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Planning an Anniversary Event? Here’s What You Need to Know.

September 16, 2019 • Paul Woolf

For most companies, a major milestone or anniversary is a time to reflect on what the business has accomplished. Of all the things a company can do to mark its anniversary—e.g., writing a company history book, preparing a new exhibit of the company’s history, or peppering communications with stories from the past—the one item on nearly all companies’ to-do list is an anniversary event. But where does an anniversary planner or team start? Our experience is that you’ll need to make a number of important decisions as you plan your company’s event.

Kickoff, Culmination or Both?

For many companies, the anniversary event is the focal point for the year. It’s high profile, well attended, and set apart from normal run-of-the-mill company events. One of the first questions when planning the event is whether it will mark the start of the anniversary year or the end of it.

Holding the event at the start of the year helps set the table for what is to come. It’s a platform to share programs and tactics that will get attendees’ attention as the year progresses. It’s a great way to build enthusiasm and excitement for the upcoming year—a pep rally for a company celebrating its heritage. When holding the event at the end of the anniversary year, it offers the chance to reflect on what has happened throughout the year and sets the table for what will happen in subsequent years to build on the company’s legacy. It’s a great way to encapsulate all of the activity in a climactic event to round out the calendar.

Occasionally, companies will hold two events: one to kick off the anniversary year, and another to mark the end in a compelling way. If you can manage the financial and logistical challenges of two events, it’s great to bookend your company’s anniversary—build excitement, then relive what happened and set the direction for the future.

Existing Calendar Event or Bespoke Production?

While you’re deciding when to hold an event, you must also decide whether the event will tie in with an existing event or stand apart as a unique event. The obvious advantage of an existing event is that logistics are largely prescribed and predictable, and the budget is usually already covered. The anniversary provides more of a theme for the event, with some new additions to the agenda to help it stand apart—it ought to be more than simply tailoring speeches to mark your anniversary. A bespoke event is usually a heavier lift, but it does reinforce that this anniversary year is something special.

Usual Suspects or Expanded Guest Lists?

Pictured: Penske's custom exhibit display that they used during a major business milestone celebration.

Another decision is who to invite to your anniversary event. Inviting the corporate headquarters team or regional managers may be the norm, but expanding the invitation list in honor of the company’s anniversary may reinforce the specialness of the event. Consider inviting more or even all employees, spouses/partners and families, other stakeholders, and even customers. Much will depend on the financial implications of a bigger guest list. The decision could also have an impact on the agenda for event—for example, catering for a business conference is different from catering for employees, families and partners.

Live or Localized?

Pictured: a photograph of Sherwin-Williams' 150th corporate anniversary. The event was held in an arena and all of the seats are filled.

A large organization’s event can be challenging, especially when it comes to coordinating travel and logistics. Some organizations insist on having a large live event. Sherwin-Williams, for example, brought together 12,000 employees at its annual sales meeting on its 150th anniversary, with a rousing keynote address from “Henry Sherwin”—an actor depicting the company’s founder. Sherwin-Williams replicated this event across the world.

This may not be practical for smaller organizations, and many opt for simulcasts or taped events/presentations made available to regional or local operations. As with Sherwin-Williams, we’ve also seen companies organize a global gathering and regional gatherings.

Minor Agenda Modifications or Major Overhaul?

Pictured: a custom-made brochure and folder Huntington created to tell their story when they commemorated their 150th anniversary.

For some companies, the anniversary event involves taking an existing event, putting some new graphics and a theme on it, and ensuring presentations highlight the 50th or 100th or whatever anniversary the company is marking. Such instances miss a huge opportunity to do what every event planner should embrace as their mantra: Make It Memorable!

Invariably, executive leaders will make presentations—keynotes, business results, etc. It is important for those speakers to not just build in references to the past but also draw a clear line to the future based on where the company has been. This is in line with our philosophy of Start with the Future and Work Back, which you can hear more about here.

Consider some of these additions to your agenda to make your event truly memorable:

  1. Share a video documentary or something similar, showing how the company has evolved over the years.
  2. Display artifacts and rare items from the company’s history.
  3. Invite founders, descendants of founders, or influential employees or stakeholders to present or appear.
  4. Deploy various audience engagement techniques, such as a prize draw, a company history quiz, gifts and mementos related to the company’s past.
  5. Launch a company history book.
  6. Gather attendees’ impressions/memories of the company with a storytelling booth at or prior to the event.
  7. Commission and launch a new charitable foundation, or donate to a relevant community or charitable organization to mark the anniversary.
  8. Invite special guests—celebrities, performance artists, etc.—to entertain or engage with attendees.

Business as Usual or Platform for Change?

Many leaders realize that anniversary events offer a unique opportunity. For some, it’s a case of reinforcing where the company has been and keeping the focus on driving the business forward. For other leaders, the anniversary event provides a platform for change—launching a new product or service, opening a new line of business or new facility, announcing a merger or acquisition, or another major initiative. This use of an anniversary event transcends the normal celebration of the past by focusing firmly on the future of the business, with tangible evidence that change is happening.

Post-Event Hangover or Ongoing Spirit?

For many companies, an anniversary event puts a bow on what has happened in the past, and “business as usual” resumes. Yet it’s vital to build on anniversary messaging, using various internal communication tools to maximize the long-term impact of the anniversary. It’s also important to capture moments from the event in a variety of formats for use across communications—social posts, PR, advertising and future anniversary programming and tactics, including books, headquarters experiences, and other heritage-related activities.

Plan for the Unexpected

Events help anniversary planners make anniversaries memorable. They offer impact, sometimes scale, and an invaluable platform for anniversary messages to come through loud and clear. They provide a focal point in the anniversary planning calendar—as a kickoff and/or as a culmination of the milestone year. Plan them well, and, as with any large high-profile event, expect the unexpected—the microphone that won’t work, the simulcast that gets disrupted, the video that freezes. When the curtain drops and the event is finished, you’ll be rewarded with one of the most memorable moments in your employee journey.

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