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.)
But companies only selectively opt for a live show, Mr. Podell says. ``These events are annual events. If I did dancers last year, I won't use dancers this year. Only so many times you can use the same creative idea before it gets old.''
At the Talbots show, Gee unveiled the retailer's lingerie collection to Thomas Dolby's song, ``Silk Pajamas'' and its children's line to the Jackson 5 singing, ``ABC.'' Hip hop, reggae, and jazz also were included.
``People see so much video at home,'' Gee says. ``When the slide show goes on hold, the lights go down, and the stage fills with real people all dressed up, it's more powerful, more exciting.''
Although clothing retailers and designers are its primary customers, Fashion Marketing does not use business theater solely to sell clothes. Gee says she can create an exciting show for any product; dancers can even dress up as computer chips. ``Whatever the product is, whether synthetic fibers or sneakers or children's clothing, it can benefit from theatrical lighting and special effects and staging and all the things that make theater so uplifting,'' she says.
Gee designed a show for Du Pont to market its synthetic fiber carpet products to interior designers and architects. A major national department store chain hired her to design a show for its employees to help halt internal merchandise theft. And the Rockport Company hired the company to organize a dance show for its booth at shoe buyers' conventions. ``We wanted to do something different so people would come into our booths,'' says Rockport spokeswoman Kate Toomey.
In addition to producing shows for sales meetings, Fashion Marketing creates mall fashion shows, special events for magazines such as Glamour, and store openings using fashion and dance.
Fashion Marketing's sales have grown 35 to 45 percent over the past two years, Gee says. She declined to reveal the cost of her individual productions, which vary wideley. The company produces about 50 shows a year and grosses around $500,000 annually. Gee says 1991 was her only bad year because companies decided to cut back or tone down their annual sales meeting during the Persian Gulf war. ``And we're definitely tone-up, not tone-down,'' she says.