In 1998, Prudential Real Estate Associates had around 40,000 agents and brokers nationwide. Its national sales conference was the company’s opportunity to engage these franchisees, deepen their commitment, inspire their production, and give them the chance to network. The trouble was, the meeting was attracting only 1,500 attendees—4 percent of the field.

So the company hired Dallas-based Corporate Magic Inc., whose founder and chief creative officer, Jim Kirk, had a simple solution: Create a meeting people want to attend. Making it happen, of course, was more complicated. A core element of the event is the awards presentation—which can be motivating for those receiving awards but dull for those who aren’t. “It was a long parade of winners across the stage, with the others in the audience not feeling rewarded,” says Meg Lohr, senior international account manager at Corporate Magic, who has worked with PREA since 2009.

So, the first job was to recognize the winners without making it painful for everyone else. Corporate Magic has used some creative ideas over the years. One is to seat winners on risers throughout the general session, giving them additional recognition without interrupting the flow of the agenda. Another is to create video montages for top winners that recognize them, explaine the qualification criteria, and reinforce the convention theme.

The second job was to create a more compelling event outside the awards. “For the first few years we booked big-name entertainment: Jay Leno, Jerry Seinfeld, Dr. Phil, Gen. Colin Powell, Sheryl Crow,” Lohr says. “That made the attendees think, ‘Wow, they’re really giving me a reason to come.’ Once we got them there they also found they learned a lot and loved networking with peers.”

The turnaround was dramatic, with attendance reaching 7,000 in 2005. But then the recession and mortgage crisis hit, crushing the real estate market. Attendance naturally sank, but is on the rise again.

Accentuate the Positive

“The challenge recently has been the messaging,” Lohr says. In the space of three years, PREA hired a new CEO and was bought and sold twice. In March, 3,400 attendees met at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas to hear about their new owner, HomeServices of America, a subsidiary of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc. Knowing attendees had been through a lot, Corporate Magic’s task was “to send a message of trust and confidence,” Lohr says. “So first we asked, ‘What are the organization’s strengths?’”

One is Warren Buffett. The new brand, Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices, is only the second time a consumer-facing company has been allowed to use Berkshire Hathaway in its branding. In a video, Buffett himself shared details about the new network that eventually will replace Prudential Real Estate.

Another great strength is PREA’s president, Earl Lee. “Everybody loves and trusts him,” says Lohr. “He comes from within the network, he’s authentic, and he has even been known to shed a tear on stage. We advised him to be honest in sharing the benefits and the vision of the new company.”

But Lee did more than make a pitch. He and other executives fielded many questions on stage. “The whole first day they put everything on the table, acknowledging the elephant in the room,” Lohr says. “We started with an upbeat song and video to get everyone pumped up, of course, then got right into the meat of the messaging.”

Corporate Magic used Celine Dion’s stage at Caesar’s as the backdrop for the presentations. “We were excited to work with Celine’s massive video screens, which enabled us to create some extraordinary visuals,” Lohr says. And on March 12, Dion’s audience was 90 percent PREA attendees. She even acknowledged them, and the organization’s fundraising for The Sunshine Kids Foundation supporting kids with cancer, with a special song.

Virtual Attendees

With applause still resonating, discussions got under way about next year’s message Attendance will continue to go up at the two-day sales convention, in part because Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices brings additional agents to the field force. It’s also boosted by a whole new group of agents—virtual attendees. Because of the importance of this year’s message, Corporate Magic created a series of videos sent out by e-mail blast. “We had to reach all affiliates, not just the attendees, so it was important to package the event and the messages well,” Lohr says. “We used actors as hosts to set up the videos and build excitement.” On the first day, more than 5,000 remote agents tuned in. Some of those, seeing the excitement on site, may attend live in 2014. 

The Agency Role

“We brand ourselves as messaging architects,” Lohr says. “Our goal is to weave a company’s message throughout the event, tying the message to all of the experiences. People don’t remember what they hear or all of what they see. They remember how they felt. So we take them on an emotional ride, making them laugh and cry and feel passionate about the message. That’s how we differentiate ourselves.”

It all begins with a stakeholder consultation. “Most of our creative work starts with the top management—whoever is in charge of the meeting. It’s important to get the unfiltered message straight from the top. The challenge is they may not specifically know a year out what the message will be. So we start with what they want attendees to feel when they get home and what they want them to do differently. Jim gets them to expand on their answers, to open up and talk.”

The questions Corporate Magic asks aren’t just softballs, either. “We ask, ‘What questions will attendees have? What will they have heartburn over?’ We need them to discuss the challenges openly, then we can talk about how to put it all out there in a positive light. We aren’t just there to communicate the message, we help to sculpt the message as well.”