corporate history to people and values,” McLaughlin says. But the audience was diverse: There were families, international attendees, longtime BDO members, and newly admitted partners. What would engage all of them?
The centennial book—a collection of photographs, interviews, and narratives—proved to be the spark. “It was a one-dimensional document,” McLaughlin says. “We asked DEG to breathe life into it and to add a modern element. DEG tackled it with three key people.” Those three were Creative Consultant Mark Huffman, bringing the passion and vision; Producer Doug Klug, making the vision work with the budget and other meeting elements; and Event Consultant Laura Skelton, coordinating the people and resources throughout the resort.
“One hundred years of accountants in four hours: It does not sound exciting,” Huffman says. But even he was taken with the company’s story—one guy in a small office under the Brooklyn Bridge who has a vision of helping businesses grow. A company staying true to its values through world wars, legislative changes, and advances in technology. “We really digested the centennial book and got a sense of their heritage,” says Huffman. “Then we thought about how we remember moments in time. Music is one way.” And there you had it. BDO: The Musical was born.
Bringing Ideas to Life
When you need to deliver a message that teaches and motivates, try working backward. DEG’s Huffman asks clients: “When this is done, what do you want attendees to feel, to learn?” He also asks about the company and its “position in the world”—its competitors, successes, challenges. “I get into the mindset of what the company wants to convey,” he says, “and then put their goals in the form of a story with a beginning, middle, and end.”
And while Huffman dreams up possibilities, Doug Klug looks at the practicalities. “We have to manage budget expectations,” he says. “How can we maximize what the company wants to spend?” If a company is shy about sharing budget numbers, Klug will ask probing questions, such as, “What have you done in the past? What are attendees’ expectations? Do you always book name entertainment? We can judge the appropriate scale and scope from the answers.”
The Right Fit
For BDO, the scale and scope was a fully produced musical. But it wasn’t just entertainment. It was carefully written (over 15 months and 12 revisions) to educate and inspire. Executives who appeared on stage went through a training session and rehearsals. “The story of BDO is about people and inspiration. There are parallels between BDO and Disney,” McLaughlin says. “When you’ve got someone like Mark from an organization that embodies the same values … we couldn’t have chosen anyone better to tell the story.”
And when the story ended with the CEO taking a pen out of his pocket and passing it to a young accountant with the words, “You are our future,” McLaughlin says, “there was not a dry eye in the house. There was an endless standing ovation. Without question it was the highlight of my professional career.”