Most business owners and executives know that holiday parties and celebrations, off-site gatherings, and just-plain-fun outings help employees get to know each other better, encourage teamwork, and build a great sense of spirit within the organization.

Linda Rosanio is CEO of The Star Group, the largest full-service marketing communications firm in the Philadelphia area, with offices in five other states. She clearly understands the value of planning special events for the talented employees at Star, who work in the highly competitive world of advertising, public relations, design, and media. Star creates campaigns for such high-profile clients as the Ritz-Carlton and the Delaware State Lottery.

American Idol

Rosanio believes that the company's annual outing should be fresh, and above all, fun. So last year, when thinking of a new theme for the event, she hit upon the idea of doing a corporate version of the wildly popular "American Idol."

The Element of Surprise

Cathy Schwartz, director of corporate communications, says that one month before the planned all-day outing, employees received memos saying that for the event, they'd be working in teams to create and perform skits about a day in the life of The Star Group, for an "American Idol"-like competition. The staff members weren't told any details other than when it was going to take place and who would be on which teams.

Before the memos went out, she explains, the committee in charge of the annual outings had divided employees into ten teams of ten people each; the committee also chose the captain of each team. Organizers made sure that each team had art designers and writers and that each had members with different personalities. "You couldn't have all the grandstanders on one team!" she says.

More important, the committee put people together who worked in different departments. The value of doing it this way is that "everyone gets the chance to work on a team with people they normally don't deal with day to day," adds Connie Fithian, vice president of administration.

The Big Day Arrives

Since employees had been kept in the dark about details of the outing, there was a real sense of excitement on the morning of the event. Schwartz says the day began in the company's Cherry Hill, New Jersey, offices. Everyone enjoyed a hot buffet breakfast of pancakes, eggs, sausages, bacon, muffins, bagels, orange juice, and coffee.

After breakfast, everyone boarded buses. The employees soon found themselves in front of the gorgeous, 296-seat Wilma Theater in Philadelphia, a venue with a 44-foot-wide stage and a state-of-the art sound system.

From 10 a.m. until 1 p.m., the teams performed their skits on the stage. The only break was an intermission at 11:30, during which organizers handed out theater-type snacks of Twizzlers, Skittles, and sodas.

A three-person judging panel—Star's answer to Simon, Randy, and Paula—critiqued the teams and awarded points for creativity, ingenuity, and entertainment value. The judges, intentionally mimicking some of the behavior of their TV counterparts, were Rosanio, the company's CFO, and the vice president of operations.

Schwartz recalls the excitement of the competition. "There we were, sitting in plush seats in this legitimate theater, cheering and jeering all the teams and waiting to see the commentary of the judges, just as they do on 'American Idol.'"