10 Cheap and Easy Ways to Add a 'Wow Factor' to Meetings

Steve Kemble on stage during Northstar Meetings Group's Destination Texas at the Renaissance Dallas Hotel
Steve Kemble on stage during Northstar Meetings Group's Destination Texas at the Renaissance Dallas Hotel

Northstar Travel Group's Destination Texas event, being held this week at the Renaissance Dallas Hotel, kicked off with an energetic trend-filled session by Steve Kemble, a Dallas-based global planner who has designed events for George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey and the Dallas Cowboys, to name a few. Kemble, who is represented by Garrett Speakers International, offered the following industry trends that he's been noticing lately, noting, "This industry allows us treasures that we keep for the rest of our lives. You need to find that in all of your events."

1. Creative seating. While options like bean bags, fun for less serious events, don't really work for the traditional business meeting, Kemble noted that changing out the expected look near the stage encourages people to come to the front of the room. He suggested cube seating, armchairs with a laptop desk or just straight cozy chairs. He also said using a rainbow of colored chairs is a great idea for budget-minded planners. "It adds so much to the room and gives a lot of punch to a room when you don't have a lot of money for décor," he noted.
 
2. The un-theme. "I always caution clients that with themes, you might not have the budget for it," Kemble said. "There's nothing wrong with a beautiful party that doesn't have a theme." Still, a great event has to be balanced, he added, engaging the attendee's vision, hearing, smell, taste and touch. "You need a great band, great food... Balance doesn't mean boring, it means all the elements are the same quality."
 
3. Escape rooms. No, not the game where you have to follow clues to get out, but a place where people can get away from the madding crowd. "These are places where people can go and network if they don't want to be in the middle of the party," Kemble noted. At an event in Colorado, Kemble had old gondola pods from the property's ski lifts brought in as fun spots to sit in; the quiet place at another event was made up as a cozy den. "If you're doing an event for 1,000 people, make an escape room for about 100 people," Kemble said. "You want to keep those people at the party."
 
4. Please sponsors in new ways. "Sponsors take the heat off some of your budget, and there are so many creative ways to thank them now," said Kemble, suggesting that planners bring in light tubes that can be logoed, or colorful lit-up balls with sponsor names on them. He also suggested putting a sponsor's name in neon lights, and then gifting the fixture to the company after the event.
 
5. Lighting tricks. "Probably one of the hardest things to sell to the client is lighting," Kemble said. "It can be costly, but adds so much atmosphere. You can have a very simple style and make it spectacular with the lighting." He advocated using wall projection to turn an indoor space into an outdoor space, using lighting and computer mapping. The technology can wrap an entire ballroom or create an amazing entrance to the event.
 
Kemble also loves lighting events with candles. "They are the most cost-effective way to create an atmosphere," he said, adding planners should make sure the candles they choose are up to fire codes and to stay away from scented varieties. He added LED candles are great if the guests aren't coming close to the display. "Any time a guest can touch something, it needs to be as real as possible," he said. "I also feel that way about florals. If you can't touch it, you can use silk, no one will ever know the difference." For minimal lighting, using a candle wall in the back brings a sense of drama.
 
6. Make a dress code. "If you're on a budget, have your guests dress in a particular color. When every guest is in the same color, you're 90 percent there with a lot of built-in atmosphere," said Kemble. "Have beverages in the color, as well as simple design touches and lights." For people who didn't get the memo, have a table filled with items in the color, such as glow-necklaces, sunglasses and bows.
 
7. Food-and-beverage options. Kemble likes truly bite-sized hors d'oeuvres. "Bite-sized literally should be one bite, and insisting on it can be good for your budget," he said.
 
Make-your-own dishes are very popular, as well, such as a make-your-own-grilled-cheese-sandwich bar with sandwich presses to cook the final product. He's also seen popcorn bars for afternoon snacks, with sprinkle-your-own toppings and customized snack bags.
 
His twist on the seemingly ubiquitous doughnut walls is to make designs with the delicious pastries, using icing colors to create logos or make the wall look like a painting.
 
8. Use balloons. "I never thought I would ever say again that we are using balloons, but they can fill a floor or a ceiling," said Kemble. And you can incorporate other materials to give a balloon display texture, such as feathers.
 
9. Set a time limit. Kemble's years in the event industry have taught him that a party doesn't need to be more than two hours. Longer drives your costs up, and you always want to leave the crowd wanting more. You can even do cocktails and dinner in that time, as long as you set such parameters in your invitations. Take 30 minutes for cocktails and 90 minutes for dinners (and truly limit the speeches).
 
10. Life balance. Take something away from every event you do, said Kemble, and maintain your balance at home. He learned that lesson the hard way, he noted, ending up in the hospital for exhaustion, and vowed never to let that happen again.
 
In the end, Kimble said, no matter how dry the material or how staid the host organization seems, planners can find one element in each event that they can change to give it extra pizzazz. Just add one spectacular wow that will attendees will remember.