THE NECESSARY CONCLUSION to many a meeting, the traditional corporate awards ceremony has a long, if unexciting, history. Often formal and colorless, it can sometimes leave an attendee cold once dinner is over and the speeches begin.
“I think everyone in our industry dreads them,” says Mark Veeder, partner and creative director of EventQuest, a New York-based event management and production company. “They're often boring and unimaginative.”
But it doesn't have to be that way.
Whether it's the sight of company executives zooming up a ramp on their motorcycles during a Harley-Davidson themed event, or the use of the latest 21st-century video projection technology, the awards ceremony has the potential to be a dynamic event that can help a company better motivate its employees and brand its image and product.
No More Boring Dinners
While the formal, black-tie awards ceremony is still a staple of corporate America, there are signs that more casual, out-of-the-box events are gaining popularity.
“The current trend is that everyone wants to have more fun,” says Melissa Yan, an event coordinator for Event-Works, a Los Angeles-based meeting planning production company. “So we're straying outside the box to more themed, upbeat events — more MTV Music Awards than traditional strait-laced award ceremony.”
She uses the example of an event held in Nashville for Mohawk Industries, a flooring producer and distributor, at which her company produced “Mohawk Idol,” a spoof of the popular television show “American Idol.” Mohawk award winners and salespeople participated in the spoof, and an “American Idol” finalist was flown in to add to the fun.
Bruce Sutka, founder of Sutka Productions International in West Palm Beach, Fla., co-produced last month's Gala Awards at The Special Event 2005 at the Fontainebleu Hilton Resort in Miami Beach. With performers such as Grammy award winner Nestor Torres, and Broadway-caliber dancers performing songs from “Chicago,” the evening was anything but entertainment-deficient, but Sutka and his co-producer, Stacy Stern, CSEP, of The Special Events Group, Boca Raton, Fla., went even further. They turned the reception area into a 1920s-style speakeasy and had the place raided and the attendees “arrested” and escorted to prison — a ballroom set up like a penitentiary, complete with long tables and benches, metal dishes, and the obligatory meal of bread and water (at least at the beginning).
“It worked out beautifully,” Sutka says, “People were just electrified. I think we need to up the ante and create more of an entertainment situation. You can make an award presentation more engaging and fun with a little creativity.”
Every two years, EventQuest produces a sales meeting for Karastan, a high-end carpet manufacturer. The theme of the last two-day event, held at the Biltmore in Phoenix, was based on Karastan's advertising slogan: “Make a Statement: Your Own.” For the awards ceremony, in addition to the typical best salesman awards, they presented lifetime achievement awards. These awards are “kind of gaining in popularity,” Veeder says, and can be “quite touching.” But, more often than not, companies will simply mark them with a picture and a speech. In this case, EventQuest hired award-winning documentary teams to produce short, broadcast-quality documentaries of award winners. These documentaries, which focused on the “Make a Statement” theme, were presented to each of the recipients and shown during the ceremony. “We took it to a real emotional level,” he says.
“Technology is so different today,” says Stern, “that it's had a major effect on awards ceremonies.”
Dynascans are the hot new AV toys, according to Stern. These displays can produce identical images in a 360-degree panorama, instead of confining the audience to a single-screen view from one direction. “It's very cool and very different.”
Richard Aaron, president of event industry Web site BiZBash.com, agrees. “People are doing much more with innovative projection techniques.” He points to the 2004 GQ Men of the Year Awards ceremony, an event produced by EventQuest, for which the company created a 4-foot high band of video that wrapped around the entire event. With still images, 3-D animation, and digital editing, the company was able to create a dynamic, digital wallpaper that was used to change the mood or tempo in the room.
“You're not locked into square screens anymore,” Aaron says, adding that by upgrading the AV technology, the excitement level is upgraded as well.
Veeder agrees, adding that by properly using technology, a planner can basically force an attendee to “pay attention and look around.” The attendee becomes totally immersed in the ceremony, which, he says, is exactly the effect he is trying to achieve.
Formal Final Night — or Not?
Awards ceremonies have traditionally been held on the last night of a multiday event, and most planners see no real indication that this thinking is changing. Aaron, who has judged the Crystal Awards for the Society of Incentive & Travel Executives, says that traditionally the opening day party and dinner “gets everybody wowed up.” The awards ceremony is, “generally speaking, the finale. It [the event] crescendos with the awards.”
Veeder believes that black-tie events and the formality that goes with them are rapidly becoming a thing of the past. More important, he says, is to “give these people [the attendees] a unique experience all the way through.”
“People still like to dress up,” argues Mona Meretsky, CSEP, and president of COMCOR Event and Meeting Production, Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “I once had a client who wanted to change its [awards ceremony] format. I did a survey, and I found out that the employees saw it as their one night to shine. They didn't want something more casual.”
Meretsky, however, is adamant that planners should not wait until the final evening. “When someone wins an award, it's nice to have the ability to have people come and congratulate them,” Meretsky says. “When it happens at 10 or 11 on the last night, it's a bad way to go.
“How much nicer would it be for someone to be recognized all week long,” Meretsky says. “But I just can't convince my clients.”
Doesn't Anybody Want His Plaque?
Mona Meretsky, CSEP, doesn't think so. The president of COMCOR Event and Meeting Production in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., says that the awards being handed out in corporate ceremonies “are not as traditional as they used to be.” Today's awards are beautifully designed, more customized, more meaningful to the recipient, and more likely to be displayed.
“They aren't just awards anymore,” Meretsky says. “They're not something that someone is going to throw somewhere, and then forget where they put it.”
As far as the traditional plaque, Meretsky says, “It's very rare for a client to say: ‘I want plaques.’”
Even a bowl from Tiffany's might not be distinctive enough in certain situations if you're looking for something truly special, says Mark Veeder, partner and creative director of EventQuest, a New York-based event management and production company. He sometimes commissions Robert Du Grenier, a renowned glass designer and sculptor from Vermont, to create awards with a special feel.
“What we try to do,” says Veeder, “is make the award unique — and something related to the industry and what the award means.”