Every meeting is special, but sometimes, you just have to “wow” an audience, especially when you’re trying to set yourself apart in the insurance and financial sectors.
There are occasions when planners have to help a company or organization go above and beyond and create a meeting that will razzle, dazzle and amaze participants. In these instances, a typical or even very good event, isn’t enough.
Allison Sargent, the founder and CEO of Allison Sargent Events, based in Montclair, NJ, says the types of events that require a “wow” factor include the launch of a new line or concept, especially when expectations for this endeavor are extraordinary.
“If the food and beverage are too elaborate then this could result in investors questioning where their assets are being allocated. It is important to find a good balance and know your audience.” Samantha Flowers
“We always guide and encourage our clients to present themselves at their very best — with unique and different ideas,” Sargent says. “There’s no replacement for making the best first impression, as it often is what can help put a brand or product on the map.”
Sargent adds that one of the keys to a “wow” event is leaving guests with a lasting impression, one that they will remember long after the meeting ends.
“Sometimes this is just as simple as looking at the elements of the event that are existing and changing up everyday elements to be unexpected,” she says. “Many times, this can be done by changing up the way the room is laid out, the way food is displayed, incorporating unexpected elements or customizing elements that aren’t typically customized.”
She noted an example of a meeting her company hosted that substituted standard place cards with “flight attendants” who provided each guest with a “boarding pass” that indicated where they were seated.
Vivian Perez, CMP, marketing director for La Bonne Cuisine Catering and Events, says guest participation is a sure ticket to a fun and memorable meeting — especially for those in the insurance and financial fields.
“Thinking about attendee participation in every aspect of an event is important,” she says. “In an age where we are competing with screens at their disposal all the time, the best way to hold their attention and keep them engaged is to give attendees the opportunity to be active participants. Also, don’t look at an event as something that starts on the live event date. The event actually starts with the invitation, and there are even opportunities at that point to ‘wow’ and get guests excited about the meeting or event.”
Sargent noted several factors that can add that extra something to all aspects of a meeting, including creating a first impression with a unique invitation box.
She also noted the importance of lighting.
“Lighting is always underestimated, but has a huge impact,” she says. “Now there is light mapping which can project video and branding.”
She also suggested a menu created with calligraphy by hand instead of the typical place card.
One of the most important elements of an amazing meeting is food, not just in terms of quality but presentation as well. The foodie and organic crazes has made a lot of people more knowledgeable about food and more particular about what they eat.
“More than ever, food and beverage at an event has become experiential and where presentation is critical,” Sargent says. “A huge percentage of our guests are photographing every element of an event that they attend — especially food and beverage — creating a great opportunity for our clients to market or brand an event using food displays, branded food or parting gifts that are an edible. The same is true for bars — we believe in custom created bars, service in specialty glassware and signage, down to the dress of the server.”
Samantha Flowers, meeting and event manager for Special D Events, based in Detroit, MI, says food and beverages are vital, not only because they can impress attendees, but because they also serve an important practical purpose.
“If the meeting is held during lunchtime and there are not enough offerings, the attendees may be distracted by hunger and, therefore, not focusing on your content,” she says. “Or, if the food and beverage are too elaborate then this could result in investors questioning where their assets are being allocated. It is important to find a good balance and know your audience.” She also says food offers an opportunity to impress participants by catering to their needs and requests.
“Asking for your attendees’ dietary restrictions during registration and ensuring that vegetarians, those with celiac disease, and kosher attendees have menu items to select from is very important,” Flowers says. “Often these items are not included and can leave attendees walking away disappointed or leaving early.”
Perez noted a meeting La Bonne planned for Google administrative assistance that showcased chocolate in all dishes, even the savory ones.
“We had two interactive stations — make your own terrarium and paint a cookie,” she says. “The goal of the event was for their administrative assistants to bond outside of work, since it’s such a big company and administrative assistants may not get to know each other otherwise, and yet they can help each other so much.”
Planning a “wow” meeting means creating the right situation for each client. Planners warn that there is a risk is going too far or over the top.
“This is where an experienced event professional comes in to help guide and make those determinations,” Sargent says. “Always keep in mind the purpose of the event and simply use ‘wow’ factors to elevate your purpose and work in your favor. You have to know the right mix of great elements, making sure that the first and last impressions are exceptional. If the brand message is confused with too many activities or musical elements, or the venue is too broad with too much going on, the attendees will likely feel overwhelmed and thus won’t leave with a clear marketing impression.”
Flowers warns against creating a scene that is so amazing that it distracts from the occasion’s purpose.
“It is important to keep the goal of the meeting, the company’s brand and the content in mind,” she says. “This can get lost when determining a ‘wow’ factor. Starting with a focus on the goals, brand and key messages will allow the planner to build on these items and create an amazing experience. Enhancements can be added as the planning continues, and this sequence will ensure they are aligned with the event.”
Putting on a “wow” meeting sounds expensive, but with a little planning and smart thinking, you can find ways to add amazing elements to events without busting the budget.
“It often does have an impact and helps, but it doesn’t have to break the budget,” Sargent says of money and cost. “Of course, a fireworks display, or celebrity appearance can be costly. Look internally for relationships to reach celebrity or special guests that might be willing to be a part of the event with a discounted cost. However — it is true that you get what you pay for.”
Brent Turner, senior vice president, business solutions for Opus, says that across all events and meetings types, there is always an opportunity to deliver “wow” moments.
“To make an event score high with attendees, we have found that we only need a few well-planned and designed ‘wow’ moments,” Turner says. “It is usually easy to create a list of potential ‘wows’ — great bands, interesting food, amazing keynoters, unique activations. The challenge is in selecting, planning and designing the ‘wows’ that have the most chance at succeeding.”
Perez says that while budget is going to have an effect on a meeting’s “wow” quotient, creativity can go a long way.
“The key is understanding who your guests are and what their needs are in order to cater to them,” she says. “Another thing that may seem obvious but sometimes gets lost when planning events is keeping in mind what is the end result we want? What is the purpose of anything we do? Sometimes we want to ‘wow’ for the sake of ‘wow,’ but is it adding anything to the event’s goal?”
She suggests affordable steps such as including a surprise or a fun, interactive food station. “One tip is to ask your venue what events are happening before and after yours and see if you can connect with the other planner to see if you can share costs of things like decor and A/V,” Perez says. “Another would be instead of having a sit-down lunch or dinner, have food action stations where guests can have some fun with the food, as well as having the opportunity to keep conversations going.”
Turner says that in creating “wow” meetings for those in the financial industry, a company might use a “moment matrix,” the first part of which is built around moments that will have impact and also create lasting memories.
“As seen in studies of the Disney World effect and in the best-selling book “The Power of Moments,” we have identified five core memory-driving moments within an experience: arrivals, transitions, elevation, script flipping, and departures,” Turner says.
The second part of this matrix is built around the three core reasons that people attend events — content, networking, and experience.
“Inside this matrix, the full event teams can workshop new ideas of all shapes and sizes,” Turner says. “Should we give attendees something personalized at registration? Do we change the general session to an unexpected format? What can we do during a break that drives networking differently? What speakers will have unique scoops of perception that will blow the minds of our audience?”
One highly recommended step that can help create an outstanding meeting is some sort of show or performance.
“We love live entertainment,” Sargent says. “It completely engages the guest from the moment they arrive and makes a great first impression. It helps to create the right atmosphere and elevates the quality of the event. There are so many directions you can go with now for live entertainment, which is determined off the type of event and the atmosphere you want to create — ranging from a large dance band to a solo electric violinist or pianist.”
Flowers says to make sure the entertainment fits the occasion.
“Entertainment needs to be selected based on the goal of the event,” she says. “For networking, a live band could be distracting or too loud and result in conversations not occurring. Other live entertainment could be the perfect fit to break the ice among participants. In this situation, a strolling mentalist may be a better option. However, if you are planning a client-appreciation event or company anniversary, a band might be ideal to provide the energy you are looking for during the celebration. Activities such as sporting events or local attractions can also be a form of entertainment and provide unique experiences for your participants.”
Turner cautions that entertainment can bring people together, or drive them apart.
“The band your CEO likes? Half of the room may not like,” he says. “The dance troop that amps-up a crowd may be seen as a wasted expense for some people.”
He adds that the best entertainment fits into the moments matrix.
“A beautiful string quartet playing music during registration makes the lines more soothing,” Turner says. “A magician or powerful stage performer that brings the audience into their act makes the general session unexpected. A band that plays known songs and has a great story makes attendees stay and connect, even when the songs are not to their preference.”
Entertainment doesn’t have to mean performers sharing their talents before an audience, some organizations will want their attendees to participate in an activity together.
“There are two sides to the ‘wow’ coin,” says John Smyth, director of sales for Puzzle Break. “First, participants must have fun. No brainer, right? In practice, this is only half the battle. The crucial other side of the coin is to ensure participant buy-in. Absent this, the most fun/wonderful/compelling/fantastic event in the world will fail to ‘wow.’”
Puzzle Break, which bills itself as America’s first escape room company, can bring portable team-building activities to events that can be played by groups as small as 10 and as large as 2,000.
Smyth says the company has worked with meeting planners and venues on corporate events that want team building, or an activity that can offer a respite or serve as an ice breaker that helps people engage with each other.
He adds that the company can create experiences that are tailored to specific companies or organizations.
“Puzzle Break has a wealth of experience and design resources to craft exactly what works best for any particular company or event,” Smyth says. “Interestingly, the most requested custom component is the competitive element of the experience. Some companies want a cutthroat competitive experience that pits teams against each other. Others want a completely relaxed experience that allows each team to enjoy the activity at their desired pace. If our offerings weren’t flexible, Puzzle Break would have a very hard time satisfying the wide variety of events we service.”
He adds that Puzzle Break provides a vital component to amazing meetings.
“This is impossible to overstate,” he says. “There is no such thing as an amazing event without an amazing activity.”
Flowers shared her experience planning a summit for five consecutive years that received praise from participants.
Success started with the determination of the event’s goals, anticipating attendee count and meeting space, and allowing for proper research and selection of a site location.
“This ensured I had a venue that fit the overall needs prior to being locked into a contract,” Flowers says. “Also, I changed the venue every year to expose the attendees to different areas in the community. I even transformed raw spaces for the event, and this was always a ‘wow’ factor to attendees.”
The meeting used multiple rooms for change in environment between sessions, which created a seamless experience for guests, who didn’t see setup, tear-down, or backstage preparation.
“The general session was often held in an auditorium or theater-style seating,” Flowers says. “The networking session would be in a more open space, allowing for more room and conversation.”
Meanwhile, the networking space was the place for food, beverages and exhibitors, who were mixed in with the participants not in booths, signage and décor.
“Overhead was a custom chalet, like the one the sponsors in attendance would be utilizing at an upcoming sporting event,” Flowers said. “Bringing items to life is another way to create an amazing experience.”
These events also often included activities, with Flowers citing the most successful one as an electric kart race, with vehicles capable of reaching 40 mph without any fumes and minimal noise. It has helped that the facility was geared toward corporate events and was the perfect setting for safe racing.
Branding was an important part of this series of events, including a vehicle display that fit the company’s brand at valet.
“This event spread the company’s brand from the presentation to a final touch point at valet,” Flowers says. “The networking reception included continued learning within the décor. The company’s goals and the participant experience were tied together and considered with every detail — creating a ‘wow’ factor within the event itself.”
And surely when people left that event, they all thought to themselves, “Wow!” I&FMM.