A well-defined theme is a must in planning meetings

Anyone burdened with the task of planning a meeting or conference knows that the first stumbling block in the overall process is coming up with a knockout theme. Without a clear and concise theme for the session you are dead in the water.

A well-defined theme is a must in planning meetings

A memorable theme will help you drive the corporate message home and will have the participants talking about it for weeks. A poorly crafted one, on the other hand, will leave employees flat and uninspired.

“A theme gives you a focal point. A theme can be a rallying cry. A theme, especially if it is on target, can really resonate with employees at all levels,” says Jerry Busche, whose Jacksonville, Florida-based BizMotivation.com specializes in sales and motivational programs as well as meeting planning. “It can be a quick communication of the big goal and say what you want to achieve in a colorful or entertaining way.”

At some point we have all fallen back on the tried and true themes. We all know the ones — the Hawaiian luau, a western cookout, or “Back to the Future,” — which are acceptable, says Busche, especially in these tough economic times where manpower is limited and money is scarce. Busche notes that meetings have dropped by 30 to 35 percent recently as the downturn in the economy takes hold, while others have dramatically cut back on their spending.

“With budgets severely curtailed, what I am finding is that a lot of times people, instead of going for the full out, custom theme and spending a lot of money developing that theme, they are going with more classic themes that have been around for sometime,” he says.

A simple keynote speaker can also help a company drive the message home and leave the employees motivated, moved and inspired.

“It is important to select a professional speaker that can take a theme and make it his own or her own and to just help to play it out and sink their teeth into it, so that that speaker can then give more credibility to that theme and give it the sustainability and legs,” says Busche.

But still many more groups are thinking outside of the tried and true and breaking the bank with creative themes and expensive productions. Whether it is an inspiring and rousing address from a keynote speaker, a fun-filled and interactive program, employees will leave the meeting energized.

“The whole experiential thing a lot of companies now are trying to use is to just help keep people awake and interested more than anything else,” says Murray Seward, general manager at Canadian Outback Adventures, in Vancouver, British Columbia.

“With the dry PowerPoint presentation, although there still is a place for it as far as delivering some types of information, if that is the only way it is delivered then that’s not going to capture the attention of a certain percentage of your people.”

Meeting themes have come a long way since the western cookouts and Hawaiian luaus. These include murder mysteries, Star War themes and even an entire day where employees participate in a race styled around the popular television show Amazing Race.

“One of our biggest challenges is staying up with that demand and continuing to be creative,” says Seward. “They are looking for new ways to challenge each other and get the point across.”

Canadian Outback is one such company that offers different groups a themed meeting experience. Founded in 1992, it offers corporate team building events and activities for companies across the country, and provides unique events the participants will get excited about participating in. Many are spin-offs of popular television series including The Apprentice, Mission: Impossible, Iron Chef, CI: The Crime Investigators, James Bond and The Amazing Race.

One of the more popular events is its “Amazing Chase.” Based on the popular television series, groups are split into two teams then again into mini-teams whose goal it is to work together to complete the race in as little time as possible.

Throughout the course mini-teams will come across a variety of signs to mark the location of additional route information, outline a specific task one person on each team must complete before moving on, or give a choice of two tasks an entire team must complete before moving on.

“The reason we have chosen these themes is because they are concepts that people can relate to and they may even be interested in. If they know they are doing something with an Apprentice theme or something they have heard of, at least it piques their interest somewhat, versus the more traditional old school scavenger hunt,” Seward says. “It’s so they don’t just turn their brains off and roll their eyes back like they would for a bunch of different activities.”

Help at your fingertips

Both Busche and Seward credit technology — and the internet in particular — with simplifying the planning process in these times of shrinking discretionary spending.

“That’s the thing with the internet,” says Seward. “It is now very easy to see lots of good ideas. They are more accessible than the days of the Yellow Pages, where you had two ads and you weren’t exposed to all the concepts that are out there worldwide.”

Busche notes that many planners are looking for resources to help them plan that meeting while still providing a cost-efficient choice.

“They are looking for resources and they are looking for the idea that is going to work,” he says. “They don’t have the tens of thousands of dollars to put into it that they would have during more robust times.”

Busche has recognized the power of the internet and seized the opportunity to promote his meeting planning services. His Florida-based company provides help on all aspects of planning meetings, finding speakers that would relate to themes, subjects and objectives of the company.

He also offers a downloadable product and has sold some 6,000 of these around the world, with more than 240 alone in Canada.

“Theme Ideas Handbook” is loaded with more than 600 theme ideas to help businesses and organizations quickly come up with an on-target theme for their conference, meeting or workplace event.

It includes “how to” tips, techniques and worksheets on “How to choose an effective theme” and “How to integrate your theme into your meeting or other activity”. It was designed to help overcome the theme-creation problems and headaches of tight deadlines, limited budgets, and creative dry spells. It is adaptable to any business or organization, any department, and any occasion.

Busche says the goal in planning a meeting is to carefully select a theme for your meeting which will help unify everyone’s focus and efforts.

Busche adds that a well-chosen theme provides an umbrella concept, under which all related materials and activities are given heightened enthusiasm and effectiveness. After you have determined an objective and have a written agenda, you should begin to select and develop your over-riding theme.

Here are some tips from Busche for coming up with a meaningful, on-target theme, which can create a rallying cry for your objectives and goals:

• Review your meeting agenda to decide which theme best relates to your objective and will help to dramatize it.
• Consider your employees and what theme will appeal to them.
• Will the theme appeal equally to men and to women?
• Will new employees and veteran ones respond the same way to the theme?
• Is there anything seasonal you can tie in with? Valentines Day? The Winter Olympics? A NASCAR event? The Academy Awards? A popular TV series?
• Are there other themes, slogans and programs in your company or organization that our theme can tie in with?
• Keep your theme short so it’s stronger and more memorable.
• Can you sustain this theme over time without people getting bored with it?
• Can the group have some fun with this theme idea?
• Will the people buy into the theme and its intent?
• Be sensitive and don’t allow sexism, racism or other objectionable aspects to relate to the theme.
• Once you’ve selected your theme, review your agenda and see how your theme can tie in with it.
• Build every element around your theme. For instance: Ask your speakers to use language and references that relate to the theme.
• If possible, create a logo-look for your catchy theme. And produce hats, t-shirts, mugs, pens, screen savers, and other items that bear the theme.
• Use the theme/logo on all promotions and literature
• Use decorations if possible, whether simple posters or elaborate backdrops which can be purchased. Inexpensive decorations can go a long way — i.e., balloons, streamers, posters, banners.
• Use favors, prizes and giveaways that fit with your theme.
• If appropriate, add some theme-related entertainment to your meeting: e.g., skits, song parodies, role-playing, background mood music.
• Serve refreshments that carry out your theme.

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