Friday, December 23, 2016

Engaging Millennials for Events

-By Mairead Delaney

The event profession is better today than ever. As event pros, we have the most engaged, captivated audience (read: millennials) DYING to tell the world about our events. Gone are the days of only relying on PR firms to spread the word. People love to share on social media. They love to review, comment, like… brag. Our event-goers are so willing to put out the good word for us — but they’re equally willing to throw us under the bus if the event doesn’t meet their standards. So how do we keep the birds chirping instead of crowing? 

For one, we’ve got to listen to them. Millennials are not the mysterious group everyone touts them to be. In fact, they’re quite vocal; the challenge is knowing where to find them since they won’t always come to you.

Knowing Your Audience’s Preferred Social Platforms
At this point it’s a no-brainer to set up an event hashtag to monitor the feedback on social media. You already know that.  However, that only works if you have ample staff to reply in real time. Additionally, you need to know your audience. What are their preferred social platforms? An audience of premium retail shoppers will more likely provide their feedback on Facebook; whereas, eSports spectators will gravitate toward Twitter (or better still, Reddit). Go to these platforms, read what people have to say, and, most importantly, have the right staff in place to decipher and prioritize what needs to be fixed immediately and what can be used to help improve the experience next time.

Identifying Event Ambassadors
The next challenge is remembering that everyone is an ambassador. Event ambassadors come in all shapes and sizes — from the lead event producers to the registration desk to the janitorial staff — everyone onsite has more than one job; everyone is integral to the event-goers’ experience. Sure it’s great to have greeters or hosts who are “in the know,” but as my high school chorus teacher instilled in me, “a chain is only as strong as its weakest link”. Train and expect your staff (yes, even janitorial) to know where the landmarks of your event lie and encourage them to warmly interface with event participants throughout the day. Arm them with information to answer FAQs and train them on how to respond when they don’t know the answer. “I’ll find out and get back to you; how can you be reached?” is a much better response than shrugging “I don’t know” and pointing them in another direction. It’s about caring. In a festival-style event, this is especially important for security teams. Keeping people safe is their main objective, but they shouldn’t spoil the good time with a lousy or aggressive attitude.

Using Art to Create the Totality of Experience
The most memorable events transform us and take us to another world. Whether you aim to harbor a creative learning environment in a general session or to transport festival-goers to another dimension, create experiential events to provide experiences to event participants.

Often the best place to start is the entrance. Festivals achieve this by designing unique entrances or landmark artwork. Take for example the 2015 Dutch Windmill entrance at Outside Lands or the illustrious Caterpillar and Butterfly from Coachella (below).

Each of these examples sets the tone of the event from the onset and informs guests from the get-go that they were part of something special. The same theory can be applied to corporate events. Take the time and invest the resources to curate artistic inspiration for your event participants. An inspirational environment can rejuvenate your audience and stimulate meaningful conversations and creative problem solving.

Making the Brand Part of the Event
Sponsorship is key for many events, but simply slapping a logo on the top of a sign won’t do anymore. Millennials especially are looking for meaningful brand integration – and that’s good news for sponsors! Whether you’re a sponsor or an event producer, look for problems that need solving and invest your sponsorship dollars there. Let’s say, for example, your corporate group comes to town for a large-scale conference. Sure, the hotels are within “walking distance” of the convention center, but even with a brand-new set of Dr. Scholl’s inserts, walking back to the hotel after a long day on the showroom floor can feel like torture. Utilize your sponsorship dollars to hire a fleet of pedicabs to cart people back to their hotels. Not only will event participants easily identify the branded pedicabs, but your sponsor will love you for increasing their brand exposure to the whole city.

Recognizing the Value of Community
Millennial or not, human nature dictates our need for connection. It is why we congregate—why we celebrate. I want to share an example from an event Extraordinary Events produced this past fall.

In October, just before Halloween, we produced a three-day, all-day grand opening festival for a premium shopping center in Maryland. The shopping center is situated in an emerging area amidst many residential property developments and, to be frank, a lot of the neighbors weren’t exactly stoked that a big shopping center was impacting the local traffic flow. So how did we help the client alleviate relations with the surrounding neighbors? We invited them all in for a Safe Trick-or-Treat event: dynamic costumed characters manned decked-out thematic stations and interacted with kids and their families—handing out candy and treats, posing for photos – it was a hit! After two electric hours of trick-or-treating, more than 1,500 parents, kids, and pets marched through the property for a costume parade led by Frankenstein and Dracula. The evening closed out with a DJ-led group dance to “Thriller”.

Did the property make more money that night thanks to the costume parade? It did; but that’s not the point. The important consideration for the client and the families that night was that this brand – this big corporate shopping center—put in the effort to connect with the community and provide a safe place for their kids to celebrate Halloween.

I implore you to look beyond the ROI and remember that sometimes it is not realized in an immediate sale but rather a lifelong relationship to a brand that managed to go that extra mile.

Creating the Buzz
When it comes to engaging millennials at events, you either sink or swim. There’s no denying the double-edged sword that is social media – if they have a great time you’re a hero and they’ll willingly  brag to everyone in their network; if they’re dissatisfied with the experience, they’ll cut you down faster than you call yelp “Help!” Heed my advice above and couple it with bullet-proof planning, permitting and safety precautions. You can do this. I believe in you! Don’t let me down.

Mairead Delaney, an account manager at Extraordinary Events, has worked alongside a diverse range of producers and designers producing a wide range of events and activations nationally and internationally. You may contact Mairead via To learn more about Extraordinary Events, visit

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Stress... Manage and Accept It

I met this amazing woman at a Vistage meeting and found her words on many topics of great interest. Stress affects us all at different times in different ways, and so I am happy to share some insights with you that resonated with me. - Andrea Michaels

-By Deborah Shames
For many years, humans have been fighting stress with exercise, diet and drugs. Still, we live in stressful times, and work exacerbates the pressure. But should we emulate Buddhist monks, clad in saffron robes, rice bowl in hand, counting their breaths? Daniel Kaufer, associate professor of integrative biology at UC Berkeley says, "some amounts of stress are good to push you to the level of optimal alertness, behavioral and cognitive performance."

Most cognitive scientists agree that small amounts of stress prompt stem cells to create new nerve cells, improving memory and performance. The other critical factor is how one perceives stress. If we welcome and manage it, stress becomes fuel. Fear it, and stress is overwhelming, impairing memory and creating depression, weight gain and other unwelcome results.

With the New Year approaching, challenge yourself to accept stress. When it comes to speaking, introduce a colleague at a networking meeting, sit on a panel, give a toast at a wedding, or speak briefly at your firm's lunch-and-learn. These small, low-ante events create stress, preparing you for larger presentations and building successes for the brain to recall. When your perspective about speaking goes from threat to challenge, you will be in your sweet spot. Ommm.

Join the conversation at

Deborah Shames of Eloqui is the author of Out Front: How Women Can Become Engaging, Memorable and Fearless Speakers. Eloqui provides presentation and communication training from new hires to seasoned executives; startups and small businesses to established firms and non-profits. To learn more, go to

Andrea Michaels is the founder/president of Extrordinary Events, a multi-award-winning international events agency based in Los Angeles. To learn more about EE, please visit You may reach Andrea via

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Creating a Legacy... The Recipe

The story of….

CEMEX Team-Building Activity in Leona Vicario, Mexico

I’ve thought a lot about the true meaning of social responsibility and whether we just talk about it or whether we actually do it. So I want to share a story of how it applied to re-building a school in Leona Vicario outside of Cancun to create the CEMEX team-building event. It was an event that succeeded so well that lives were changed forever. I want to believe that changing lives is something for which we all strive, and so I encourage all readers to copy, steal, modify … but do it. Let me tell you what we did, why we did it, and how.

It's a long story, so let me say that if you don’t want to read the specifics, know these things and then skip to the end…

*Believe that you can make a difference and then figure out a way to do so.

*Don’t give up when challenges arise.

*Legacies have to start somewhere. Start one.

*Find a purpose and then find a way to connect your audience to it that is unique to them.

Our legacy creation started with a client who wanted to do a team building activity. We were at a beach resort, so building a cardboard boat sounded fun to them. But I thought differently. Part of the objective was to unify two disparate companies that did not see eye-to-eye. CEMEX had purchased an Australian company… wing tip shoes vs. shrimp on the Barbie was a good description. I thought that by having both companies do something for the greater good would be far more bonding. It took a bit of convincing, but in the end it accomplished just that.

After much looking around Cancun, we found a school in Leona Vicatio, about 45 minutes outside of the main town. The school was in heartbreaking condition when we first saw it. After weeks of site inspections at the school, meetings with contractors and suppliers of building products and internal CEMEX personnel, we began three months of hard work prior to the conference. The objective was to start to turn the school into a place of pride for the children and their town.

At first, the requirements to start this project seemed insurmountable, since everything had to be accomplished while school was in session. For every item completed, 10 more appeared. The job required 36 truckloads of cement, 122 gallons of paint and 700 yards of grass sod not to mention plumbing, electrical, landscape, mortar and a variety of other elements. 

Our first major obstacle was the fact that, as with many small communities and their leaders, the school was very proud and the administration slow to respond to the offer of charity, worried that it would acknowledge they needed help. Discussions were handled with respect for the administration’s concerns, and it was finally determined that the community and school leaders would take part in, and take credit for, arranging the event. Once this was agreed, we were able to move forward, now with the local police (for crowd control and safety) and the school’s grounds managers fully on board.

It quickly became clear that not only was additional building necessary but the existing rooms and facilities also needed to be upgraded to accommodate the number of children attending the school. 

For 90 days prior to the conference, CEMEX and its partners did everything. Contractors poured cement, restructured plumbing, installed electrical, refurbished bathrooms, rebuilt the school cafeteria and began to construct a small library.

We immediately began by clearing the school grounds of trash, dismantling a dilapidated structure and then grading tons of dirt to accommodate a proposed new building and playground. As with most remodeling, it was easier to start from scratch rather than add to an existing substandard substructure. Because of this, when remodeling and adding multiple boys’ and girls’ toilets and stalls, all existing plumbing feeder-pipes needed to be ripped out and replaced, as well as electrical sub panels to accommodate the additional donated computer stations and Internet connections.

Because the school had no trash disposal service or facilities, all trash and waste had been burned in the play yard and behind the cafeteria. As a result, rats and vermin were attracted to the areas where the children ate and played. To resolve this challenge, CEMEX and Extraordinary Events built two enclosed areas to store new trash cans that CEMEX donated.

Access to the school for construction was another challenge. Because the town was very small and not built to any standard city codes, many of the electrical poles and power lines were mounted to large posts and, in some cases, large tree branches buried into the ground. This made access for our cement trucks and large buses used to transport the multiple CEMEX executives impossible.

To make access possible, we raised all power lines of the surrounding city block and all lines leading up to the school site from the main access road. Needless to say, this was not a simple task.

It was also very hard to judge how many supplies would be needed. The solution was having plenty of runners onsite. The overall productivity during the re-building was better than anticipated, and our runners had to sprint out for more plants, more paint … all in a town where none of those things existed. Ah, the beauty of cell phones. Call Cancun and rush those things back!

Another issue was making the project relevant to the executives at the conference. This was the first time CEMEX had ever initiated such a complex, lengthy community service activity. In order to understand what they would have to accomplish, the CEMEX executives needed to see the “before” pictures of the school. Because there were three months between the initiation of the construction and when executives would actually see and become part of its completion, a documentary film was created every step of the way, both for archival purposes and also to be shown at the conference. The objective was to bring attendees up to speed while tapping into their emotions. If they saw where the process started, and also where it ended, they would know what they achieved. Interviews with the town mayor as well as the school officials were ongoing as construction progressed.  

The work we began was completed by the 300 executives during our event. Now don’t think that means 300 executives did a tiny bit of hammering and called it a day. They worked their butts off. Let me give you a glimpse of their day.

After a morning of intense business sessions, the executives were shown the documentary video taken of the school over those past 90 days. The first shots showed the school before CEMEX took hold. The horrible conditions of the classrooms, the kitchen and the playgrounds and the lack of athletic equipment, books and proper kitchen facilities were all visible. Then the video commemorated the activities leading up to this day with CEMEX trucks and contractors visibly laying the groundwork for it.

At the end of this presentation the executives were more than ready to pitch in. They were assigned to their team (electrical, landscaping, plumbing, carpentry, mortar, etc., all based on their defined skill set, a combination of EE’s careful investigation and forms we had them complete). In teams they boarded buses to the school.

During the trip to the school, several planned activities were implemented. All were designed to create a spirit of “team.” First they were given detailed printed instructions as to exactly what they had to do once onsite. They were told what equipment they would have and the task they would have to accomplish. Then they were told more about the school.

One man asked, “Couldn’t you find a school that was closer?”

The guide’s response set the tone. Here’s the conversation…

Guide: “Who would send his child to a school without toilets?”

 (No hands went up.)

Guide: “Who would send his child to a school with rats running through his food?” 

(No hands went up.)

Guide:“Who would send his child to a school that had no playground, no desks, no library and no books?” 

(Again, no hands went up.)

Guide: “So, who would rather stay close to Cancun and paint a blue classroom yellow? Or would you rather ride an hour and change the lives of hundreds of children forever?

The group started cheering and applauding.

Once at the site, each of the 35 group leaders took their teams to preset tables holding all the tools, supplies and safety equipment they would need.  Each team was then joined by one of the school’s students and a parent. Together they painted, laid sod, planted flowers and trees, poured concrete, applied stucco, plumbed, finished electrical work and constructed the walls and roof of a new library, the first the school had ever enjoyed. To make the connection between CEMEX and the school rock-solid, CEMEX products were used. The sight of so many active CEMEX cement trucks was awesome to many of the executives who rarely had the opportunity to see their products in action, much less personally put to use in the field.

EE suggested one final innovation  quickly adopted by CEMEX. We asked each and every executive to bring a favorite book from his or her childhood to share with the children on the day of the event and then to leave behind as the first contribution to the new library they had built that afternoon.

In a touching display, each CEMEX executive did share his or her own special childhood book with a student from Leona Vicario. These books, inscribed in more than 38 languages, were the very beginning of the new library. The emotional connection as grown men sat with small children on their laps telling them why this particular book had been so special was palpable. One man brought a book in Polish that he had translated by hand into Spanish. Another had done hand drawings of Black Beauty with an inscription to the children.

An official dedication ceremony ended the event, consisting of a speech by the Vice President of CEMEX, “Thank Yous” by school representatives and the parents of the students, and a song performed by the children for the CEMEX executives. Additionally, gifts were exchanged between the school, the community and the executives.

At the end of the day, the executives had figuratively and literally influenced, if not entirely changed, the lives and education of more than 600 children and families as they experienced first-hand the core business of CEMEX. It was a lesson in the importance of their product. Plus, they had learned a valuable team-building lesson as they worked with one another across cultural and language barriers to achieve a common goal, one that was lofty and inspiring and immensely satisfying, while changing the lives of an entire community.

The Lesson
Community service events are not out of the norm but usually consist of a bit of hammering and perhaps some superficial painting. This project was entirely different.

From its inception to its execution to the lasting effect it left on all participants, this event was a powerful experiential manifestation of the message that the client wished to send. Not only did the community service activity serve as a team-building lesson, it also gave attendees first-hand knowledge of the company’s product and illustrated its corporate culture to newcomers joining the company as a result of  the recent acquisition. It also did something not every team-building activity does – it created a legacy for CEMEX.

The school’s new buildings, library and grounds will be used for generations of children to come. The books that the executives left will be read by the children and grandchildren of those kids enjoying them today. And, best of all, the event launched a series of future events like it that CEMEX and EE will produce throughout the world.

Can an event’s success be measured in emotion? Return on emotion might be a measurement for the future. We know that ROT (return on time) is now highly prioritized. I watched as 300 tired executives, hands filthy, splattered with paint and cement, sweaty and grimy, smiling, crying and laughing shared stories of what each of them did and what a difference it made. Carefully manicured fingernails were history; blisters were sources of pride. This was a true team of happy people who had bonded for a cause, one much bigger than themselves.

Without exception, every executive was engaged with the other executives and with the children. Because of their product, a world had changed. Together, they really did build the future, and, together my team and I did too. 

Taking on projects that make a difference in the world is close to my heart, as it should be to us all. If each of us can leave even small legacies to others, we can change the world.
If You Have Jumped Ahead to the End…and You Want to Create a Legacy:

It does not matter what business you are in, you can do this either internally or externally.

Do you produce a festival? Find a way to include benefits to your community through activities that better it.

Are you planning a corporate event? Find a way that every event has purpose within it and is branded to the client, annually.

Fundraiser? Involve the recipients of the funds in the event so people know where their money is being spent. Engage the actual people into the event instead of letting them be photos on a large screen.

Within EE we have committed ourselves to supporting Dining for Women and will have monthly fundraisers to support their initiatives. We invite you to read up on it at

Andrea Michaels is the founder and president of Extraordinary Events, a multi-award-winning international event agency based in Los Angeles. She is an in-demand speaker and author of  Reflections of a Successful Wallflower: Lessons in Business; Lessons in Life. To contact Andrea, email

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Finding Inspiration

I'm often asked where I find my inspiration. I seem to find it everywhere I go. One night many years ago, I attended a play called Tamara, which took place in an old building in Hollywood. It inspired me then as it does to this day. I'm going to tell you about it, as it was way back then, and then ask you to use your imagination to re-imagine it in today's world with technology being used creatively as an additional enhancement. Okay, back to waaaaay back "when."

The setting of the play was Fascist Italy, the era of Mussolini. Tamara enacted the true story of Gabriele d'Annunizo, a popular revolutionary poet under house arrest, and Tamara, a Polish aristocrat and artist summoned to paint his portrait. The key to its creativity, however, was that it was an interactive play involving the audience.

Audience members entered the building and were interrogated by a costumed and dangerous-looking guard, who placed doubt as to whether entrance would be allowed. The ticket was a passport, and, of course, everyone was given entrance into a palor with a 1920s motif. A waitress served champagne while a pianist entertained. With everyone gathered, the guard jumped up on top of a table and ordered us to follow "the rules." They were: Each of us must meet all the characters in the "house" in the parlor. If one of them left the room, each guest could follow that character throughout the house, unless the cast member slammed a door, at which point the guest could not follow. Whenever any character left a room, the guest could choose to stay (as other characters would be entering the room) or follow the one who left.

Soon all actors assembled in the parlor. After much interaction, some left running, others walking. All dispensed in various authentically decorated areas of the house. In each room, including the kitchen and bathroom, the play evolved. So, instead of viewing a single stage, the audience scattered into small groups that chased twelve characters from one room to the next, from one floor to the next, following them everywhere to co-create the stories that interested them the most.

During the night (and midway through the play), everyone gathered together in the kitchen, and a dinner of Italian fare was served. The cast re-entered afterward, and the play resumed as they again moved off into all other areas of the house. At the end of the evening, everyone somehow assembled in the parlor, and the play concluded.

Now the passport was not only a souvenir but also an invitation to return, which I did fourteen or fifteen times! And each time I saw a different version of the play as I always followed different characters to different places. And after five times, guests could attend free for a lifetime. With a dozen stages and storytellers, the number of story lines an audience could trace figured in the millions!

Now, why was this an inspiration? Shortly after my first visit, a large hotel in Detroit approached me to conceptualize an event for its best clients. When I asked hotel personnel to identify their challenges as well as their objectives, they shared that they wanted these guests to see the entire hotel and needed a creative way to move them around. That was my "aha" moment. Following is what I suggested, which they accepted, and I produced for them. It was the forerunner of the corporate mystery party.

Guests received a very formal invitation to attend a party in honor of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II. When the 1,500 guests arrived, would it surprise you to know that they brought gifts of wine, food and flowers? Why? Seven hundred had been anticipated, but people thought the real Queen was attending! No matter, it was a wonderful turnout.

Guests were ushered into small areas that were privatized. (We actually turned the garage into meeting rooms.) Here they were entertained by a pre-recorded (but seemingly live) broadcast that told them that a theft had taken place. A jade Buddha that The Queen was taking to China had been stolen, and Her Majesty was asking the guests to help her find it. They would have to travel to different countries, and they would be issued a passport that would take them to various areas of the hotel which represented these different countries. We stationed a guest detective (various actors) in each area to create the atmosphere. Every area was decorated to represent its specific country. For instance, we had Magnum P.I. in Hawaii, Inspector Clousseau in Paris, Sherlock Holmes in London and Charlie Chan in China. And those were only a few. The detectives gave guests clues and stamped their passports. When all the clues were assembled, guests had to solve the crime and figure the location of the Buddha. True and false clues were distributed by an organ grinder's monkey, a juggler (look for the man with three balls), a magician doing card tricks (look for the man with 52 friends) and a variety of other entertainers. Some clues were even in fortune cookies.

Guests were then escorted to the pool deck where The Queen (a lookalike) was hosting a private concert and awarding prizes (raffle-style) to those who had discovered the Buddha's location.

The evening was a huge success. The press coverage was amazing. So, the objective was achieved in an innovative fashion that stemmed totally from Tamara. Yes, that was without cell phones and all kinds of technical enhancements. Oh, imagine the possibilities today... or tomorrow.

The Lesson Or Life in the Experience Economy
Finding new approaches is always a challenge. It's also the greatest joy. Like any professional, it's always important to stay abreast of new trends, new equipment, and new ideas. You can easily find inspiration in everything around you from: movies; television; books; magazines; conversations; collaborations; competitors; and history. Oh, and YouTube and SnapChat and... yes, everything is a possibility. Bank your experiences in your mind and pull them out when you find a perfect fit. That's what I do.

The key to what I shared is also that not everything has to remain static. Changing points of view is good. When I saw Tamara those many times, I always experienced something new and different. Sometimes it was no more than a nuance. But that's what kept it fresh. How do we incorporate that into our events, or our advertising, or our social media outreach? How do we stay relevant and fluid?

Attention spans are shorter. The world moves faster. Look for the unexpected. Look for the unobvious. Don't rule out tried and true; just put a new spin on it. After all, it is the experience economy, and experiences are what make each and every moment memorable.

NOTE: Let's brainstorm. Send me your ideas on how you would re-adapt my concept for the hotel today to reflect the use of technology or to give it a more modern twist. I will post the best ones on my two Facebook pages. That way, we can turn on our creative juices and collaborate.

Andrea Michaels is founder and president of Extraordinary Events, a multi-award-winning, international event agency based in Los Angeles. She is the author of Reflections of a Successful Wallflower - Lessons in Business; Lessons in Life. To learn more about Andrea and her company, visit Andrea may be reached via

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Know Your Audience

A few years ago, I made a life-altering decision. I was obese and self-conscious, so I signed up for gastric bypass surgery. Vanity and health-related issues like diabetes influenced this decision, but in all honesty, vanity was the primary contributor. My reason: Just once in my life I wanted people to look at me and say, “My, she has a nice figure.”

I was a size 22/24. Yep, obese. I’ll skip the details, but the end result was that I lost almost 100 pounds and was not only “normal” but better than normal. Clothed, I had a great bod. Unclothed, another story. But I later fixed that, too, though it has nothing to do with this story. Now between sizes six and eight, I had a lot of “big lady” clothing in my closet.  It was designer stuff (Yes, they have designers for large sizes) and expensive. By now, you already know that my great love is, and always has been, shopping.

This information is important to my story because my medical group offered support meetings every week, and part of its routine was to have people bring in the clothes that they had outgrown so that those losing weight wouldn’t have to buy new clothing as they down-sized. Some of the ladies were almost 400 or 500 pounds, and I decided to bring them my clothes, thinking that by the time they got to my size 22s they could have a glamorous wardrobe.

So, I attended one of these meetings with bags filled with my lovely offerings. To kick the meeting off, the facilitator asked, “So what’s the best part of losing weight?”

One lady responded, “I can walk into K-Mart and buy anything I want now.”

I should have grabbed my bags and run at that moment, but I didn’t. At the end of the meeting, the various bags people had brought were opened, and clothes started being passed around. I happily anticipated the joy of watching women seize my designer clothes, ranging from evening gowns to business suits. It didn’t happen. These women were almost repelled as they handled my clothing. They snickered at the evening wear …”Where they hell would I wear THAT? When I shoveled horseshit?” Business suits were almost as denigrated.

I was aghast. I knew I (and my clothes) didn’t belong there.

The Lesson
Know your audience. Do your research. Know who you are speaking to and what their likes and dislikes are. Are they young and if-I-don't-get-it-in-a-text-I-won't-read-it" or are they a "paint me a picture in words" type?

Do they have limited time? Are they world travelers? Are they gourmands? Do they like classic rock or classical music? Are they family-oriented or young singles?

For sure if you don't know who you are appealing to, you won't be appealing, and they won't listen to what you have to say, written or spoken. Because here's the key. It's all about THEM, not YOU, THEM!

Andrea Michaels is the founder/president of multiple award-winning Extraordinary Events, an international event agency based in Los Angeles. She is the author of Reflections of a Successful Wallflower –Lessons in Business; Lessons in Life. To learn more about her and her company, visit Andrea may be reached via

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

You Don't Learn Anything by Looking in the Mirror

I read this somewhere. It captivated me. What did it mean? How could I apply it to my business life?

When I look in the mirror, I see the same face I’ve been looking at for a lot of years. Albeit it has aged. But in all probability it’s the same today as it was yesterday, last week, last month and maybe even a year ago. The only way I could change it is by altering my hairstyle or applying make-up differently (if at all). If I look deeper I’ll be looking at a face that represents “me,” my values, my ethics, and all the good things by which I live. It will also be a reminder of my insecurities. What it will not tell me is the perspective of others.

And therein lies the message. If you look at your business life through the mirror of solely your experiences, your ideas, your needs…then you never grow. You need to look away from the mirror and see what others are seeing, learn about their thoughts, ideas, inspirations, and perspectives.

Here at Extraordinary Events we share. Now I may be at the business of event planning longer than anyone else in my company (or probably anyone else at any other company as well), but it’s a new world every day, and I don’t know everything. Or as my stepfather would have put it, “The wise man knows what he doesn’t know.” So we brainstorm; we share ideas; we talk about our opportunities from different perspectives. Much of the team is very young. They see things differently than I do. Their departure from traditional thinking is enlivening and provocative.

I have always been a student. That hasn’t changed. Travel has broadened my horizons personally and professionally. I have met new people from different cultures; I have seen events as they are produced in China, in India, in Europe,  in Morocco, in Latin America… the list could go on. They inspire me as I can learn from them, and I can teach them in return. It’s a fair exchange.

What’s beyond the mirror is the world. I want to see more than me.

Here’s an invitation for you. I would like to encourage you to share with our other readers the differences you see between looking into the mirror and then looking outside of it. I think that when we share our stories we all learn from each other, which is the entire point of this blog. What life changing experiences have you encountered through exploration or risk? And send photos. Please.

Andrea Michaels is founder and president of Extraordinary Events, a multi-award-winning international event agency based in Los Angeles. Andrea is the author of Reflections of a Successful Wallflower: Lessons in Business; Lessons in Life and an in-demand speaker and leading voice in the special events industry. She may be reached via

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Unions, Hurricanes, and Murphy’s Law AKA When All Else Goes Wrong, It CAN Get Worse

Everything in life is about persistence … the dogged pursuit of what you want to achieve. In my case, it means I will do anything and everything relentlessly to meet the needs of my client. It’s all about creative solutions. Please, soak this in. Creativity is not confined to making a pretty centerpiece; it is also in conflict resolution and innovative communication … It means not being afraid to go to the top and cry “help.” To emphasize this, I’m going to share a case study with you involving unions, hurricanes,  forgetful city officials and museum personnel – all only obstacles to overcome … creatively.
Such was the case with a 1999 event in Philadelphia. For SAP’s annual users conference, Extraordinary Events was asked to produce Streets of Philadelphia in a city with no available indoor venue large enough to hold the 10,000 that would participate. Working with all the various city departments, the event was executed on the Terrace of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (the City’s most recognizable landmark) and adjoining Eakins Oval Parkway with 1,200,000-square feet of land and approximately 50,000-square feet of concrete. Street closures, city permits, traffic control and security were the beginnings of the logistical challenges. Careful planning of each and every bus route to transfer 10,000 guests from 50 hotels throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey was complicated by traffic to a Bruce Springsteen concert at the same time during midweek rush-hour traffic. We needed to transform an ordinary-looking park into a festive and attractive party venue.  We planned exemplary food and beverage that featured the best of Philadelphia’s varied ethnic cuisine so that our thousands of guests could eat and drink without standing in line. Now that alone sounds daunting, doesn’t it?
Philadelphia is a union town, and the union was not happy that we were in a non-union facility and threatened to picket our event if we did not bow to their demands. All of that paled when Hurricane Floyd (yes, that’s right, a hurricane) unleashed its fury during the event. Logistically, it just doesn’t get more complicated than this.  We had to: create a location where none existed and execute bus pickups and drop offs in impossible situations; close major city thoroughfares during rush-hour traffic; coordinate with every city department individually to get our event approved and re-approved when one department would countermand the agreements of another; pave roads that were torn up in order to get our guests across the street to access the event; fight teamsters and IATSE (the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees) in order to get our crew working and productive;  seed and re-seed an entire park both before and after the event; re-grade acres of land after the event and fulfill a multitude of insurance claims resulting from weather-related incidents.
Promises were broken by every entity … the venue, the city, the city officials, the parks department, water and power, safety, police and the streets department. There was salvation only once the Mayor intervened. So, I repeat, this was just about as hard as it gets.
So how did we do it all? Grab your galoshes, and read on … you won’t believe how creative we got just getting this event delivered with all the obstacles standing in our way.
 Event Objectives
Entertainment was the cornerstone of this event, and, by the way, it was being compared to the previous year’s that had five times the budget and a performance by Rod Stewart!  This event would feature simultaneous rock and roll in four locations. Guests would be greeted by a local marching band playing Streets of Philadelphia. This would be followed by a traditional Mummer’s Parade. In a tent, a Philadelphia favorite, The Nerds, would alternate with an interactive DJ who would move between the main tent and the Terrace Stage at the Museum to provide ongoing entertainment. Though not technically a festival, a street fair atmosphere was being created within this corporate event. The entertainment was complex and unique and spoke of “Philadelphia.” The timing of the entertainers, combined with a fireworks production, was to be executed split second so that there was never a moment where something wasn’t going on. Sound had to be perfect so that one stage did not interfere with any of the others.
On one of the main stages, World Class Rockers would do a one-hour performance.
 On another stage, Earth, Wind and Fire was destined to thrill the audience.
 On the third stage, representing SAP Latin America, Gilberto Santa Rosa from Puerto Rico would leave people jumping to the rhythm.
A spectacular fireworks display was another featured entertainment element. We conferred with Grucci Fireworks who was given the directive, “Take what you did for the 4th of July in New York and do more for this show … all in no more than five minutes.” It was planned as a rock and roll fireworks show that could be seen everywhere in Philadelphia. The music was customized and  intertwined with tunes about the City. The sound system was designed to be heard over the extensive acreage of the area we were using. Not an easy achievement considering the vastness of the space.  
Branding was key as SAP was establishing global presence for its U.S. Headquarters in Philly and needed us to introduce its new ad campaign. The purpose of creatively branding this event was to cement that SAP is THE cutting edge of technology in the attendees’ minds and to say to the home town in general, “SAP is a presence, a force with which to be reckoned.”  New slogans and branding had to be done in an area that allowed no signage, and it had to be everywhere and creative.  So, we accomplished this significantly through all the d├ęcor elements.
With our goals clearly outlined – entertainment, food and beverage and branding - we knew almost immediately that the focus should be placed on the Museum.  The park alone, though tree-lined and scenic, didn't make a statement for an industry leader in the tech sector.  Structures and decor could be built, but this event was for 10,000 people, with time and budget restrictions.  The Museum stood at the apex of the event area and became a monumental task.
The structure of the museum on its own didn't fulfill the goal of a high-tech, cutting-edge visual statement. So how could lighting transform this historic site into a contemporary work of high-tech art in under three days?  We painted it with LIGHT, a lighting design utilizing almost 275 automated fixtures and miles of electrical distribution cable.  The intense color washes would form a backdrop to frame the client's message.  Projected over the colorful background on the two "sides" of the Museum was a 150-feet-wide-by-five-stories-high visual display of SAP’s logo and its catchphrases. The “branding, images and hooks” that SAP wanted guests to see were produced from a separate lighting system.   Video-like roll-ins, sweeps, complex reveals and one-by-one word fade-ups for entire sentences created the client’s logos and messages. Due to the fact that the designer chose to utilize one of the brightest intelligent light fixtures at that time, the corporate branding became visible for blocks, all the way down the parkway and into the downtown area.  It made such a statement that camera crews from the local news channels taped it for broadcast.
Creative use of graphics and the above-described lighting as well as use of new products, such as the huge AirStar projection inflatable, displayed all current ad campaigns through slides in this unique object. Immense backdrops on the stages previewed the new ad campaign, CityofE. Even the fireworks spelled out SAP in the sky. Guests saw “SAP”everywhere - on cocktail napkins, on signage where possible, in lighting, in the fireworks, on the stage, in the inflatable and in street banners.
Venue Challenges
Under the very best of circumstances, a job of such magnitude would have been a challenge. But, it gets even more complicated!
Let’s look at our venue challenges first. Remember, we had 10,000 guests to accommodate. The entire convention center was being used for the client’s own tradeshow, and Bruce Springsteen was performing at the new arena. Translation: any location anywhere near this arena could not be considered because of street traffic. Several locations were considered but eliminated because they were in seedy and unsafe neighborhoods and, therefore, not appropriate or safe. And SAP was conscious of image. 
So, we focused on the Philadelphia Museum of Art, a non-union venue, a definite plus, or so we thought. (As everyone who has ever worked in Philadelphia knows, the union has an extremely strong presence.) We then met with the city and Eakins Oval Parkway officials to describe the event. Headline entertainment. Huge amounts of food. Fireworks. No problem. (Oh, do I rue the day I ever hear “no problem” again.) Just follow city regulations. What are “city regulations?” I was handed a 500-page handbook. Hmmmm. We read it.
After several site inspections, we were told that SAP must become a member to use the Museum. They joined, and we were told we could use both the inside and outside of it. To make a long story short, after meticulous arrangements with the museum, when we showed up days before the event, they had forgotten everything to which they had agreed, even though we had contracts and production schedules in hand and time-stamped proof of fax and Fed-Ex deliveries. Everything agreed upon… the use of an outside caterer, the fireworks, the use of the inside of the building … all was now a NO. Many meeting hours and $20,000 later they agreed but charged for additional security and would close the building at 11:00 p.m., not 12:30 p.m. as the contract stipulated.
Even though we had received the permits to close the street between the Museum and Eakins Oval Parkway, a main thoroughfare during rush hour that would allow 10,000 guests to cross back and forth between the two areas, when we arrived the large sidewalk area leading to the Museum steps, the only pathway to the Terrace where part of our event would be held, was completely ripped up. No one thought to mention in numerous meetings that, even though it was 1999, the City would be preparing for the Republican Convention in 2000 and that they would be repairing the sidewalk. They refused to fix it, so we paved the sidewalk and street the day before our event so that guests could walk on concrete to access the venue!
And what about the lighting you ask? The real challenges surfaced about an hour after the first on-site inspection meeting began. Suddenly, the city that was quite accustomed to hosting events in the park (complete with large stages, name talent and full productions) said that lighting the front of the Museum was another story. After a host of bureaucratic red tape and meetings upon meetings and more money to the museum, we received the necessary permission again!
 Then there was the park. Imagine our surprise when on the day before the event, crews came in and started seeding the grounds, mulching the soil and creating mud where there had previously been either hard earth or lawn. Would they stop? No, they had their orders. By the time we could reach the appropriate city official, the work had been completed. Aargh! Later, you will know how much this affected our event. 
Of course, we needed everything for the park. We ordered power, toilets, tables, chairs and all that accompanies such a food and beverage event, as well as stages for the talent and on-site dressing rooms for the entertainers with all of their hospitality needs. The limos. The suites. The first-class air arrangements. The roadies. The runners. Phone lines and RVs for offices. Loads of details.  And, we determined we needed a tent in case of inclement weather so that those who couldn’t get into the museum could be sheltered in case of rain. We logistically planned the placement of the 600 linear feet of food tents.
Containing the area also became important, so the entire perimeter of our event space, 600-feet-wide-by-2,000-feet-long, was contained within fencing. Easy so far, right?
 The Union
Still not as bad as it's going to get. As soon as we started set up, our technical director said that we had a problem. A bad problem. The city had assured us that we did not need to use union labor. However, the unions had called on the TD to inform him that because we were not using union labor they were going to stop all local labor from working on our event. He was told that if we proceeded to hold the event they would form a picket line around the entire affair and prevent guests from entering. I tried reasoning. No luck. I was told that if I hired union crews it would be an additional $30,000 to $50,000.
I’d had it. I called the Mayor’s office. God bless Philadelphia’s mayor. Within hours he had his deputy meet with the union officials and me, and we resolved the matter amicably. Amicably for me. Not for the Union. The official had in hand (literally) representatives of each of the threatening unions (who had told us there would be bodily harm … yes, really!) and told them to apologize to me, and sincerely. He then said that the union crews would be happy to pitch in and help and would work for non-union fees, including any needed overtime. So we agreed to use union personnel on our job. All was well. Or so they pretended. Union guys just love being ordered around by a woman, don’t they?
The day before the event, we had everything set up and tested. Everything was a “go” with the police and fire departments and city officials. However, city plumbers would not turn on water to the cook tents or bathrooms until 4:00 p.m. on the day of the event as they cited a water shortage! The fountains at the museum (another of those no problem requests) were never turned on. Water shortage. Little did they know that shortly there would be no shortage of water.
The Hurricane
Prior to the event, we had calculated all the possibilities, provided weather contingencies and accommodated every anticipated need. Hurricane Floyd was all the way down south in the Caribbean when the install first began in Philadelphia.  But, of course, it headed straight for our site. It quickly became apparent that the event could be in trouble.  Fortunately, when the hurricane hit, we had taken care of all the event details and were prepared to handle it because everything else had already been coordinated. This prevented our attention from being diffused.
Dozens of cases of trash bags were purchased and distributed to each of the 275 fixtures, as temporary raincoats.  Just as programming finished the night before the event, the first raindrops began to fall.  The four key technical staff, still working at 3:00 a.m., began scrambling to cover and protect the equipment.  When you consider that each fixture has the electronics and processing similar to a laptop computer, and costs upwards of $7,000 each to purchase, the team was running.  Would you leave your laptop open and in the rain?
The crew quickly jogged around the enormous site, turning over fixtures, and watching pots of water pour out from the electronics and the delicate control motors. 
At this point, we were glad that we had a huge tent (30,000 square feet) installed. Just in case. And the Museum as back up … sort of.
To be safe prior to the rain, we found a supplier of 10,000 ponchos which we handed out as guests got off their motor coaches. Our salvation. And then we just pretended it was “Woodstock 1999.” What else could we do? We had a significant amount of shelter so that people could gather in the tent to eat and drink. The main stages were sheltered by trees and with their ponchos on, guests plodded through the mud to see the main stage acts. The acts performed, albeit reluctantly. We did say to Earth, Wind & Fire, “Hey, guys, with a name like yours, you can’t refuse to play in the elements.” With a forced laugh, they did.
The only real hiccough was the fireworks. With the fire marshal at my side, he at first said, “No, absolutely not,” because the winds were too high. We negotiated. I did not want to be the one to tell my client that his $100,000 fireworks show was not going to happen when everything else was so slushy. He finally agreed that we could test the air by sending up an occasional pyro burst, and, if it looked okay, we could “go” but only when he said “go.” By doing this, we ultimately found a window of opportunity and the resultant show was truly magnificent. “SAP” was written in the sky in pyro, and the clients agreed that it was the most magnificent fireworks display they had ever seen or imagined. Phew!
Guests loved it and said it was the best event they had ever attended. Great food. Great entertainment. Fun. They hoarded the ponchos. They loved the rain and the environment it created. At one a.m. it was over, or was it?
The morning after the event the first call came at 5:30 a.m. Hurricane Floyd had landed in full fury, and our tents were all blowing over. Our kitchen equipment was on its way to the next county; the stages were sinking into the mud and our semis were stuck in the middle of the park and unable to move. Debris was flying everywhere. Ah, the life of an event producer. Off we went in over 100-miles-per-hour winds and pouring rain to manage the load-out. The union? Oh, no, they were not allowed to work under such conditions. So they abdicated all responsibility for load-out.
The final challenge was racing millions of dollars of valuable fixtures, controllers, and miles of cable into the waiting semi-trucks, before the full force of “Floyd” shut down the entire city.  Let’s just say we were very wet and tired.
However, the guests never experienced this part of the event production. In the world of “memorable” events, this one is at the top.
Could there be any more challenges? Of course. For instance, the aftermath. There was a great deal of damage. We had ample insurance, and that was a good thing, because we were blamed for the damage to the park though it was indeed caused by an act of God. However, in lieu of all that had preceded the event, we chose to cheerfully accept our responsibility and replant the park that had been reseeded the day before the event. We fulfilled all insurance claims (tents that hit cars) and insisted that our vendors also act responsibly.
Overall, the event went a bit damp, but without a hitch.  The dedicated crews were left with the satisfaction of a spectacular design, overcoming obstacles and the gratifying statement, “We’re sorry, but that flight has been cancelled; the airport just closed due to weather.”
Note: If you got all the way through this adventure, congratulations; you’ve learned that the key to success is resourcefulness and persistence and good rain gear!

Andrea Michaels is founder and president of Extraordinary Events, a multi-award-winning international event agency based in Los Angeles. Andrea is the author of Reflections of a Successful Wallflower: Lessons in Business; Lessons in Life and an in-demand speaker and leading voice in the special events industry. She may be reached via