Okay. I admit it. This 24 hour undercover gig was one of the most challenging gigs I’ve had in the last couple of years - and that is saying something! I wonder why?
Could it be that the audience was made up of meeting and incentive planners, you know, people who hire me and my company? Or maybe it was because they were from all over the US and had no unifying company or position? Or maybe because I was going undercover for 24 hours!?!
Setting the Hook
The way undercover gigs work is like this: you start by “setting the hook” by acting as normally as your character possibly can. So that you don’t stand out too much… but still stand out somewhat. Then you start reeling in the catch by acting slightly strange. And then later, you start acting very strange. And then bizarre and finally ridiculously weird! And in the midst of the ridiculousness, you stage the “reveal” where the real truth comes out (i.e.. that you are an actor pretending to be one of them).
Why would anyone want to do this?
The level of engagement created the during the whole experience (including the reveal and long after!) is incredible.
I call this effortless networking because the urge to lean in and discuss what is happening is so great that it overcomes normal inhibitions and instead propels the attendee to move outside their comfort zone and easily engage in conversation with others. Always.
As the internal pressure increases with successively stranger and more bizarre behaviour, more and more of the attendees are caught up in this “undercover energy.” This energy needs to be shared so that attendees can manage it. This sharing will happen all over the place as attendees ‘lean in’ and try to make sense of what they are experiencing. New bonds, new connections are formed between all sorts of people who normally would not be connecting.
We pitched this long-form undercover concept to Rare Indigo (one of our long-time clients) and Rare (the extremely creative company that they are) immediately got excited.
Rare Indigo thought it would be tons of fun and provide lots of ROI for their client Tourism Whistler who was planning an event called The Whistler Educational Forum (a familiarization trip) for planners in Whistler. We were off to the races.
Our team loves these types of projects because planning them is so outrageously fun. We had many creative meetings where we discussed the back story that would allow Roger to infiltrate the group in a believable yet slightly off kilter manner.
Having Heather Pelletier’s experience in the meeting and events world was instrumental in creating the back story of Art Marshall - the husband of the new CEO of a traditional family-run business: “WireWorks” that has the patent on the piece of metal that supports the underside of bras. This (fictitious) company is over 150 years old, set in Klamath Falls Oregon, and the spouse of the CEO always plans the incentive trip. Art Marshall - Artie to his friends! - was “given” the job by his wife (the new CEO - taking over from her dad) as a wedding gift! Artie isn’t so happy about that gift until he starts to realize that meeting planners are treated like kings and queens on FAM trips. Artie had never been to Canada and was a perfect set up man to ask all sorts of hilarious questions about BC and Whistler like, “Where are all the polar bears?” and “Are your igloos inside the houses?”
Artie was the first one to arrive that day but couldn’t collect his luggage since it had gone to Seattle! So Artie waited around for it to arrive and, conveniently, met all the arriving attendees at the airport where he started to lay the foundation of his story. Not knowing anything about meeting planners, he asked lots of questions about the industry which got the attendees talking amongst themselves as they discussed the best and worst parts of their careers - egged on by Artie if the conversation lagged!
The stories they told and the laughs we all shared - priceless.
Artie also gave out his new business card... It was so difficult not to laugh when I gave them out. Look at the photo! Look at the email address! I almost choked trying to suppress my laughter as I watched attendees try hard not to choke on their embarrassed laughter as they read my email. Who knew so much choking could be so much fun?!?
I won’t go into many details because I don’t want to blow my next undercover gig but Artie started somewhat normal but then became more and more outrageous as the day progressed.
The group itself was full of amazing people - not a surprise since meeting planners are by nature social and outgoing and love to help others have the best time. Watching their faces as they tried to process Artie's behaviour... hilarious!
By the time the reveal was starting, everyone knew Artie! Every conversation Artie left was followed by the group leaning in to each other and wildly whispering about what had just happened. Conversations started with “What did Artie do now?” or “Watch out! Artie’s coming this way!” Engagement was leaking out everywhere!
Let’s review the objectives of the 24 hour undercover gig: create a heightened sense of fun, provide opportunities for effortless networking, enhance visceral learning about Whistler (not just sales talk but ideas about Whistler that wiggled their way into people’s brains and stayed there). The reveal had to encompass all these objectives.
So Artie stood up in the Roundhouse at lunch after a morning of glorious skiing on the top of Whistler mountain and gave an impromptu speech along these lines:
“Whistler is so great! I’ve made up my mind! I’m bringing my incentive to Whistler! I know I’m supposed to wait until later but I can’t wait! The beauty! The people! The nature! The non-polar bears and non-igloos! The majesty! The people who speak American! The smiles! The skiing! The parties! The impressive hotels! I’ve talked to my wife’s family and told them:
“We can get more for the money because of the exchange rate. It’s the best mountain in the world! The DMC is awesome - Rare Indigo you’re hired! The drinking water alone is worth the trip. There are no igloos and I can understand everything the locals say.”
Let’s hear it for Whistler! Come on everyone! Let’s hear it for how great this trip has been so far!”
The room comes alive. People are clapping and cheering for Whistler and the great time they’ve had so far. Smiles and laughter as people respond to Artie and his crazy energy.
But Artie doesn’t stop there. He continues and this is where it gets wild. This is where people in the audience start to stand up and shout ‘No!” Where the energy is so out of control that by the time Artie finishes the next section, half the room is on it’s feet shouting and pointing, some laughing, all shocked.
Here’s what Artie says:
“But that’s not all! I’ve figured out a fantastic playful idea that will catapult the event into the stratosphere - I’m going to hire one of the local companies who sponsored this event - Engagement Unlimited - they provide products to maximize engagement at conferences, meetings and events. I was on their website last night and found this idea: Undercover pranks! So I’m going to hire an actor to pretend to be one of the attendees and infiltrate the group to stir up trouble and excitement while engaging the group! Doesn’t that sound incredible?!? He would start at the airport, say he lost his luggage and needs to stick around - that way he could meet everyone and start the craziness.
And here is where the first person shouts ‘No’ as she half stands at her table pointing a finger directly at Artie. Everyone else is looking confused as they look between Artie and the finger pointing, half standing attendee.
“Maybe this actor will drop scandalous hints about his wife’s family who own a strange company that makes… oh, I don’t know, maybe underwire bra parts."
3 more attendees shout “Artie!” and stand at their tables, pointing fingers. More shocked and confused faces. Some starting to laugh and slap their legs. Lots of wild energy generating all sorts of movement in the room.
Artie continues over the growing hubbub.
“And maybe I’ll call him some funny name, like Art or Artie to his friends…
At this point there is too much noise to continue. The room looks like a pot with boiling water erupting all over. People are on their feet shouting at others in the room. Some are trying to stay calm and calm others. Others are in frenzied conversations about how they didn’t figure it out. People are up on their feet, then down in their chairs and then back on their feet.
Artie/Roger calms the group somewhat and continues:
“Okay, let me tell you the truth. The real truth. I’m not Artie. I’m Roger. I’m not a just-married, newly job ambushed, meeting planner from Oregon. I’m an actor/educator, from Vancouver, who own a company called Engagement Unlimited. As I said earlier, we help you maximize engagement at meetings, events and conferences by providing products that create opportunities for “effortless networking,” “retroactive entertainment,” and “active learning”. My company combines two of my principal passions: education and performance all in the pursuit of the might E (engagement). Because a meeting or event with no engagement is just people standing near each other. But with engagement, that's where the magic is found. And we are interested in being where the magic is!
Did Tourism Whistler, Rare Indigo, and Engagement Unlimited succeed in their goals?
“You were the talking point - especially after your reveal! …you were MARVELOUS! Thank you. Your timing and sense of when to speak up and when to back away was great. Our supplier partners thought it was really well done.”
- Lana Casavant, Rare Indigo
"Roger was such a fantastic addition to our FAM and made quite the wave – definitely a hit amongst partners and guests alike."
- Nory Stammers, Rare Indigo
The desired result is for influential clients to consider Whistler for future programs: to prompt conversation topics that put Whistler in a desired light and give an opportunity for partners to talk about common selling objections head on without resorting to a sales pitch.
And most importantly to have fun with one another which energized this event with surprise, shock, humour and, ultimately, a lifetime experience for all involved.
We have been asked to participate in another Whistler FAM, so I guess things worked out well!
What would I do differently next time? Stay longer after the Reveal! So people have time to meet the real Roger and process what just happened to them. It takes a while... there's a lot of energy to dissipate.
What are strategies and activities you use to guarantee engagement?