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When booking entertainment, the golden rule is: know your audience. Will guests be in their 20s, or 50s? Predominantly male, or female? Do they know each other or not? Is the company involved a respectable City blue-chip or a funky Shoreditch start-up?
Next, think about your budget. Entertainment generally falls into one of five categories – background music, dancing music, table or strolling entertainers, after-dinner cabaret or speakers and interactive activities. The best parties tend to feature more than one. Where money is tight, it’s better to focus spending on the start of the evening – prioritise rather than trying to stretch the budget too far. Good strolling entertainers are a cost-effective way to give guests a memorable first impression and break the ice. Later, once everyone’s warmed up and the alcohol is flowing, you can save by having a DJ rather than a live band.
Another consideration at this point is your venue. If your budget is limited, double up with a venue that comes with entertainment included. The large restaurants in central London are particularly good for live music, especially in the run-up to Christmas. Also think about boutique bowling, cabaret venues and supper clubs. If you have the budget to bring in your own entertainment, what type of performance will work in the space you’ve booked and where is the best place to stage it? Ask the in-house team for advice.
Once you know what type of entertainment you want, start looking at specific acts. There’s no shortage of possibilities, from free-runners and politicians to beatboxers and contortionists. The best recommendations are unsolicited, so keep your ears peeled for advice from your peers at networking and industry events. Showcases are increasingly rare but trade shows are a great place to see entertainers in action.
An established entertainment agency will have done hundreds of events like yours, so you can trust its agents’ advice on what will (and, more importantly, won’t) work. The best agencies will seek out new acts on an ongoing basis, putting the entertainers they find through rigorous auditions before adding them to their books, so you can also expect them to help you find the best of what’s new.
If at all possible, try to see the act you’re interested in ‘live’ at another event. If you can’t, ask for a DVD or downloadable video clip from a past event (most acts will have these on a website). Always ask for references from recent clients too.
One thing all booking agencies agree on is that comedy is difficult to get right (remember Ricky Gervais at the Golden Globes?). If you’re going to hire a comedian, accept that you need to splash out on someone successful and middle of the road: think BBC1 rather than BBC3. Give the agency a thorough brief on what will be taken as a light-hearted dig and what will mortally offend your chief executive (best to use the most easily offendable guest as a yardstick). A carefully chosen public speaker might be a less risky and more corporate-friendly alternative.
Be prepared to pay tens of thousands for a top comedian or speaker such as Michael McIntyre or Tony Blair – and make that hundreds of thousands if you want an A-list musician or band, such as Rihanna or Kings of Leon. Overall, booking a big-name act is a trade-off. It will undoubtedly generate buzz for your event, but that comes at the cost of potentially higher security and insurance bills, plus all the hassle that dealing with a star brings (those insane riders…). Many entertainment agencies recommend celebrity headliners only for ticketed events, where a name has genuine selling power.
Instead, consider a tribute act, which, at their best, are not remotely cheesy. After all, why pay upwards of £10,000 for a one-hit wonder from a TV talent show, when for a fifth of that you could get a seasoned performer who’ll expertly perform classic hits that everyone loves?
Who doesn’t love a little flutter? Having a casino at your event will entertain your guests and introduce a little healthy competition – it’s also a very cost-effective option, with tables starting at around £300. Offering prizes at the end of the session is a good incentive to get people involved – these can be anything from a bottle of Champagne to a hamper or hotel break for two.
Many event organisers assume they will need a licence for a fun casino, but that’s not the case. No actual gambling is involved; instead, a host gives each attendee a set amount of ‘funny money’ – pre-printed paper slips which are easily customised with branding – and these notes are exchanged for chips. In most cases, the funny money is free, but it’s also possible to ask guests for a nominal sum, say £5, which goes to charity.
One table for every 20 to 30 people is the recommended ratio, and be sure to allow around 9ft by 5ft including space for players and onlookers. Decide in advance whether you will ‘reload’ – give or sell more funny money to anyone who loses all their chips. It’s a great way to raise money at a charity event, but otherwise it’s best to keep a level playing field.
Perhaps the easiest games to get the hang of are roulette and blackjack (or ‘21’) because the rules are very simple – but craps (dice) and poker are great fun too, particularly if you hire a supplier which offers tutorials (swot sheets for the different poker hands are also very useful for new players, and easily branded). Mixed-ability tables are more fun – remind participants that experienced players will find the unpredictability of novices difficult to read.
This article was first published in Square Meal Venues & Events Guide 2013.