April 01, 2000
Meetings & Conventions - Grand Openings - April 2000

Current Issue
April 2000

Grand Openings

The doors open, the house lights dim and the kickoff session begins. Will it live up to expectations?

By Lisa Grimaldi

  Brian Acheson likens the opening session of meetings and conferences to the first chapter of a book. “It’s the introduction. If you don’t like the first 20 pages, you put it down and never pick it up again.”

Acheson, president of Dallas-based production firm VIP Events, has produced and organized hundreds of openings for companies and associations, and he knows how crucial a good beginning is to the overall success of the meeting. “The opener sets the tone for the entire event. If you get it wrong, you’ll never get the meeting back on track,” he says.

An opening session is the first order of business at a meeting, whether it’s a one-day or weeklong event. Traditionally, kickoffs begin with some type of brief entertainment or ceremony, followed by an address by an official or person who will serve as the host for the conference. The host generally outlines what attendees can expect for the rest of the meeting. He might then invite the CEO or top official to make some remarks, or he might introduce the first speaker.

“When we have to make cuts, we usually leave the opener intact because it is so important,” says Lisa Lauerman, executive producer at PGI, a production firm headquartered in Arlington, Va.

Here’s how to make the most of those defining opening acts.

Curtains up
This is the time to get people focused, awake and receptive to the message the organization is trying to get across. “It’s the time to switch the attendees’ mind-set,” says Acheson. Until then, they’re still complaining about the service on the plane or the fact that they got a smoking room instead of a non- smoking room, or they’re excited about running into old friends or colleagues. “This is the time to hit them over the head and let them know, ‘You’re here now; it’s time to change gears.’”

This also is a critical time to impart information. “Even if the tone is fun and exciting, there’s a line,” says Acheson. “The opener shouldn’t be a theme party; it should be a platform for the organization to express its goals for the meeting.”

The element of surprise also can be used to a planner’s advantage in creating a first impression. Meghan Keenan, events manager for the Chief Executives Organization in Bethesda, Md., says her attendees know the agenda, but they don’t know what type of presentation to expect at program openers. The anticipation engages even her most jaded attendees, Keenan says. And there’s a practical element to keeping the details secret: “If we need to change something at the last minute, it’s much easier.”

Pump up the volume
Although there’s a message to impart at the outset, most pros agree some fanfare is vital. The entertainment you select will depend upon several factors, such as the meeting history (you don’t want to repeat what has been done in the past), the type of meeting (association or corporate), budget and locale. Among the options:

Video.Trish Parks, an executive producer with PGI, likes to start corporate meetings with short videos. These can depict anything from the company’s history to the state of industry. They can be serious and informational, or even humorous, depending upon the desired message.

Video works particularly well with international, multilingual audiences. The Micro Credit Summit, a global conference on providing loans to women primarily in Third World countries kicked off last fall in New York City with a three-minute video showcasing the best practices of some members. (The video was produced by Richard Aaron, CMP, president of meetings and events at New York City-based production firm Mallory Factor Inc.)

Although producing videos can be costly (from $1,500 to more than $100,000), PGI’s Parks feels they are a good value if they can be used again at smaller company meetings or by salespeople in the field.

Special effects. Bells and whistles can put a little zip in openers. “One of the conventions we plan is very traditional; there’s a lot of protocol involved, and it can feel rather stuffy,” says Chris Buerger, president of Corporate Event Organization Inc., a production firm based in Edmonton, Alberta. “This year, we kicked off the opener with pyrotechnics line rockets and streamer cannons that zipped over the audience. Everyone ducked and screamed, but they loved it.”

For a company that had just completed a grueling project and wanted to thank its employees, Buerger had attendees walk into an auditorium where the company’s logo was projected on a large screen. Once they were seated (on bleachers, which were used instead of chairs), the logo was “blown up.” “We had an unseen announcer (known as the ‘voice of God’ technique in production industry terms) tell them it was time to celebrate their hard work.”

Humor. In some cases, laughter sets the ideal tone for a fun event ahead. “We’ve done work with Second City-type comedy groups. I give them background information about the group, buzzwords, etc., and they come up with sketches about the company or the industry,” says PGI’s Lisa Lauerman.

Although some steer clear of using solo humorists, Jeff Kalpak, a partner at Barkley-Kalpak, a production firm based in New York City, once used a professional speed-talker to open a Big Apple convention. “We introduced her as an official of the mayor’s office. The audience loved it when she started reciting, at rapid-fire speed, everything the attendees would be doing that week and then everything they could do in the city.”

Local talent. In some cases, it is both cost-effective and appropriate to open with entertainment reflective of the meeting destination, such as a gospel group, marching band or dance troupe.

“If you’re budget-challenged, you’ll have to dig to find good entertainment,” says Richard Aaron. “But there are nuggets of local talent a cappella groups, church choirs you can find with the help of the town chamber or convention and visitors bureau.”

But, adds Jeff Kalpak, it is not always appropriate to showcase local talent if it does not tie in to the meeting’s theme. “Also, make sure the local talent is really good,” he warns. “Don’t wake attendees up for something they’d rather be sleeping though.”

It also pays to know how many attendees have been to the destination before. “Most people have been to Dallas more than once, so they don’t need to see a big Texas cowboy number at the opening session,” says Chris Arredondo, president of Eclipse Entertainment based in Arlington, Texas.

Smooth talkers
It is common for opening events to have a speaker, often from the top ranks of the organization hosting the event, who can articulate a theme or motivate attendees.

Remarks should be kept short, advises Ronald Dewar, president of Ontario-based Meeting Management Services, Inc. “No one wants to listen to the president drone on.” Limit the speech to 10 minutes, he says, just long enough to welcome the attendees and tell them how important they are to the organization.

Not all CEOs are born speakers, however. Here is where a planner’s creativity not to mention diplomatic skills come into play. Dewar recommends broaching the subject early and honestly. He encourages long-winded or reluctant speakers to consult a media specialist who can help them refine their stage presence. Other planners suggest involving Mr. or Ms. Big in the content of the speech, rather than simply reading something that has been written for him or her. Familiarity and interest in a particular topic can go a long way toward an effective presentation.

Adding some star power with a celebrity host certainly can impress the audience. But, warns PGI’s Trish Parks, “It only makes sense to use celebrities if they have a natural tie-in to the firm or organization. Otherwise, the session may seem disjointed in comparison with the rest of the meeting.”

She cites a meeting PGI produced for Irving, Texas-based telecommunications firm GTE. Actor Patrick Stewart introduced the opening session. “That worked, because at the time, he was doing the voice-overs for GTE’s television ads.”

Ken Crerar, president of the Council of Insurance Agents & Brokers, a Washington, D.C.-based trade association for commercial insurance brokers, also has used big-name talent, like Henry Kissinger and former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, for the opening sessions of the organization’s annual meeting to good effect. “The attendees are CEOs of insurance firms. They’re very picky and have no problem getting up and walking out of a room, so I need to capture them at the front.”

Perfect timing
How much time should be allotted to the entire opening event? Most pros agree briefer is better. Says Brian Acheson, “The whole thing should be under an hour and 15 minutes; any longer than that and attendees begin to get uncomfortable in their seats. During the opener, they are primarily listening, rather than doing. Openers aren’t like other sessions or breakouts, where people are busy writing down notes.”

Opening videos, if used, should run four to six minutes, says PGI’s Lisa Lauerman. And the entertainment portion of the opener should be kept under 10 minutes, according to Acheson. Beyond that, he says, “it loses its entertainment value. You always want to leave them wanting more.”

If a planner has a say in when the opener will take place, Richard Aaron recommends steering clear of afternoons. “According to adult cognitive theory, that’s the worst time to capture someone’s attention,” he says. The ideal kickoff time, industry pros agree, is early morning.

If a late-afternoon or evening opener is planned, keep it low-key. That rule applies for first-night dinners, too. Says Meghan Keenan of the Chief Executive Organization, “We don’t do dancing until at least the second night.”

Additional reporting for this article was done by Martha Cooke


Most opening sessions aim to raise attendees’ spirits and expectations, but there are times when a celebratory kickoff is inappropriate: The company’s stocks may have fallen, it just announced major layoffs, and so on. Following are tips for creating openers when the meeting is somber in nature.

Avoid showy entertainment, such as song-and-dance routines, recommends Lisa Lauerman, executive producer for Arlington, Va.-based PGI.

Don’t use laser lighting or special effects. Even though they are relatively inexpensive, says Lauerman, they are perceived as costly.

Don’t use live music; it is considered celebratory and upbeat.

If the firm is in financial straits, open with video or news clips that focus on the industry and the world, rather than on the company itself.

Don’t use the CEO as the speaker in the opening session. Instead, bring in an outside speaker, such as an industry expert, to take the pressure off the boss.


Small details can make a big impact on a kickoff event. Consider these tips.

“Don’t open the doorsto the auditorium until just before the event begins. If you have people milling around the session room for 30 minutes, there’s no element of surprise,” says Brian Acheson, president of VIP Events in Dallas.

Have greeters open the doors when it’s time to begin, recommends Chris Buerger, president of Corporate Event Organization Inc., a production firm in Edmonton, Alberta. “It’s very welcoming, and it gives the session impact and signals, ‘Boom this is the start.’”

Play background music.“I never have people walk into room with dead silence. Music is very important, whether it’s live or canned,” says Buerger.

Use lighting to add drama, advises Richard Aaron, CMP, president of New York City-based production firm Mallory Factor Inc. “It’s theater; the lighting has to be right.”

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