FOR A SINGLE EVENING in spring 2003, the Phoenician Resort in Scottsdale, Ariz., was transformed into “Rancho Chevrolet,” a setting of Old West buildings and cacti against a dramatic mountain backdrop. Since the visitors to Rancho Chevrolet were the company's dealers, the hitching posts had Chevy trucks attached to them instead of horses, and the local graveyard was littered with the tombstones of the company's competitors.

The evening was part of Chevrolet's three-day Genuine Leaders Program, which the company views not only as an incentive program but also as an opportunity to market and reinforce its brand. From the table linens to the neon Corvette logo centerpieces, planners took full advantage of this opportunity to reinforce the Chevrolet message.

The event was so successfully branded that, according to Jon Michaels, director of operations for Extraordinary Events in Sherman Oaks, Calif., dealers were clamoring for the branded items, writing out checks on the spot for goods ranging from checkered tablecloths to hand-painted umbrellas. “People were enamored with the décor, because Chevy means something to them,” Michaels says.

An Industry Trend?

The inclusion of branding events in incentive programs — as well as the addition of motivational events to marketing-oriented gatherings — is a growing phenomenon, according to Ira Ozer, director of national accounts for USMotivation, Atlanta. These new “multitiered” events not only accomplish dual purposes but also offer companies a greater return on investment, he says.

Taylor Black, a senior producer with Extraordinary Events who was involved with the Chevrolet event, agrees. “You can integrate things like educational programs with incentives and marketing, and combine all of these [corporate] groups that used to take you in separate directions,” he says. “Now you can have a much more succinct marketing message.”

Recent surveys have shown that organizations are increasingly using events as part of their marketing mix. The MPI Foundation/GPJ Event Trends Report 2003 found that 47 percent of organizations were growing their use of events — including incentive events — to increase brand awareness. And the 2004 report shows that 91 percent of all executives consider the importance of event marketing to be either constant or increasing.

Michael Westcott, vice president of marketing for Auburn Hills, Mich.-based event marketing agency The George P. Johnson Co., which co-sponsored the Trends Report, points to the “huge phenomenon” of proprietary events — events that can include conferences, customer meetings, training and certification events, even road shows — as primary parts of a company's marketing mix. These events help to build loyalty and community around a product, and while they are not necessarily pure incentives, they certainly “use what might be perceived as incentive-type tactics.”

Siebel Systems, headquartered in San Mateo, Calif., is a George P. Johnson client with an annual user conference attended by more than 3,000 high-level executives. In fall 2003, GPJ, along with Extraordinary Events, used the Kodak Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard for the finale of the Siebel conference.

Attendees of the Siebel event, which was themed like a Hollywood opening, arrived at the theater and walked down the obligatory red carpet, met by reporters wearing Siebel shirts, photographers with their flashes popping, searchlights, and screaming fans. Food and beverage followed, as well as a show headlined by Natalie Cole. Taken as a whole, the Siebel conference, Westcott says, “is as much a reward for Siebel customers as it is a prospecting and educational event.”

Like Ozer, Westcott points to the financial benefits of such multitiered events. “Companies are increasingly looking to cut costs … to be more efficient,” he says. “When you look at marketing events, they are, after media, the second-largest single-line investment. Look at events across the company, and if you put them in one portfolio, you can save, in some cases, millions of dollars, and do them more efficiently. That's why you see them [these functions] combined into these different events. There is a sort of overall change in the face of events as they [companies] get more strategic in their marketing.”

Akron's a Tough Sell in February

There are also lessons to be learned from the way incentive organizers build excitement and company loyalty among qualifiers.

Diebold, a North Canton, Ohio, Fortune 500 company that develops self-service and security systems ranging from voting machines to ATMs, is a USMotivation client that runs annual “Master's Circle” and “Circle of Excellence” incentive programs. Sales associates and distributors from around the world are eligible, and the program has become so successful that it is used in Diebold's recruiting efforts, according to Jerry Bryan, Diebold's senior manager of global event management.

The 2003 program, its 25th year anniversary, was themed “Fiesta Fantastica,” with trips to Acapulco and Los Cabos. All of Diebold's top executives attended the incentive, which included a meeting component at which attendees were able to hear directly from and interact with the company's top brass. That, says Scott Siewart, a USMotivation regional manager who handles the Diebold program, demonstrates the extent to which the company's executives “want its sales force to feel important.”

The success of this incentive program has convinced Bryan to introduce incentive-type components into other company events that he is responsible for planning. For example, he points to national sales kickoff meetings that are held annually in Akron, Ohio. “Akron in February is a very tough sell,” Bryan explains, but by adding motivational events and entertainment, he has been able to generate more meeting interest and increase attendance.

In the past several years, according to Jon Michaels of Extraordinary Events, companies have been looking “to reinvent themselves.” Part of this reinvention involves different ways of approaching marketing, and Michaels believes companies can learn much from traditional incentive practices when it comes to running a successful marketing event.

It works the other way as well — a successful incentive, event marketers argue, can reinforce the company brand. “Companies have realized that branding begins at home,” finds the MPI Foundation/GPJ Event Trends Report 2004, “and when employees are trained to become brand advocates, external branding becomes more effective.”

Celebrate the Brand

No matter where they turned during the three nights of the Chevrolet Genuine Leaders Program at the Phoenician in Scottsdale, Ariz., the dealers came face to face with the Chevy brand. The first night marked the 50th anniversary of the Corvette, so Corvettes from every decade were on display and the décor — from custom-made umbrellas to checkered black-and-white tablecloths — celebrated the sports car and reinforced the Chevy brand. The second night introduced guests to “Rancho Chevrolet” and its Old West theme. The final night, more formal and elegant, included music from harpists and classical guitarists, before changing speeds with a musical set from rocker Huey Lewis — all on a stage with a huge Chevrolet logo.

“This was not just an incentive,” says Taylor Black, a senior producer from Extraordinary Events in Sherman Oaks, Calif., who helped plan the Chevrolet event. “Everyone had a lot of fun, but it was also about marketing to them in-house as well. It exposed them more to their own product, while allowing them to celebrate it.”