by Sarah J.F. Braley | June 01, 2017

How prevalent is the use of themes by meeting planners? In an online poll M&C conducted in April, fully 87 percent of respondents said they always or sometimes theme their major conferences or special events. The most fertile source of inspiration, as attested to by 79 percent of those surveyed, is a planner's own creativity. The following theme ideas, gleaned from respondents, prove that ingenuity, imagination and a sense of fun run rampant in our industry.  

Down the rabbit hole

The International Live Events Association took cues from Alice Through the Looking Glass, the Johnny Depp--starring movie sequel that hit theaters last year, to theme its 2016 Live Espirit Awards at the JW Marriott Austin in Texas. The show, designed by Tempe, Ariz.-based Vermilion Events and Design Group with Austin's own Strong Events, used the movie's edgy, hallucinatory look for a most memorable event.

"They wanted to push the envelope," says David Twigger, creative director and founder of Vermilion. "I'm a fan of the Alice movies, so we pitched the theme of a nontraditional Alice in Wonderland, focusing on some of the brighter, more intense colors they had in the new movie."

Attendees arriving at the hotel initially encountered a TV screen featuring an animated Cheshire Cat that greeted and interacted with them personally thanks to some tech wizardry. The reception area featured a wall dressed with warped clocks and a DJ dressed as Alice. A table was stocked with vintage telephones hooked up to a system by FêteFone that allowed attendees to record greetings and thoughts on the event, which were later delivered to the host organization. Another table was covered with a "mad" tea service of vintage tea cups and pots, which actually served as wine vessels for the reception.

At dinner, table setups came in bold shades of purple and black, or orange and green with purple highlights. "In the middle of the floor we had two long 'queen's' tables seating 30 people each, draped with red and black linen and with red-velvet chair backs," says Twigger. "The centerpieces were mannequin heads with red heart-shaped hair made out of red roses."

The menu was equally unusual, featuring quail roulade, seven-layer lobster salad and braised beef short ribs. Diners were surrounded by airwalls bedecked with snatches of text from the source book, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There.

Presidential pizza-makers

When the Santa Barbara, Calif., chapter of the Young Presidents' Organization, for company presidents under 50 years old, decided on an Undercover Boss-themed networking event, they took advantage of the fact that one of their members is owner of the Rusty's Pizza Parlor chain of restaurants.

All 17 participants gathered for an icebreaker at a downtown Rusty's as the day began and were asked to write their first job on a slip of paper; as each was picked out of a hat, everyone had to guess whose job it had been. Next, members were each given a Rusty's uniform of a logoed black T-shirt, a nametag and a black baseball cap, and then it was off to "work."

"Employee of the month" winners

Groups of two and three people were sent to six Rusty's restaurants, whose management staff were told that just one from the team could be hired, based on their pizza-making prowess. The participants then went about grating cheese, rolling dough, constructing pizzas and popping them into the oven.

"We wanted to give them the experience of a job that they are not normally accustomed to doing," says Sylvia Edney, chapter manager of YPO Santa Barbara, who planned the event. "We wanted them to think back on what it is like to get your first job."

At the end of the day, when all 17 aspiring pizza makers reassembled back at the starting point, they each were handed an "employee of the month" certificate, "but the most coveted item of the day was a gold sticker that marked who from each group got the job," says Edney. "We just wanted to members to get to know each other and bond through a shared experience." (See a video of the event here.)