July 01, 2000
Meetings & Conventions - Trite No More - July 2000 Current Issue
July 2000

Trite No More

Four clever event themes and how to pull them off

By Marilee Crocker

When the creative team at in Maynard, Mass., floated the idea for an attention-getting theme for its January 2000 sales meeting, Steve Pogorzelski put the suggestion to the ultimate test: He ran it by his 10-year-old daughter. Pogorzelski, who is executive vice president of the online career networking firm, wanted to be sure the motif was fresh, innovative and bold. is a young, hip and fast-moving company, so Pogorzelski didn’t dare theme its sales meeting around a concept that might come off as hokey. Plus, he is particularly sensitive to themes that are stale or mundane, having seen plenty of them while working for an exposition services company during his college years.

Indeed, when it comes to theming a meeting, the line between trite and terrific can be thin, and a theme can just as easily flop as fly. So, why bother theming a meeting at all?

For associations, of course, the reason is fairly obvious. A theme can serve as a marketing tool, creating a sound byte that helps grab attention and drive attendance. But themes can serve a more integral purpose: They can lend focus and depth to the various elements of a gathering.

To inspire readers in their own creative efforts, we offer four case studies of themes that supported the events’ objectives without inspiring eye-rolling among attendees.

Scream 2000
Event: In January, hosted about 400 domestic and international sales personnel for a meeting at the Westin Copley Place Boston.

Objective: An acronym that stands for “Sales Creating Enthusiasm, Attitude and Momentum,” Scream articulated the goals of the sales meeting. Pogorzelski explains, “At an Internet company, it’s all about growth. The more we sell, the more revenue we can bring in, the faster it adds to our growth. Then we can hire more people, spend more money on advertising, expand our sales and functional teams. The faster we turn it up, the faster we increase our revenues and revenues grew almost 300 percent last year the more opportunities we create for ourselves as an organization.”

He adds, “ culture is a very passionate, committed culture. It’s very much a work hard, play hard organization. Scream encapsulates those emotions and activities. It’s fun and irreverent. It’s an action word.”

Preshow promotion: An enigmatic PowerPoint e-mail sent to sales staff as a teaser was designed to leave recipients guessing about the connection between the upcoming meeting, the famous Edvard Munch painting “The Scream,” the movie Scream, a photograph of a smiling man with the mascot monster on his shoulder, and references to cold calls and sales quotas.

Kickoff: A state-of-the-art sound system with huge speakers and rock concert-style lighting was used at all general sessions. Hundreds of noisy clappers were handed out, and attendees didn’t hesitate to use them.’s charismatic CEO, Jeff Taylor, addressed attendees in a rousing evangelical style.

Eight-foot-tall blowup dolls of the screaming character portrayed in the Edvard Munch painting decorated the conference stage, as did the Scream 2000 conference logo.

Key elements: At an awards banquet, the scream theme was incorporated into plaques handed out to winners, table centerpieces depicted smaller versions of the scream dolls, and scream key chains were distributed. The Scream 2000 logo, with eerie ghostly images, clouds and fog, was used as a template for PowerPoint presentations.

A day devoted to customer retention focused on how can “satisfy our customers so they don’t scream.” A video produced in-house incorporated the song “Higher” by the group Scream. And a talent show by a sales team that drew heavily on the theme “was a scream,” Pogorzelski comments.

Results: “We kept the momentum alive for three days. People were energized, enthused, happy,” says Pogorzelski. A post-conference survey confirmed that the theme worked.

Follow-up:The theme has been a “consistent rallying point for the sales team throughout the year,” Pogorzelski says. Sequels are in the works; next year’s conference has been dubbed Scream 2, and plans for Scream 3 are under way.

Spring training
Event: The annual conference of the American Nursery & Landscape Association is an educational meeting for owners and managers of nurseries and landscape firms. This year’s February gathering at the Galt House Hotel in Louisville, Ky., attracted a crowd of 1,200.

Objective: This year’s theme was Spring Training for Your Mind. “In our industry, the crunch time is spring,” says Kellee C. Magee, director of meetings and business programming for the Washington, D.C.-based organization. “The month of February is the last real opportunity to get your team together.”

Preshow promotion: Newsletter articles about the conference incorporated baseball language and metaphors. A registration brochure was peppered with expressions such as “We’re glad you’re on the team” and “Let’s play ball.”

Kickoff: Attendees were greeted as if they were fans arriving for a baseball game. At registration, turnstiles simulated the entrance to a ballpark; felt pennants displayed the association logo, and staff and conference volunteers wore red or blue baseball jerseys. An opening reception was held at the Louisville Slugger Museum.

Key elements: General sessions were staged in a ballroom that had been converted into a virtual ballpark. The speaker’s podium was demarcated by home plate in front of a life-size chain-link backstop with dugouts on either side. A full-size baseball scoreboard was mounted on the back wall, and 20-foot baseball pennants were positioned around the room. Every day, as delegates arrived, an organist played baseball tunes. At the first session the emcee, dressed in a baseball jersey, sang “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” and the association president threw out the ceremonial first pitch.

“We talked a lot about how to build your own team. We did a session on coaching for commitment and the role of manager as coach,” Magee says. Tony LaRussa, manager for the St. Louis Cardinals, spoke about “Winning Strategies” and provided a handout fashioned after a baseball game lineup card.

Opening, closing and keynote sessions were dubbed Big League Sessions; seminar tracks were listed as the Batting Order; bonus educational sessions were called Extra Innings, and sessions that covered two or three disciplines were double and triple plays.

In a break area called the Clubhouse Concession Stand, ballpark snacks were served. Corridors were decorated with locker room-style sets, with baseball gear strewn about. One morning attendees were told it was “bat day,” and everybody got a miniature Louisville Slugger.

Results: Magee says the theme had “the intangible effect of making attendees feel, ‘Wow, I’d love to be involved in something like this.’ The number of volunteers we got after the fact for committees was really pretty amazing.”

For the fun of it
Event: About 400 general managers and district managers for Coco’s & Carrows, a restaurant company based in Irvine, Calif., gathered in April for an annual meeting at the Doubletree Hotel in Costa Mesa, Calif.

Objective: In the midst of potentially unsettling changes in leadership and ownership, Coco’s & Carrows aimed to boost managers’ morale, dispel fears and facilitate communication among managers of individual restaurants. In place of the usual education-intensive agenda, fun was the main objective.

“Our goal was to develop camaraderie. Where better to do that than on a playground? We took people back to their childhoods,” says Kathryn Jurgensen, CMP, owner of Premier Meetings, the independent planning firm in Irvine, Calif., that handled the meeting.

Preshow promotion: Attendees got their first hint that this year’s meeting would be different when they received mailing tubes stuffed with bubble gum, lollipops, Tootsie Rolls and novelty toys. In each tube was an invitation displaying the phrase “Life changes at every turn.” It was wrapped around a kaleidoscope.

Kickoff: Attendees were transported from the airport to the Irvine Spectrum Center, a high-concept entertainment center, where they were let loose to play. Each manager was given a lunch bag containing lunch money, candy and passes for interactive video and racing games. The opening party that evening was a circus event. Entertainment was provided by clowns, magicians, a monkey, a tattoo artist and face painters.

Key elements: At an opening talk on fun in the workplace, the audience was asked to don animal nose masks to lighten the mood. On the bus ride to the hotel, they were given water pistols and color-coded room keys to create instant teams.

On the first morning, breakfast tables were strewn with toys, such as yo-yos and paper airplanes. Lunch one day was spaghetti, served buffet-style in a setting resembling a high school cafeteria.

Results: “People attached to [the theme] emotionally right away,” Jurgensen says. “You’d hear them in the hall squirting each other with water pistols and saying, ‘For the fun of it!’ People felt such relief that it was a casual atmosphere where they could talk to one another.”

Follow-up: A bottle of soap bubbles was mailed to each attendee after the gathering. “When you want someone to retain not only what they learned but what they felt, you send them that kind of post-conference follow-up, not a 10-page handout,” says Jurgensen.

Going to extremes
Event: In February, about 300 sales representatives for the Laboratory Testing Segment of Bayer Diagnostics met in Las Vegas for their annual national meeting.

Objective: “Our goals for that meeting are to lay out our sales objectives and our strategy for the year. You want to create a high level of energy, a high level of enthusiasm and a high level of commitment,” explains Bob Sass, director of U.S. marketing, Laboratory Testing Segment, based in Tarrytown, N.Y.

“We thought of the Surge drink, which is advertised using extreme athletes and the message, ‘This is what you want to drink when you’ve just gone to the edge and back,’” says Sass. “Then we came up with the Extreme Games theme. We wanted to tell people it’s OK to take risks,” Sass says. “The thought was to take them to a higher level of performance, to extreme performance.”

Kickoff: A dramatic opening at the first general session launched the Create the Surge/Extreme Games motif. After attendees filled the room, the lights went down, the music came up, and skateboarders, acrobats on bikes and other extreme athletes made their way through the crowd and performed for several minutes on a huge ramp that went down one wall and up another. “Then my boss comes in on a bike, takes his helmet off and takes the stage. That blew everybody’s mind,” Sass says. “Then he laid out what we wanted to accomplish.”

Key elements: Event organizers developed a game show called the Extreme Game. Points were tallied all week in breakout sessions and general sessions, and winners earned a modest gift certificate from a sports catalog. Every general session began with a two-minute video clip of the Extreme Games, and the set in the general session room featured pictures of athletes performing in extreme sports. At breaks, Surge was served along with coffee, tea and soft drinks.

Results: People were excited and enthusiastic; they felt good about the company and about its long-term strategy. They left with a sense of “I can do it,” says Sass. “We built that all week.”

Follow-up: A yearlong sales contest called The Extreme Getaway, featuring quarterly travel-related gifts, was introduced at the gathering, establishing an incentive program that would keep the theme alive into 2001.


There’s nothing worse than a bad theme. Sources agree the golden rule here is “Do it right or don’t do it at all.” Some pointers:

Make it current. “A theme that encapsulates hot topics in an industry shows that a meeting will have educational value,” says Ann Godi, CMP, president and owner of Benchmarc Meetings & Incentives Inc. in Norcross, Ga.

Keep it simple. “It should be quickly identifiable, so every time the attendee gets a reminder postcard, a letter, a registration piece you can promote your theme,” says Veronica McGlothan, CMP, president, Meeting & Event Professionals Inc., Terre Haute, Ind.

Make it culturally consistent. “For every decision we make in terms of content, theme and music, we ask ourselves, ‘Does this fit in with our culture?’ If it doesn’t, we throw it out,” says Steve Pogorzelski, executive vice president of, based in Maynard, Mass.

Avoid shallow or overused themes. By now, anything related to the millennium has been done to death. Rhyming themes also can be disastrous. “Win Every Time in ’99” is one Pogorzelski wishes had never used. (To his credit, the theme predates his tenure with the firm.)

Use a sounding board. “If you feel like you’re getting into the danger zone of hackneyed or trite, give it back to your committee and ask, ‘What do you think? Am I pushing too hard?’” advises Kellee C. Magee, director of meetings and business programming for the American Nursery & Landscape Association in Washington, D.C.


Back to Current Issue index
M&C Home Page
Current Issue | Events Calendar | Newsline | Incentive News | Meetings Market Report
Editorial Libraries | CVB Links | Reader Survey | Hot Dates | Contact M&C