November 01, 2001
Meetings & Conventions: - House Party - November 2001 Current Issue
November 2001 No Parking

House Party

How to jazz up an on-site meeting or event

By Lisa Grimaldi

The corporate cafeteria is suddenly looking like the perfect venue for meetings and special events. No one has to travel, there's no rental fee, and the place is already stocked with tables, chairs and food-service supplies. It might have been unthinkable a year ago, but budget cuts and fear of travel have more firms keeping their gatherings closer to home and, in many cases, right at home base. A survey by the National Business Travel Association in the third week of September found that 58 percent of corporations planned to reduce travel. For many, this meant deepening the cuts already made as a result of the economic downturn.

While meeting on-site has its obvious advantages, the decision comes with distinct challenges, too, such as how to transform a work space into something more businesslike (for meetings) or more festive (for parties and special events). And, while some attendees might be happy they're not traveling, others are sure to be disappointed. Can a meeting at the office be creative, even exciting?

Yes, say experts. Following are some clever ideas, along with tried-and-true examples, for pulling off an impressive on-site meeting or event.

Indoor spaces
For a more formal gathering, or when there is serious business to be done, avoid the area where casual staff meetings are held, suggests Jaclyn Bernstein, president of Empire Force Events, a New York City-based DMC and special events firm. "When people are removed from the everyday environment, it's easier to think," she says.Points to keep in mind:

  • Explore all options. Move the meeting to a different floor, or rent out space elsewhere in the building, if it is not solely occupied by your firm. Try to be far from attendees' desks; the lobby might be a good option. "You don't want people looking for the messenger or listening for their phones, like they do during casual in-office meetings," says Bernstein.
  • Eat well. Have the food and beverage provided by a great caterer. This is not the time to have pizzas brought in, Bernstein says.
  • Make a grand entrance. Use the element of surprise to add pizzazz to an evening event that will be held on-site.

    Tony Conway, CMP, president and partner of Atlanta-based Legendary Events, suggests having attendees gather in the lobby of the building, loading them into limos or other elegant transportation, driving them around the block and dropping them off at a different entrance to the building, or even at a different space on the grounds, such as a warehouse. He recently did this for a firm that had its awards dinner after an on-site sales meeting. "When they got out of the cars, we had ‘paparazzi' waiting to take their photos," says Conway.

  • Refurnish the place. If everyday office furnishings are a bit shabby for a high-level meeting, spruce up the ambience with leather executive chairs, fine wood tables and elegant couches from a rental firm such as West Palm Beach, Fla.-based Special Event Furnishings, a division of Aaron Office Furniture. The company, which delivers its products anywhere in the country, also has the fixings to create a hospitality lounge: tall stools, high-top café tables and plush couches, armchairs and coffee tables.
  • Check underfoot. Even workaday floors can get a new look for a high-end board meeting or on-site special event. Rich Carbotti, president and design director of Newport, R.I.-based special event firm Perfect Surroundings Inc., has rented beautiful Oriental carpets (available from most prop rental firms) to jazz up bare or boring floors for the functions of several companies.
  • Go for mood lighting. Inexpensive gels can soften harsh office lighting and change the mood of the room for after-hours functions.
  • Create a dine-around. Anything that can be pulled off in a hotel ballroom can be done at the office, space permitting. Jaclyn Bernstein suggests inviting local restaurants and delis to participate in a "taste of the city." Each vendor sets up its own food station in a lobby, conference room or even the on-site cafeteria; attendees can graze their way through a meal that's a lot more memorable than a hurried sandwich or basic buffet.
  • Bring the outdoors in. For a recent meeting, Bernstein transformed the staid urban offices of a New York City-based technology firm into an airy garden. She filled the space with potted grass, planters of gerbera daisies, outdoor lounge furniture and a fountain. These can be rented through floral decor firms. To add a touch of nature, rent parrots (in their cages) from specialty vendors such as Parrots of the World in Rockville Center, N.Y., or even butterflies, available from Hellertown, Pa.-based Monarchs Alive.
  • Make the switch. When the same on-site meeting room has to do double duty as the venue for an evening function, turn the room into a new environment. For just such an agenda, Legendary Events' Tony Conway transformed a daytime boardroom into a submarine by piping and draping the room and fitting the windows with video monitors showing underwater scenes.
  • Work with the location. While most firms' offices weren't designed with special events in mind, some can provide ready-made theme party settings. For a bank that held a meeting and evening function on-site, Conway used the actual public area of the bank as the backdrop for a 1930s bank robbery theme party.
  • Pick a color. Steve Kemble, president of Steve Kemble Design in Dallas, took his inspiration from an office's color scheme. "One area of the office was red," he says, "so we did red desserts, red drape buffet tables, red candles...and the band was all dressed in red."
  • Take it away. Greg Jenkins, a partner in Bravo Productions, a Long Beach, Calif., production company, had the challenge of staging a skin-care firm's holiday party at its headquarters. To find a space that would work for the '70s-themed event, Jenkins did a site inspection to look into the possibilities, finally deciding on an adjacent warehouse. "It was conducive for backdrops and props," he says, "plus there was space to set up a dance floor and cozy lounge areas with lava lamps and macramé hangings."
  • Take breaks. In-house coffee breaks can be as creative and fun as those at a resort or conference center. Patrick Sullivan, president of PRA, New York, a New York City-based DMC, recommends a high school-themed break, with a hall or lobby set up like a locker room, complete with benches and a few "cheerleaders" to pep up the attendees. Breaks can be labeled as "phys ed" time, where the group does a little stretching.
  • Take it outside
    Meetings at hotels often take advantage of the grounds as well as the indoor spaces for sessions or functions; on-site events can do the same.

  • Do some ground work. For an on-site educational conference at a Rhode Island college, Rich Carbotti of Perfect Surroundings Inc. turned a plain grass quad into a European garden, with fountains, flowers, potted plants, white garden chairs and tables. Tents were set up in the event of rain.
  • Make use of tar beach. For a corporate client's early afternoon event, Carbotti transformed the company's parking lot into a Caribbean beach. "We filled the lot with sand, set up palm trees, served island-style foods, and for entertainment, we hired a steel band," he says.
  • Stage a carnival. Alexandria, Va.-based Catalyst Events turned consulting firm Accenture's parking lot at its Reston, Va., offices into a carnival fairground for an employee event for 600. The party featured rides, carnival food, beer and wine, a juggler, game booths and among the most popular attractions dunk tanks where employees were encouraged to sink top brass. Adding to the excitement was a prize raffle.
  • Hit the ice. A truly novel idea that's sure to impress the crowd: Turn the office parking lot into a temporary skating rink. Palos Heights, Ill.-based Rent-A-Rink installs ice-skating rinks just about anywhere there's space, and in just about any climate (up to 95 degrees Fahrenheit).
    IMAGEAlthough corporate spaces might not be purpose-built for meetings and special events, there are some not-so-obvious advantages to staying at home base.

    High on the list are the services of building personnel, who know the place better than anyone you might hire for the job and generally work at no charge beyond their typical paychecks. Among resources to consider:

    • In-house electricians and engineers
    • Security
    • Cleaning staff
    • Trucks (for delivery of food and beverage, equipment, props)
    • Auditoriums (which can be used for performances for special events)
    • Food service (even if the corporate cafeteria is not used for F&B, this department might be able to supply utensils, plates, etc.)


    When organizing a meeting on-site, keep the following in mind.

    Does the facility have enough power to handle special lighting and sound systems? If not, you will need generators.

    Do you need permission from the building manager or developer to hold an after-hours or unusual event? Unless the firm is the owner or sole occupant, you probably need an official OK.

    Are carpeting or floors light colored? If so, think twice about serving red wine or tomato sauces.


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