Cheryl Higgins' product-launch meetings need to pack a punch. As vice president of market development for Chicago-based Destiny Health, it is her job to ensure that during these meetings important product information is disseminated to her company's health insurance brokers, speakers present on schedule, and attendees are so motivated by the presentations that they go out and sell. “We do short meetings where we introduce our selling partners to something new and different from our product portfolio,” says Higgins. “I need to wow them and make a quick impression.”

Higgins relies on an event-production company, Downers Grove, Ill.-based One Smooth Stone, to assist her with theme development, staging, lighting, entertainment, video production, and even quantifying return on investment once the event has wrapped. It is a partnership she values greatly. “I once tried another production company and was really disappointed,” she recalls. “The creative was flat, and they were sloppier about the sound production. A couple of times a video was supposed to go on and it was just dead air.”

While the slip-ups may seem minor, Higgins says that when it comes to event production, even small mistakes can have a big negative impact. “At these meetings our objective is to showcase the company and our product enhancements so we have to put our best foot forward. These missteps made us appear not quite as sharp as we normally are.”

On the other hand, Higgins says that partnering with the right event-production company — one that also understands her corporate culture and product line — has boosted her meetings' ROI. For example, she credits One Smooth Stone with helping to pull off a recent product launch meeting for 400 health insurance brokers that resulted in a large spike in insurance sales and a staggering 60 percent of brokers registering for additional training sessions.

“My CEO wants to know how we measure the ROI from the event,” Higgins notes. He will say, ‘The meeting was great, but can we measure whether it really had an impact?’” She works with One Smooth Stone to come up with an ROI benefit analysis that she presents to her CEO following each meeting. It is a three-pronged approach that determines if attendees liked the meeting, if it helped drive new product sales in general, and how many brokers in attendance subsequently went out and sold the new product. “[This information] is what the CEO really wants to know,” says Higgins. The help with ROI analysis that she gets from her event-production company makes One Smooth Stone “a true partner, someone who can make the event look good and make me look good.”

Can They Talk Strategy?

Each event-production company markets itself differently and has different skill sets, so doing the research is the first step in finding the right one for your meetings. Planners need to look for multiple skills. Top production companies focus on the logistics of producing an event as well as its creative and thematic elements — and they are usually well-versed in the technical aspects of production, including AV, lighting, video production, stage design, and set design. Some also book talent acts, offer services in speech writing and speech coaching, and even handle catering and décor.

Event-production personnel also work closely with speakers — and can be particularly helpful when it comes to coaching senior executives. “One Smooth Stone helps my speakers during rehearsals to make sure the program runs flawlessly,” says Higgins. “As a third party they can eloquently give feedback to my high-level execs that maybe I couldn't give, like suggesting a TelePrompTer or a podium if someone is having trouble remembering his lines.”

For Kathy Miller, president and chief creative officer of Schaumberg, Ill.-based Total Event Resources, a big difference between production companies is whether they are task-driven or strategic-driven. Julio Campos, founder of Santa Monica, Calif.-based Campos Creative Works, agrees. “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.”

Most production companies have a core team of in-house experts as well as multiple freelancers to assist with projects. In the case of Campos Creative Works, the company has a staff of 30 as well as 25 to 30 “perma-lancers” who work almost exclusively for the company. For One Smooth Stone, the makeup is a little different: The company relies entirely on freelance specialists, who are brought in to help with each event as needed.

The freelance crew the production company hires to work on the event can be critical to whether or not the event runs smoothly, says Earl Grout, manager of meetings and special events, Symetra Financial, Bellevue, Wash. Grout looks for a partner who is not going to cut corners when it comes to hiring quality freelancers, even if that means paying a higher price. “It cost us more than usual to go to [the Ritz-Carlton] Amelia Island in Florida this year for our annual incentive conference because our production company, Miami-based Showmode Production Group, had to go to Orlando to get the best people to work with for the event,” he says — adding that it was well worth the extra dollars.

“We want to do it right and make [the conference] worthwhile for our attendees,” Grout adds. That means hiring a company and crew who will do whatever it takes. For instance, make sure your production people are willing to work in the wee hours, if necessary. “We often have to set up after midnight,” Grout notes. “Our producer hires a willing crew and we pay overtime.”

Personal oversight from the head producer also helps to ensure a smooth-running event. In the case of Showmode Production, says Grout, his producer “brings in the people he has worked with for years and he is there personally to make sure everything is perfect.”

First Dates

Finding an event-production company usually begins at the request-for-proposal stage, when meeting planners put an event out to bid to three or more companies. Once the field is narrowed down, it is a collaborative effort, says Total Event Resources' Miller: “It involves a lot of gathering information and listening. Every client that comes to us has different needs and objectives, so we start by learning as much as we can about the goals of the event.”

Campos Creative Works gets both sides together for a creative input meeting at the outset of a project. “We meet with the internal drivers of the meeting, such as the meeting planner or the marketing executive, and have a kickoff to discuss what the meeting is going to be about,” says Campos.

From there, a creative director, and often an executive producer and a writer, are assigned to the project, depending on the scope of the conference. They then assemble the rest of the core team, which can include a lighting director, a speech coach, and video and sound designers.

At this point, the production company typically presents the client with another, more formal proposal that includes specific pricing.

What Will It Cost?

“In the special-events industry, pricing is a controversial issue and a hot topic right now,” says Lisa Hurley, editor of Pacific Palisades, Calif.-based Special Events magazine (a Financial & Insurance Meetings sister publication). “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.”

With Sarbanes-Oxley and procurement forcing more transparency into invoices, planners are looking for production companies to provide line-by-line costs of each service. “Clients want the invoice to specify the cost of each service and the production company's fee next to it,” says Hurley. “It is causing the event-production industry to open up their books a lot more.”

Price integrity is something that is critical to Destiny Health's Higgins. She places a lot of value on a company that is upfront about added costs from the beginning. “A true partner reveals the costs associated with everything rather than just adding extras to the event,” she says.

Higgins notes that video production and elaborate staging are two areas that can quickly drive up production costs. As a result, she has learned to improvise. “One Smooth Stone has taught me that sometimes less is more. They come up with ways to keep the costs down but still make the stage look good.”

Creating high-impact branding and messaging on a limited budget is a challenge facing many organizations — including Financial & Insurance Conference Planners. When FICP hired One Smooth Stone for its annual conference in Scottsdale, Ariz., last November, the mission was to convey the conference theme, License To Learn: Bond in 007, in an imaginative and powerful way throughout the four-day event — without breaking the bank. The solution: using pre-fabricated pieces of equipment for the stage set. “Everything on that stage set was a stock piece of scenery,” says Mark Ledogar, vice president at One Smooth Stone. “Instead of developing an expensive custom piece for the 007 design, we realized we could use standard staging equipment and treat it in a very clever way to make it look personalized.”

According to Ledogar, using stock equipment can shave budgets between 50 percent and 75 percent compared to a custom designed stage set, yet still pack a punch. “We were able to communicate the FICP message and incorporate some fun and creative elements. It's not about how much you spend; it's about what you do.”

How to Find a Production Pro

  1. Lay the groundwork

    Be as specific as possible to your production company partner about the meeting's goals and objectives, and provide details about your company's culture and values to ensure that the creative adheres to your brand.

  2. Trust your gut

    The services you are buying are only as good as the people executing them. Have face-to-face meetings with representatives of the companies you are considering. Ask yourself if the salesperson and executive producer are interested in learning about your company and its goals or are more concerned with selling you an idea.

  3. Identify your primary contact

    Identify your main contact at the production company. Will your event be his or her top priority? Ask if there is a local contact person who can be available for meetings and conference calls on short notice.

  4. Send an e-mail

    This is a little trick that Deanna Wong, former executive producer for Intel, Santa Clara, Calif., likes to use to test out potential production companies. “I send the owner of the company or the executive producer an e-mail with a question,” she says. “If it takes them more than one day to get back to me, they don't get the job. You don't want someone on your team who sits on a production issue for more than one day.”

  5. Check references

    Ask references about the level of service they received, budget integrity, and whether the event was executed to their specifications.

  6. Keep an eye on the bottom line

    Red flag a company that comes in way above or way below budget in the proposal stage. Ask about the company's policy on services that go over budget. Schedule budget review meetings at various points prior to the event to help avoid surprises.