We spent three days embedded in the “Land of Opportunity” to discover how Walmart’s biggest event unfolds
We’re standing on the sidelines as performers rehearse for the opening act of Walmart’s annual Shareholders Celebration, an internal event attended by nearly 14,000 of the retailer’s associates and stakeholders, when it occurs to us that the show is as much for attendees as it is by attendees.
The celebration, which offers a mix of star-studded appearances with performances and on-stage moments by many of Walmart’s own employees, is part of the larger Associate Week experience in Fayetteville, AR, an annual gathering of the brand’s U.S. and international associates, Sam’s Club employees and supply chain staffers. And with thousands of people from all walks of life present, it’s clear that providing a diversified and welcoming environment is paramount.
The inclusive nature of Associate Week is just one of the observations we made while we were embedded in the “Land of Opportunity,” alongside LEO Events, the agency that has handled the show for the last four years. Something else that caught our attention? The unparalleled excitement exhibited by each and every associate we encountered. It’s considered an honor and a privilege to be chosen to attend Associate Week, and employees don’t take it for granted. Associates are selected to attend based on their work performance, (they also have to own shares of Walmart stock), and Walmart chooses which of its U.S. stores will be invited based on the current year—on even-numbered years, employees from even-numbered stores are invited, and the same goes for odd-numbered years.
Just let that sink in—so many employees want to attend Walmart’s internal event each year that a dedicated system is in place to keep things fair. And after observing the event firsthand, we can say with confidence that the fervor is warranted. Teams from Walmart and LEO are on-site weeks beforehand to ensure the event is cohesive—and to give associates an experience worth sharing with their fellow employees when they return home.
As it turns out, being a part of the Walmart “fam” for a few days gave us something worth talking about, too. Here’s a breakdown of our behind-the-scenes experience at the 2019 Associate Week & Shareholders Celebration. Buckle up.
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Peter Frampton at Bud Walton Arena
Associates generally arrive at the event on Sunday or Monday, but our journey began on Wednesday of Associate Week, just in time for a free concert featuring performances by former Eagles guitarist Don Felder and headliner Peter Frampton at Bud Walton Arena, home of the University of Arkansas’ men’s and women’s basketball teams (earlier in the day, around 7,000 employees gathered at the arena for the U.S. Associates Meeting, and 2,000 global employees gathered for the International Associates Conference at a venue down the street).
This is where we first began to notice the unwavering enthusiasm attendees demonstrate during each component of the annual affair, as well as the coordinated outfits and costumes groups of associates don to represent their particular Walmart locations. It’s also worth noting that despite their countries of origin and familiarity with the artists performing, all attendees were happy to dance along—whether they’d ever hummed along to “Baby, I Love Your Way” or not. They were just happy to be there. It was a fitting introduction to the event at large.
“One of the big things we do at Walmart is tour stores every week,” says Mark Henneberger, vp-event solutions at Walmart. “So, merchants and operators are out seeing how the stores are doing. Whenever they see an associate who was at [Walmart Associate Week], 99 times out of 100 they come up and say it was the greatest thing that ever happened to them.”
The Associate Expo
We were up bright and early Thursday morning to take a tour of the Washington County Fairgrounds, where the Associate Expo was held. On the way in, we were fortunate enough to learn more about the ins and outs of Associate Week and the Walmart brand from Bryan Smith, senior manager-shows and events at Walmart. Like how the international associates, most of whom stay in the University of Arkansas dorms, participate in the “Walmart Olympics,” an array of outdoor games and activities played on the campus, like pool noodle ring-tosses. Or how Walmart ceo Doug McMillon is so dedicated to embracing change that he’ll sometimes wear his watch on the opposite wrist to avoid getting too comfortable in his ways.
Smith also brought us up to speed on what associates had been up to prior to our arrival, which included tours of the Walmart Home Office and Walmart Museum, outdoor movie viewings, shopping at the brand’s souvenir store and Feedback Sessions during which employees are divided into groups based on the department they’re part of, and offer one another insights on what’s working within their respective stores.
On-site at the Expo, around 100 Walmart vendors and suppliers were on hand to show off their products and services, and engage with associates. Within a few minutes of touring the area, we understood why attendees enjoy the experience so much—it’s an experiential playground built just for them. We’re talking full-scale carnival games, a petting zoo, free haircuts and manicures, a basketball tournament, tricycle races through a hay maze, myriad food and beverage options, a “How to Train Your Dragon” virtual reality experience with tech partner Spatial&, live music, a Walmart vest customization station, a mini golf course, and even a chance to take a photo with Sam Walton’s actual pickup truck. We literally saw everything from live camels to the Batmobile from “Justice League” to L’Oréal makeover stations. It’s just how Walmart rolls.
Sam’s Club Associate Meeting
Later in the afternoon, we headed to Barnhill Arena, just down the street from Bud Walton, for the Sam’s Club Associate Meeting—and it was truly a sight to behold. We walked in under the impression that U.S. and international Walmart associates were about as enthusiastic as employees come, but we walked away with a newfound appreciation for just how much Sam’s Club associates love their jobs. Each and every time (and we mean every time) the name “Sam’s Club” rolled off of a speaker’s tongue, the entire audience got to its feet and erupted in cheers, so much so that the meeting went on longer than intended.
In addition to company announcements made by executives, the meeting featured interactive games hosted by magician Justin Flom, like a Sam’s Club version of “Family Feud” played by teams of associates, complete with replica set pieces and sound effects. Each game centered on Sam’s Club products or services, further energizing attendees. Additional event components included a live band, audience giveaways and moments of recognition for high-performing associates.
“The event has always been very much about the frontline associate that deals with our customers every day, and no matter what we do, we continue to focus on the associate to make this week super special for them,” says Henneberger. “We want them going back to their stores being brand evangelists. This week gives them a sense of who we are as a company and we’re really proud of it… The ROI is: we get associates to go back to their stores or clubs or distribution centers engaged, all around the world.”
The Backstage Tour
Perhaps the most intriguing part of our Associate Week experience was discovering what happens behind the scenes, particularly in preparation for the Shareholders Celebration, easily the most anticipated experience of the week. From watching rehearsals of the opening act, to speaking with graphics and set designers, to a backstage tutorial on how performers at the Shareholders Celebration are organized, to a tour of LEO’s on-site carpentry shop for last-minute builds, we discovered that this event requires armies of event specialists of every kind, all working in perfect harmony to produce a best-in-class event.
Take Bud Walton Arena, for instance. The venue wasn’t built for entertainment experiences, requiring operations teams to haul in 70 trucks worth of gear, build a stage, carpet the floors, create a dedicated loading dock and bring in trailers to serve as dressing rooms for the talent. The stage is even covered in quick-dry paint at night to erase the scuffs created at rehearsals. And the brand incorporates its own air-conditioning system to ensure attendees and performers are comfortable throughout the week.
Meanwhile, the sheer volume of technology required for the Shareholders Celebration alone is enough to boggle your mind. Every single moment on stage is storyboarded, every graphic pre-loaded onto various computers, every music integration digitally mapped out and every plug, cord or accessory you can think of supplemented by a backup. There is no room for error with this event, and while the teams’ spirits were high, that feeling was palpable. Walmart hosts upwards of 300 events each year, but the Associate Week & Shareholders Celebration is the granddaddy of them all.
The Shareholders Celebration
If you didn’t know the time of day going in, you’d be convinced that the Shareholders Celebration was a Friday night event that unfolded into the wee hours of the morning. The reality is that doors to the celebration at Bud Walton Arena open each year at 6:30 a.m. (a.m.!) and the event starts promptly at 8. Based on the roar of the associates in attendance, you’d never know dawn had just barely broken. Donning glowing headbands, proudly waving flags and rocking coordinated outfits, the associates’ energy could hardly be contained. Raucous rounds of “U-S-A!” cheers and dedicated chants from members of the other 27 countries represented were already making the rounds by 7 a.m. as tweets from enthusiastic attendees were shared across a digital banner surrounding the arena.
When the clock struck 8, the lights dimmed and the opening act set the scene for the morning. Performing to Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” a group of Walmart associates from around the world (most of whom were finalists of the Walmart Associate Talent Search program) got attendees on their feet as they danced, sang and strummed to the song in a well-coordinated routine, while largescale graphics on the 140-foot-wide screen behind them moved in tandem. Incorporated into the end of the performance was the host for the day, actress Jennifer Garner, who appeared on stage, in a sparky blue Walmart jacket no less, to the delight of the audience.
After an opening dialogue from Garner, Ben Hasan, svp and chief culture, diversity and inclusion officer at Walmart, ramped up for the forthcoming announcements and performances by reminding associates that “what separates Walmart is its humanity,” and leading them in the brand’s signature cheer. From there, executives including ceo Doug McMillon, along with Walmart’s cfo, ceo of e-commerce, chief customer officer and other leadership took the stage intermittently to thank associates for their work (including presenting the Sam Walton Entrepreneur of the Year award), and to announce new Walmart offerings, like its recently launched in-home delivery service, Walmart Grocery. There was also a surprise cameo from actress Sophia Vergara, whose clothing line is sold at Walmart.
Of course, formal announcements were only half of the experience; the other half was a slate of live performances from surprise music acts (the names of the performers are kept ultra-secret until the moment they perform to add another layer of surprise and delight). And while the musicians, who we’ll get to in a moment, were fantastic, it was the versatility of the stage design that really impressed us.
Walmart and LEO worked together to turn the majority of the stage into a gigantic turntable. On the “formal” side, simple, clean graphics and décor elements were featured, serving as the backdrop to executive presentations. Then, when it came time for music performances, which were scattered throughout the event, the stage turned 180 degrees to reveal an edgier backdrop filled with spotlights more befitting of a rock show. We’d like to think of it as the mullet of stage design—business in the front, party in the back. And the performers were as impressive as the set. Among them: Lady Antebellum, Bebe Rexha, Neon Trees, Maren Morris and OneRepublic. And yes, we rocked out to each of them like the teenaged fangirls we are.
All in all, it was a whirlwind of an event in the best possible way, and the experience isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. While Walmart considers itself a tech-forward company, the people behind it—and the ability to connect with them face-to-face—are at the heart of the brand.
“I truly believe that live events will far outlast any of us,” says Henneberger. “We’re always going to want to get together and be a part of something bigger than ourselves. No matter how good technology gets, it’s not the same as this. If we were doing a Zoom right now, it just wouldn’t have the same feeling. And then multiply that to 14,000 people—it’s pretty special. It’s just something that human beings crave and I think they always will.”