Meetings & Conventions Production Value December
How to find the right production company and ensure it
fulfills your needs
By Cheryl-Anne SturkenG
ayle 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
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
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
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
When the budget is too small to attract any
takers, ask production firms to refer you directly to vendors for
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, www.ises.com.
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.
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
"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
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."
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
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
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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