Can you describe the difference between teamwork and team building?
Do you know the three factors to creating an effective team building event?
How do you apply vulnerability-based trust into your leadership and management goals to bring out the most productive, effective, and excited staff?
These questions aren't for the feint of heart, and often take years to understand and execute.
Unless you're a Professional team builder like James Bennett of Firefly Events.
James runs a small business to build team productivity, camaraderie, and effectiveness through planned events and outings. His experience is incredibly deep, and the list of companies he's worked with is impressive, to say the least.
In our interview with James, we uncover some of his secrets to building strong teams, tips for dealing with toxic employees, and influential books that have helped businesses of all sizes develop an effective and energetic staff.
In the team building world, we like to say the activity is neutral. So it doesn't matter what you do. What matters is how you approached what you did.
When we design team-building challenges, they must follow certain criteria. First, every activity must be accessible regardless of physical ability. Second, there is no single team member should be able to dominate or hijack the activity... every team member must have an opportunity to effectively contribute to the team success. And third, it must be fun!
In order to be true team building, you have to have some reflection and you have to take whatever happened during that event and apply it back to what you do in the workplace, what your job responsibilities are, etc.
You don't want to single out a toxic person in a group because that can sometimes drive them further into their shell and create a larger problem. Instead, guide those debriefs toward conversations that will help other people find their voice about this issue.
Team-building is great for holding up a mirror.
"Let me never fall into the vulgar mistake of dreaming that I am persecuted whenever I am contradicted."
About Our Guest
James has made a career of reaching people through laughter, adventure, and challenge. Through his work as a team building facilitator, emcee, and business owner he's helped countless people find value in shared group experiences. A passion for games, creativity, technology, and new ideas has helped him create innovative team building products. As an entrepreneur, he maintains strong ties to the start-up community and is a familiar face at local hackathons and startup contests. His years of experience in the team building industry have created opportunities to share his skill and enthusiasm on the national stage. He believes that everyone needs more Play in their lives. Are you ready to play?
Mike: Hi guys what's up, this is Mike with Modern Da Vinci and welcome to another Modern Da Vinci podcasts. We're super excited today to have James Bennett, the founder of Firefly events in California. His website is fireflyteamevents.com, where they host building events for planned meetings, team camaraderie, confidence building, full team outings, anything really it looks like that has to do with team building. And he's got a really neat activities page, chock-full of teambuilding events. From team graffiti to scavenger hunts, to escape rooms, cooking competition, even lip sync challenges which I found pretty interesting. So James, thanks for being here with us today, welcome to Modern Da Vinci. How are you doing?
James: Thanks for having me. I am great. It's a good day, thanks for having us on.
Mike: Absolutely, did I get the intro right? Is there anything I missed? Look like everything that you do really has to do with team building it's just different ways of doing that team building through events, structured events of sorts.
James: Yeah I know, I think you know that right on. Like you said we have a lot, a huge variety on our activities page. And those can be customized to meet our client goals and so we can take almost anything. I like to joke and turn it into a team building activities, so you want to have a car wash we'll make it work for you. I haven't done a car wash yet, but we're open to the opportunity.
Mike: There you go new ideas right here live. So the events or the activities page, and I mean just all sorts of different cool ideas on there I thought was pretty neat. So it seems like perhaps you've got a grip on sort of foundational team building and it doesn't really matter what the event is, you can kind of pull a team together and do what you need to do with it. Is that an accurate way to look at it?
James: Definitely, ultimately yeah every activity that we do comes down to the basics of team building, which would be things like communication, vulnerability-based trust, leadership. Those foundations of what makes a solid team. In the team building world, we like to say the activity is neutral. So it doesn't matter what you do. What matters is how you approached what you did. So another thing that kind of matches up with that is how you do anything, it's how you do everything, or sometimes it's how you do everything, it's how you do anything, I can never remember. You know it's a similar concept. So we take that activity, and it just gives us a window into how you guys interact and how you are together and allows us to help either point you in the right direction or use it as a lens for you to view how your team is functioning.
Mike: Interesting, how did you get your start doing this? I mean were you always sort of a team building guru or what's the story behind Firefly?
James: Yeah I was born a guru. It took me a while to get all the knowledge that comes with being a guru. Mine actually goes all the way back to the Boy Scouts. So when I was fifteen I started working at a Boy Scout camp, and I immediately fell in love with Ivince program, and the Ivince program as a component called cope, which is challenging out to our personal experience, and that's essentially all the stuff you do on the ropes course. So the high ropes course where you're, thirty, forty feet off the ground and you're completing challenges and you know you're overcoming your fears, you're working on goal setting, problem-solving and all of that fun stuff.
Mike: Not for the faint of heart.
James: Yeah, well I mean it is we just have to talk you through it differently. So that got me interested in it and then like I said that was when I was fifteen and I worked at that camp for three-four years. And later on around 2000. It was one of those points in your life where you're like "what am I happy doing?". What was I happy doing? And so I came back to the ropes course, and this was kind of, the Internet was starting to get used more and more. So I started googling around for ropes courses, maybe I could find a place where I could go build up the skill set even more. And I found a company and on their website. They were like, we do paintball and ropes courses, and I was like this sound like the funniest company ever. So I reached out to them, and they said: "why don't you come out the training?" So I went out for the training, and I worked off and on for them for years, and in fact, I still do work for them to this day. So they got me some of my first workshopping on how to properly facilitate, how to properly debrief a group. How to help a group find meaning, you know all the reflection and the important stuff, the stuff that really helps you find meaning in some of the ridiculous things that we do.
Mike: So what kind of companies have you worked with in Firefly, but also what kind of companies did they work with as a similar sort of comparisonal services?
James: So prior to starting Firefly I worked for them, but I also worked for probably five six seven eight different team building companies all over the country. So between all of those companies that I personally worked with. I mean there is probably a company I haven't worked with. There is probably not a company I haven't worked with. Like every Fortune 500 out there, I like to joke, but everything from Microsoft to Akia, Qualcomm, Kaiser Permanente, which is a big health care provided out here. So yeah I mean it runs the gamete, lots of biotechs because that company I was mentioning earlier are out of the ordinary. They're based out of San Diego, and there's a lot of biotechs center down there. So I worked with a lot of those companies. So yeah, I mean, you name it, L'Oreal, Transportation. Yeah, it's all over the place, the companies that I've worked with.
Mike: All over the map, I mean everybody, sounds like you've got a team you know whether you're a manager or a small business owner or what have you. These kind of events are ubiquitous across any size company really?
James: Yeah they resonate with anybody that is in a position to manage a team or needs to boost productivity or engagement and isn't sure how to do that. Or sometimes it's just the company wants to take their group out and have some fun, and we're happy to facilitate that as well.
Mike: Yeah I was going to ask, you know are people typically coming to you for the experience or the entertainment of it. You mentioned productivity. I mean what are kind of the biggest things that they are coming to you for?
James: So we sat down and we kind of, we looked at our customer segments, and we figured out that people come to us typically for one of three reasons. The first is they have a problem, and they need a solution, and that's more kind of the traditional team building that that we think of, where we sit down and we give these teams, challenges, and we processed the experience, we debrief and we look at, like I said use that as a lens to look at, like, how can we improve communication, trust, conflict resolution all that fun stuff. The second reason that people come to us is because they have a meeting. They are hosting their annual sales meeting, and they want to plug a team building activity into the schedule that reinforces the messaging or a goal that they might have for the meeting. So we just did something with the biotech where their team was making their next giant leap with our business, so they ended up booking us for a rocket building event. So we went and had a contest where they build rockets and competed on distance and accuracy. It was just a good, fun time.
Mike: Yeah that sounds like a lot of fun.
James: So yeah, so we tied into their team, they were happy with it. I got the groups working together and teams. They weren't looking for heavy debriefing or anything like that, but it worked with what they wanted, so they were very happy with it. And then the reason the people are...I call it social team building. And typically social team building means they just want to have fun. They want to take the group out. They want to have a good time and to them that's enough. They don't need us to debrief the group. They don't need any heavy thoughts or big picture ideas they just want to get the group out and have some fun. Say it kind of takes place I think you know, people used to go on a company picnic or whatever this is now, the 21st-century company picnic, but way more fun.
Mike: Yeah I mean the rocket building for a geek like me, it sounds particularly interesting. When I went to your activities page and I saw lip-sync challenge. It kind of struck this deep fear in my heart and something that would be completely torturous to me. So you run into people like me that absolutely just?
James: All the time.
Mike: What do you do in that scenario? I mean you're trying to get them to pull together, but how do you handle that?
James: This is actually a pet peeve I have with some of the other providers out there, is that they take something like a lip sync contest, and they just say "alright everybody we're going to have so much fun doing the lip sync contest" not taking into account folks like you are like, that just sounds like my worst nightmare. So I like to say when we design are our challenges, whatever they may be that we follow certain criteria. First is that every activity must be accessible, regardless of physical ability. Second, there is no single team member should be able to dominate or hijack the activity of the gameplay. So ever team member must have an opportunity to effectively contribute to the team success. And third it must be fun and not that TV kind of fixed my own fun. We adjust psychological, and physical safety and there is a 10:57time back to what your team builds in the office. That's usually the criteria that we follow. So with somebody like you that lip sync is an absolute nightmare, when we follow this criteria we look at the challenge and we say alright "how can we break this into either tasks or puzzles or challenges that can involve everybody on the team?" So with the lip sync contest you're not just getting up there as an individual, you have to get up there as a group. So we would never just put you on stage and say "alright embarrass yourself in front 100 other people." And then we try and find things that we can add to the activity that are tasked based that you can sink your teeth into. So we have something for the thinkers on the group. We have something for the creative folks on the group. So like with our lip sync contests, it sounds silly but it gives people something to do which is they had to create their own microphone for the event. So we end up giving them supplies to do that. And so that person that doesn't necessarily want to perform or work on the lyrics will grab on to that task and work with it and push with it. Thinks like that, try and find because I know that you're a fan of escape rooms right?
Mike: Yes absolutely loved it. We did escape room with a group of friends and then my family, or kids, a bunch of us there and we just had a blast with it.
James: Right, an escaped room is actually at a good example used because for some people an escape room is their worst nightmare, and not because you have to escape it's because escape rooms, most often are based on puzzles. And so I have found in my experience that either you're a puzzle person or you're not. So team building, ninety-nine percent of the time is not optional, so you're being forced to show up to do this team building activity whether you want to or not. The boss said "hey we're going to go here and do this" and you're like alright. So if the boss says to you hey and you're not a puzzle person and he says hey we're going to go lock you in a room with the rest of your coworkers and you have to solve puzzles to get out and you're not a puzzle person you're like, oh this. So when we design our escape room experience and again this is just kind of a different example. We create what are called puzzles and then we create what are called task. So a task is something you complete, that you don't have to solve. So completing a puzzle early in the room may give you things that you need to complete the task, but somebody that's not a puzzle person is more than happy to do a task, they just don't want to have to try and figure out you know alright I don't know what sequence, these go together. I don't know, you know why we're using blue instead of Red to open this lock. But if you give them a task they are perfectly happy to do that. So we have to take that into account. Not everybody is there willingly or enthusiastically.
Mike: Yeah that's really interesting because my experience with it was kind of very similar where we had all age groups and to your my youngest son is five years old and he immediately became sort of panicking that we were locked in this room and task himself with keeping us all on task with regard to the time. There are 50 minutes left, there are 49 minutes left, so we knew what time it was every second of the way because of him. But some of the older kids they were interested in the puzzles and I was walking around, searching for different clues and what not so we all kind of self-organized I guess in order to solve the puzzle. And I will say we did solve it, which is immensely satisfying, yeah it was one of those you know trapped in a room with a bomb about to go off.
James: I personally, I am a huge escape room nerd like I love them and they are kind of. Most people look at them and go "this would be perfect for team building" I say wait wait a second. And most escape rooms out there advertising themselves as team building experiences because they want to attract corporate clients. Just another revenue stream for them. But what I find is that most escape room owners have no actual foundation or backing in the team building world and so they confused teamwork with team building. So just be the active working together is not team building. So yes, you go into a room you guys work together in the room but it's not necessarily what I would consider team building, its teamwork. So yes you're working together.
Mike: That's really interesting, I'd like to dive into that because one of the questions I had was, what would you say to the business owner or a manager you know, like myself, say ten years ago managing a group of employees. I would have just kind of snap my fingers and said let's go do some team building and not really gotten that distinction between teambuilding and teamwork, which is now in retrospect, I think what I was doing with my team. So what do you say to a business owner, say who's trying to think and plan something like this for him or herself? What kind of guidance would you give them?
James: I'll kind of reiterate what I mentioned earlier, which is that in order to be true team building you have to have some reflection and you have to take whatever it is that happened on that event, you have to be able to apply it back to what you do in the workplace, what your job responsibilities are, roles and responsibilities, that sort of thing. So if you just go out, if you take the team out and go bowling. There is a benefit there, but it's not the same benefit as if you had taken a facilitator with you, a team building facilitator and had them debriefed your bowling experience. You're going to get two far different deliverables there. So the first one you're working on camaraderie and that is, like I said there's a benefit there. The statistics that talk about when you boost camaraderie and you boost engagement in that way you are going to boost productivity, but it's not quite the same value that you would get if you were able to look at that bowling experience and say alright Joe, Jane, Bob from accounting how to you guys show up on that activity? What skills did you use to accomplish your goals? How did you interact with each other and have a discussion about that. And then say okay based on how you reacted there, how does it point back to what we do in the workplace? Are you finding yourself using the same language? You know those sorts of questions.
Mike: Yeah right, I mean so that leads to another interesting question to dive into a little bit more, you know when you have used team building events, and you get to that sort of retrospective, that reflective portion of it. How often do you find you know that there is one person, maybe the leader or maybe somebody else that's kind of the core part of a problem that the business is trying to solve and how do you handle that that can be a really sensitive situation I would imagine?
James: Yes, so when there is that toxic person, is that what you're talking about?
Mike: Yeah, right that's a great way to put it, yeah.
James: Toxic people are tough. Sometimes it’s really going to vary on a case-by-case basis. Toxic individuals are an interesting problem for team building. We have ways that we and it's always on a case-by-case basis. It depends on the person and how they're affecting the group. And a lot of times we're only able to deal with how they're affecting the group that day. And when you're dealing with the group activity you don't necessarily want to single out that person because that can sometimes drive them further into their shell and actually create a larger problem. So you want to guide those debriefs and those processing activities toward conversations that will help other people find their voice about this issue or maybe put it into a light that they can have a discussion that doesn't necessarily directly call that person. When you got somebody that's entrenched. For instance we got a call for a public utility a while back and there were two or three toxic people that they had, but because of the way the public utility runs public, governmental agency or whatever, they can't just get rid of people that have been there for a while. They came to us and they said hey, can you help us with this and we said honestly it's beyond the purview of what we do. And we have some that we work with but we referred them out to an organization development specialist who is going to be more able to deal with conflict resolution as going to dial down into the organization and be able to do a much more in-depth analysis and help them try and find an answer to the dynamic.
Mike: Interest, so if you kind of have that toxic person or people in the group, and you know that to begin with, then maybe teambuilding is sort of a different type. But team building, perhaps help you find that and then leads you to an organizational development?
James: Yeah team buildings it's great for holding up a mirror. So with a group like that those toxic tendencies and or things that aren't working well on your team are going to be magnified in a lot of team building activities that we do. So it's a good way to start that conversation and potentially let it lead you down to some productive resolutions.
Mike: Yeah I got you, interest. Let me switch the temperature quick because when we first met, we swear we were chatting and I remember we started kind of talking about books. And I was blown away a little bit that we kind of had some favorites on the list. I think I forget that we mentioned "Good to Great" and some other team building type books that we kind of read and loved. For our listeners here. What team building books kind of had a real effect on you? Maybe not team building just business books had a real effect on you and helped you create the best team building experience or really kind of guide you or opened your eyes in a certain way?
James: So I answer this from a couple of directions. The first direction I answer is as a team building what books helped me. And then I can answer as a business owner, if that's of interest.
Mike: That would be great yeah.
James: So from a team building perspective, there's a huge body of work out there that deals with the subject matter, books that I recommend my clients are some of the standard, what I consider standards which are "Five Dysfunctions of a Team" by Patrick Lencioni and that's phenomenal because he places trust at the base of what he calls his team pyramid but it's not trust in the typical like I trust you to do your job. It's more of the vulnerability -based trust, meaning if we have a disagreement you have enough trust in me that I'm disagreeing with your idea and not attacking you as a person. And that's huge in the business world. It's essentially, hey don't take things personally, and if a team can get their mind around that and really embrace that it solves so many problems going forward. So I really loved “Five Dysfunctions of a Team." And he's actually, I talked with some of his team members one time and they said he only named it five dysfunctions for the team because that's what sells books. If he had his way, he would have named it five strengths of the team, so he has a companion book which I believe is called five strength of the team or something along those lines that you can get if you're working on your team.
Mike: I didn't realized that.
James: Yeah it's almost workbook style, so that's one. One of my more recent favorites is called "Tribal Leadership" and tribal leadership I find fascinating, because he or they outlined five different levels of tribes let's say. So level one and they use this metaphor where if you walk into the business, and you look at the employees, you can see what kind of shirt they are wearing and what it says on the shirt. So you walk into a level one business and their shirt says life sucks. You walk into a level two business their shirt says my life sucks. You walk into a level three business and their shirt says I'm great. You walk into a level 4 business and it says we are great and you walk into a level five, business, and I don't think they even need anything written on their shirts because they are just at the top of their game. Most really good companies live in belting between level three and four and every now and then they level up to five, but nobody ever lived in level five. It's just that's nirvana, and so you can go up there and you can exist in level five for a little bit but eventually you come back down to level four, which is the we are great, but what I found interesting about it is that they say that it's possible for you to go from level one to level two but you can't go from a level one to a level three or level one to a level 4. But the way that you level up is through changing your language. And you find somebody that's in a level three and you have them mentor a person that's a level two because it's possible to have people at different levels within your organization. Anybody else might you level four but you got a couple people that are level 3 and a couple people that are level two. So you pair up the people accordingly and have them work on leveling up that person to the next level. And you can imagine the difference in the workplace when everybody's thinking I'm great versus we're great.
Mike: Absolutely and in fact that's a great way to put it because I've experienced different levels before unknowingly and that really kind of puts it in a nutshell the T-shirt analogy that you have.
James: Yeah and that's straight out of the book. And they get a lot of great real-world example. It's just a good read for anybody that is in an organization that they feel like could be so much better, or has this potential for greatness but it just haven't hit. And this gives some insight into why and they use good data. I like books that have data to back them up.
Mike: That's great so tribal leadership.
James: Yeah and there is tons of like if you ever wanted to lead your own team building exercises. There's books by people like Michelle Cummings. She has a book called "A teachable moment" that talks about the different stages of team development, like forming harming, storming, performing and then transforming. There's old school books. I call old school books, you know the grandfather of experiential education, which is where team building has its roots. Guys like Carl Rocky and Sam Sykes, they have tons of books out there with just hundreds of thousands of team building activities that you can do with your group.
Mike: That's really great. Maybe I just to save our time here because I know it's kept you on for a while. One more question and wrap it up. This has just been fascinating by the way, and the one thing that I really wanted to save until the end and I hope I don’t throw you for a ringer here is, kind of from my past experience I learned that leading teams is very challenging and everyone really performs best when they have a role to play and they know what that role is and they know how to play it well. But I can never kind of put my finger on what the team building principles were. Do you have some principles that you keep in mind or that you take to your team building events, things that our listeners could walk back and sort of research and study or just keep in mind as they're leading their teams to what is hopefully success.
James: I have heard of people smarter than I am. So people like Patrick Lencioni. So when you look at it. Trust is the maintain thing I start off with in all honesty. Most groups we start with trust and then we build in communication and we look at the language they are using and how they are interacting with each other. So anytime we work with any team, especially if we're working for the first time honestly we work on trust and communication, and we focus right there because those are two huge components to having a successful team. If you can't communicate you don't trust then you're not going to be very successful as a team. Google recently did a study on what makes one team perform better than another. And Google is really good at data, and they looked at all the data that they had, and they compared teams at Google and they said alright we're going to find out why this team is performing better than another and they spent a year and they couldn't figure it out. They are like we have no idea what makes one team better than another. And so they started to look outside of their organization at other bodies at work. And what they figured out is that other people already had the answer. And when they took that data and they applied it to the studies that they had been doing. They came to some conclusions, and so the main thing, the main points that gel with what we've seen in groups is that the high-performing team. If you look at that the amount of time that everybody on the team spends talking it's fairly equal all the way across. So there's no single person that's dominating the team conversations, everybody is there checking in. The other thing that was a big standout was psychological safety, which I also equate as vulnerability-based trust. And so it was the idea, it goes back to five assumptions of a team as well, which is those high functioning, those high-performing teams can have quality discourse, quality discussion and quality conflict, positive conflict without ever taking it personally, but that's not just something where somebody can be like I'm not going to take it personally anymore. Obviously you have to work on that and tools like five assumptions of a team or going out and doing team building exercises can help your team get to that point, but until you recognize that it exists and this is how you approach it. I guess did that answer your question?
Mike: Yeah that' really great. In fact unknowingly, I had used the term positive conflict in the past to describe, you know what I wanted was our team members to challenge each other and not take it personally, to point out mistakes without pointing out fault so to speak, which was kind of a difficult concept for all of us to wrap our heads around but we knew that we need to do it because we were working on a very complicated thing. Some yeah I think you hit the nail on the head there.
James: I came across just the other day, I don't know how I haven't seen this quote before but it was a friend of mine posted it and it's by Ralph Waldo Emerson. And I mean we're all familiar with Emerson, he was alive hundreds of years ago, or a hundred years ago and he has this quote that I feel like applies directly to this, which means he had the knowledge a hundred years ago, yet we're still struggling with this thing. The quote goes it says
"Let me never fall into the vulgar mistake of dreaming that I am persecuted whenever I am contradicted."
And to me that speaks directly to that, as a team builder that vulnerability-based, trust because so often we see somebody take offense just because somebody else disagreed with their idea, but wasn't attacking them personally.
Mike: That's great I'm going to have to look that up. I feel like I need to print that out and kind of put above my monitor every day, so I can see it every day. That's awesome, wow this is fascinating and educational and really great. I really appreciate your time here. People are going to be interested possibly in getting in touch with you. What's the best way to do that?
James: They can just reach out via e-mail, James@fireflyevents.com. They can check us out at the website, once again it would be fireflyteamevents.com or they could us on our number which is (877) 267-1939.
Mike: Okay, that's awesome and I misspoke earlier when I said I had one last question. I actually have one final question now. How did you come up with the name firefly for team building events?
James: So it was that period in my life where we were traveling around so we'd been out in the world. I spent summer as a ropes course director on the East Coast working at a camp in Maryland. And immediately following that we took off and we went to London and India and Egypt, and we were just traveling all over the world. And while we were traveling we were working on our business concept and we needed a name and we fall back to Maryland, where it was the first time my business partner at the time had seen fireflies. She had heard about them but she hadn't seen them and she love them and I grew up with fireflies, having grown up in Louisiana.
Mike: Yeah I've seen them.
James: And if you've ever seen, just that wall of fireflies on a forest edge, you know what a.
Mike: It's incredible
James: Yeah it's a beautiful site. It's an amazing sight. So when we were putting together the idea for our event company, to us it just resonated as we'd like to be able to bring people amazing experiences. We'd like them to have that sense of awe and amazement and obviously some of things we do aren't about awe and amazement. They are still about fun but it's kind of, it's that storybook tale of people going out and having fun and having a good time, and to us that's what that represents, that firefly represents is that story that magical moment. Whether it's team transformation or just a good time and in activities that ends in high fives for everyone.
Mike: What a neat story, what a great way to end the interview here. That's actually wonderful business name and pretty inspiring and goes right along with everything we've talked about. So thank you, thank you again.
James: No prob, I was just going to say that I do love the name, but that we have on occasion consider changing it to be more team building specific. So as much as well love the name, it's that classic thing, do you go with the Yahoo type name or do you go with the high we are team events type name. No plans to change it be we do think it's
Mike: That's good I kind of like it now that you've described it. I liked it before but I like it even more now.
James: I appreciate that.
Mike: Well that's all for now thank you so much again for your time and thanks everyone here for listening in. We really hope that this interview on team building gave you some ideas to help grow your business, become a world class leader and just work with your team to be more productive and have fun. So if you found the podcast and are listening in. Come join us at www.moderndawinci.net where we'll post the full transcript to this interview, as well as links to firefly events and any other resources books, for example that we reference during the show, until next time thanks again take care and stay in touch.
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