Extraordinary Events Uses ‘Business Theater’ Approach in Barcelona

The set at the Hotel Arts Barcelona for CEMEX’s general session was created to look like it was made of cement.

Last fall, meeting and event planner/producer Extraordinary Events of Sherman Oaks, Calif., showcased its “business theater” approach to corporate conference planning for Mexico's CEMEX, the second-largest cement company in the world. CEMEX's 2002 Executive Conference was a four-day international conference in Barcelona, Spain. Conceptualizing a complex, three-day program for CEMEX, EE proposed the business theater approach, which uses nontraditional activities to bring a corporate message to life.

At first, this approach was a bit of a stretch for a corporation and an industry accustomed to more traditional, conservative meetings. CEMEX normally holds its entire conference — which in 2002 drew 270 executives from 23 countries around the world — entirely within the confines of a single hotel. However, Extraordinary Events had something far different in mind for Barcelona.

“We showed them that staying in a hotel ballroom isn't much fun,” says Craig Howard, EE's vice president of international development. Howard and EE account executive Harriet Kaplan first worked with CEMEX during a previous event in Mexico, and knew CEMEX's needs well. “Because Barcelona is such a historical city, we took [CEMEX executives] on three site inspections, and showed them why our plan would work.”

That plan, developed over the course of a year, involved a complex set of out-of-hotel adventures designed to educate, entertain, and enchant attendees, while still driving home the company's corporate message — “Meeting the Global Challenge Together.” The goal was to stress themes of globalism, synchronicity, collaboration, and cooperation. Each of the events was designed as if it were a theater piece, with a focus on every detail of the “act” — from the performers to staging, lighting, and the audience's experience.

Serendipitously, EE had recently organized events for another client in Barcelona, which gave the company some ready-to-go contacts. Bilingual Barcelona resident Jose Verges was key to onsite planning in Spain. He served as the technical director for the show and general session, and helped EE find local talent. The main organizing team was an international group, including lighting director Bernard Griffin from Ireland, walking tour coordinator Nicole Hohmann from Germany, stage manager/technical director Shawn Richardson from the United States, and eight staffers from EE's Los Angeles office.

The first event took attendees as far away as possible from the hotel ballroom, into Barcelona's historic streets. A walking tour was organized that used elements of business theater to emphasize the collaboration, cooperation, and synchronicity themes. Larry Swartz, EE's executive producer, says the challenge was to construct a customized tour that was more than entertaining.

“The client wanted it to be a team-building experience,” Swartz explains. “I came up with the concept of having the teams answer questions and gather clues.”

As attendees roamed the city, they watched actors portray famous Spaniards, such as Queen Isabella, and found answers to questions and discovered clue words. The final clues, when put together by the team members, formed the message of the conference: “Meeting the Global Challenge.”

Special Show

Besides nontraditional events, there was also some traditional staging during the conference. For example, during the first evening, attendees were entertained at Barcelona's Palau de la Musica Catalana, an elegant opera house. There, famous Flamenco artist Diego Cortes and other dancers performed.

EE was required to build a special floor for that show — a floor that fit above the Palau's regular stage. The company also had to mic the floor properly, so that the sound of the dancers' heels was audible to all. Because the Palau is a historic building, the false floor had to fit the stage, look good, work for the artists and the audio setup, and not damage the existing structure.

“We built the floor so that there was a one-inch gap between the top of the floor they danced on and the bottom, so that it was a ‘hollow’ floor,” says Swartz. “We used PZM mics to pick up the sounds of the dancer's heels, but it still required tons of monitoring and tons of EQ. We had to monitor the front-of-house audio the entire time — my audio engineer was sitting at the board with his hands on the pots. While they were rehearsing, we then had to EQ it just to make sure that it was going to be fine, and then we monitored it during the performance.”

On the second night, EE took event attendees to the Cavas Codorniu, one of the oldest and largest wine cellars in Barcelona. For an extraordinary entrance, the buses dropped everyone off at the gates. In the dark, attendees walked down a tree-lined pathway illuminated by bowls of flames. Coming out of the dark, they finally arrived at the brick Cavas building. The exterior was lit with gold, red, and burgundy, and accented with 6ft. brass poles topped with triangular bowls of flames.

Inside the Cavas, dinner began with a parade of waiters led by actors dressed in regional Spanish costumes. The waiters carried each course in with fanfare. After the meal and the CEMEX awards ceremony, Marta Carrasco, a Spanish performance artist, entertained the group. The act consisted of Carrasco entwining herself in a huge sheet of plastic that, with dramatic lighting, contorted in unusual ways in time to music. Then the plastic sheeting rolled away, and the Gipsy Kings appeared for a surprise concert.

“Fitting them into the venue was a challenge,” says EE's Megan Reynolds, the producer who oversaw the Gipsy Kings' performance. “It was a champagne cellar, so there were no formal dressing rooms, no lighting grid, nothing you would associate with a performance space.”

EE built dressing rooms in a back hallway and used trussing towers for a completely ground-supported lighting package. The company brought in an audio technician to work on improving acoustics. Staging the performance in a way that maximized sightlines in the cellar was also a tricky proposition.

A false floor was built for the stage at the Palau de la Musica Catalana so the audience could clearly hear the Flamenco dancers’ clicking heels.

To improve acoustics in the wine cellar, Swartz says the EE team used an old-school technology to improve the situation — drapery, and lots of it.

“We hung a lot of drapery to reduce the sound reflection, and that made a big difference,” says Swartz. “Even with that, the sound check still took a while. These big-name acts are used to performing in arenas or venues, not champagne cellars. The sound check therefore took twice as long as usual, and there was a lot of EQing. Basically, what we wanted to do was make sure that it was going to absorb the sound, as much as we could, so we didn't have the sound bouncing back and forth. Sound checks and performances on both of these events were tedious.”

About sightline issues, Swartz says, “We went there early on with the client and showed them the columns. The first thing we did was add 75 seats in a theater-style arrangement, right in front of the stage, and invited people to come up. The people seated at tables with columns blocking their view were the ones we invited up there.”

The production company also previsualized the Gipsy Kings' performance using CAD drawings. “The client could see in advance which tables would have great views and which ones fair views,” says Swartz. To light the performance, EE used Martin MAC 500 and 600 units.

“We had hundreds of PAR cans, and we did the stage with Genie towers and trussing,” says Swartz. “We didn't fly a whole grid in the ceiling because there was just no way to do it — most everything needed to be ground supported. But outside, we washed the façade of the building with PAR cans. We also used some Source 4 Lekos for the award ceremony when we needed a focused light. We also had follow spots and long-throw follow spots.”

Says Swartz, “We even toyed with having a second stage and theater-style seating for 250 on the opposite side of the room, but we decided it was too much — too many people would have to get up and move. But the client was very savvy and understood the parameters of the venue before we contracted.”

Debra Kaufman is a writer/consultant who has been covering the entertainment industry for 14 years. She can be reached at dkla@attbi.com