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Bright Lights and Costumes For Company Sales Meeting

BUSINESS THEATER

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AFTER three and a half hours of speeches - 13 in all - sales managers at Talbots, a women's clothing retailer, sat up - and a few woke up. The house lights dimmed, the runway lights flashed on, and the first models emerged from behind the stage set.

``This is the highlight of the week,'' says Lisa Barry, a Talbots store manager, referring to the company's annual sales meeting. ``We wait for this every year.''

Barbara Gee, president of Boston-based Fashion Marketing, has created a niche in the convention and meeting planning business by spicing up corporate meetings such as this one with a specialized bit of ``business theater,'' a mix-and-match of Broadway, fashion, and business.

``Barbara is the best in the group of companies who do fashion-oriented business theater,'' says Lee Rubenstein, vice president at Jack Morton Productions, a New York-based business communications firm. Business theater is any form of theater in a corporate setting - an improvisational piece or a fashion show or a play. Companies like Talbots use business theater to motivate sales teams or showcase products.

``In our business, it is much more powerful to present a live program that is theatrical than to show a tape or a film,'' Mr. Rubenstein says. ``People stay more attached to the message from a Broadway show than a video.''

Fashion Marketing staged a show for sales managers of Hampton, N.H.-based Timberland Co. in December 1992. Mrs. Gee began the show with two young, rugged-looking couples holding coffee mugs walking out of a three-dimensional log cabin set among evergreens. The couples greet two harried-looking professionals arriving by helicopter for a visit.

Gee didn't leave out a single detail. She created falling snow and a campfire, the whirring sound of a helicopter and chirping birds, and the smell of bacon and eggs cooking. Of course, she also featured selections from Timberland's line of outdoor clothing and shoes.

``[Gee's] niche is to provide showmanship to go along with new products,'' says Roy Podell, vice president and co-founder of Destination Management Inc. of Marlboro, Mass., a convention planning company that has hired Fashion Marketing in the past.

Most convention and meeting planning companies use multi-image slide and video shows rather than ``live talent.'' Gee's shows weave in professional dancers, models, and cleverly chosen songs (songs her assistants guard so closely they were reluctant to show this reporter the play list.)

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