Monday, June 05, 2000

Entertainment venues catering to companies

Firms ride wave of meeting mania

By John Eckberg
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Robert H. Hughes shows off the 20,000 table linens at All Occasions Event Rental.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
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        They might come to throw a party or develop teamwork with spirit-building games at the go-cart track or in the bumper boat tank. A handful of local companies have booked meeting rooms at Surf Cincinnati to hear motivational speakers talk about developing initiative or to attend seminars on corporate direction.

        It does not matter, really, to the new owners of Surf Cincinnati what brings the companies to their park — only that they come to play miniature golf or sand volleyball, or have sessions in a Tiki Pavilion about group synergy.

        The widest revenue river at the Forest Park water park remains summer fun lovers looking to body-surf a big wave. But the park expects development of a corporate clientele to become a solid market niche in the years to come.

        In growing numbers, firms are looking for turnkey and pain-free ways to conduct company picnics, incentive seminars and workplace team-building exercises.

Running the gamut
        Instead of having an event planned by a human resources staffer two or three times a year, some companies want to outsource the task to professional-services firms.

        “A lot of times, it could be the boss' secretary and not the human resources department,” said Robert H. Hughes, director of sales for All Occasions Event Rental, an Evendale firm.

        “He comes in and says we're going to have a picnic — figure it out. Or he may want to plan a full award banquet or a fund-raiser. It runs the gamut. Maybe it's an open house for corporations. We're all very busy.”

        Surf Cincinnati recognized this spring that perhaps its facilities could have broader use in the spring and fall, when the rest of the park is closed to the public.

        “We want to be flexible in serving our market and customers,” said Robert Wolpert, director of operations at the family-owned park and mayor of nearby Fairfield.

        “We feel there is a lot of potential here. We have three banquet halls, a full kitchen, and it's been totally remodeled.”

        Investors took over the park in December and have since replaced carpeting and furnishings in hopes of luring more corporate clients. More than 100 people are employed at the park, which opened to the public last weekend.

        Already, units from Procter & Gamble Co., Delta Air Lines, Argosy Casino and a handful of other companies have rented Surf Cincinnati facilities.

        Construction this summer will include a nightclub where the former Caddy's Entertainment Complex will move. Already, tons of fresh sand has replaced synthetic grass around the wave pool, and new paint abounds throughout the rest of the park.

        Facilities such as Surf Cincinnati are poised to ride the latest corporate outsourcing wave.

        Companies are finding that a big advantage in having events managed by an outside firm instead of a human resources staffer or department head is that the chances for foul-ups are reduced dramatically, Mr. Hughes said.

        Also, a company's human resources professional, who may be swamped with other day-to-day corporate challenges, is not wasting time ordering napkins and hunting a caterer who can provide wild rice with asparagus on the side.

        At All Occasions, questions range from the picayune to the peculiar, Mr. Hughes said. “They may want to know how many people can fit into a certain room comfortably or whether there should be linens on the table, centerpieces and invitations,” he said.

        “Maybe they just want 50 chairs or 10 tables.”

        With 20,000 chairs in inventory, matched by 25,000 napkins, 20,000 table linens and 12,000 place settings of china, All Occasions is poised to handle just about any event or corporate retreat in the region.

        The company has seen rapid growth, and its payroll has increased by about 15 percent annually in eight years, Mr. Hughes said.

        Nationally, corporate meetings, retreats and seminars are growing at a breakneck pace. Meeting Professional International, the world's largest meeting planning association with 17,300 members and based in Dallas, boasts a register of 8,000 meeting planners.

        A decade ago, there were 4,600 meeting planners who were members of the group — a 57 percent increase.

        “Never before in the history of our nation were there more meetings than those that have been held or are planned for this year,” said Edwin L. Griffin, president and chief executive of the association.

        “There has been an absolute increase in incentive meetings, product launches, seminars and corporate outings. Meetings this year represent sales of an estimated $14 billion.”

Less opulence
        One trend has apparently ended: The corporate opulence of earlier decades has faded into the practicality of the new millennium.

        “Back in the 1980s, money was spent more lavishly and freely, and it didn't matter how the event looked,” Mr. Hughes said.

        “Companies today don't mind spending the money, but they don't want it to look ostentatious. They don't want it to look like they spent too much money, though they don't mind spending money as long as they get what they want, as long as the company gets value.”

        Another trend beginning to creep into Greater Cincinnati corporate events, particularly appreciation efforts, is that more companies are conducting on-site sessions.

        Rather than having a meeting at a hotel, some companies are renting a tent for a day of seminars out back in the parking lot. Rather than paying admission for hundreds of workers and their families at a local amusement park, Mr. Hughes said, companies are instead setting up a day of games and grilling out at office campuses.

        Mr. Griffin cautioned that meeting planners need to do more than choose an interesting venue. “The real trick is to make sure the venue has adapted itself to being a facility that can handle a meeting,” he said.

        The possibilities of hosting elite corporate getaways are not lost on major entertainment players in the region.

        The Kentucky Speedway in Gal latin County, Ky., plans to offer conferences to companies that can include racing training. The infield has a building that can hold 250 people with full catering by Outback Steakhouse from the track commissary.

        “The setting of the track is itself exciting,” said Mark Cassis, executive vice president and general manager of Kentucky Speedway.

        “Picture a company that has a sales meeting in the morning, followed by a luncheon, followed by the Richard Petty Driving Experience. Instead of golf in the afternoon, how about putting on helmets and gloves and driving a race car?”


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