Photos in header by Neil Zeller Photography
“Best Event Ever!” “Can’t believe how amazing it was!” “What a show!”
“At this event, we showcased and used many of our member’s products and services to put on an amazing annual event for our employees. Sharing the best of what our member businesses have to offer and promoting buying and shopping local is something very important to First Calgary and myself.”
- Shelley Vandenburg, President, First Calgary Financial
Connect First Staff Appreciation Event
Full event design and production
It’s tradition to have a staff talent show before a cavalcade of tearful awards — at least at Connect First Credit Union. The staff let it all out. Blasting out ballads, choreographing synchronized swimming on dry land, and reading Dr. Seuss while imitating the last forty years of American Presidents. And they cheer each other on with ovations. We have no control over the talents the staff bring, but we do set the stage. So in 2017, we decided to flip the focus and show the staff not just how much they mean to their peers, leaders and organization but how much they mean to the community they serve. We invited about a dozen members of the credit union (people and organizations that bank with them) to be foundational parts of the event. Some provided the food, others the entertainment or the transportation. The result was that we gathered some of the most influential artists in Southern Alberta and turned a chilly rec centre into an progressive adventure complete with scores of food, industrial decor, acrobats, drummers, surprise musicians and a floating astronaut.
Practical Creative: The Foundation
Staff appreciation events are often about fun. They are food and booze and spectacle but, rarely, do they dig deeper than ‘blow off some steam’ and ‘let’s have a party.’ Connect First’s staff appreciation events needed to much more than that. The organization is actually two credit unions that merged a few years ago (now three, but at the time of the event, still just the two).
This wasn’t a takeover, it wasn’t hostile. In fact, it was quite the opposite of what many credit unions are doing all around the country. While credit union consolidation is on the rise, most organizations are rebranding under a single banner and even though Connect First is the umbrella organization, it’s branches, Chinook Financial, First Calgary, and now, Legacy Financial, all maintain their own brand and identity. In certain respects that can be great: members get to continue banking with the same organization they’ve known for years and love, but the flip side is, it is combining families, and for all of their various strengths, that’s going to come with obstacles.
RocketHouse has had very fortunate timing in the Connect First evolution. Our first event with them was their 2016 Staff Appreciation Event. It was originally a call for us to design some of the performances for the night and quickly expanded into leading the production. We kinda kicked things up a notch.
“Our office is abuzz this morning with positive comments about last night’s event being the best ever and people being so proud to be part of a company that does that for their employees. Feelings like that come from working with professionals that are thoughtful and bring their A-game to delivering an event. Thanks so much for working with us to make this magic!”
—Alison Archambault, Director, Brand & Stakeholder Engagement, Connect First Credit Union
But even better, was that this was the first time that all of the employees from both Chinook Financial and First Calgary had been brought together for a single unified event. That was a biggie. That made it all the more important to fire them up about their company.
It isn’t about show, it is about meaning. A client could spend endless sums of money on entertainment and decor, but unless it has a purpose and resonates with the guests, it will just be a waste. And sometimes not hitting the mark can actually push people away — especially if the stakes are raised because of something like, say, a merger.
Staff from both branches of the company were dealing with a lot of change. One organization with a small geographic location was meeting with one spread out across a third of a province. Each has its own culture and processes and leadership. Now that was being brought together. Simply, that meant every day was filled with uncertainty. So, with this event, we had a clear but lofty goal: make sure people felt like they belonged and that they were proud of what they belonged to. The starting point in 2016 was to manufacture a ton of physical and thematic intersections where they would meet people who aren’t from their branch and get them talking. An easy topic of conversation could be the parkour athletes flipping around, or the Guinness World Record-holding freak show magician, Carisa Hendrix, stilt-walking through the space or the crooning contact-juggling Vaudevillian, James Jordan, who greeted them with song. Every aspect from the travelling circus decor — provided by One West — to the astounding array of lights designed by Stardust Events (the effect of which we maximized by bouncing off the aluminum-covered rec centre ceiling) intensified the effect. They had never been to a company event like this before. Their leaders had brought us in to make sure it was inspiring. Good entertainment but we built it on top of functional tweaks like making sure there weren’t enough tables.
We love it when a room is full. So, our first step when designing this event was to cut down the physical space. In previous years, they had spread out to all areas of the venue, the Indus Recreation Centre. We chopped that down to just the rink, then chopped down the usable space in there, then took away tables. What we wanted, we got: people with food in their hands wanting to sit down but not finding enough space to sit in their own usual groups. So they sat with unfamiliars, and they talked and they listened and they got to know people they never had before.
This was the baseline we created and we’ve been fortunate enough to build from there.
Experience Impact: The Build
We aim for long-term relationships with our clients. One-offs don’t do anyone any favours. Change needs to be worked on, iterated upon, assessed and approached from various angles. So multiple touch points help. So far we’ve had four in the last eighteen months with Connect First. This is a great start.
Not all clients know it but they bring us in to help overcome a barrier. Connect First is facing obstacles in coalescing now three distinct brands — which each get to maintain their autonomous culture — within a combined whole. No easy task. So we’ve been building on the work of their internal groups, namely their Brand & Stakeholder Engagement team (Base) and HR. In May 2017, they released their new Connect First cultural values. That helped us kick the “belonging” events into hyperdrive.
Here’s the rationale: the ultimate quantifiable marker of people’s sense of belonging at an organization is employee turnover. The less they feel part of the organization, the higher the turnover. Organizational developmental studies report that employee longevity at a single workplace is increasingly tied to factors of feeling effective, understanding the direction and large goals of the company, having a peer group/friends and feeling like their job helps them be effective in the community at large. All of these are results of the cultural atmosphere. And to take it one step further, turnover is expensive. Re-hiring, lost productivity, training, these are just a few of the costs that mount. Ballparks on cost vary widely depending on study but are often placed at 1.5x to 2.5x the annual salary of a position to replace that employee; even more, the longer that the employee being replaced as been at the company. So, whatever we can do to stoke culture will help employees feel like they belong and that should reduce costs over time as retention increases. (That’s why we try to measure as many outcomes as we can.)
We took at 3+ step approach:
Step One: Alongside Base & HR, facilitate the first ever company-wide leadership conference to introduce the Cultural Values
Step Two: Bring the values to the masses (Staff Appreciation Event 2017)
Step Three: Follow-up at the year end…and give them more to do
And just like the 2016 staff event, we made sure the cultural touch points were memorable.
Let’s deconstruct this: on May 4, 2017 we pushed all of the leaders and executives at Connect First out of their comfort zone. This was the feedback:
“So, that was AWESOME! Feedback from yesterday’s Leadership Conference was effusively positive, and everyone was so impressed with Donovan, Ally and James’ contributions to making the day so successful. As Donovan, Ally and James know, our ELT was tired and unsure first off but that changed in a real hurry. The energy was high, the outcomes achieved. Thanks so much for taking this journey (and a leap of faith that we could do something different and meaningful together) with us – a great partner can make a world of difference!”
—Alison Archambault, Director, Brand & Stakeholder Engagement, Connect First
We got them to this point by adapting a card game that our Head of Creative, Zoe, designed to test out our CEO, Steve, before deciding to date him. You play each round for points, answering questions that you’ve each written on various cards. With each round, the intimacy of the questions goes deeper. To add to it, we randomly assigned seats by having the leaders draw from a pack of cards when they first entered the conference. Consequently, many of them were answering deep questions to people they’d never met before and would have to work with a lot in the future. We combined this with improv. Every time a new cultural value was presented our Head of Production, Donovan, would guide the leaders and our two improv artists, Ali Froggat and James Jordan, through a hilariously entertaining exercise that would ‘just happen’ to help them internalize the Cultural Value. It shook them up, it made them laugh, they got on board and learned a ton, and then took that knowledge back to their teams. Which was exactly what we wanted because three weeks later we were hosting the staff appreciation event and we were going to build off those values.
This time around it was for all 600+ staff. They come in from all over Southern Alberta. If the key aspect to feeling that you are part of the culture is to know that your work matters in the grand scheme of things, what better way to express that than by hearing it directly from the members and them express it by making an amazing thank you celebration for you? It was a night of complete thanks.
Adventure Design: Welcome
…You’re standing in the foyer of your branch, the howling wind is slicing sleet against the windows. This Spring storm came in quickly, but at least you don’t have to drive because there is a shining white and red coach on the corner. Doors open. You and the crew rush for the bus, lock up the branch behind you. Music is already playing — live music. A guitarist on the bus, singing a tune and intermittently plucking the strings while handing out drinks. Your friends in Drumheller text to say they have a magician on theirs. It’s a long way from Hussar to Indus, but this is definitely going to make it better.
The roads are wild, traffic is stopped everywhere. The RCMP waves your bus on but in a couple of minutes, they’ll change their minds and not let anybody else through. You’re still on your way. You watch the snow out the window, listen to the guitar and sip your drink. A party will be nice.
Before you know it, you’re rushing through the wind. Only a few steps from the bus to the door. A juggler breaks through the storm with his glowing orbs. You’ve made it in! The adventure is just beginning.
You’re handed a passport-style game card. There are dots all around the card. It’s Connect First, of course we have to connect all the dots. But there are also dots on the floor and on the walls and they are guiding you through a second set of doors into…
…The light is dancing all around the arena. Dots floating everywhere. The storm outside is now a distant memory. There is lawn spread across the cement floor. Picnic tables and trees and adirondack chairs are quickly being claimed by your friends as they rush in. They b-line it for the fire pit which is right next to a tricked out old school bus. Tunes are blasting from a DJ stage built out from a milk truck in the centre of the arena. A giant industrial crane is in the space. Photographers and videographers are wielding around, intersected by circus performers who are transfixing your friends. You take it all in for a moment, then look down at your passport. You recognize these names: BassBus, Crystal Services, Byblos Bakery, Aspen Crossing, Neil Zeller…these are all members; a few of them are your members from your branch. You served them. You helped one of them apply for a line of credit. And they are here. You start walking from one to the next, asking how they’ve been, what they are up to now, what they’re creating. Suddenly you notice that other groups are getting stamps on their passports. Game on!
Grab your friends, it’s time to explore. Aspen Crossing has train excursions to draw for from everyone who meets all the members. You rush over to Kim’s Katering, grab a bite to eat. Now Sugar Creek Popcorn. You find out about the crane — they completely re-wired the building to make it work inside. You explore BassBus — so cool! Now out to the food trucks. …You pause. This has got to be a team effort. It’s freezing outside. The trucks are stuffed as close to the building as possible but that wind is still ripping through. You huddle up. Pump yourselves up. Burst out the doors. SCOPE Security covers you in ‘tactical’ umbrellas. You order up your ribs from Soul Kitchen. You blast back inside! Phew. Now you wait…and share stories with the other guests about their harrowing meal ordering story. You’ve never met before, but it’s nice that you have extreme weather to bond over.
Food acquired. Drink in hand. Back to the lawn chairs.
Squeeze in with some more people you’ve never met. Slyly take your shoe off and feel the indoor grass between your toes. Then you notice the giant screens flanking the arena. Photo after gorgeous photo of the Alberta countryside flickers to life. These are photos submitted by Chinook Financial members for the annual CF calendar. Content, you sip your specialty Connect First cocktail then jump back into the conversation with your newfound friends. An indoor picnic on a stormy day ain’t bad.
What’s going on?
The screens are counting down.
“Hello. We’re RocketHouse.”
The screens blast to life with so many of the members you just met, and more. Each one of them telling their story of how Chinook renegotiated their mortgage and First Calgary got their business through a rough spot, how Connect First made the difference. Story after story. Everybody is on their feet now. Some of these stories you remember, you were there for them.
Then the screens go dark. The whole venue goes dark.
And three bold words blast the screens:
FOLLOW THE ASTRONAUT
A spotlight flashes on the BassBus Bandwagon. That familiar overture sounds. Space Odyssey.
What…the…frak…there’s a frickin’ astronaut!
He lifts into the air, high above the crowd.
He waves, prompting you to follow him.
Bam! Drums hit beside you.
The music changes.
Out of nowhere there is suddenly a full drumline. Musician, magicians, jugglers and acrobats are herding the crowd towards the astronaut.
The lighting suddenly changes as you walk past the Bandwagon. What had been in complete darkness throughout the entire event was now fully lit up. A huge stage with seating all around. A giant screen — zooming through a galaxy — providing the backdrop as the astronaut touches down and the drummers take to the stage.
You’re all feeling around for seats because you can’t take your eyes off the stage.
Suddenly a break dancer flips into the drumline. And then an MC.
There’s rap and break and drums and an astronaut!
It builds. There’s a call & response (obviously name dropping Connect First). It builds.
All goes dark.
Fire grips the stage. It is the only light.
Performers are dancing with each other and the flames.
As it snuffs, an acrobat dangles from silks on the crane.
She is joined by a man who balances on a chair in every inconceivable contortion.
They become a duet in the air.
The touch down and disappear.
The arena is filled with the cacophony of applause as Cody takes the stage. He’s the gregarious new Young Leader from Chinook Financial and the Emcee for the night.
“Wow. And that was just the members. They built this whole evening from the ground up, collaborating with each of their unique talents, to put on this show as a thank you to you.”
But that is barely the beginning.
We’ve shown you our love, now you get to see the unexpected, often zany talents of your teammates.
Bollywood dances. Power ballads. The Executives springing a Sound of Music flashmob into action. Dr. Seuss readings and an eerily well choreographed synchronized swim from the Credit team. Ya, it’s a cool bunch to work with. But they also do great work.
It’s time for the awards.
One by one, the heartfelt stories come out about the extra care Connect First staff put into their daily work. It’s no accident that the final awards to be revealed are the Volunteers of the Year and the Members’ Choice Awards. Connect First teammates do all they can for their communities.
There are some tears. Some from the members. Some from the winners. Everyone is ecstatic for their friends and the nominees.
And then a last note. The CEO climbs the stage. He is a calculated, matter-of-fact kind of man. He looks out at you. He says, “Thank you.”
The screens go wild. Thank you’s bursting all over them.
The executives step aisle by aisle saying hello and handing out individual thank you polaroids featuring the Chinook member photos. It is a chance to meet some of them for the first time.
You shake hands then hear a twang from behind you. A seven piece folk band has appeared on the Bandwagon. It’s Rosalind. They are local and delightful and their frontman was a First Calgary teller until his music career took flight.
What a delightful way to finish the night. Sitting indoors in a lawnchair, feet in the grass, staring up at a private folk concert with new friends by your side knowing that your company and your members would bring you through the nastiest storm of the year (safely) to transform a cement dome into an adventure. We did it because we care about you and the work that you do. And we hope you’re proud to work here.
Our productions are storylines, built to accomplish what is necessary for the audience. We start at the core and we script out.
Storylines let audiences understand and accept themes. And because that theme is meaningful, we study its effect.
HR & Base followed up with metrics from the staff event through to the year-end. We met back with all the leaders on Halloween and assessed the progress of the Cultural Values. They are being adopted well. That’s great, but it’s not the end. We 3D printed some challenge coins and will have random coin checks in the future. That story begs a bit more explanation, but suffice it to say that they are calls to action that keep the values moving forward.
Crane Brought Indoors
Band members on a BassBuss rooftop
Feet of AstroTurf
Producer: Steve Nagy
Creative Director: Zoe Klintberg
Technical Director: Donovan Deschner
Production Coordinator: Erin Bauer
Stardust / Lighting Designer: Bill Filyk
Special Event Rentals (Stage, Pipe and Drape)
Scope Safety + Security
Food and Beverage
Indus Recreation Centre
National Motor Coach Transport
Pixels + Photons
Sugar Creek Popcorn