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An inside look at how Virgin stages its CNS party

By John W. McCurry on May 21, 2014

Virgin Atlantic Cargo's aircraft-shaped stage, months in the planning, took three days to build. (Photos by Laurie Rush)

The annual CNS Partnership Conference is known for its valuable conference sessions and networking opportunities for attendees. For the past few years, it has also been known for the over-the-top opening night reception sponsored by Virgin Atlantic Cargo.

Attendees look forward to the reception with a “what will Virgin do next” anticipation. This year’s event, held in San Antonio, Texas, held true to form as Virgin built a stage in the shape of a jet, which covered a pond in the middle of the hotel’s courtyard.

“As with all our events, our objective is to get the Virgin brand front of mind,” says event organizer Karen Kerslake, marketing and PR manager, cargo for Virgin Atlantic. “We decided to use CNS as our platform in the U.S. due to their established reputation for holding an excellent conference, which attracts all the major freight forwarders.”

This year’s party required some special expertise in building the stage and in coordinating everything with the management of La Cantera Hill Country Resort.

“The hotel was brilliant to work with,” Kerslake says. “They had never worked with a company like us and had never done an event to this scale. They were very excited about it and excited that they can now promote that they can do an event like this.”

Virgin hired events management specialist American AV, which has offices in Washington, D.C., and North Carolina, to build the stage and coordinate the event.

“We’ve used them a few times before,” Kerslake says. “We flew them to the hotel to meet with us. The whole point is to get an overview of the hotel and work out what we think we can do. We were literally walking around there and thinking that we could have a bar there and could to this, do that. The pond was kind of aircraft-shaped anyway, so we said why don’t we build over it in the shape of an aircraft.”

Kerslake says her objective in planning the event is to achieve a “wow” factor.

“We pride ourselves on the service we offer, and we believe we are an airline that has a sense of humor,” she says. “We like to have fun and want to build relationships with our customers. Hosting a party that is memorable, we hope, will keep Virgin front of mind for months to come and encourage our customers to attend future events when we host them.”

Of course, planning and executing such an event takes months. The stage took three days to build and an entire day to dismantle.

“We tend to start working on a large event like CNS six months to a year in advance,” Kerslake says. “Confirmation of our commitment to support CNS is obviously the first action. We then meet with the chosen hotel, and that’s when the ideas start coming when you actually see the event space and what can be achieved. Like in Miami [in 2012], I loved the pool space but didn't like the poolside restaurant, so I decide to wrap the building with an aircraft. In Arizona last year, I visualized the big tent at a circus so decided to throw a Cirque du Soleil-themed event. 

“This year, when I saw the event space, it was obvious that we needed to cover the pond to generate a greater space for the attendees. I then thought it would be amazing for it to look like an aircraft had landed, and that’s where the idea came from. I have a good imagination and fantastic suppliers who can make the ideas a reality,” she says.

Kerslake drew a picture of what she was thinking for the San Antonio party and turned it over to American AV. Before they could proceed, the design had to be approved for safety by various agencies.

So, the question often pondered during the reception is “How much did all of this cost?” Kerslake declines to detail her budget for the event, but says, “It’s less than you think,” adding it’s about the cost of building an exhibit at a major trade show.