We all know that meetings can achieve potent outcomes by bringing people face-to-face, whether the focus is learning, networking or strategizing. But figuring out how to outdo yourself year after year and meeting after meeting is a topic that keeps planners’ eyes open at every event they attend and bookshelves full of the latest tomes on interactive education techniques.
“Anything that I read about that allows people to be more engaged in the discussion and part of it while getting instant feedback is so important,” says Laurie Kemp, CMP, CMM, director of client events and marketing services at Dallas, Texas-based Essilor of America, a leading manufacturer and wholesale distributor of optical lenses in the United States. “The entire team is always looking to make our events more efficient and more productive.”
In response, a new meeting design trend is slowly making waves due to highly visible — and easily measurable — results, though it takes some time to implement. Based on the larger design thinking trend that crosses numerous industries, experiential meeting design offers planners a method of looking at their meetings and mapping their guest experiences to reliably provide laser-focused results.
When experiential meeting design was first being codified, the time was ripe for planners to have a tool to consistently promote attendee engagement in meetings. According to the 2012 “American Express Spending & Saving Tracker” study, 48 percent of travelers seek more meaningful experiences when they travel.
Prevailing meeting goals once looked more at what the meeting or incentive could accomplish generally or for the company. But today ROI is determined on many more levels. Driving greater value to meet attendees’ individual needs is paramount in justifying the expense and inclusion of each individual.
“Many years ago, at another company, I wanted to measure how a customer event affected call rate,” says Austin, Texas-based Tracey B. Smith, CMP, CMM, curator of education at the Hive Network. “Were people learning enough that they didn’t need to call us for support? But people thought that was too complicated then.”
To help meeting planners better meet increased expectations with limited resources while focusing on providing an outstanding experience for attendees, Maritz Travel developed its experiential meeting design program. “If everyone is delivering high quality, what else is there?” says Greg Bogue, vice president of experience design at Fenton, Missouri-based Maritz Travel Company, who co-presented “Explore Best Principles for Experiential Meeting Design” at PCMA’s Convening Leaders this year. “There aren’t more destinations to take people to.
“Experiential meeting design evolved from a number of things happening in the meeting and travel space,” he continues. “We looked at what we could do from an engagement perspective in areas like neuroscience to create tactics to drive greater engagement. We’re beginning to employ the concept of design thinking where we change a strong view of the guest experience and get clients to think in terms of what their guests would want. What we’ve done is we’ve really begun to put together a very clear methodology we put our clients through.
“My specific history is in corporate marketing, and I’ve been in the creative business for years, blending a number of disciplines and an intense focus on people,” Bogue explains. “I have a passion for engaging peoples’ emotions, but from a business perspective, we usually focus on taking peoples’ emotions out of businesses, but that’s not how you elevate the experiences guests have.”
Experiential meeting design evolved from design thinking, also known as human-centered design, because it is a type of design that puts people, and individual needs specifically, first. In neuroscience, it is called perspective-centered design, because the diverse viewpoints of each individual inform how they experience the world. As a result, experiential meeting design both engages guests in inherently personal ways and evolves over time.
The practice revolves heavily around management and meeting staff exploring the perspectives of other participants in their meetings and events. “Perspective-taking is putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, but that means you have to take your own shoes off first,” says Bogue.
“Sometimes I think we overthink things, or we do it over and over the same way without breaking it down to basics, without saying what do we want to communicate and how do we make sure attendees are engaged and part of the overall outcome,” says Kemp. “I was with the same company for 13 years, and I came here a year ago, and we have new leadership over our sales team and we’re saying, ‘Okay, let’s brainstorm: how do we do this?’
“To put yourself in the shoes of the guest, you have to remove the lens that you look through and look at it through their eyes.” — Greg Bogue
“To put yourself in the shoes of the guest, you have to remove the lens that you look through and look at it through their eyes,” Bogue says. “When I ask people, ‘When was the last time you registered for your event like a guest who had to register?’ they have no clue what that experience is like. You have to walk their journey to understand their journey.” This “taking off your own shoes” is the first — and often most eye-opening — step in the experiential meeting design process.
One of the key ways experiential meeting design differs from other approaches is that it starts long before the meeting and also continues after it ends. Most events follow a natural course from initial conversations to post-event paperwork and survey reviews, but experiential meeting design incorporates several additional steps into their guest and host journey.
Starbucks, a fan favorite the world over, has mapped its guest experience into five stages: anticipate, enter, engage, exit and reflect. Experiential meeting design takes things further with an eight-stage guest roadmap that includes every interaction stage attendees have with meetings and events: announcing, attracting, anticipating, arriving, entering, engaging, exiting and extending.
As part of the experiential meeting design process, planners and other stakeholders decide how they want the guest to experience each stage. For instance, rather than planning how to disperse the initial announcement about a meeting or event, experiential meeting design encourages planners to begin by thinking of how they want their future attendees to experience the announcement.
However, the road to creating this attendee roadmap begins much earlier and more simply, with an exercise Bogue calls “one word.” “In a lab-type environment in the sessions we do, we try to get a broad group of stakeholders, including the business owner, event planning team, a marketing person or two and someone involved in content, and we challenge them to define their program in a single word,” he explains.
“To get a group to distill their program down to a single word is kind of fun, and once they get there, we guide them to the idea that this is their design standard,” Bogue continues. “If they are doing things that don’t line up with that, we say, ‘Stop it! Don’t do that!’ Our event blueprint methodology allows you to dive in and understand an organization’s purpose, values and brand, because every event experience is an expression of your brand and purpose.”
As a result, the process can be time-consuming to implement the first time around. “You can get through it in minutes if you’ve done it before, but it took us a while to first get through,” says Smith. “Then we said, ‘Oh, I see how to do this.’ It’s about formalizing how you think about it in the first place.”
Dana Weaver, CIS, senior manager of marketing services at Bloomington, Illinois-based Growmark Inc., a regional cooperative providing agronomy, energy, facility planning and logistics products and services, as well as grain marketing and risk management services in more than 40 states and Ontario, Canada, has applied some stages of experiential design to his meetings, but has yet to do the process for an entire meeting. “I sit on the client advisory board with Maritz, and Greg (Bogue) made a presentation to the board and it intrigued me,” he explains. “It was a perfect fit, and it seemed like we were missing an enormous opportunity to make meetings more meaningful, memorable and fruitful.
“Within the last year, we’ve started talking about the eight phases,” Weaver says. “We incorporated a phase or two in a meeting last year, and it resonated with me that we haven’t moved much since we began, so we’re going to really put some flesh on the bones this year. It’s time we quit saying what we want to do and actually do it.”
For his January program, a high-end sales and marketing meeting that has run every year since 1992, Weaver is focusing on improving the arrival section of his guest roadmap. “They just had a long day of travel, and we were just trying to get them off to the rooms before, but now we’re trying to make it so that as soon as they arrive, it’s not that we’re wearing them out any more, but we really want to energize them and make them see it’s going to be a great event.
“In Hawaii for 2015, we want to move beyond the lei experience as they get off the bus or the pineapple drink when they get to the hotel, and come up with the magic ingredient. When they arrive, how can we make it something they’ve never experienced before? Something unusual but pleasant. And how can we make it something they’re going to be talking about for months?
“During January, when they’re attending, they’re four months into their current year, so while we’ve got them there, we have a prime opportunity not only to bait the hook but to reel it in to say, ‘Wouldn’t you love to be a part of this next year?’ and send them home thinking: I have eight more months, and I want to be back here next year.”
While experiential meeting design is ostensibly focused on the guest experience, many planners and companies have experienced positive side effects for their own internal management.
“Eight weeks ago I was working with one of our clients, and the executive who owned the sales meetings was skeptical at first that this was going to be a worthwhile experience when we started on the first day on the unifying design principle,” says Bogue. “But he came up on the second day and said, ‘I really believe now that we have a process we can go through to create better meetings. I feel like I could stand up in front of the senior executives and say we now have a method for creating events.’
“At the end of the first day, it feels like hard work, and as we walk them through a process that drives communication, there’s an aha moment when they settle on a word that is a great experience,” he continues. “With one group, we took the whole idea of exiting and how we can make that happen in a way that is more profound, and what came out of it was so simple.
“We had the executive come to the airport, stand in front of the bus, and say thank you to each attendee individually before they left,” he says. “It’s profound. People did not expect it. They expect the executive sneaking out in the sedan late the night before, not sneaking ahead to the airport to wait for the guests.” Experiences like this heighten attendee experience, but also touch upper management through the power their gesture has on attendees.”
The process of walking through the guest experience can be both one of the biggest game-changers and one of the best bonding experiences for event staff and management, according to Smith. “We struggled on what the stakeholder responses were or their issues were, and we started negotiating with each other,” says Smith. “It was kind of funny to say it could be this and it could be that, and it took us longer because we were doing that.
“If you’re working with a team, whether a department or a committee, you have to consider their thoughts, and it can slow you down, but once you come to consensus, the result is stronger,” Smith continues. “I tend to do things by myself, but when other people share their ideas, I often think, ‘Oh yeah, I could consider that.’ Some people had ideas I hadn’t thought of. It’s absolutely valuable to have a fresh set of eyes,” she says.
Smith also found that getting more people involved in the planning process has created extra buy-in from internal stakeholders. “It’s like fantasy football. You pick from what’s available to put together your team, and it creates a sense of ownership in what’s happening. In the modern world of peer-to-peer connections, whether at a staff meeting or conference, that sense of ownership gives another perspective.”
While Bogue walks through an extensive program over a number of sessions with his clients, you can easily implement many experiential meeting principles and techniques on your own in the time frame that fits best for your group.
Weaver found working through parts of the program in bits and pieces more digestible for his group. “What worked for me and might for others is to do it in bite-sized chunks. Get one or two areas you need to beef up. One thing we have done is the exit, because that’s the last thing they’re going to remember as they leave this great destination and program. The first year, pick one or two you want to focus on, and it becomes easier to incorporate into other parts of the guest experience.
“During the engagement stage, to get them more engaged during the awards, rather than have a gift sent to the room after the ceremony, they went to another area of the resort where they could choose from things like a laptop to Bose stereo systems to 42-inch TVs to sunglasses. Then, rather than have them have to haul it back home, we had it simply shipped to their house, so their gift was waiting for them when they returned home. Otherwise, when you give gifts, maybe they liked it and maybe they didn’t. It’s not as motivating.”
For this first time, Smith is experimenting this year with mapping her guest experience not through each of the eight experiential meeting design stages, but from a simplified approach for each kind of stakeholder in which you map what behavior they have before, what you want them to have after, and how you make changes to get there.
“It makes you walk through what is happening for host and the attendee,” she says. “What you get from that is a roadmap for measuring the return on investment. You’re looking at your cost as well as revenue, or if you don’t have revenue, how the business will be affected by behaviors. It’s a good way to set up ROI measurement because it’s not always measured in values and cents. It’s more how they feel and how you change their behavior.”
Kemp has used pre-event surveys to better understand where their attendees are coming from and seamlessly tailor the engagement portion of the guest journey to their needs. “When we did our national sales meeting last year, we did a survey ahead of time, because we’ve been B2B and we’re moving B2C so we focused training on our brands to our sales team,” she says. “You can have the same group and the same presentation and some people will always say it was too technical and others will think it wasn’t technical enough, so we surveyed them ahead of time asking questions about our brands.
“We assigned them to breakouts based on the results on the survey, and they didn’t necessarily know how they were divided, but they were all able to get more out of the group,” she explains. “We have advanced individuals together, and groups that weren’t as familiar on the products do a deeper dive.” As her initial group of sales staff was nearly 500 strong, breaking that group into four groups of 125–150 people each allowed each group to zero in on its members’ knowledge base.
For now, experiential meeting design is a buzzword. But its goal — heightening attendee engagement and providing better and more measurable ROI — is clearly in line with what planners need and want, so it’s unlikely to stay just a buzzword for too long. With foundations in psychology and neuroscience, it’s likely to move quickly from the hot new thing to a standard strategic meeting management practice. C&IT