In this ever more distracted and distractible world, meeting and event planners find themselves on a continual quest for new and innovative ways to capture attendees’ attention and hold it long enough to drive home the meeting’s message. The most successful at this are planners who become disciples of experiential event design.
For Erin Fontana, CMP, meeting and event manager at Special D Events, the design of an event is critical to driving attendee engagement and experience. “The discipline of meeting architecture allows planners to build an event based on the desired outcomes, whether that is improved learning, additional networking, attendee engagement or increased ROI for the host organization,” Fontana says.
In today’s digitally focused world where everyone is tethered to their cellphones, executing events in which attendees truly engage can be challenging.
As Vicky Fairhurst, executive producer at Bishop-McCann explains, there are many barriers to attendee engagement; we are all bombarded with hundreds of distractions every day and not just from the smartphone in our pocket. As a result, attendees are rarely truly present in the moment.
“Whilst being present is the subject of many books on happiness, few of us ultimately practice the notion,” Fairhurst says. “Our attention spans are shortening, and many of us feel the pressure to multitask at every moment of the day, leaving little headspace for engaging in a single task.”
Gone are the days of sitting in a ballroom with a number of speakers taking turns to use the lectern. Today’s participants expect events to reflect their day-to-day lives and the challenges that come with a highly connected lifestyle. Smart event planners mix up the event format with different communication techniques to appeal to all types of learners. Workshops, panel discussions, video content, expos, gamification and interactive keynotes all strive to shake attendees out of their sometimes passive mindset and create a more active and collaborative level of participation, which results in increased learning.
“The proliferation of media has resulted in highly fragmented brand communication,” Fairhurst says. “Despite the number of digital and virtual ways to connect, humans will always need face-to-face interaction to develop emotional connections.” This is evidenced by the increased proportion of marketing budgets being assigned to relationship, experiential marketing and event design.
And different people find different things engaging, which also adds to the challenge. Maritz Global Events, which includes the Experient and Maritz Travel divisions, encourages the development of “personas” for each event they design.
Karen Watson, senior director of strategic events at Experient, explains that personas are not segments and not based on demographics, but instead help identify groups of people who share the same or similar attitudes, behaviors and motivations.
At a recent conference, Watson developed a “journey map” that outlined specific elements each day of the conference based on their appeal to the different personas her team had identified for the conference. For example, for the “Be-Wellster,” they highlighted the “yoga with the dolphins” and “morning run” along with specific menu items available on a certain break as well as meditations offered each day. For the “Post-Master,” they highlighted the conference hashtag and great photo opportunity locations based on entertainment or physical sets. For the “Best Practitioner,” they identified specific sessions available or peer-networking opportunities.
“The journey map is like a shortcut to helping guests identify those elements of the program that might best appeal to them, but it certainly doesn’t limit them for trying out everything,” Watson says.
“Different event elements can appeal — and thus engage — different people throughout the event,” Watson says. One of her pet peeves includes speakers who strictly speak at attendees and don’t try to incorporate opportunities for audience participation. This can include asking attendees to discuss a point they just made with the person next to them to building in real-time polling and Q&A.
One programming element that Dominique Nguyen, meeting planner at EventMates, recommends to increase engagement is a tool called “Question Ranking.” This involves attendees asking questions from their device of choice and voting for the ones they like the most.
“It facilitates audience interaction without them having to ‘take the mic,’ ” Nguyen says. “Tee-up questions can be pre-populated to spark interest among attendees and encourage them to add their own questions.”
Watson says, “It’s harder and harder to keep people’s attention, so you have to work at incorporating different things into presentations. This can even apply to entertainment at evening events. People want to participate, which you can build into more interactive food and beverage stations or food events that are educational.”
For years, Watson and the Maritz Global Events team have worked to make the content at events more interactive and dialogue-based. One of the challenges with this is that not all presenters are good facilitators.
“Facilitation is most often a separate skill set,” Watson says. “So while it makes the conference more valuable, because it drives engagement among and between the participants, it can make developing the content and finding the right presenter or facilitator more difficult.”
To further positive engagement outcomes, Maritz Global Events builds schedules that allow people to be more flexible in how they spend their time.
“In the past we never would have had ‘competing’ elements, but now we acknowledge that some people are going to be distracted by a business emergency and be called out of a session. We design seating areas in the public space to allow for these side conversations, but in addition to this, we design elements of the event where everything doesn’t follow the exact schedule,” Watson says. “Some sessions may run 60 minutes, some may run 90 minutes, and some elements are available throughout the conference. This allows people to engage as they choose and personalize their experience.”
Robert Fowler, managing partner and senior vice president of CatalystCreativ, an experience studio in event marketing, has had the opportunity of working with The Nature Conservancy on their last three annual trustee summits in Washington, DC. The meeting is a multiday event that takes place in a windowless ballroom. CatalystCreativ uses air-purification systems, live plant material and trees to make the space feel more alive.
“Touching on all the senses with every event is so important,” Fowler says. “Some days we even add nature sounds during walk-ins and transitions to make attendees feel like they are outside.”
Conferences today are packed with so many sessions and events, it is difficult to compete for and win an attendee’s full focus and attention even in the sessions they decide to attend. Fowler has found that keeping events as small as possible is best and using discussion circles where attendees can all see each other instead of sitting behind tables is ideal. Of course, the constant need to stay connected via cellphones, tablets and laptops makes it more difficult to hold attention.
“When attendees do not have a table to ‘hide’ behind, there is more engagement,” Fowler says. “And please, no panels. We have found that panels are the least engaging way to present information. Use formats like fireside chats where someone from your organization interviews a guest, or have speakers give TED-style talks that last less than 15 minutes and get straight to the point of the content.”
Fontana suggests setting the meeting room in crescent rounds instead of classroom style. This fosters a networking environment by being able to see and speak with several people at once rather than one or two people in a standard classroom setup.
Offering “surprise and delight” moments throughout an event also encourages attendees to explore what else might be in store for them. These moments can range from something simple like offering an unexpected catering item to a surprise appearance by a top music artist.
Fontana says incorporating CSR activities into a meeting also can be very beneficial. Activities such as a “build-a-bike” challenge can double as a teambuilding activity as well. “If your event is hosted in a new location each year, volunteering with a local community organization, such as a food pantry, can help attendees feel engaged and that they are making an impact in that community during their time there,” Fontana says.
Anne Churchill, CMP, owner of AnnaBelle Events and Jubilee Planning Studio, says visuals are vital for engagement and experiential event design — this could be entertainment, a live band, food that’s interactive or a photo booth.
“When a motivational speaker is involved, it may involve having screens that stream the speaker, so no matter where an attendee is in the room, they can see the presentation,” Churchill says. “Planners should always go into each event visualizing its setup, as an attendee. Are interactive signs needed? Hostesses to direct guests? Or even a fun, playful map when they arrive?”
Planners need to always think of making a “wow” first impression and then evaluate the flow of the event for the attendees. How are the attendees going to naturally experience the event? One rule of thumb Churchill always uses is making sure attendees make their way through the entire event before finding a place to “land” or sit.
“That way, they see everything offered to them, and we encourage movement and mingling, rather than people going straight to their seats and staying there all night,” Churchill says.
Technology is a must for any meeting or event. All attendees are “plugged in,” so that is often the best way to get in front of them. One core component of experiential design is developing an event app. This keeps event information at attendees’ fingertips and allows them to communicate with planners, who can give them real-time feedback. Planners can use the app to push event previews, notifications of schedule changes and other ongoing information.
As audiences at events skew younger, it’s vital to incorporate social media. This includes using Snapchat geofilters for the event or creating Instagram scavenger hunts. For example, Watson recently orchestrated a scavenger hunt that reinforced the objectives and theme of the conference.
“We didn’t hit them over the head with it — but just built it into the images we were asking them to capture,” Watson says. “We also were able to tease upcoming elements of the event based on the 10 things we had asked them to find during the event and post on Instagram. Gamification has been around but now it’s a matter of utilizing social media for it.”
As part of the gamification process, planners can keep track of statistics, including how many played the game or how many images were posted, how many people downloaded the app, etc. All this data shows different levels of engagement and participation and how effective the experiential design of the event has been.
“Using a mobile app can also create a sense of community among attendees,” Fontana says. “They can share their thoughts in real time on the activity feed as well as through various social media outlets. Plan to launch at least a month before your event to start conversations among attendees and build up excitement to the big day. Post-conference, attendees will also have the app community to continue the conversation.”
Of course, most people attend a meeting or event to connect and learn. The experiential design embedded in social media facilitates both of these goals. Oscar Godwin Osei, meeting planner at EventMates, says social media tools, from a simple event hashtag to a Snapcode, enable attendees to easily connect with other attendees and receive easy-to-share information.
“When programming an event, schedule key content elements to be shared throughout the event,” Osei says. “Infographics, quotes, videos, slides, info bites — information keeps guests engaged and coming back for more. Offer behind-the-scenes footage and recaps of the day, to drive attendee engagement well after the event is complete.”
Osei also adds elements of fun: “Selfie stations continue to draw high participation rates. Include a hashtag sign holder, and you have the built-in ‘share.’ Show the pictures during the breaks and have attendees vote for the best selfie.”
According to Justin Markle, who functions as director of sales and marketing at the Duke Energy Convention Center for venue management company Spectra by Comcast Spectacor, event apps allow for direct networking with those attending the same meeting.
“Most events can create an event-specific hashtag,” Markle says. “Promoting this prior to the event allows for additional networking before attendees arrive. This hashtag can be monitored by attendees, and they can see who else is talking about it, giving them an opportunity to connect beforehand.”
From social media to face-to-face activities, most elements during an event enhance engagement. But planners work to engage attendees before and after the event as well. Watson says the follow-up is important. Is it a postcard after the event? Video slideshow of photos from the event? Or perhaps it involves sharing content on the app or a post-event website, both of which provide the opportunity for guests to continue to engage with the event.
Effective experiential event design ties into impressions and event ROI.
“While ROI is already difficult to measure in events, it’s a key indicator in the results,” Nguyen says. “If attendees are engaged in meetings, it will lead to more conversations, new ideas, problems solved and, ultimately, more business.”
For many corporate events, and definitely the ones that Watson manages, networking is one of the key objectives of the event. This can be between peers (staff who need to work better together) and supplier/vendor (to develop relationships that will continue to benefit after the event).
“In order to deliver better networking and relationship-building, you have to build in engagement opportunities throughout,” Watson says. “We have survey questions that ask the number of new relationships formed during the event. Looking at these numbers shows us if we have been able to deliver on the engagement necessary.”
Creating memorable experiences is a way to help solidify the attendees’ meeting or event experiences long after the event is over. Attendees may not remember all the content from an event, but if they see, do or experience something out of the ordinary, that will stick with them.
“Those cool experiences become associated with your brand and your company,” Fontana says. “This can lead to higher levels of employee engagement. As we move into the future of meetings, I see it becoming more and more interactive. There will be less speaker-to-audience delivery and more two-way interactive conversations. This interactive approach will invite attendees to take a more active role. C&IT