It’s Good to be a Pirate

Aye, we approached the ship armed with two muskets, one saber and a long knife fully intent on seizing our share of the treasure aboard–one way or another. We strolled toward the waiting wenches, one of whom asked for our papers, a dance and finally our room number. The security team gave us suspicious looks and beseeched the captain to bar our entry. Instead he waved us through and chuckled after my pirate matey Trip Hunter boasted, “we’ll be seein’ ya later Cap’n!”

So began our adventure on the Marketing Forum, a three-day cruise to nowhere on the sparkling Norwegian Dawn. This was our third year on what one former passenger described as “the cruise from hell,” where clients can find no escape from the relentless assaults of a hundred or so rapacious vendors. Somewhat similar to a speed dating service, the folks at Richmond Events strive to match client needs with agency wants, pre-arranging breakfast, lunch and dinner “dates” with hundreds of half-hour meetings stacked in-between. Miraculously, it all works out and thus many return year after year, like the lemmings to cliffs.

Cutting through in this environment isn’t easy. Every vendor sends their best pitchmen and women; all seemingly capable of striking up instantaneous friendships with their prospects, all shamelessly determined to sell their services as “best of breed.” After the first four hours of pitches, many clients lose their will to live as they realize that they are stuck at sea for two more days. The only potential relief happens at night when cocktails, casino and comedians promise to drown most sorrow.

Yet even the evening isn’t pain free—everyone is supposed to dress up, men in black tie, women in fancy evening gowns, which is not on top of anyone’s list after an exhausting day of pitching or being pitched. With the casino fully inclined to take every last nickel, the ship’s comedian being as funny as mud and some vendors still circling prospects like sharks, the situation could be bleak for all but the most valiant of marketeers.

As veterans of this voyage, we knew there was indeed buried treasure on board; the trick would be to search in an entirely unexpected way, a way that not only engaged our prospects but also reinforced our position as renegade marketers. The question was did we have the guts to do something different, to take the kind of risks we often advise our clients to take. It was not without trepidation that we boarded the ship as pirates and then reappeared in the same costumes both black tie evenings.

On the first night of black tie, an unsuspecting client was already seated at our dinner table. Dinners are pre-arranged with the vendors having the same table every night and the clients moving from place to place. Wonderfully Midwestern, she really did not know what to say when the two pirates introduced themselves as her hosts. After catching her breath, she realized that this was not going to be a boring night of sales pitches, and she played along as waiters, busboys and fellow shipmates barraged the table with “ayes” and “arrrs”.

Despite the initial awkwardness of trying to have a serious conversation with two guys wearing silk bandanas on their heads, not to mention the rest of our brocaded buccaneer vestments, we actually enjoyed an inspired repartee with all of our dinner guests. Sure we covered their business needs but not before sauntering through their personal passions. One was a reader, another a mountain biker and so on. Somehow it just seemed right to tell the pirates whatever they wanted to know, personal or otherwise.

We left the dinner table both nights with promises in hand, mainly that they’d take our call when we followed up. On this ship, the gold is often found, not immediately, but down the river a bit, when the needs and timing align like a sail on a yardarm. For example, we just got a call from a prospect we had met two years earlier on the very same ship. The challenge, therefore, is to make sure your initial encounter is sufficiently memorable, a notion that any pirate could firmly grasp.

Practically bouncing into the casino, we were greeted with “yars” at every table. Turns out, we weren’t the only ones who’d spent time on the “International Talk Like A Pirate Day” website. There’s just something about being a pirate that inspires otherwise normal men to growl and otherwise stalwart women to swoon. And not just the dopes–we had a bonafide female rocket scientist join our merry band of pirate wannabees.

By the second day of meetings, about half the ship had either seen “the pirates” or heard about them. When visitors came to our little meeting space, which was sprinkled with gold doubloons, it didn’t take long before they exclaimed, “You guys were the pirates, weren’t you?” to which we responded “Avast ye matey, you’re smarter than a Gordian knot!” And though we expected some would question our sanity, most simply lauded our vivid demonstration of cutting through in a sea of sameness.

By the morning of our departure, we seemed to be friends with just about everyone on the slowly waking vessel. Wearing just our eye patches–anything more would have been too much for 8AM–we were hounded by choruses of “thar go the Renegade pirates”. The night before, we ran out of business cards greeting a flurry of prospects and parrying with competitors who nodded their heads to our daring (and undoubtedly contemplated their wardrobe options for the next voyage). As we threw our legs over the railhead, scaled the gangway and headed back to our offices, we knew without question that it’s good to a pirate.

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