How to Run Events That Ultimately Impact AttendeesAugust 15, 2019

Creating Engaging Experiences By
August 15, 2019

How to Run Events That Ultimately Impact Attendees

Creating Engaging Experiences

It seems life is moving at a faster pace than ever before with high tech and big data all the rage. This often translates into meetings aimed at the financial and insurance industries playing into these 21st century ideals, though that can impact the type of meeting that is held.

While attendees might be temporarily impressed with the in-the-face, popular-now ideas and tech involved in a meeting, many of those memories are fleeting and are soon forgotten. That’s why small, purposeful changes or decisions can help a meeting planner make sure a meeting or event has impact, delivers on the goals of what it is set out to accomplish and leaves a lasting impression on attendees and other stakeholders.

Paget Kirkland, owner of Kirkland Event & Destination Services, based in Lake Worth, Florida, finds that the most memorable experiences not only visually dazzle the guests, but they engage one on an emotional level.

“Interactive events or tangible aspects throughout are moments that tend to leave a lasting impression,” she says. “Capturing attendees’ attention is one thing — continuing the momentum of the experience long after it has ended is what makes the difference. This momentum can be created through a series of events with one leading into the other and the reinforcement of a relatable theme throughout. The most preferable is an event which touches the heart.”

Darci M. Motta, CMP, CITE, senior conference manager for CSAA Insurance Group, a AAA insurer in Walnut Creek, California, says at a basic level, meeting planners need to create environments that are inclusive and create a sense of belonging before any meaningful engagement can exist. If attendees feel like they belong and it’s a safe environment, engagement is much more comfortable and real.

“We strive to remove barriers, which can be as simple as transitioning crescent rounds from large banquet rounds to cocktail size tables, and provide tools for fun and easy interaction,” she says. “Smartphone-based engagement tools for easy questions, polls and topic ranking and tossable Q&A microphones can help make a space more intimate and dynamic.”

She also thinks engagement is memorable when it’s authentic and creates an “ah-ha” moment for attendees; though that doesn’t have to be elaborate or expensive.

“A few years ago, we were looking for an activity that reinforced the interconnectivity of our organizational goals,” she explains. “While attendees were at lunch we flipped the general session room, transitioning it to a large circle of chairs. One of our leaders then held a large ball of yarn and started the activity by calling out how her goals were connected to another leader in a different division, and then threw the ball of yarn across the room to that person. This went on until the room was a web of interconnectivity. Low cost and low tech, it was an activity that many referenced and then duplicated within their own workgroups.”

Carly Silberstein, DES, CED, co-owner and CEO of Redstone Agency Inc., an event and association management company in Toronto, Ontario, notes to truly create a memorable experience, it’s important to do things differently, whether that be introducing a new format (round table/fireside chat versus plenary session) or doing something unexpected (such as a yoga stretch between sessions).

“Gone are the days when the speaker can just speak to the audience,” she says. “Get the audience involved by asking questions, using live polling or other engagement platforms. Ask audience members to stand or sit, or speak to their neighbor. Very simple things can make the world of difference.”

Cori Dossett, CEM, CMP, president of Conferences Designed in Dallas, Texas, says while she can’t stress enough how important it is to know the group, knowing some history of the meeting and what they have done can be just as vital for creating an engaging experience. Are there golfers? Are there families with young children? Is there a common unique need or other situation in which the planner needs to be aware?

“In addition, you can take advantage of the city you are in and incorporate it into your meeting,” she says. “A few years ago, I planned and executed a meeting for 3,000 during the Texas State Fair in Dallas. The opening reception had an old-time theme with little cost in decorating a hotel ballroom, and the closing party was at the actual fair. And this was an adults-only group, and they loved it.”

Not that it’s just about the parties. Dossett explains incorporating unique experiences into the education breaks up the monotony of a meeting.

“Ditch the Powerpoint and have a session outside,” she says. “Combine a keynote lecture with something fun.”

Karen Fiorini, owner of Global Planning Source in Aurora, Ontario, says when reviewing the chosen destination for any meeting or experience, a lot of studying and analyzing goes into planning the various events that make-up the trip.

That includes looking at the various tourist attractions that are available and taking it to the next level with the VIP access. She suggests making the experience be something that can only be done as a group, and not as an individual.

An example is an evening dining experience she arranged for meeting attendees in London on the upper walkways of the Tower Bridge also referred to as the “London Bridge,” 140 feet above the River Thames.

“It is the only bridge in the world that has an exhibition inside,” Fiorini says. “Cocktails were enjoyed on the East Walkway of the Bridge, while dinner is served on the West Walkway overlooking the spectacular sight of London as dusk falls and the lights come on. A harpist playing in the background was a perfect musical touch to the evening.”

Shelley Grieshop, creative writer with Totally Promotional, a Coldwater, Ohio company that provides materials for financial and insurance meetings, says often the best way to engage meeting attendees is to get them out of their chairs.

“Give them an experience that is fun and memorable such as playing a game that prompts them to find solutions to common industry problems,” she says. “At the very least, you may get them thinking outside the box and not dozing off in the back row.”

An idea she suggests to her meeting planner clients is tossing stress balls to attendees who must answer a question related to the topic before passing it on.

“To give the meeting planner some exposure, they can place their name and logo on the stress balls and hand them out to attendees to take home,” Grieshop says. “For some extra fun, they can choose ‘character’ stress balls such as our Professional Pete.”

Make a Difference

Many events are remembered for certain things that went on, but meeting planners can go beyond just having attendees “remembering” and create a meeting that has actual meaning to someone.

Silberstein says the best way to do that is through application.

“Provide content and experiences that go beyond the theoretical or hypothetical,” she says. “Having real-world, right-now application value is the key.”

For example, at the Association Management Institute Company Day in conjunction with the Texas Society of Association Executives Ideas 2018 Conference, the sessions were engaging, interactive and intimate. Silberstein explains the session content was real and raw, and because the seating was in an intimate setting that was deemed a safe space, ideas flowed from presenters and from audience members.

April Caldwell, CFO at Jacksonville, Florida-based April Caldwell Inc. and a women’s wealth adviser and money coach, shares that a “real experience” is more than the norm. “Attendees think they know what to expect when attending a financial workshop and to make it engaging you need to do the unexpected,” she says. “Make it interactive, have a Q&A session, bring vulnerability in your speech and use real life stories. People have to be able to see themselves in the examples and stories you give.”

For instance, last year Caldwell talked about life insurance and long-term care at a national meeting.

“As I sat on the stool, because I recently injured my back, I used my example to show how unexpected things happen and how long-term care played a part in what I was going through,” she says. “I showed examples of out-of-pocket expenses and what long-term care would provide in payments. I also showed pictures of my grandparents and told two stories of life insurance and long-term care using them as examples. The room was in tears and it had a profound impact on everyone there.”

It is unpredictable when and where there will be a connection. Whether it is a connection or contact with someone or a tidbit in a talk that changes a life in some way — hearing about it later makes us smile. Dossett notes creating a situation where a person makes some sort of connection with another is wonderful to hear about post-event.

“As a planner, I remember a few events that struck a chord with me,” Dossett says. “I had recently sent a few proposals to a particular hotelier and ran into him at an outdoor reception at an industry event. We got to know each other in a relaxed setting and sat in a session together the next day where I ended up hiring the keynote speaker. The hotelier sent me a note afterward referencing a specific book I mentioned to him and today, 10 years later, he is my go-to hotelier in that city.”

Creating memorable content for a meeting involves many steps, Fiorini says, citing the venue location, guest speakers that are chosen based on content, theme and expectation.

“An example I have is ‘Put Your Dreams in Motion’ — a private mansion setting with a lovely landscaped backyard that was used for many weddings, but it was transformed into a seminar business setting for a half-day learning environment,” she says. “This was followed by a private poolside barbecue lunch finished off with an afternoon ‘You Be the Driver’ of an exotic car.”

Jacob Dayan, CEO, CMO and founder at Chicago-based Community Tax LLC, has been involved in numerous meetings with the CEOs and other business heads of potential strategic partners, and says having an opportunity to meet with individuals of this pedigree is a great experience at a meeting.

“Preparing for these meetings in and of itself, is a great learning experience,” he says. “The knowledge and insights gained from some of the best business minds can be invaluable, especially applied to my own business.”

Every company or organization has its unique purpose or mission. Kirkland shares that when you create something which reinforces that element, you have a home run.

“Community ‘givebacks’ can be incorporated into almost any event,” she says. “This provides a lasting impression on your attendees that your business cares about the different communities it enters and encourages its employees to do so as well. Your guests will feel a sense of pride and camaraderie.”

For instance, in Palm Beach County there are over 45 miles of public beaches. Her company has developed a team-building experience partnering with the local Loggerhead Marinelife Center to have a beach clean-up, museum and Sea Life Hospital Tour as well as a financial contribution to continue protecting endangered sea life.

“Guests love being able to have a day of fun in sun, with friends and co-workers, while also giving back to the environment and even learning about our local Loggerhead Sea Turtles and marine life,” Kirkland says.

Managing the Brain

For a meeting to ultimately impact people’s lives, industry insiders reveal that using the emotional, social and subconscious levels of the brain is something all meeting planners should consider.

Grieshop thinks that when a person is free to express himself or herself in a work atmosphere without critique, they become confident in their skills and knowledge. That confidence and self-esteem can lay the groundwork for solid, happy relationships outside work with family and friends.

Motta understands that with how connected everyone is today, most meeting content and speakers can be found online, and complete keynote presentations are readily available on YouTube, TED Talks and similar sites.

“Attendees come to meetings for personal interaction, direct engagement and face-to-face networking,” she says. “Smart meeting professionals leverage the ‘brain trust’ in the room to enrich their message. Whether by leveraging interactive meeting design elements, creating unique environments, deploying the latest engagement event tech, or a combination of these and other elements, increased and genuine audience engagement is key to program success.”

A meeting planner should never rest on his or her laurels and should constantly try to come up with new ways to bring about these impactful experiences. That could come from asking key questions on surveys, forming an advisory group or leveraging the weight and knowledge of your CVB.

“The worst excuse I constantly hear and see from clients in those who will not consider other avenues of anything, even if it would help their meeting,” Dossett says. “We have way too much to accomplish each day and too much at stake to not embrace and consider various options.” I&FMM.   

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