by Sarah J.F. Braley | June 01, 2018

You might have a great space and killer menu, but that's not enough to make an event truly special. Take it to the next level with a unique theme designed to transport guests to another place or time. The possibilities are limited only by your imagination (and possibly your budget). 

The idea should never live in a vacuum; it should support the host's brand or engagement goal, advises Scott Burns, vice president and executive creative director of Auburn Hills, Mich.-based George P. Johnson. "However, the theme should work to serve the attendee -- not the brand or the host organization," says Burns, who helps conceptualize programs for GPJ's powerhouse clients like Cisco and Salesforce.

Need inspiration? M&C asked hundreds of meeting professionals to share details about their favorite event themes. Following are some of our favorites, stressing creativity, engagement and, above all, a sense of fun.

At the crossroads of Industry Drive and
Avenue H during Cisco Live!, held at
the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas.
Urban planning

Last June, 25,000 people descended on Las Vegas for Cisco Live!, the technology giant's annual customer and partner conference. GPJ worked with Cisco's planning team to provide an orderly experience for those traversing the massive show floor at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino.

"We're oftentimes challenged with these giant expo areas that can become overwhelming for an attendee," says Burns. "So we took the notion of a city, and the way you travel through places where you don't speak the language, to make the way-finding very clear."

Transforming part of the show floor into a scaled-down urban setting meant creating a city grid for the World of Solutions, one of the biggest zones at the show, labeling "avenues" from A through F and giving the cross streets names like Industry Drive, all emblazoned on the floor. Strategically placed "bus stops" featuring touch screens allowed attendees to search the show's destinations. A heat-map component showed how crowded each location was. 

When participants needed a break, they could go to "outdoor" elements like cafés and parks with benches equipped with outlets for recharging. 

"We wanted people to stop thinking they were walking through the Mandalay Bay and say, 'Wow! We're at Cisco Live!," Burns says. 

A climbing wall reinforced
Dreamforce's outdoor theme.
Explorers welcome

George P. Johnson also works with Salesforce, the software company specializing in customer-relationship management, to help its team pull off its signature event, Dreamforce. The annual show draws a mammoth crowd of more than 150,000 users, developers and thought leaders to San Francisco. 

A running theme developed over the past several years is tied to Salesforce's online learning platform called Trailhead, which guides users through various digital pathways of instruction, helping them to earn badges as they conquer the software. GPJ helps bring these ideas to the event via the motif of a national park. 

"As we moved toward the physical manifestation of that concept, we gravitated toward this feeling of Northern California," says Burns of GPJ. 

For the 2017 version of the show, held last November at the Moscone Center, live trees and real stones were brought in to enhance the theme, waterfalls were created and show guides were dressed as park rangers to stand out from the crowd. Attendees were given canvas backpacks (complete with maps of the show, among other giveaways), and the sounds of chattering birds and squirrels, indigenous to Northern California, were piped in to the show floor. 

"This past March we did the third iteration of the Trailhead DX developers conference at Moscone," says Burns, "and we took it to Africa, to the Serengeti. The rocks and waterfalls took on the texture not of California granite but of African clay and dirt. But the concept and the idea are still about exploration and learning."

Royal damask and elegant place
settings transformed Boston's
Harvard Club.
Dinner fit for a queen

The days of Downton Abbey might be over, but fans of all things British now get their fix from Victoria and The Crown. Arrange a stately dinner with a royals theme -- doable even on a plebeian budget, says Gayle Gilberto, president of the third-party Art of the Event in Wilmington, Mass.

Choose a sophisticated venue like Boston's Harvard Club, where chandeliers and gorgeous woodwork reinforce the theme. For an event there, Gilberto began with damask drapery on the walls, with uplighting to make the patterns pop. "You can get a really rich look with deep reds and golds," she says. "We also got some really beautiful damask linens for tabletops, and placed florals in bell jars and old books on the tables for a more Victorian look."

In any destination, look for a Victorian mansion that welcomes group events, as most of the décor already is in place.

Finer details matter, Gilberto stresses. Make sure the tableware is not too contemporary; dress up the tables with candelabras and antiques, and rent elegant dining room chairs. 

For Gilberto's group of 100 royal diners at the Harvard Club, 25 people sat on each side of two long tables. Be wary of making tables too long, though, as it can be a challenge for servers. 

For added kicks, hire a Queen Elizabeth II lookalike to join the group for dinner and require guests to follow etiquette rules, like those outlined by the Etiquette Scholar

Lights and balloons helped
create a prom theme
Prom night

Most of us recall our high-school proms with a wistful note of nostalgia -- and maybe a cringe upon seeing photos of our badly dressed and awkward teenage selves. For a recent 750-person corporate anniversary (including dates), Paulette Wolf Events appealed to that feeling by re-creating prom night in a perfect setting -- the University of Illinois at Chicago's gym.

"Basketball practice was going on around us while we were setting up," says Jodi Wolf, CEO of the Chicago planning firm that has also developed James Bond, rock-star and superhero themes for the same client. Weeks before the dance, attendees were asked to send in pictures from their real proms for a special "yearbook" giveaway, and they also voted ahead of time for prom king and queen from among the company's employees. 

On the big night, participants entered through a balloon tunnel and a phalanx of UIC cheerleaders. Guests were given corsages and boutonnieres, and had their prom photos taken. 

"Everybody came in costume, so they were in prom dresses and tuxes, the uglier the better," says Wolf. "It was obnoxious and amazing."

Other touches included servers on roller skates, a motel sign gracing the "after-prom" lounge, and a balloon gazebo designating the expansive 40-by-50-foot dance floor. Some of the gym's seating was left open for a behind-the-bleachers party area.

To the surprised delight of all gathered, Rick Springfield came out to sing "Jessie's Girl" and to introduce the prom king and queen, followed by a performance from rap star Flo Rida.

Some guests found the event more enjoyable than their actual prom night. 

Moonshine was served at
Crump's speakeasy night.
The '20s roar again

While the banquet kitchen isn't usually part of a hotel's meeting space, Crump Life Insurance Services transformed the basement facility at the 700-room Westin Charlotte (N.C.) into a vintage speakeasy as part of "Shifting Into High Gear," a NASCAR-themed national sales meeting.

Practically the entire hotel served as the Roseland, N.J.-based company's playground. "We had all the meeting space and the majority of the hotel rooms," notes Sherri K. Lindenberg, Crump's senior vice president of marketing communications. "We took the idea for the theme from the NASCAR Hall of Fame, which is within walking distance of the hotel. The director of catering suggested a speakeasy because the origin of NASCAR came from moonshiners trying to outrace the cops during Prohibition."

The company's awards night started with a dry reception on the first floor, marked by the serving of soda and pretzels. "People were looking around and asking, 'Where's the party?'  " says Lindenberg. Attendees were directed to the service elevator, sending them to the basement, where feather boas, pearls and hats were handed out. There, the employee break room had been turned into a deep-woods cabin stocked with moonshine, and food was served out of the sinks. The room held a dance floor, a roulette table and a shoe-shining station, and strolling cigarette girls handed out candy "smokes."

About an hour in, "police" raided the place. Contraband goods were quickly hidden, and everyone was ushered upstairs to the Crump Cotton Club for the awards ceremony. 

The racing theme ran throughout the event. Graphics from the movie Talledega Nights were used in the CEO's PowerPoint, and executives wore drivers' jumpsuits. For a CSR element, Impact 4 Good was brought in to run a Go Green Racing event, pairing attendees with school children to build and race model cars using recycled materials, and the final-night dinner was held at the NASCAR Hall of Fame. "Our theme needs to tie to business objectives, and we try to tie it to the destination," notes Lindenberg. "People learn more when they are happy and entertained."

Pepperl+Fuchs guests
peer into a cockpit.
Tell it to the Marines 

Pam Corrigan, travel and special-events coordinator for manufacturing firm Pepperl+Fuchs North America's headquarters in Twinsburg, Ohio, arranges gatherings for people involved in selling company products that "prevent things from exploding," such as photo-electric sensors, mostly used by the oil and gas industry. For a 120-person recognition meeting in San Diego, Corrigan planned a night out at the nearby Marine Corps Air Station Miramar to underscore the meeting's Expanding Horizons theme.

All communications about the event featured references to aviation and space exploration, but attendees, who were from North and South America, were kept in the dark about the destination. "All I did was tell them to dress business casual and when to meet," says Corrigan. On the big night, the guests were driven by bus to the back entrance in two motor coaches. "We were met by eight pilots from the squadron who got on the buses. They jokingly asked to look at the IDs of some of the people."

The group was driven to the cocktail reception at the officers' club bar, which many recognized from the movie Top Gun as the site where Tom Cruise and friends sang "You've Lost That Loving Feeling" to Kelly McGillis. Attendees were allowed into a hangar to climb into the cockpits of two planes, and pilots were on hand to answer questions. Members of the squadron sold hats and other paraphernalia to help pay for enlisted men to go to the Marine Corps Ball. "We bought everything they had," says Corrigan. 

The next big reveal was in the officers' club ballroom, where every chair was draped with an official Marine Corps-issued flight jacket personalized for each attendee. "We purchased flags from every country represented at the meeting, so each attendee had the flag of their country on their jacket," says Corrigan. "Squadron patches were sewn on, and our graphics designer created a patch for our company."

Adding to the experience, flight simulators were available during both the cocktail hour and downtime during dinner. "It was really a first-class event," says Corrigan with military-like pride.