Alexa Newman is events director at SmithBucklin, an association management and services company in Chicago and Washington, D.C. Reprinted with permission from SmithBucklin, this article originally appeared in the 2018 edition of Circuit, which offers 20 articles on key trends, issues and development that will impact associations in the coming year.
Association event planners are always on the lookout for the next innovative idea. Fresh content, experiences and networking opportunities keep attendees and exhibitors engaged and coming back for more. Understanding your audience and what will resonate with them is key. If your attendees are risk-takers, creative opportunities will surprise and delight them. If they prefer getting right down to business, maybe theatrics aren’t necessary. Here are three noteworthy, high-value concepts utilized by world-class events that associations should know about.
Professional conferences create excellent platforms to network, but to some, the idea of meeting and interacting with strangers is stressful. In addition, it’s not guaranteed that those interactions will be productive. C2, an annual conference for executives that is designed to provoke “collisions” (productive disagreements among attendees) and generally spark new ideas on how to do business, has created a way to enable meaningful networking interactions: Brain Dating. This customized process encourages knowledge sharing and learning by facilitating one-on-one conversations. When registering for the conference, C2 attendees make a list of topics they want to learn more about, as well as those with which they have expertise they want to share. Attendees then use an online hub to schedule one-on-one or group meetings during the conference with people that have the knowledge they are seeking. At C2, these Brain Dates are held in unique places, such as on a “Ferris wheel,” or chairs suspended from convention center ceilings that hang 18 feet off the ground with a safety net underneath. (Cirque du Soleil is actually a C2 partner and helps design its networking spaces.) While that aspect likely isn’t replicable for many associations, they can still provide attendees with similar matchmaking services — and clever meeting places perhaps a little closer to earth — to help them have the most stimulating and productive networking interactions possible.
If you regularly read event industry publications, you’ve undoubtedly encountered the phrase “the festivalization of events.” Festivalization is the buzzword of the day for large conferences and corporate meetings that create community-like atmospheres in order to engage attendees through collective experiences. Examples abound outside the association world, including the Murmuration Festival in St. Louis, a three-day event that brings together artists, musicians, innovators, scientists and entrepreneurs to engage the public and share their work. Murmuration functions less like a conference and more like a music festival with education. While it isn’t feasible for most associations to move their events outdoors in order to create a festival atmosphere, it is entirely possible for them to focus on less all-encompassing engagement activities that still unify attendees and exhibitors. Such activities can include anything from volunteer opportunities that support the local community to organized attempts for attendees to try and break a world record. One event did the latter by setting the record for the largest rock, paper, scissors tournament with 2,950 players. Offsite activities can also provide an unforgettable experience. However, it does require more planning. Transportation, weather, third parties and more will play a role. But if the opportunity matches the association’s mission and appeals to attendees, then it is definitely worth considering!
AR — which involves using technology to superimpose a computer-generated image on a user’s view of the real world — is rapidly becoming more accessible and cost-effective, and event planners are noticing. In recent years, the technology has made its way onto trade show floors. For example, a sponsor at last year’s New York Comic-Con used AR to allow attendees to interact with Wonder Woman. Sporting events are also adopting it. At Citi Field during New York Mets games, attendees can use their smartphone to bring the iconic Home Run Apple — a statue located just behind the outfield fence — to life. While these types of experiences can be cost-prohibitive, there are already a few smaller events using more modest AR-driven approaches. The Cambridge Science Festival — an event in Massachusetts that aims to make science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics accessible to all — used it to create an interactive sandbox. The sandbox used about $1,000 in easily obtainable equipment to project the image of a color-coded elevation map on top of actual sand. While many AR experiences require the viewer to participate via a smartphone, the science festival sandbox used a projector instead, so no additional equipment was needed. The AR map helped attendees learn about topography, water flow and watersheds. As visitors pushed the sand around, the topographic map updated in real time. The map even had a feature to simulate rainfall if users held their hand in a particular way. An innovation such as this could be the next step in association education. Allowing for real-time, hands-on interaction with things like that would have been impractical before. As American inventor Thomas Edison once said, “I start where the last man left off.” But associations following Edison’s lead can be inspired by many sources beyond the event world. Maybe the next innovative idea will be found by looking at how restaurants implement theme-based menus for limited time frames to increase excitement. The inspiration can come from anywhere, so don’t stop looking. AC&F