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November 16, 2011

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Companies learn to lighten up

KAREN Wang has worked for a local advertising and exhibition company for six years, getting promoted all the way to creative curator because of her innovative ideas. What drains her brain more than any project, however, is the company's own annual year-end conference.

The 31-year-old curator still remembers her boss's words when she first took on the task three years ago.

"Our company sells ideas. How can we convince clients if our very own annual conference is not inspiring or unique?"

It is not easy organizing a unique annual conference, and more companies are looking for something different than a boring awards ceremony.

Only five to six years ago, most companies, especially state-owned ones, hosted an annual conference to summarize the year.

The standard itinerary included long, boring speeches from bosses of all levels, reorganizing staff members with excellent performance and presentation of the company's results from the past year.

Zhang Lin, who started her career at a state-owned bank, says the speeches at these conferences were the worst.

"When I started working in 1996, the annual conference was the same with speech after speech, giving out awards and then more speeches," she says. "I tried my best to avoid going every year, even when I won prizes for my performance."

Now as a consultancy manager, Zhang is invited to annual conferences of many banks and investment companies and she says some of the meetings are surprisingly fun.


The current popular repertoire often includes an attractive lucky draw, where everybody will get a prize of some kind from massage coupons to autos. Many companies ask each department to present a performance on stage, and some are just hilarious.

Twenty-four-year-old accountant Kelly Lin couldn't help laughing when she tried to describe a hip-hop dance performance, deliberately done in a clumsy and funny way, by six colleagues from the IT department last year at the electronic company's annual conference.

"I see them every day, but I never imagined that they would be so hilarious. It is a good opportunity for me to learn another side of my colleagues," she says.

Many companies have realized the importance of taking advantage of the annual conference to build teamwork, motivate employees and give them a reason to love the company.

They spend a lot of time and effort on brainstorming, coordinating, borrowing expensive costumes and collecting ideas for the lucky draw.

Peter Liu, owner of a local trading company, started organizing a year-end party since he founded the company seven years ago, when he had only 10 employees including his wife.

Now, the company has expanded to two offices with more than 40 members, and made more profit than he expected last year.

As a reward, Liu had a generous lucky draw. The first prize was a car worth 200,000 yuan (US$31,500).

"After a year's hard work, the employees do deserve a fun gathering with nice food, good laughs and amazing prizes. It makes me happy to see my staff members laughing a lot at the annual conference, because it shows me that they are cheerful and they will stay with the company and work harder," Liu says.

Liu says he learned this from his past experience while working for an American company's Shanghai branch. He was pleasantly shocked at the end of the first year, when he saw such a gathering for the first time.

He felt it was a lot of fun and decided to do something similar when he started his own company.

Wang the curator usually throws her first brainstorming meeting with the creative team in early November, even though the conference is not until late in January.

Last year, Wang had two assistants write a script of a martial arts story, in which the heroine (the company has more female than male employees) grew from a na?ve little girl to a brave and elegant lady through various challenges.

The heroine was a metaphor for the company, and the challenges represent those that the company has faced over the years.

Different stages of the protagonist's life were played by six colleagues, one from each key department.

Wang's boss and colleagues were highly impressed, which puts more pressure on her to top it.

In addition to the company's own annual conference, Wang's department is also in charge of organizing such gatherings for clients.

It is one of the biggest profit generators for the company near the end of the year.

"Almost one-third of the company's revenue in December and January come from annual conferences, ranging from selling ideas of one performance to one-stop service for an entire program," Wang says.

"And now companies want to be more creative and funnier than the year before. They really care about how fun it is, more than anything else."


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