When Lorna Murdock took the role of director of marketing communications at Sunnyvale, Calif.-based IMPAC Medical Systems Inc., it wasn't long before she realized she could use her previous experience as an executive producer of events to bring a higher level of polish and professionalism to IMPAC's users' meetings. IMPAC, a provider of healthcare information technology solutions for oncology care, had produced its own users' conferences for the past 14 years with internal resources. But with a big product launch coming up and executive management looking to achieve record-breaking attendance at the company's 15th Annual Radiation Oncology Users' Meeting, Murdock knew that she would need an outside production company to help her bring a new dimension to the event and deliver the company's message.
That help came in the form of Santa Monica, Calif.-based Campos Creative Works, which was tasked with providing staging and presentation support for IMPAC's executive speakers and producing videos that reinforced the provider's market position and new product offerings. CCW met with IMPAC executives to brainstorm and develop the theme for the event, “A New Dimension in Oncology IT.” From there the production team began working with Murdock and her team to develop the agenda for the event; coordinate the logistics of load-in and set-up; and provide lighting, sound, and stage design support.
Although IMPAC's senior management was hesitant at first about bringing in an outside company to assist with the meeting, the production company proved its worth. “One of the founders of the company who used to play the role of creative director and event producer, all while running the company, didn't have to get as involved with the planning as he had before,” says Murdock. “At the end of the event, he came up to me and said, ‘That was the most relaxed I have ever been at a users' meeting.’”
The event, held at the Philadelphia Marriott Downtown last November, was attended by radiation therapists, physicists, and oncologists, as well as cancer administrators, and achieved record-breaking attendance with more than 1,300 users present. Murdock attributes a large part of the meeting's success to the selection of an event production company that worked hard to understand her company's goals and objectives.
Return on Experience
In this age of strategic sourcing and Sarbanes-Oxley, it's no secret that companies are looking for meetings to deliver some significant return on investment. Meetings are opportunities to disseminate information, deliver the company message, and get attendees charged up about a brand. Companies like IMPAC are relying on event production companies to take their meeting to a higher level, where branding and company messaging come together in a cohesive experience for the attendee.
It's a recent shift that Kathy Miller, president and chief creative officer of Schaumberg, Ill.-based Total Event Resources, has seen first-hand. “People don't put on events anymore without a specific purpose,” says Miller. “They don't just spend money anymore without looking for results.”
In her 30 years in the business — 13 as president of her own event production company — Miller has seen meetings and events evolve into total experiences designed to deliver a particular company message.
“You walk into a meeting room and see branding everywhere, from the lighting and design of the room to the food and beverage and even the napkins on the bar. The client needs to walk away knowing they spent $100,000 and got a return on that investment, and a return on the experience.”
That's really where an event production company can come in, says Miller. “We try to integrate the marketing and communication pieces of what companies are looking for and deliver that in the most exciting and dynamic way.”
Find a Strategic Partner
So what makes an event production company different from any other event planning company? “I think it's partly how you market yourself,” says Miller. “There are all kinds of event companies out there, from special-events companies and meeting management companies to incentive companies and production companies. Basically they are all different words to describe the fact that we are in the events business.”
Because each company markets itself differently, it is important to do your research to find out if the company you are considering has the capabilities you are looking for.
Typically, event production companies are not focused merely on the logistics of producing an event — but also on the creative, technical, and thematic elements as well. They are usually well-versed in the technical aspects of production, including audiovisual, lighting, video production, stage design, and set design. And many also book talent acts, offer services in speech writing and speech coaching, and even handle catering and décor.
Most production companies have a core team of in-house experts as well as multiple freelancers who can be called in to assist with projects as needed.
Regardless of what they call themselves, Miller says a big difference between event companies is whether they are task-driven or strategy-driven. “We are very involved in the strategic messaging and branding of the event,” she adds.
The distinction is an important one when evaluating production companies, agrees Julio Campos, founder of Campos Creative Works. “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.”
IMPAC's Murdock underscores how important it is to find a company that understands the big picture. “It is so key to work with a company that takes the time to try to learn about your overall program and the core messaging for the event,” she says. “It's not just about trying to use as many bells and whistles as possible. It's about making the experience memorable for the attendees so that the branding hits home and permeates beyond the duration of the event.”
Merck & Co. Inc, Lansdale, Pa., uses event production agencies to assist in the execution of eight internal sales meetings and product launch meetings each year, which range from 500 to 5,000 attendees, says Matt Sanford, associate director of operations for the company. For these events, the production company will typically provide support in program management, speech writing, sound and lighting, and stage design. And, depending on the scope of the meeting, they may also assist Merck in developing a theme for the event, managing the show floor, producing videos, and contracting speakers.
Sanford sends a request for proposal to four to five companies, and briefs each agency on the scope of the program. “We have an input session where we bring all the potential companies in and tell them what we are looking for,” says Sanford. “Then we give them three to four weeks to come back and present an idea for the meeting.” After the production company has been selected, these creative meetings usually continue until the idea is finalized and production schedules are mapped out.
At CCW, the process involves getting both the client and production teams together in brainstorming sessions. “We meet with the internal drivers of the meeting, such as the meeting planner or the marketing executive, and have a kick-off to discuss what the meeting is going to be about,” says Campos, who likes to take a hands-on approach to all the events that CCW produces. “Nothing goes out of this company that I don't touch from a creative standpoint.”
From there a creative director is assigned to the job and often an executive producer and a writer also are assigned, depending on the scope of the meeting. Those people then go out and assemble the rest of the team, which can include a lighting director, speech coach, and video and sound designers, who become the core team tasked with executing the idea that has been agreed on.
At this point the production company typically presents the client with another, more formal, proposal that includes specific pricing based on the creative. And that's when the relationship can get sticky.
The cost of using a production company varies tremendously, depending on the size of your event and the services you require. And it depends on how the vendor does its pricing.
“In the special-events industry, pricing is really a controversial issue and a hot topic right now,” says Lisa Hurley, editor of Pacific Palisades, Calif.-based Special Events magazine, a sister publication to. “Some companies charge an hourly fee for services, and some charge a markup on everything they source for you, but there are really a million ways to do pricing.”
But with Sarbanes-Oxley and procurement forcing more transparency into company invoices, clients are more often looking for production companies to provide line-by-line costs of each service. “Clients want more transparent pricing,” says Hurley. “They want the invoice to specify the cost of each service and the production company's fee next to it. It is causing the event production industry to open up their books a lot more.”
Often clients don't understand what they are paying for when items are marked up, and they need to be able to justify pricing to procurement, adds Hurley. “But the answer from the [vendor] is, ‘How do you put a price on creativity,’ or ‘How can we charge you in a way that makes sense to procurement?’”
A good way to determine if the production company is sensitive to your budgetary requirements is to pay attention during the proposal stage. If the vendor comes in with a proposal for $800,000 and your budget was between $250,000 and $300,000, that should send up a red flag. One planner gives the vendor an overview of the specific aspects of his annual meeting that will require the production company's expertise, such as a themed dinner on the first night or a talent act for the farewell gala. The production company then comes back with a proposal that includes pricing for their services, based on the planner's own budgetary requirements. Pricing is given in three different increments, with an A-level, B-level, and C-level package.
Having a company that provides a detailed estimate from the start and understands budgetary restrictions is essential. The production company should be able to find a way to make your program work with the budget you have and should not keep trying to push on the budget and tell you that you really need to invest in this or that.
However, companies can go over budget for a variety of reasons, so it is important to keep an eye on the numbers. Your production company should inform you along the way of any additional costs that are going to pop up that were not in the original proposal, one planner advises.
While cost is no doubt one of the most important factors to address when partnering with an outside company, it is not the only thing to consider when selecting a production company to work with. Remember: You get what you pay for. You should not always go for the lowest proposal, planners caution.
Merck's Sanford agrees that a good working relationship is about more than price. “We used a production company for a recent meeting that came in at a significantly higher price than the competition,” notes Sanford. “This company understood the industry and our business so well that when the team came in for their pitch, the elements they brought forward were more comprehensive than what we gave them at the input session. That is how a company can really differentiate itself.”
5 Tips for picking a production company
Lay the groundwork. Be as specific as possible about the intended goals and objectives of the meeting, and provide details about your company's culture and brand. The more a production company knows about your company and its message, the better prepared they will be to deliver that message accurately.
Trust your gut. Meet potential companies' personnel face-to-face. Ask yourself if the staff are interested in learning about your company and goals, or are they more concerned with selling you an idea.
Ascertain whether your event is a priority. Will your meeting be one of 16 other events the production company is handling at that time? Make sure you have a point of contact at the agency, such as an executive producer who is dedicated to your event and available on your schedule.
Send an e-mail. Send the owner of the company or the executive producer an e-mail with a question to see how fast they will respond. In the production world, “one day” means everything, so you don't want someone on your team who sits on an issue for more than a day.
Check references. Ask past clients about the level of service they received, budget integrity, and whether the event was executed to their specifications. If your program has specific requirements, make sure to ask past clients whether they think these will be within the scope of the agency's capabilities.
Keep an eye on the bottom line. Be sure to inquire about the company's policy on services that go over budget. Your vendor should alert you to any potential issues so that there are no surprises once the event has wrapped. Schedule budget review meetings during the process to keep surprises to a minimum.
Top 50 Event Planning Companies
Each year Special Events magazine (a sister publication of Medical Meetings) publishes a list of the 50 top event planning companies based on annual revenues. This year's winners boast annual revenues from special events ranging from $3 million to $250 million, and overall they forecast an 8 percent jump in revenues over last year's figures. Companies listed span the U.S. with some notable international mentions as well. To access the list, visit specialevents.com and do a keyword search for “Fifth Annual 50 Top Event Planning Companies.”