The phrase 'corporate hospitality' has traditionally evoked images of a day at the races, marquees at Wimbledon or a leisurely round of golf at upmarket country houses. Corporate entertainment, on the other hand, covers a much wider range of experiences. Often it implies a more customised event, involving greater creative input. And while hospitality is usually offered only to a company's clients, entertainment can also extend to events put on for employees.
As workplace habits continue to evolve, with the rise of e-mail and hot desking, the opportunities for face-to-face interaction in the office are diminishing.
Increasingly, companies are using corporate entertainment to build personal relationships among both colleagues and clients. Such activities work on two levels: serious events such as conferences can be enlivened with fun additional activities, while more light-hearted outings can help convey essential corporate messages.
Mark Maclure, MD of Business Pursuits, elaborates. 'There has been a move away from the more frivolous 'jollies' of the past towards events with a firm secondary purpose: that of communication,' he says. 'The difference is that the communication is now wrapped up in the entertainment itself.'
Team-building, for example, is no longer confined to a swift pint down the pub, but has evolved into a fully interactive event. The Everest Challenge and Building for Success are just two of the concepts offered by Business Pursuits. 'In the building game, you have to construct a tower block using only the resources you're given,' explains Maclure. 'It's mainly done for fun, but it's also quite challenging and helps people come together as a team.'
Marketing co-ordinator Ewan Gibson, of corporate events company Leapfrog, agrees that there has been a shift of emphasis in the sector, adding that corporate entertainment can be something of a misnomer. 'It's not simply about pure entertainment anymore - it's about active participation rather than just passive enjoyment,' he says.
Older and more senior members of staff can also join in the fun. Gibson recalls one such event: 'As a post-conference exercise for the IT services company ICL, we ran an activity called Camera Antics.' Armed with Polaroids, the teams had to create a newspaper featuring items that might appear at some point in the future, which were relevant to both their company and the agenda of the conference. 'They were a bit hesitant to begin with, but then they got into the swing of things,' says Gibson. 'They started coming up with some really amusing headlines and captions to go with their photos.'
Customising an event is an indispensable element of the entertainment game, for both agency and client. 'The event needs to be bespoke; that's how it can offer greater flexibility than a prearranged event, such as Ascot or the like,' says Maclure. One way of doing this is to organise an interactive quiz. With questions devised specifically for the client, this type of event can form a successful part of an evening's festivities. Maclure recalls one memorable example: 'We had a quiz where participants had to identify pictures of the directors as children, and that went down really well,' he says.
Fun on the corporate scale can be a very serious business, as the MD of Clive Panto Productions - the inimitably named Clive Panto himself - can testify.
Panto also believes that a successful event depends very much on tailoring material to suit the audience. 'The way to get people actively participating in a corporate event is to personalise things so that everyone feels involved,' he says. 'We do a lot of research in advance for our events and try and tailor all our material, making sure that we create a bit of a stir by including a few in-jokes for the client,' he adds.
Whether the event is for staff or clients, Panto is sure that its resulting benefits will be obvious when the client comes to assess their effectiveness.
'It's great for team-building between colleagues and for building bridges with your clients. These events act like an ice-breaker, so it's easier for people to develop personal relationships. If you take a group of people to a traditional hospitality event - like a rugby match, for instance - it can be a lot harder to get them to mix.'
There are few better ways of mixing than a party. Guy Rodger is MD of The Ultimate Experience, an agency that bills itself as London's leading party organiser. He sees the parties his company organises as not just good fun for those involved, but motivational and incentivising as well.
'Of course, a party has to be fun, first and foremost, but corporate messages can still be discreetly incorporated,' he comments.
Rodger also highlights the critical importance of judging the tone of an event. 'You may think a party's just a party, but a reception that's being organised for a firm of solicitors is unlikely to go for the same atmosphere as a bash held for a record company,' he says.
Value for money
But, with the typical spend on full-scale entertainment events sliding into five or even six figures for the larger groups, are corporate clients really getting value for money? 'We think it's worth paying for something special because we like to try out the more unusual type of venue,' says advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi's corporate events manager Linden Hughes. 'Our aim is to find one that hasn't been used for corporate events before,' she adds.
At NatWest Offshore, head of internal communications Graeme Cowling is equally enthusiastic. 'We hired Clive Panto Productions to stage a pantomime for us, and the feedback from the night was terrific. We had the finance director done up as the Wicked Witch - threatening pay cuts and so on - and the Fairy Godmother, bearing gifts of bonuses, was our very own HR manager.'
While such high-profile events do sound entertaining, do they offer companies any tangible benefits? Cowling thinks so. 'They are a great way to make staff feel involved in the life of the company; something that's interactive and enjoyable at the same time.'
Linden Hughes, who has worked with The Ultimate Experience, agrees. 'It is important for company morale to host a party that causes a bit of a splash,' she says. 'It's part of our culture; something both our clients and staff have come to expect.'
But the nocturnal party circuit is not the whole story; corporate entertainment events held during the day are just as popular. Last summer, Leapfrog organised a two-day team-building event, involving a raft-building competition on the Thames, for telecommunications firm Nortel Networks.
Hamish Cochrane, customer events manager on Nortel's Cable & Wireless account, was pleased with the results. 'Although there was a degree of competition with this kind of event, no-one is made to feel inadequate and it reinforces the idea of being part of a team.'
The long-term benefits of this type of programme, according to Cochrane, make it well worth the cost. 'When you get everyone together in this kind of environment, where people are obliged to work as a team, but in a fun way, it boosts the well-being of the group, so it certainly pays dividends in that sense.'
With all this imagination and creativity at work, what price now traditional corporate hospitality activities such as Ascot or Twickenham? 'Ticketed events will always appeal to a certain kind of audience,' says Business Pursuits' Maclure, 'particularly for the more mature client, or those companies that have a conservative corporate image.'
Yet Maclure is convinced that the real issue is the lack of imagination shown by some companies. 'The traditional kind of corporate hospitality is too often a safe option - something to fall back on,' he says. 'The ironic thing is that the amount a company spends on taking a group to see a game at Wimbledon doesn't always represent good value for money - you could do so much more with the same amount.'
Corporate entertainment, it seems, comes down to a question of initiating dialogue, both with the company's clients and the agency that is being retained. 'With a little bit more thought, frank discussion and forward planning,' comments Maclure, 'you can turn an ordinary event into an absolutely unforgettable experience.'
A TASTE OF TEAM SPIRIT - Join together to fly a jet or crack crime
From murder to treasure hunts, corporate entertainment is all about letting the imagination run riot.
Fly a plane, enjoy a cabaret, kill your boss or go on a thrilling treasure hunt - the choice really is yours.
Give them a clue: suitable for a product launch, sales conference, staff party or similar, Murder, my Lord? has a mission to uncover the corruption and intrigue at the heart of any company. Professional actors mingle with guests at a drinks reception, which culminates in the death of one of the actors.
During dinner, a 'detective' questions the main suspects and encourages guests to look for cunningly hidden clues to the crime. Towards the end of the evening, each table becomes a team and is given 20 minutes in which to write a song about who they think is the murderer. Finally, the real murderer is dramatically revealed.
Organiser: Clive Panto Productions
Tel: 01628 826999
Virtual flight: experience the thrill of flying an airliner, from take-off to touchdown, all without the need for a pilot's licence. The closest most people will ever come to flying a large airliner, this experience is said to be extremely realistic. Full-motion simulators are used to train commercial airline pilots, and so must behave exactly as real aircraft do. Every movement, from the steepest climb to the tiniest bump on the runway, is replicated as authentically as possible.
Organiser: Virtual Aviation
Tel: 01223 300300
Drink in the sights: the Last Cocktail, designed for groups of any size between ten and 500, is an intriguing combination of discovery, sightseeing and teamwork. In 'the perfect team activity to accompany international conferences', participants club together to retrieve the ingredients for a company cocktail, which have been stashed in a city of their choice.
Teams are then given the chance to explore local attractions, as they solve the cryptic clues in their hunt to find the ingredients. Clues lead to well-known landmarks, where the groups can collect another ingredient for the cocktail, the preparation of which is the final task of the day.
Tel: 01753 580880
Off-road quest: this challenging off-road competition is an upmarket and more exciting version of the classic treasure hunt. Setting off in Land-rovers, teams are armed only with a baffling book of clues to help them track down ten tasks, hidden somewhere on a stretch of mountainous terrain. This event was held recently in Scotland for a leading city bank.
Organiser: Business Pursuits
Tel: 01442 286800.