The right performers can turn an ordinary event into a memorable occasion

Square Meal V+E Guide 2016 - organiser's guide

When booking entertainment, the golden rule is to 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 games. The best parties tend to feature more than one. 

Where money is tight, it’s much better to focus your 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. They will be a talking point in the office after the event. 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 what type of venue is suitable to host your celebration. If money’s tight, you can choose somewhere that has all of the entertainment included in the price. Widen your search and think about boutique bowling, cabaret venues and supper clubs. If you have the budget to bring in your own entertainment, you need to work out what type of performance will work in the space you’ve booked, and where the best place is to stage it. 

The in-house team should be more than willing to offer advice.

TALENT SPOTTING
Once you know what type of entertainment you want, it's time to start looking at specific acts. There's no shortage of possibilities – free-runners, contortionists, beatboxers and brass bands can all get the crowd going. The best recommendations are unsolicited, so keep your ears open for advice from your peers at networking and industry events. Showcases are rare but trade shows are a good place to see entertainers in action.

An established entertainment agency will have done hundreds of events like yours, so you can trust the advice of its agents on what will and, more importantly, won’t work. The best agencies continually seek out new acts, 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 play live at another event – there's no better gauge of their ability to entertain a crowd. If you can’t, ask for a DVD or downloadable video clip from a past event (most acts will have these on their website). Always ask for references from recent clients too.

One thing all booking agencies agree on is that comedy is difficult to get right. 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 offended guest as a yardstick). A carefully chosen public speaker might be a less risky and more corporate-friendly alternative.

SET ON A SUPERSTAR?
Be prepared to pay tens of thousands for a top comedian or speaker such as Bill Bailey or Richard Branson – and make that hundreds of thousands if you want an A-list musician or band, such as Rihanna or Mumford & Sons. 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. Many entertainment agencies recommend celebrity headliners only for ticketed events, where a name has genuine selling power.

Instead, consider tribute acts, which are not remotely cheesy when they are good. 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 can have a seasoned crowd-pleasing performer who’ll expertly perform classic hits that everyone loves?


This article was first published in Square Meal Venues + Events Guide 2016