Are You Upping Your Game to Boost Attendee Engagement?August 1, 2017

Planners Make the Shift From ‘Memorable’ to ‘Return on Experience’ By
August 1, 2017

Are You Upping Your Game to Boost Attendee Engagement?

Planners Make the Shift From ‘Memorable’ to ‘Return on Experience’
The 2017 South by Southwest (SXSW) Conference & Festivals, pictured on these pages, served as a learning lab on mega events for planners taking part in MPI’s Experiential Event Series. Planner participants are shown in the inset photo on the opposite page. Credit: Danny Matson/SXSW

The 2017 South by Southwest (SXSW) Conference & Festivals (pictured here) served as a learning lab on mega events for planners taking part in MPI’s Experiential Event Series. Credit: Danny Matson/SXSW

While the phrase “memorable meeting” is surely cliché, it still denotes a goal that most planners have. Meetings must leave a lasting, positive impression on attendees, and that is best achieved when great content is combined with a hospitality experience that is both high quality and distinctive.

A planner may not be involved in the content, but the design of the surrounding event is certainly his or her province. And what has evolved is the way those elements are made memorable: The approach is now more strategic, carefully taking into account desired outcomes, attendee demographics, corporate brand and more.

So it’s no longer as simple as booking a popular band or city tour; these add-ons may help attendees remember the meeting a year later, but they won’t necessarily engage attendees with the host company’s goals and identity. Hence the terminological shift from “memorable” to “engaging.” It’s the latter kind of experience that planners want to create today, specifically because it will lead to a better return (i.e., “return on experience”).

Fortunately, trade associations have been providing education that supports planners in their quest for ROE. For example, MPI’s three-day Event Design Certificate (EDC) course includes an EventCanvas, a visual tool that helps a planner develop an event by considering its “promise, how it helps stakeholders to get their jobs done, resolving pains and creating gains within a set framework of commitment and expected return.” A related tool is the EmpathyMap, which maps out what each type of participant should come away from the event knowing, doing and feeling.

Experiential Event Series

Renowned festivals, political conventions, sporting events and trade shows also can educate on impactful event design, and MPI has capitalized on this resource for the benefit of its members. The MPI Experiential Event Series, launched two years ago, offers participants an immersive experience at these events to learn not only their design, but also their execution in terms of crisis management, marketing strategy and other aspects. This year’s lineup includes South by Southwest (SXSW) Conference & Festivals, the Royal Caribbean Experience, C2 Montreal and the Indianapolis 500, with the Venice International Film Festival upcoming in September and the Hawaii Food and Wine Festival in November.

“We started with a wish list of which events really meet the criteria of what this brand is: high-profile events that our members wouldn’t normally have behind-the scenes access to, and that would give them good learning opportunities,” explains Matthew Marcial, V.P., Education & Events, MPI. “The first event we did was the Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City. We also did the Consumer Electronics Show and South by Southwest (SXSW) that inaugural year. SXSW is the only one that we’ve repeated thus far because it’s been so popular.”

The events in the series fall into four categories: entertainment events, culinary events, sporting events and “mega events” such as SXSW and the Democratic National Convention. “We’ve found that many of the planners will find segments they have a special interest in learning more about,” says Marcial. “So the certificate program that we (tie) to each event tailors very specific education to each of those areas.”

For example, the C2 Montreal program this past May conferred participants the EDC, the Indianapolis 500 program conferred the MPI Sports Event Management Certificate, and the Venice International Film Festival will confer the MPI Festival Production Certificate with Entertainment Focus. Participants are able to meet with specific individuals from different areas of event production for Q&As; network among an intimate group of 30 or so other participants; and venture out and experience the event for themselves, Marcial adds. “We always build in time so they can explore the event on their own from an attendee perspective.”

Interestingly, the series has drawn a lot of interest from senior-level corporate planners, “who have kind of stepped away from traditional education,” says Marcial. “They have found a lot more value in this type of learning than they have in programs they previously participated in. We’ve seen a lot of repeat participation as well from those senior planners. We have several folks who’ve been to more than a couple of the experiential events, and a couple who have been to four or five.”

Lennox Roadshow

Indeed, the value of learning how these highly successful events deliver ROE for attendees can’t be overestimated. Most of them are not corporate meetings, but their organizers do face the same challenge of creating a compelling experience every year. Similarly, the planning team at Richardson, Texas-based Lennox Industries Inc. is tasked with delivering an engaging Lennox Roadshow annually.

One year, for example, the team created a “Lennoxpalooza” with a rock ‘n’ roll theme. “We do change it up every year with some type of theme pertinent to what’s happening that particular year, and they just get better and better every year,” says Cecilia Daddio, CMP, senior manager, events and incentives.

Echoing MPI’s idea, she explains that Lennox has found value in sending their own staff to SXSW to obtain ideas. “We do utilize SXSW as a source of education. At last year’s SXSW, we took a lead on how we can enhance our trade show aspect of the Roadshow by giving mic time to our sponsors or vendors on the trade show floor, instead of just thanking them. So we’re going to incorporate that this year.”

Local festivals and events are also a touchstone for the planning team. “On a local basis we go to food festivals and wine-tasting festivals — we take in as many of the local ones as we can. We partner closely with the CVB of the city we’re going to, and they notify us of any upcoming events that might be a learning situation,” Daddio adds.

Creating Buzz

Most companies that stage meetings have at least one event where experiential design is especially important, and Peoria, Illinois-based Caterpillar Inc. has several: its exhibitions at ConExpo and MINExpo, as well as its dealer meetings.

“Those are the events where we really need to create that buzz and that excitement for our attendees. For our dealer meetings in particular, we pay attention to more enhancements than we would for just a normal conference,” explains Angela Baer, CMP, corporate meeting planner at the company. While she has not yet been able to participate in the MPI Experiential Event Series, Baer says she “would have loved” to take advantage of the Indy 500 program. “I am personally interested in upping my game.”

Like all great sporting events that include musical entertainment, the Indy 500 knows its audience. Last May’s installment offered top-tier mainstream country, with Keith Urban and Dustin Lynch performing at the Firestone Legends Day Concert on the day before the race. A variety of up-and-coming acts representing hip-hop, EDM and other genres took the stage at the SnakePit on the first day.

Similarly, Baer knows her audience well when it comes to selecting musical acts that will resonate with them. “For MINExpo we had Sara Evans and the Doobie Brothers, because our main audience for that was (middle-aged) mining guys and their wives. So that type of music hit the country and hit the rock. And everybody loved it; our CEO really loved it. Having done this a while, I know what will fly and what won’t.”

She also knows how to exercise a certain restraint in regards to another common approach to engagement: interactivity. Overall, meeting attendees do want more interaction with presenters as well as entertainment that is hands-on and immersive, such as the Brooklyn Bowl event Caterpillar hosted for its attendees at MINExpo in Las Vegas.

“That went over very well; we’re definitely doing it again. But I think that if you offer too much (interactive entertainment) it can be overwhelming, at least for our audience,” she notes. “You’ve got machine testing and then you’ve got demos and then parties, and then you’re doing something at a racetrack…so I try to strive for something in-between driving a stock car and a boring cocktail reception.”

The takeaway is that planners should not be seduced by a trendy form of entertainment without first considering that activity in the context of everything else their guests will be doing throughout the event.

Corporate Social Responsibility

Some trends are worth following, however, even if it means readjusting a meeting schedule.

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities are increasingly part of annual sales meetings, incentive programs and other types of corporate events for several reasons: They are intrinsically worthwhile, they are important to the image of the host company, and they engage today’s attendee with the company and its values, perhaps more so than entertainment or teambuilding that lacks a CSR dimension.

“The biggest (factor) I would say truthfully to get customers engaged in any program is the giving back,” Daddio asserts. Toward that end, “we really have minimized the onstage time (at our meetings). Instead of going 20 minutes long we may go 15, but when you have five or six (presentations), that saves you 30-45 minutes to be able to do some type of (charity) event, such as building bicycles.”

So in lieu of holding the CSR event pre or post meeting, Lennox programs now blend that activity with the main program. “We started it last year and will keep it up because we’ve gotten rave reviews on our surveys,” she adds.

Setting the Bar

Once a planner succeeds in creating an engaging experience around a meeting’s content, the bar for the quality of the experience is set at a certain level. And some planners feel it is expected that the next installment of that meeting will raise the bar even higher. This expectation may be misguided, however: An even more engaging experience would be great, but all that is really needed is one that is just as engaging.

“I don’t know if I would say we need to ‘top’ last year,” says Baer. Rather, “we need to give the same ‘level’ that we have in previous years. And for some of my meetings we do have to be a little careful because we don’t want to have a dealer meeting one year that is totally over the top, and then the next one where they’re expecting that (level) and we don’t do that. So if we do bring in a top-tier band, how are we going to be able to do that next year and the year after?”

Of course, maintaining the same quality of experience doesn’t preclude variety. The meeting may not offer “something better,” but should offer “something just as good, but different” in order to continue to spark interest. That is the traditional thinking behind incentive program design.

Last year, Lennox took its 600-attendee incentive trip to a very unusual reward destination: Berlin.

“It was about trying to get (qualifiers) excited about Berlin when their thoughts may only be the (historical) negatives of the city. But it’s a new generation and they’ve rebuilt the city, so we definitely wanted to encompass that flavor,” Daddio relates.

Toward showcasing the new Berlin, Daddio’s team arranged a creative activity for participants where they individually painted canvases to express themselves and their surroundings at each stop on a bus tour. Then during an evening festival in the traditional Berlin style, their work was unexpectedly displayed.

“With them creating that artwork and then displaying it as if they were at a gallery, it was just a phenomenal ending to that event,” says Daddio. And the post-event survey replies bore out the quality of the experience and the site choice, e.g.: “I never would have gone there on my own, I’m so glad I did.”

SMMP’s Big-Picture Focus on Experiential

Participant experience is clearly critical to the overall ROI of an incentive trip, as that experience motivates attendees’ future attempts to qualify. But the experiential aspect for many other types of meetings is also being increasingly recognized as important to ROI, as it furthers engagement in a way that mere content delivery cannot. Based on that rationale, Global Business Travel Association has added “Participant Experience” to its SMM Wheel, along with more familiar elements of strategic meetings management such as Sourcing & Procurement and Data Analysis & Reporting.

Although it may not be obvious, a strategic meetings management program (SMMP) can support the success of meetings from an experiential standpoint. There is a tendency to focus on creating an engaging experience at the individual meeting, but an SMMP focuses on the big picture: Are all of a company’s mission-critical meetings living up to certain standards, including the quality of the participant experience? “Companies worry about the experiential (aspect) for the one-off meeting, but an SMMP looks at ensuring the mission-critical ones have it and that they all connect to the greater company strategy,” explains Victoria Johnson, CMP, CMM, global manager, strategic meetings management program, global meetings and events for Northbrook, Illinois-based Underwriters Laboratories LLC. Under a mature SMMP, not only will the experiential quality of a given meeting be sustained every year, but likewise for all other significant meetings, and especially any customer-facing programs.

Three Steps to Consistency

Johnson maintains there are three aspects to achieving that consistency across meetings: “The first piece that all of your meetings look and feel the same. The second piece is, are they brand consistent? For example, if a company is trying to say we’re a thought leader in technology, and they’re not using a meeting app, that’s incongruent with who they say they are. And the third piece is how you are designing the meetings,” which includes gearing experiences toward desired outcomes for participants. And part of the protocols under an SMMP would be a careful assessment of those outcomes by anyone charged with planning a mission-critical meeting. For instance, instead of simply booking a band for the final-night event because the budget can accommodate it, “start from, what are we trying to accomplish? Why are we getting a big band? Do we want to reward the attendees?” says Johnson.

In addition, the records on past meetings spend and vendor usage maintained under an SMMP can assist planners in creating an engaging experience cost-effectively. That information allows one to channel spend when possible to preferred vendors not only in lodging and transportation, but also in AV, décor, entertainment, etc., in order to obtain leverage on pricing.

The Freedom to ‘Go for It’

When a meeting achieves ROE while respecting the cost-control priorities of procurement, the planning team ends up looking good in the eyes of upper management. As a result, planners often become more trusted in their area of expertise, and given more free rein to exercise their creativity for future events.

Daddio, who has planned meetings at Lennox for 17 years, recalls that “everything was so structured when I first started. As far as décor it was always the same, the starched linens with the flower centerpiece, and the meals were typically chicken. Now it’s more freestyle. It’s no longer, ‘let’s sit down and discuss blow by blow what this agenda is going to entail.’ You get more, ‘I trust you, go for it. I can’t wait to experience it myself.’ ”   C&IT

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