Meeting Management

Beyond the Podium: Entertainers Who Are Shaking Up Meetings

What does ‘America’s Got Talent’ have that your meeting doesn’t — or couldn’t? Nothing. Welcome to the increasingly sophisticated world of event entertainment.

When comedian Tim Grable began working events 22 years ago, booking was a relatively old-school affair. You’d send someone a video, and they’d mail you a check. “This will make me sound really old, but I was excited when someone [booked] with the fax machine,” said Grable, who today owns a booking agency and entertainment company called The Grable Group. “Then I remember when I booked my first date using email without talking to anybody, and that was pretty incredible. Last year, I booked my first date over text message.”

But technology isn’t the only facet of event-entertainment booking that has evolved. Meeting professionals want to impress and engage their attendees with ever-more-exceptional and well-known acts. “It’s not that tastes are changing so much,” Grable said, “just that [planners] are much more sophisticated.”

Grable works with what he calls “clean comedians,” but over time his stable of artists has also grown to include speakers, percussionists, magicians, ventriloquists, and contortionists. Sand artist Joe Castillo encapsulates the unique brand of entertainment that planners now clamor for, but Grable was slow to warm to him. When he first saw Castillo create a “SandStory” on video, “I honestly didn’t understand it,” Grable said, “until I saw it live.” A year later, “a very large buyer that ran four different conferences said, ‘I’m using this sand artist, have you ever seen his stuff?’ Then I played [a video of Castillo’s] at a staff meeting, and nobody moved.”

Castillo has performed for tens of thousands of attendees at events run by Walt Disney, Sony, Mercedes-Benz, and Apple, among other groups. He also gained massive exposure by making the finals on the television show “America’s Got Talent” — which has helped introduce new entertainment possibilities to the meetings and events industry. “With ‘America’s Got Talent,’ you can be wowed in 60 seconds, so people’s expectations have become a lot higher,” said Grable, who has found some of his own entertainers through the show. “I wouldn’t say it’s so much a generator for new talent but for new genres and varieties.”

The web, in turn, offers meeting planners the chance to quickly find a smorgasbord of artists. “The Internet has really allowed niches to mature,” added Grable, whether that’s breakdancing or the work of magicians such as Adam Trent, whom Grable described as “David Copperfield meets Justin Timberlake.”

Booking high-end musical acts has long been part of Barbara Bouman’s job — but in the last few years, “Cooler, hipper clients are now looking for cooler, hipper indie bands,” said Bouman, director of national sales for Live Nation. “[Clients] are not just relying on the same old standard national acts, though people still want the wow factor that comes from hiring a national band.”

Another trend? Organizations looking to build cohesion or esprit de corps among their staff. “[Clients] are seeking more team-building exercises,” said Bouman, such as the Team Rock Stars arm of Rock ’n’ Roll Fantasy Camp, which brings in rock stars such as Lita Ford to “counsel” or teach clients. “We also partner with SmartHunts’ interactive team for team-building scavenger hunts.”

Booking a nationally known artist such as Def Leppard might seem out of reach to many meeting planners. But according to Live Nation’s Barbara Bouman, “Most bands will do private events.” With the right budget, of course. “I’ve booked K.C. & the Sunshine Band for a ’70s party,” Bouman said, “and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy for a client’s ’20s swing party.”

Corin Hirsch

Corin Hirsch is a writer who specializes in food and drink.