As the knowledge workforce has increasingly returned to the office, corporate events have gradually shifted back to an in-person format. But considering how much has changed in the way employees engage with one another and the expectations they have of employers, it’s no surprise that companies are adjusting their approach to planning, and paying for, corporate events.
“What used to be an event where you just kind of brought people together, you gave them a meal, maybe there was some entertainment, you left it up to the guest to participate and engage with the other guests – that was a bit of a pre-pandemic type of attitude and mentality, and that is 100% not what it is anymore,” said Mike Underwood, president of Underwood Events LLC.
The Milwaukee-based corporate event planner and destination management company had its strongest year in 2022 thanks to the resurgence of large-scale, in-person events. Underwood Events drives most of its business from special occasion or marquee functions – think 100-year anniversaries, sales incentive trips and summer picnics. But after two years of cancellations and virtual meetings, companies were ready to pull out all the stops to bring people together again.
Starting in late 2021, clients came to Underwood with a similar rallying cry: “‘We haven’t done anything in the past two years. We haven’t brought our people together in the past two years. There hasn’t been any interpersonal interaction with our associates or team members, so we’re just going to do it,’” he said.
And to that end, the focus for those clients have been less about the budget for the event – albeit important – and more about creating a memorable and worthwhile experience for those in attendance.
“I think so many companies and executives understand that it’s such a challenge now to get people into a room and physically engage with each other,” said Underwood. “It’s important for us to incorporate that, weave that in as a throughline for all of our events.”
One of Underwood Events’ recent endeavors – a fifth anniversary celebration for a Minnesota-based company – took over the entire Grand Geneva Resort in Lake Geneva for two weekends last summer. The company was too big to safely gather all employees and spouses at once, so the event was held twice, for two separate waves of 700 attendees.
“Our job was to rethink how the entire resort was used for four really marquee events,” said Underwood. “It was important for us to use the entire resort in a way that made people feel comfortable spatially in relation to one another.”
He noted that COVID-related health and safety concerns still come up in conversations with clients, but the topic is fading from event planning discussions.
Despite the budgetary threats of rising inflation and economic uncertainty, companies like Brookfield-based QPS Employment Group are investing more to reunite its employee base in more meaningful ways. The company’s annual owners meeting took place in person this year for the first time since the pandemic began, convening all 400 QPS employees from eight states for two days of networking, recognizing accomplishments and strategizing for the year ahead. Held at Potawatomi Casino | Hotel in Milwaukee, the 2023 meeting was the most expensive event QPS has ever put on, said Mark Millan, marketing manager at QPS.
New this year, QPS turned Friday’s informal social hour – traditionally held the evening before Saturday’s meeting to help welcome out of towners – into a full-blown evening affair, complete with drink tickets, appetizer stations, a live band, photo booths and comped hotel rooms for all. There was even a meet and greet with Sam Mayer, the NASCAR Xfinity Series driver QPS sponsored last season. His race car was also on display.
“We really put an emphasis this year on our family spirit belief and everyone getting together and seeing the faces you see over email but not necessarily in person,” said Anne Jabusch, assisting marketing manager at QPS.
After shifting its annual owners meeting to a virtual format in 2021 and 2022, QPS was eager to restore opportunities for personal connections and face-to-face interactions that only in-person events can provide.
“Between new people coming into our company as well are those who had not attended that in-person meeting in three years, we focused on how to make it more special, more memorable,” said Milan.
Leading up to the event, there was some fear that it had grown too large, and the team questioned whether the expanded Friday-night portion would become a permanent addition to the agenda. But based on the results of a post-event survey, which overall had some of the most positive feedback QPS has gotten from an in-person event, the company plans to use the exact same format next year.
Until then, the spirit of the meeting is kept alive through videos, internal discussions and during the onboarding process for new hires.
“It can make a real difference in keeping somebody that was thinking of leaving, or attracting somebody new,” said Milan. “It’s a big expense but we feel it’s justified for another year.”