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Jax Daily Record Monday, Sep. 10, 200112:00 PM EST

Exclamation Points! takes fun seriously

by: Glenn Tschimpke

What kind of company is Exclamation Points!? A punctuation watchdog group? A coalition to broaden the acceptance of passionate writing? An entity that takes amplifies the humdrum to the extraordinary? Read on.

A tour bus loaded with freshly scrubbed account executives lumbers down I-95 on a crisp Friday morning in March. For the last three days, they’ve escaped their corporate offices in Blount Butte, Mont., where snow is still blowing sideways, for a week long seminar in the sun on the First Coast. Today, they’ve hired Exclamation Points! Inc. to arrange a tour of St. Augustine. Tired from a week of meetings, many of the passengers’ faces grow slack as the bus driver drones on about the many uses of coquina and the meaning of matanzas. The bus passes a hitchhiker, who is given an assessment of both sympathy and scorn by the glassy-eyed passengers who noticed.

Suddenly the driver pulls onto the shoulder.

“I hope you don’t mind, but it appears there is someone out here who is in distress,” says the bus driver.

Eyebrows raise. Heads crane to see the stranger. Suddenly the hair on the collective neck of the sales department sticks straight out. Pick up a hitchhiker? On a tour bus? What are we paying these people for?

The hitchhiker jumps aboard and addresses the group with an unexpected charm and pearly smile.

“Hi folks,” he beams. “I’ll be your tour guide today.”

That’s what Exclamation Points! is all about.

Formed in 1997 by president Mark Grandin, Exclamation Points! describes itself as a destination management company. Any out-of-the-area group who comes to Jacksonville for a convention, conference or meeting can benefit from the services of Exclamation Points! Grandin prefers to work in the shadows, but has assembled a staff of nine. Among them are three former Chamber of Commerce employees brimming with local contacts, Candance Mingo, Nancy DeCray and Pamela Jacobs-Eidson.

“The basis of our business is we take fun seriously,” said Mingo. “I don’t care what kind of event there is or what kind of meeting it is. There is always room for fun. It doesn’t need to be clowns and face painting and balloons. It’s simply making something more palatable.”

Adds Jacobs-Eidson: “We pride ourselves on not having stock events that you can pull off the shelf.”

Clients range from banks to insurance companies to health care organizations. As the demographics of the clients go, so goes Exclamation Points!’s ideas.

“I think the first thing we do that’s important is we don’t assign a client to an individual until we have brainstormed after having met with the client for a length of time and saying, ‘What is it you want?’ Then we go back and come up with various ideas of what we can do for this client,” said DeCray.

After feeling out what the client has in mind, Exclamation Points! huddles, returning with five to 15 possible ideas.

“We really put a lot of time and effort in making sure that what we suggest fits for them what their actual needs are,” adds Mingo. “For instance, unless they specifically said this, we probably wouldn’t take a group of 90-year-old women to Jax Raceway.”

With a little client input, Exclamation Points! experiences can run from mildly gripping, like picking up hitchhikers, to bizarre — like bringing in midget boxers. Or for real guaranteed water cooler gossip for months to come, a staged fight between the boss and surly biker.

For lower-keyed events, themed atmosphere is more appropriate.

“One of our groups had a theme called ‘light the fire to success,’” said Jacobs-Eidson. “We knew what we wanted to give them was fire. Fire everywhere. We had fire dishes that had an eternal flame to them, flanking the perimeter of their outdoor event, a circular 20-foot bar that had a flame at the center of it; fire jugglers, fire eaters, fire dancers, tables that glow.”

Much of Exclamation Points! business comes from larger corporations. As profits have fallen recently, many companies have put a few less pennies in the morale jar. Despite corporate layoffs and general belt-tightening, Mingo says business is still brisk.

“I don’t think it’s been difficult,” she said. “I think that we’re seeing a lot of what’s out there, which basically boils down to a knee-jerk reaction. I can’t say that business has dropped off. It might have scaled back in the beginning, but we have not.”

The trio prides themselves on their extensive list of contacts, culled from the days when they worked together at the Chamber. Yet despite Jacksonville’s many amenities, it could be better. Yacht rides on the St. Johns River are a popular request, but there are no adequate vessels available. In Florida, a clam bake and beer on the beach should be a rite of passage for snowbirds. Regulations prohibit such fun.

Nevertheless Mingo, DeCray and Jacobs-Eidson are able to scare up some good fun for out-of-towners, southern style. And with each bit of fun, they add an exclamation point.

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