The Evolution of the Corporate Event

As the world becomes more virtual, live events play an even bigger role for companies large and small. But gone are the days of rubber chicken and PowerPoint presentations says event guru Paula Balzer.

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Beth Hall / Bloomberg via Getty Images

Grammy winning artists Taylor Swift and Justin Timberlake run though a skit while standing in the audience during Walmart's annual shareholder meeting on Friday, June 1, 2012, in Fayetteville, Ark.

By the time Paula Balzer joined TBA Global as its chief operating officer, she had already made a name for herself in corporate marketing and live events. ” The founder of Red Giant Marketing, Balzer knew her way around the boardrooms at Fortune 100 companies and the entertainment industry. In 2011, she made the jump to New York-based TBA and began putting together memorable corporate events for clients such as Google, UPS and Walmart. The Walmart corporate event was billed as a “Superstar Show” that brought in Justin Timberlake, Celine Dion and Taylor Swift. As Balzer explains, in a world that’s increasingly virtual, live events have become more essential – even for small companies.

Q: Companies used to get criticized for elaborate corporate events, but now it seems that people expect to be wowed. What’s happening?
A: Live events in general, whether corporate or consumer-oriented have changed because of the expectation of the audience. The expectations are so much more advanced today largely because technology is more sophisticated. Retaining an audience’s attention is now one of the biggest challenges.

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Q: Are you saying don’t bother with the rubber chicken entrée and PowerPoint presentation?
A: People don’t tolerate the PowerPoint presentation any more. It’s like, seriously, is this all you have for me? In our industry, we talk of the effect of the CNN model, because it was the first that had multiple levels of information on a screen. Now that’s everywhere. People have come to expect it many levels of information coming at them. At our Walmart shareholders meeting, for instance, we had several different levels of communication happening simultaneously, including a video on the main screen and a ticker going around the arena.

Q: Is this true even of smaller-scale events?
A: Our feeling is that even small businesses need to focus on the story they’re telling. If you can effectively tell your story, the budget merely adds bells and whistles. You can go to an event and know a company has spent millions of dollars on a presentation, but it falls flat because the story is not being told effectively.

Q: Can you give an example?
A: One of my personal favorites “Doodle 4 Google,” a drawing contest among students in which the company’s story is all told through the creation of doodles that tie back to the name of Google. It’s the only event we do at TBA for grammar-school-age children, and there is a big component of giving back. [The student behind the winning sketch receives a $30,000 college scholarship and a $50,000 technology grant for his or her school.] Last year, the doodle theme was, “If I could be any place in time.” The kids created a doodle that brought to life where they wanted to be in time. We had an awards ceremony and then spent the afternoon bringing to life their ideas. They did things like building dinosaurs and sand sculpting. We then took their art and created a traveling museum tour in each of the states.

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Q: What lessons did you take away from that event?
A: Every time I work with kids, it reminds me to “keep it simple stupid.” As adults, we tend to over complicate things. Keep it focused and simple, and it’s the most effective.

Q: What are some other things small companies should keep in mind when putting together their own events?
A: The first thing is clear and concise messaging. That goes back to story-telling. What is the objective? What is the story you want to tell during the meeting? Timing is also important. Spend some time looking at the whole event and deciding when and where to tell the different aspects of your story. Finally, look at the role of technology in your story-telling. Technology does not have to be expensive—whether it’s using an iPhone or creating a presentation through Prezi. Food has also become an important part of our culture and central to the social aspect of these events. A lot of our clients focus on the quality of the food. The farm-to-table concept is very important, as is the sustainability of how its presented. I’d rather see  fewer food options and more quality. In the past, that wasn’t a consideration.

Q: Does it make sense to do an all-virtual event these days?
A: How many times are you on a conference call and put it on mute? At the end of the day, humans are social animals. You just have to be smart about it. I don’t think you can go all virtual. People who have tried eventually come back and say that the way to go is a mix of live and virtual. Every event is about creating a community. Everyone at that event is part of a community linked by a common story or common cause. When deciding what the event should look like, make sure it ties into goals over the next 12 months. Don’t just focus on the two-day event, create a 12-month calendar. Maybe there’s a newsletter, or weekly Google Hangout, or a regular Skype meeting.

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