Indian summer or Arctic winter? Temporary structure or permanent venue? The permutations offered by the themed installations market are nothing if not varied.
Las Vegas arrives at Birmingham NEC and Manchester G-Mex this December courtesy of party packages devised by Arena Events. "We specialise in big venues and at the NEC we'll have a full funfair with dodgems and other rides, an arcade, casino and a big dance floor," says chairman Eddie Hoare. "We're expecting 2,000 guests a night and average cost is around £69 per person."
That the themed installations market is a volume business is hard to dispute. Yet does this conveyor belt approach to staging parties sap their creativity? "There are around 15 of us here, out and about in the marketplace looking for new ideas and themes," explains Hoare. "But there are hundreds of thousands of people out there who are potential customers. We entertain around 15,000 of them."
A formula that works
"We find this business has a three-year cycle and customers move on to be replaced by a new influx," Hoare adds. "So while we vary the theming it doesn't need to be radically changed. If someone who came to our party in 1998 decided to attend a more recent one they wouldn't notice much difference, except the food gets better and we're slicker at the choreography."
Arena has been staging parties for 12 years in its previous incarnation as Elegant Days and if its prices are anything to go by it appears to exemplify the high-volume, low-margin nature of the business . "Twelve years ago we charged £69 and it's about the same now," claims Hoare.
Hoare knows guests need to have fun without getting carried away. "We no longer throw spirits into the packages," he says. "Security is important and we have paramedics and security personnel on site."
Summer will see the European Group entertain guests at a 1,400-seat Owen Brown marquee for its Latin Quarter theme. "It's summer-inspired," explains director Jane Wade. "This will mean Mojito cocktails with meeters and greeters in colourful Latino dress, although waiting staff will be in standard black. The structure will feature colour draping with reds, yellows and oranges and ornate floral table centres,but we keep colours understated."
The June Latino theme costs around £100 per person for food, drinks, casino tables, a band and a dance floor. For those who really want to indulge guests, a chargeable champagne and oyster bar is also available.
Elegance over excess
The European Group ushers in its winter theme in December, called "Decadence", at London's Honourary Artillery Company, capacity 3,500 standing. The theme features black and white draping and tall, spiky table centres.
"Again, the aim is elegance rather than excessive theming," says Wade.
The facility is offered exclusively "but our 'party nights' cater for shared parties, usually smaller firms who may want to hire 10 tables," she adds. "They can be very lively events."
In a competitive market European Group's operation is burgeoning with venues at Coram's Fields and London Zoo, featuring "paparazzi" and "Bedouin nights" themes respectively in December.
"Party organisers get no-hassle events with us," Wade says. "They agree what they want and we provide it. We take the headache away so they can enjoy the party."
According to Wade, variety comes from the subtle change of the party template. "There is a formula but people bring along their own atmosphere to every party and we apply a different twist to it each time with the food, entertainment and so on," she adds.
The Ultimate Experience, part of The Concerto Group, is plannning its summer and winter themes. "We have 10 Christmas party formats and two themed installations for the summer," announces marketing director Sam Gill. The Christmas packages range from £20,000 to £200,000. "Clients sometimes have budgets for big themes but I'd advise them against 'thin theming' if the budget isn't there," says Gill.
The end of November to Christmas will see the company transform Old Billingsgate Market. "The theme is "Aqua" due to the venue's location next to the river and it will be a modern look featuring blues and greens," explains Gill.
The 2,322 sq m hall will have computerised lighting effects with projections of marine life and the company pledges that table designs "will surpass anything we've done before".
The venue is also being used to stage a "Summer on the River" package in the last two weeks of June. The Ultimate Experience expects the ground floor to hold 1,000 for dinner with the mezzanine and riverside area acting as a reception space.
Gill estimates 20% of the Christmas parties are shared. "They are popular with clients that are happy to share and reduce costs," he says. "The challenge is in the administration because of the number of events taking place in one venue. Yet whether it's shared or exclusive parties, our experience counts because we organise more (of London's) Christmas parties than anyone and deliver good value,' he maintains.
Christmas is also on the mind of Mask Event Design and Production, which offers themed installations in venues such as London's Royal Courts of Justice and Gibson Hall. Here Mask's "Enlightenment" theme saw the venue shimmering in light with crystal therapists and performance magicians among the entertainers.
"The themes are more abstract now," says Mask managing director and ISES president UK and Europe Arthur Somerset. "The market is very competitive and we aim to be a cost-effective event partner."
Mask's party package includes exclusive use of the venue, unlimited wine, beer and soft drinks, three-course dinner, and a disco. The format has appealed to clients such as recruitment firm Hays Inter-Selection, which hosted its party at Inner Temple and Legal & General's "Cabaret" party at the Mermaid Theatre, as well as a host of other financial and legal sector clients.
"We were awarded the contract to stage 'Decadence' at Vinopolis from 29 November to 22 December and each event's styling will reflect the individual company's values," announces Somerset. "We are more style-based than entertainment-based."
"The challenge is in the creativity," he insists. "Hotels are great for staying the night but themed installations provide more flexibility. If you want a venue that's special and a unique experience, we provide it."
A cost-effective solution
There is little doubt that themed installations bypass the drudgery of creating parties afresh. They also provide something of a gravy train for the companies offering the installations. "In order to get maximum benefit for minimal exertion we need to do something fairly straightforward,"agrees Fortesqueue's director of special events Margaret Jennings. "Otherwise we couldn't sell as many events in such a short time. It's also cost-effective for our clients."
Fortesqueue's "Primary Colours" theme exhibits this flexibility and will enter its third season this summer at Lincoln's Inn Fields. From 10 June to 10 July the theme promises "delectable dining under an illuminated 'sky' of moving colour," Jennings explains. "It's designed to be themed around different colours and allows clients to personalise the event.
The whole event could be themed in corporate colours such as Deloitte's blue and lime-green." Pricewaterhouse-Coopers,the BBC and financial services outfit Stoy Hayward are among those who have sampled the makeover.
Christmas last year saw 400 staff from Goldman Sachs celebrating with a departmental party at Lincoln's Inn Fields. The ensuing carnival theme transformed "The Room" at the Inn into fairground stalls, dodgems and arcade games complete with acrobats and jugglers. The carnival influence included illuminated food pods and themed buffet stalls.
"We're aiming for 20 events this Christmas at Hamilton Place under our 'Christmas Then and Now' theme," says Jennings of the 190-seat dinner venue. The installation takes place from 25 November to 21 December. "It's about the past and the present so we'll have Victorian fireplaces, ornate moulding, and a traditional Victorian Christmas tree, but the dining space has been refurbished with a very modern, white, contemporary look."
Various theme ideas are continually dreamed up by the Fortesqueue's team.
"We always do something different for Christmas and had a Peter Pan Never Never Land theme last year," says Jennings. "Clients come back to us for our flexibility, service and because of our blank canvas approach. She concludes: "Practical issues like costs have to be taken into account but creative thought can overcome most hurdles."