December 01, 1999
Meetings & Conventions Production Value December 1999 Current Issue
December 1999
Production Value

Production Value

How to find the right production company and ensure it fulfills your needs

By Cheryl-Anne Sturken

Gayle Hargrove, director of communications at Burger King Corp.'s Miami world headquarters, knows the value of a good production company. This year, when the fast-food chain launched its 15-city nationwide tour to deliver its corporate message to audiences of 400 to 1,000 restaurant managers per site, Hargrove turned to one production company to design, coordinate and produce the entire event. "My approach to using a production company is quite simple," she says. "I go to them for their production expertise, which allows me to focus on my real objective: the content of the meeting and my attendees' experience." Planners - even those who, like Hargrove, have an experienced staff at their disposal - might consider turning to a production company for expertise in a combination of areas, ranging from simple manpower and supplier contacts to technological know-how and creative guidance.

Pembroke Park, Fla.-based ME Productions refers to its calling as "business theater." Deidre Underwood, whose title is director of business theater, explains, "You have just one chance to get it right. It is important to find a production company that shares a passion for the event and can translate the vision into something special."

Who needs them?
Many large-scale production companies offer total in-house capability, from video production to script writing and prop making. Others provide creative consulting and rely on an extensive network of vendors to deliver the components. Both types of companies serve as one-stop shopping resources.

Kay Craig, CMP, meeting and convention planner for East Hanover, N.J.-based Novartis Pharmaceuticals, admits, "I am not an expert in what is the latest and greatest, so I go to a production company." Reductions in Novartis' meetings staff have increased Craig's reliance on production companies.

For Laraine Garrity, a meeting and event planner with Compaq Computer Corp. in Littleton, Mass., time is the critical factor. "I'm looking for a certain look and feel for the event, and I don't want to waste my time shopping around with individual vendors."

Small-Budget Woes

Meeting planners gripe that production companies will not give their small event the time of day. Actually, it is small budgets that can trigger an allergic reaction. Many companies will not even nibble at a request for proposal if the budget falls below their operating minimum. Judi Havill, president of Alexandria, Va.-based On Site Productions Inc., which handles many small events for clients, offers "dissed" planners these insider tips.

If a production company turns your business away, call it a blessing; it wouldn't have been right for the job.

Dig deep for resources. Small, start-up production houses are willing to go the extra mile, but they often are not listed with CVBs. Try asking individual suppliers and hotels for recommendations.

Be flexible and realistic. The budget might not support a video wall, but perhaps one large screen is all that is needed to convey the message.

If you want to do a series of small-budget events, shop them to production companies as one piece of business.

When the budget is too small to attract any takers, ask production firms to refer you directly to vendors for help.


The search is on
Be prepared to do some digging to find qualified production companies. Convention and visitors bureau listings and meeting planner association directories rarely provide a separate production category. The International Special Events Society, based in Indianapolis, has 2,700 members, including many production companies. Planners can request member information by geographic location via the association's Web site,

Although such resources are helpful, many planners prefer to rely on networking. "I have no shortage of phone calls per week from production companies who want to come in here and give me a demonstration," says Burger King's Hargrove. "But I find word of mouth is best. That way you find people who are experienced, and I have more confidence in their ability."

Flavia Rodriguez, vice president, protocol event marketing, for New York City-based J.P. Morgan & Co., asks caterers and other vendor contacts for recommendations. Also, as a member of the Council of Protocol Executives, a New York City-based organization whose 210 members work in the planning and/or protocol fields, she uses Protocol, the association's directory of supplier listings, which are based solely on member recommendations.

Robert Weisfeld, vice president of Hallandale, Fla.-based Pioneer Productions Inc., which maintains an office in Puerto Rico, says industry events provide another opportunity. "If you attend an event and like what you see, find out who's in charge and ask them [what production company] they used," he says.

Tell all
When seeking proposals, be prepared to discuss more than the number of attendees. Production companies want group demographics, descriptions of previous events (including what worked and what didn't) and an outline of activities that will precede and follow the production.

"We need to know as much about the client's history as we can, and we also want to know what they have planned for the future. Then we can start laying out creative proposals," says Blair Farrington, CEO and owner of Las Vegas-based Farrington Productions.

ME Productions' Underwood says, "Planners need to really communicate what they are trying to achieve, even if it's something like 'I want this event to be great, because the CEO is new and needs to make an impression.'"

That is where the production company's creative expertise comes into play. "We are audience experts," says Dorothy Devlin, co-owner of New York City-based Devlinhair Productions Inc., whose client list includes AT&T, MasterCard International and IBM. "We know how to get audiences to a certain place, but to do it, we need the message the company is trying to send."

Money talks
It also is critical to discuss budgets up front. "A lot of time is spent creating a proposal, and when you don't have a budget, it is difficult to know if you are heading in the right direction or if your ideas are completely unrealistic," says Robert Hulsmeyer, senior partner at New York City-based Empire Force Events Inc.

Production companies typically offer clients a choice of pricing options. For example, a planner might opt to pay a flat service fee, which is calculated based on an hourly rate, number of staff involved and number of hours spent on the event. Under a second pricing option, the planner pays a management fee, which represents the company's creative consulting time and covers individual vendor invoices. Production firms almost always include a markup, ranging from 10 percent to more than 25 percent, on each vendor invoice.

Going direct
If a client wants to work with a particular vendor, most production firms will accommodate the request, even if it does not have a relationship with the vendor. But such an arrangement is less than ideal, production firms say. Hulsmeyer of Empire Force Events says the company will work with an outside vendor but will not take responsibility for the quality of its work. He tells the client, "You're vouching for them, we're not."

Farrington of Farrington Productions decries the practice, saying planners who think they can get a better deal by going directly to vendors are flat-out mistaken. "If you go to a vendor, and it's your first time, you'll pay top price," he says. "We will always get a better price. Even with our markup, it will be a better deal."

You can negotiate
Many planners ask for a line-item breakdown, which gives them room to negotiate. "I am always concerned with what is the actual cost, vs. what they are charging me and the product they deliver, because I don't know how to gauge their costs," says J.P. Morgan & Co.'s Rodriguez. "Usually the markup is not shown, but I always negotiate down those line items that seem preposterous."

Says one corporate planner at a leading financial institution in New York City, "When I see a flat management fee, I always ask to see how they arrived at it, especially when it's a dollar amount I'm not comfortable with. Then I will negotiate with them, and if they won't give me a breakdown, I go somewhere else."

When things go wrong, you also can negotiate on the back end, says Compaq's Garrity. "The production company has to deliver all they say they can." And if they don't, she says, the planner should demand recourse, either by negotiating a discount on that event or credit toward a future event.

When things go right, on the other hand, it is well worth paying top dollar for the service, says Perry Eichor, director of marketing for Chicago-based Marbo Inc., a manufacturer of juice-drink concentrates. Eichor recalls a recent event in Miami for 200 licensees, which required simultaneous translation in three languages. The production, which cost more than $300,000, was handled by ME Productions. Says Eichor, "It was like one smooth shoot down a river in a canoe, with not even a hiccup."

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