by Loren G. Edelstein | November 01, 2014

M&C's November 2014 News Research asked meeting planners how they feel about themed events. The great majority believe a good theme significantly enhances the attendee experiences. Below are verbatim responses on their best theme ideas...and epic fails. (Please add your own in the comments field!)

Please describe the best themed special event you've ever planned or attended.

• Probably the most unique was a December familiarization trip to Traverse City, Mich. The theme was Dr. Zhivago, and we had horse-drawn carriage rides in the snow, Russian-themed food (served Russian style) and many other little touches that reflected the theme.

• "White-out" ceremony for doctors graduating from medical school

• Cirque du Soleil-themed party in Naples, Fla.

• "Wild West Holiday Hoedown." We had a country music band, line dancing, Western food, a photo booth, dress-up supplies.

• New England clambake/picnic on Waterfront HarborPark area of the John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse in Boston

• Ballroom turned into a distillery rack house for a spirits company

• A Marriott in Boston turned their ballroom into a cookout theme. It included a grass lawn, "houses" with neighbors who waved as you walked in (the walls were covered with privacy fencing). You actually walked through a house and went out the back porch into the "backyard." There was a dad grilling, kids splashing in a pool, and we ate steak on picnic tables. So fun! I will always remember it.

• A healing tarot-card theme for a medical research entity. Got permission to use the fantastical designs from a deck of medicinal tarot cards. Blew them up and hung them from the ceiling, had fortune tellers, custom colored tablecloths made in India with ayurveda designs, etc.

• '80s party at FICP - the costumes were incredible!

• I like to plan around a color or a texture. My favorite was an "Industrial Christmas," as I liked to call it, which was based on upcycled materials and mercury glass.

• 1950's-era diner/drive-in to celebrate a 50th anniversary

• For a celebration of New York, food specialties from every region of the state

• "What's Cooking." It was a trade show. The hotel's chefs were cooking some of the appetizers on-site, menus were being traded, all the marketing materials had menus on them and the thank-you notes to the exhibitors were favorite menus of the planning team.

• James Bond-themed event featuring a spy car at the valet, specialty Vesper martinis, martini-glass desserts, tuxedo-fold napkins with mini bow ties, spy-silhouette décor, registration packets in manila envelopes/folders stamped "CONFIDENTIAL," etc.

• I once planned a large global corporate event in Tucson centered around a theme I created with our CEO of the Americas division. It was a holistic theme to drive sales centered around "Fulfilling Our Destiny." We had a lot of branding that went into it, from concept to completion: Native American dancers to energize the group, a nightly amenity drop to enhance the branding, a phone call from the Native American chief, a corporate cattle drive, and we even had "John Wayne" appear in a cloud of smoke on horseback, to name just a few things. The wow factor was escalated to a whole new level, thanks to my brainstorming and the openness of the CEO. We captured a ton of branding key messages, and attendees walked away VERY energized to jump on the new sales launch. 

• A cruise, Monopoly game, Saratoga track, New Orleans, Paris (we had a mime, a strolling accordion, bistro tables, etc.), Wild West

• "A New Beginning." Living walls with greenery and plants. Massive trees lit up in center of room. All natural centerpieces, haze throughout. Brown accents. Amazing!

• "Zombie Apocalypse Day" in the office

• A "Night in Casablanca" fund-raiser for a nonprofit in Vancouver - Moroccan theme with belly dancing, guests dressed up as well

• Alice in Wonderland

• "Superhero Soiree" for our children's hospital

• 1920s flapper-style

• Baseball-themed event in Baltimore: Staff wore baseball jerseys, gave out baseball-related trinkets; booths were themed to spots on a baseball field, and all capped with an evening event at Camden Yards!

• The event was a copy of the wedding scene in one of the Twilight movies. The idea was a little cliché, but they executed it brilliantly. It was held in a wooded area decorated just like the movie scene. The flowers, ambiance, lighting - they got all of it right and it was very successful.

• "Go West: The Sky's the Limit"

• Based on the 1950s. Tag line was "Blast Out of the Past." Invitations were '50s classic car foldouts that were 3-D. We gave each attendee a signed copy of the book our keynote speaker had written, in a black gift bag with pink tissue paper. For the golf tournament I named each foursome using '50s lingo (Daddie-O Double Bogeys, Bobby Sox Scramblers, Corvette Chippers, etc). Menu cards for dinner also used the lingo (Fuzzy Dice Filet, Wailin' Wild Rice, Souped Up Spinach Salad, Harriet Nelson Apple Pie, etc.), as did registration information and the conference program. The tip container for the host bar was a Lone Ranger lunch box. The decorations for dinner were pink tablecloths, black napkins, pink and black weighted balloons at each table in a cardboard '50s car. Candy from the '50s was scattered on each table, and sunglasses were placed on the back of the centerpiece cars. On the walls were plastic sheets that continued the theme - Elvis, cars, musical notes, dinner menus. An inflatable jukebox was placed in front of an MP3 player that was playing period music.

What event theme that you planned or attended was an epic fail? (Don't worry, your input will be anonymous!)

• A college reunion with a Twilight Zone theme. People just didn't get into it.


• A Survivor-themed party

• A work costume party I attended with no theme - too much confusion

• Re-creation of classic Saturday Night Live skits just did not click with the younger members of the audience

• Honestly, they are usually done so poorly that I can't pick one. Here's the deal: You have to go all in if you are going to do a theme. You can't expect people to "get it." You have to own every detail to make it over-the-top experiential.

• A French organization once did a big event in L.A. to celebrate France's Independence Day (14 July) but forgot to put a specific event date on the invitation. Hundreds of people, including me, showed up on the 14th of July and unwittingly crashed a Vodka-brand rollout. None of us could figure out why the venue was awash in vodka promotions and had no French flags flying or anything remotely French in theme. The organization had to hire a ton of temps to phone and apologize to their entire guest list for not specifying the correct date. I hope they paid the vodka company for unwittingly hosting hundreds of unexpected guests! I have never forgotten that whole debacle and won't as long as I live.

• Attended an arts council "gala" that looked like a sad, poorly planned high school prom. Zero pizzazz

• Dinner promoting our Istanbul convention; we had a belly dancer who would not stop performing!

• Attended one where all food was placed on people's bodies (yes, both male and females laying on tables with finger sandwiches on them). Everyone was very uncomfortable.

• Lots of bad country-and-western events

• Halloween party where the events were held mostly outdoors. It was 90 degrees F and everyone from the costumed attendees to the band ended up in the hotel pool.

• "Around the World" - was too broad overall. Pick one destination.

• A national corporate meeting with a baseball theme. The staging was all themed, as was the tables and break snacks. But that was all that was themed. The theme itself had very little to do with the meeting content so it all seemed very disjointed. The CSR activity had absolutely no relation to the theme whatsoever; nor did the breakouts, group dinners and events, or any other aspect of the weeklong event. The venue itself didn't even lend to the theme. We all walked away not clear on the objective of the meeting overall or what the baseball staging had to do with the content. It was very odd.

• I don't think I've had an epic fail, but when people don't get the theme unless I explain it, that's disappointing!

• "What a Girl Wants"

• The "No Theme at All" theme

• Pirate theme, partial failure due to bad entertainment

• We are holding a health fair today and the theme, for whatever reason, is space/science fiction. Very few employees have dressed in anything representing those themes and only a couple of the vendors have joined in. Fair is going well for what it is, but the theme has been totally lost.

• "Breathe a Song." Used for service organization conference. Came from Longfellow poem that starts, "I shot an arrow into the air, it fell to earth I know not where." Theme had to be explained, and even then it did not relate to the programming for the event.

• One time we used gobos, but it was too bright outside on the deck to see the light display from the gobos. As the sun went down you could see the displays, but the event was almost over at that point and most people had left.