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Creating a captivating awards ceremony

Keeping your audience enthralled and tuned in requires large doses of operational management, creativity and the logistical talents of a field marshal. Read on for tips on how to make your next awards ceremony a night they'll always remember.


Creating a captivating awards ceremony is no simple task. Keeping your audience enthralled and tuned in requires large doses of operational management, creativity and the logistical talents of a field marshal. Read on for tips on how to make your next awards ceremony a night they’ll always remember. By Judy Allen, Sept/Oct 2005

Awards ceremonies – crafted with creative ingenuity and delivered with timely precision – provide a platform for award winners to shine as they bask in their 15 minutes of fame. But if not carefully presented and structured they can easily create the opposite effect and leave participants feeling deflated.

“With a fresh approach, a normally dull event can be transformed into a spectacular evening,” says Sebastien Centner, director at Eatertainment Special Events, an event management and catering company based in Toronto. “Just remember the key element in every event is to entertain the guests, and your awards ceremony shouldn’t be any different.”

To create an award ceremony, planners need to understand some basic elements of a stage show presentation. You must be prepared to become involved in the stage production to ensure a smooth delivery from beginning to end. Some of these elements include: emcees, show flow, show books stage managing, technical direction, award presentation and stage insurance.

Meeting Expectations
Planners need to meet the expectations of not only their client and the award winner, but also their client’s suppliers, customers, and employees and family members that make up the audience. “Although the guests are there to congratulate the winners, most people are there to network. So make sure there is networking time before and after the official presentations,” recommends Bruce Cole, president of Toronto-based Plum Communications Inc. Expectations of all can be met “by remembering the key to an effective reward is giving people the opportunity to have or do something extraordinary,” says Tara King, account manager incentives department at C.A.S.T (Corporacion Americana de Servicios in Turisticos). “By truly understanding the client’s and guest’s expectations, planners place themselves in a position to design a celebration to thrill, excite and surprise those attending.”

Michael Caplan, producer of Montreal-based Sensix Communications and Events, says, “All nominees should be considered winners. I have always liked the idea of opening an awards event by parading all of the nominees from the stage through the tables to great music related to the theme. Simultaneously, their names and companies along with the award category should be scrolled on the video screens.” Caplan also recommends recognizing significant others in attendance. “Ask them to stand and be recognized for their support and dedication. Your award winners need to be inspired at home as well.”

It is essential that planners know who will be in the room at an awards ceremony so that they can create the perfect showcase for the award winners. “Plan everything from the entertainment to the food and decor. Know the demographics of the group. Generation Xers will not appreciate a Broadway song and dance number after dinner as much as an ‘in your face’ multimedia show. Consider the age, sex, geographical location and level of sophistication of the audience before the first idea is put on paper,” says Andrea Bakus, CMP and director of Biltmore Destinations and Events in Phoenix, Ariz. “The biggest killer for an event is that lull after coffee when everyone goes to the restroom because the band has to come onstage or the emcee is not ready with the microphone. A producer will have cues and transitions for all aspects of the event so that the momentum is not lost. This is a theatrical production, treat it like one.”

Designing Memories
Carole Saad, senior show production manager for Festivex Special Events in Gatineau, Que., says “timing is everything during an awards presentation.” She suggests hiring a professional emcee with a strong stage presence to keep the timing of the event on track. To make it memorable, Saad advises planners to “add an element of fun. Inject the ceremony with some humour, create interesting PowerPoint visuals, including pictures of the recipients, or enhance the event with live musicians to play music as the winners walk on and off the stage.”

Planners, working closely with their suppliers and venues, can come up with creative options to evoke the emotion clients are looking for and together overcome any potential event challenges. Signature Events, based in New Orleans, La., was given the task of planning an awards ceremony and gala event that would not fit in the ballroom at the Hotel Monteleone. Working in partnership, Jill DiMarco, CMP, DMCP and director of accounts, Signature Events, Maria Irwin, managing member at Signature Events, LLC and Andrea Thornton, CMP and director of sales marketing at Hotel Monteleone, designed an event flow that took the group to a performance theatre for the ceremony and back to the hotel for the ensuing gala party. Signature Events brought in the local flavour of the city on the return to the hotel by closing down the streets of the French Quarter and parading the attendees dressed in formal evening wear. Police sirens escorted the attendees along with marching bands, and the winners led the parade in horse-drawn carriages throwing beads to the street crowds. Back at the hotel, everyone dined and danced the night away in an elegantly decorated ballroom – meaningful, memorable and magical.

New Trends in Presentation
Carolyn Luscombe, CSEM, CSEP, CMP and president and CEO, of Eclectic Events International, in Toronto, agrees that one of the hot new trends is the separation of awards and banquet – taking the ceremony into a theatre, followed by a banquet. “The format in a theatre commands attention from the attendees and brings the awards ceremony itself to a whole new, respected platform. I recommend an actual theatre, not a room set in theatre-style. A theatre has an upscale appearance and raises the bar of the ceremony,” she says. “One of the major complaints from our clients has been that their guests talk loudly at the dinner tables throughout the ceremony and they are, rightfully, insulted. In a theatre setting, you can really only talk to the person on your immediate left or right, instantly cutting the chatter. This format also cuts the ceremony time down and allows instead for a separate, celebratory extravaganza following the ceremony in a separate room or venue. This format signals the importance of the award component. Clients may think that this makes guests wait too long for dinner, however, it’s all in the timing of the awards. Start the awards ceremony earlier and get them into the party by 8 p.m. with food stations ready to feed the crowd.”

Doug Matthews, an event planning educator and author of How to Create Fantasies and Win Accolades: A Practical Guide to Planning Special Events (Gear Six Creative), has found that there has been a lot of creative staging lately – such things as stages in the centre of the room, musical accompaniment by different bands in a couple of locations on stages at opposite sides of the room, different shaped stages and multiple podia for presenters. As well, creative multimedia is definitely playing a larger role, as is intelligent lighting.

Don’t be apprehensive about creating trends as opposed to simply following them. “Look for the different and don’t be afraid of being cutting edge,” is Bakus’ savvy advice. “Chances are if it’s never been done and you wait to see someone else do it, it will be passe before you know it. Take a chance.” Bakus shares some ways for planners to accomplish this. “Check out what’s hot in interior design and use that as a basis for your room decor. Ask your technical director about new equipment. The awards event has to be as impressive as possible. Integrate entertainment into the whole program. After the ceremony, take the party to another room or venue. Do multiple party rooms, if the budget allows. Too many awards ceremonies die after the awards. Let the winners party and feel great about their achievements. Keeping it in the same room will encourage people to leave. Moving to a different area reenergizes the event and can incorporate a completely different theme to make the winners feel special.”

Layer the Impact
There are many ways to provide layers of impact to your awards ceremony presentation, from the location to the take-home gifts. Cari Van Camp, CSEM and event producer for e=mc2 Event Management Inc. in Calgary, finds that hiring big name emcees (sports and TV personalities) and staging the event at unique venues can help your event stand out. Liliane Leger, president and CEO of Toronto-based World Wide Meetings & Motivation, suggests keeping the momentum going back at the office by taking happy snaps of the events, including the awards presentations, and posting them on the company website for all staff to view.

Include the unexpected. “I like the twist of having the emcee pop up unexpectedly at different locations in the hall,” says Caplan. “This moves the spotlight off the stage and onto the audience, making everyone feel more involved in the show. The same can be said for entertainment. Try multiple stages or performance areas. This also brings the action closer to the audience.”

Show Flow
Show flow (program flow), call sheets and show books are tightly scripted accounts of what will be taking place onstage. “A complete show book needs to be produced to ensure a flawless event,” instructs Rick Naylor, president of Toronto-based Accucom Corporate Communications Inc. “Awards events must be carefully scripted, with all cues for sound, lighting and talent carefully planned. The show flow must be distributed to all audiovisual crew members and rehearsed prior to the show. Excellent awards shows never just happen.”

Van Camp cautions planners that the “program flow should be finalized long before the rehearsal. If you change the program flow during the rehearsal, you are only asking for trouble.” Van Camp also recommends backstage coordination of awards with a good stage manager.

Timing Tips
Luscombe of Electic Events has found that award show presentation timing is truly an art form and a tedious one that many clients readily outsource. Luscombe says the key idea is to cut time. “Most awards feature PowerPoint or some form of visual presentation. Keep each award segment to a three- to five- minute maximum including PowerPoint, host words, recipient walk-on, word of thanks and walk-off. Set up your award recipient photographs offstage so the ceremony can move along without skipping a beat. If a senior executive insists on hosting, hire a professional host of the opposite sex to mix things up and keep the flow going at the same time. If using entertainment in a longer ceremony, five to seven minutes should be the maximum for the performance.”

Matthews recommends using a really good emcee who knows how important it is to inject some lightheartedness into the evening. Matthews advises planners to write a really tight script and ensure the emcee follows it to the letter. For the benefit of all technical personnel, a script or running order that also incorporates all technical cues (for example, lighting, audiovisuals) on the same page is helpful in keeping everyone in the right place. Matthews also suggests that if at all possible, try to incorporate a diversion from just the ceremony in order to alleviate boredom if there are many awards. For example, recognition can be given in sections between meal courses, or between short entertainment or multimedia segments.

Rehearsal Run
Several show flow timing techniques that Matthews has found effective include having one or more stage managers preparing all presenters and recipients well ahead of their time to go onstage. Take recipients backstage at least 10 minutes before their cue and have them wait there. Signal the recipients when their thank you time is up. This can be a musical sting or it can be a subtle light signal from the personnel at the tech console. Don’t forget to have backup cue cards for all presenters in case the audiovisual fails. Likewise, use an IFB monitor for presenters and the emcee so the technical director can warn of problems. All presenters, stage managers, technical personnel, trophy models and the emcee should gather prior to the show with enough time to go over the entire program. All participants should leave the rehearsal knowing exactly what they are to do, where they have to do it and when they have to do it.

Show Cues
Making sure that presenters feel comfortable at the lectern is an important step for David Arnold, president of Parallel Production Services Inc. in Toronto. Arnold also considers a dry tech, which is a run through the show from a technical standpoint calling all graphics, sound and lighting cues, to be essential.

One key ingredient to include in your awards ceremony design and show flow calculations is music. Caplan, of Sensix Communications and Events, says, “Even the most basic, no-frills, no-budget, awards presentation can be uplifted with the right choice of music to accompany people to the podium.”

Award Ceremony ROI
For Van Camp, “Audience retention is at the top of the return on investment (ROI) list. I continually hear from our clients, ‘we need to ensure that everyone stays until the last award.'” And in order to meet that client objective, “there needs to be a wow factor at the event, a break in the show will lose the audience.”

“The outcomes of this type of event would have to reflect the nature of the organization hosting the awards and what the overall event objectives were. The ROI that an organization is looking for is very dependent on that kind of information and can differ from one organization to the next,” says Luscombe.

“I would have to say clients are seeking loyalty to the sponsoring organization and possibly, the organization is seeking strong presence or recognition in its field. Awards also foster relationships with existing and prospective sponsors or even help acquire new membership.”

For Arnold, exposure has been one of the top ROI that his clients have found valuable. “Clients are looking for internal exposure for their staff, they are looking for external exposure within in the industry and if sponsors are involved, they are looking for exposure for them.”

“Clients naturally want their brand/product to be well represented during the event. However, if your event wins over the audience, you will win over the sponsors,” says Naylor. “Just like you, your clients want the audience to enjoy the show. They don’t want people talking through the speeches or leaving before the final awards are given out. If you win the audience, you will win your clients.” A good example of this is the Cosmetics Outstanding Service Awards (COSA). It’s the premier awards gala for the cosmetics industry in Canada, attracting extensive sponsorship and media play. Naylor says “The awards organizers followed many of the principles we have recommended, and have enjoyed tremendous success.” Jim Hicks, group publisher retail group, at Rogers Publishing and publisher of Cosmetics Magazine (a sister publication to Meetings & Incentive Travel Magazine) credits the growth of the COSA awards to first awards ceremony presentation. He says the media and sponsors always remember the first one, so make sure it’s the best you can do. After COSA’s first awards ceremony Hicks says that in addition to the original event sponsors, two new sponsors wanted to be a part of the next one.

The more involved planners become in their client’s stage and show production the better the results. Remember, it’s your time to shine too.

– Judy Allen is the president of Judy Allen Productions and author of the best-selling professional Event Planning series of books. Her fifth book – Time Management for Event Planners has just been released.



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