Today’s meetings and events are barely recognizable to their former selves. While banquet-style soirees with featured speakers and networking social hours are a traditional approach that is well-received, more of today’s events are teeming with technological advancements and interactive opportunities that are simply awe-inspiring.
According to Lee Gimpel, founder of Better Meetings, today’s event design seems to be really rooted in logistics, which certainly makes a lot of sense. How many rooms do you need? How many chairs? “I think — or hope — that event design is evolving to become more human-centered,” Gimpel says. So, for example, an event designer should now be placing more emphasis on the interaction happening around the tables as opposed to what’s being served on top of them.
“Event designers today may be firmly rooted in the physical facilities — we’ll surely continue to hold meetings in hotels and convention centers — but it will be pretty hard to ignore an assumed online or hybrid component going forward,” Gimpel says. “It’s probably not going to be enough to have an event with a single big screen in the largest plenary room to stream a single remote keynote speaker. Instead, the idea of online and hybrid participation will be more pervasive, and events and facilities will need to adapt to that with their technology, processes, services and staffing.”
As the owner/director/meeting planner at Vibe, an event design and destination management company, Valerie Bihet says the digital transformation that the pandemic forced the events industry to undergo has dramatically changed event design. “We were going from in-person to totally digital. We had to look at events from a totally new perspective and redesign everything,” Bihet says. “Also, we now need to think about Instagrammable moments. Social media has had a huge impact on how people are engaging at events and so we need to cater to that in the design.”
Heather Odendaal, co-founder, CEO and event planner at WNORTH and Bluebird Strategy, says everyone is reimagining what a gathering looks like post-COVID as people desire to build new connections now, more than ever. Odendaal is seeing a shift in programming to reflect that — a focus on networking, hands-on workshops and mastermind circles. “There’s still a space for keynotes and learning opportunities at a post-COVID event, but much of the content can also now be delivered in advance as training and professional development aspects are going to take place in a hybrid or virtual setting, whereas in-person will have a stronger emphasis on facilitating a human connection,” Odendaal says.
As an example, as Odendaal worked on redesigning the seventh-annual WNORTH Conference held earlier this year, she increased focus on workshops, outdoor activity, small-circle conversations and networking events. “Over the last 10 years, I have also seen a rise in destination events that manage to combine what some would call ‘personal perks,’ where events are taking place in highly desirable locations such as Whistler, B.C., Cabo San Lucas or Palm Springs,” Odendaal says. “This rise of destination conferences also has the competitive benefit of enticing people to participate — whether as an attendee or as a speaker.”
In the two decades that Victoria Reid, CMP, CMM, RYT, event planning expert and founder of EventWell Collective, has been in the industry, she’s seen a huge shift in how the industry plans and conducts meetings. To satisfy the participants’ wants and needs, a meeting professional has to look beyond the checklist to create memorable experiences. “The magic happens when attendees are immersed in experiences with returns of boosted engagement and happier attendees,” Reid says. “Generally, when people share a positive experience, they leave feeling seen, heard and happy.”
Another shift that is paramount on everyone’s mind is how meetings are designed to ensure attendee safety. This plays into their personal well-being. This pandemic-induced state has shown planners that if you want full engagement, attendees need to feel safe, secure and know that their personal well-being is taken care of. Additionally, Reid has seen the need to consider the entire human experience when designing meetings. Having a strong background and knowledge of well-being, Reid has witnessed firsthand the demoralization of an individual who could not fit onto a director’s chair on stage. “On the flip side, I have witnessed the equitable feeling a person experienced when served a meal that did not include beef and offered a space for prayer. We have had to adjust every aspect of event design both in-person and in online arenas,” Reid says.
Venue selection as it results in what people need also has changed. Now, planners look at alternative spaces and configurations to design meetings to accommodate social distancing. Participants want to know that the host is taking all precautions to protect them from COVID. “They want to know that on-site COVID safety protocols are in place. How we deliver content has challenged us to plan separate experiences for both the in-person and online attendee,” Reid says. “You’ve heard that communication is key, and it is now so more important than ever. People want to know what to expect and have reassurance that no matter what format they attend, you have their well-being as a top priority.”
The overall experience and participant’s well-being should be included with event goals during the design process. “We need to do the right things, for the right reasons, at the right time,” Reid says. She adds that one of the largest challenges planners face is designing events that are inclusive for everyone. As such, she chooses to look at this as a huge opportunity to cultivate events that nurture and nourish the individual’s experience. “What’s been done in the past doesn’t serve us anymore,” Reid says. “I’m suggesting that we incorporate elements into a meeting that go beyond adding a yoga session or a fun run. When we embrace the social, physical, mental and the environmental aspects and implement them into the design, we truly deliver a 360-degree experience.”
What has worked for Reid has been to ask the question “What if …?” continuously. What if someone has a different learning style, a dietary need or preference, is an introvert or extrovert? What if they are color vision deficient? What if we design an event that is sustainable and has a lesser carbon footprint? What if they question COVID safety protocols and are afraid to attend an in-person event? What if the information is delivered in shorter segments followed by time for participants to assimilate what was delivered? What if the space is set-up to allow attendees to choose where and how they want to sit or stand? “By asking the right questions, we can begin to blueprint an event that will allow the attendee to feel seen, heard, nourished and leave happy,” Reid says.
At EventWell Collective, Reid and her team believe they must design an event experience that takes into consideration the participants’ well-being, accomplishes the stakeholders’ goals, and yields the best value. This extends to all participants; attendees, suppliers, stakeholders and presenters. “I would be remiss if I did not mention that it must be the best experience for the organizer, too,” Reid says. “As planners, we live in an ever-changing world of unpredictability and need to take care of ourselves first, so that we can continue to serve others.”
The evolution of technology within the meeting event space also has impacted event design. As Bihet explains, virtual and hybrid events have forced meeting planners to think more like a TV producer. “When you pass a certain level in the tech you are using, you then need more. The ones who are really making waves and impact in the industry are continuing to innovate and go bigger the next time,” Bihet says. For instance, 3D imagery and interactivity is impacting the meetings and event environment.
“You push yourself bigger and bigger when you start to incorporate more technology into events. Artificial intelligence (AI) is an example of how we have progressed from robots on a show floor, to bots, to now virtual reality and experiences,” Bihet says. Once you adopt a new technology there is no going back — which is a good thing because it’s really driving more innovation in a great way for events.”
The events industry has transformed in a great way. “We had been talking about digital, but hadn’t truly adopted it until the pandemic, and now everyone is really benefiting more,” Bihet says. “Our clients are having more ability to reach more people and have more impactful events and the attendees are having a better experience too.”
Odendaal would argue that, fundamentally, the pandemic was the best thing that has happened for event technology. Between 2010 and 2016, there were only a few new players in the space of event technology. But the needs highlighted or created by the pandemic sped up the advancement and opened a window for new and emerging companies to fill in the gaps.
For example, by the time the pandemic hit, Bizzabo, an event tech firm, was already a well-established company in live events, and they had been working on their virtual platform for several years, which, coincidentally, launched in April 2020. Then, there is Hopin, which was founded in 2019, and within two years, grew exponentially, raised more than $1 billion, and went from having a few employees to close to 800. “At IMEX 2021, [event tech expert] Corbin Ball was quoted as saying: “We have gone through the most explosive period of innovation that I have ever seen in the 24 years I have been watching event technology full time,’” Odendaal says. “Event planners have more tools and resources for virtual, in-person and hybrid event design production at their fingertips than ever before.”
One of the key benefits is using the advancement of technology, such as augmented reality (AR) or AI, to enhance the user experience both virtually and on-site. At the IMEX conference, Odendaal met with a startup called Wordly that is an AI-based interpretation service that attendees can access through an app on their iPhone. Even as a non-English speaker, you can go to a trade show or a conference and translate everything conveniently through your phone. “Technology like this enables event producers to attract a wider audience to their events and become a more inclusive space for attendees who may not speak the same language,” Odendaal says. “The use of AI in itself is breaking down barriers of exclusion that existed before.”
Melissa Park, global event producer at Melissa Park Events, says historically, events have been viewed as “one-and-done” marketing activities and little thought put into the long-term effect post-event. “Nowadays, companies understand that when planned properly, one single event can have a huge impact on the bottom line,” Park says. Because of this, those who like to work smarter rather than harder are taking the time to clarify their event’s mission and define their goals and KPIs at the beginning of the planning process so their event can be designed with this in mind. As such, post-event, digital-communication plans, including online surveys and emails dripping relevant content and messaging, keep the conversation going long after their event is bumped out.”
The evolution of event design has resulted in a variety of challenges. According to Odendaal, the first challenge is the rising cost of doing business in the event space, and the increased cost that comes with constantly trying to up the ante on previous events. In addition, the global supply-chain issues are affecting this industry, as organizers rely on shipments of many different products to design the event. The supply-chain not only adds to the cost, but adds to the time which you need for execution. “Another significant challenge is lack of sponsorship dollars,” Odendaal says. “Many organizations still have their budgets on hold and are not ready to go back to in-person events. Many events rely heavily on sponsorship dollars to make the financials work for in-person events. Unless these sponsorship budgets return, many conferences may not re-emerge post-pandemic.”
In addition, a fundamental shift is taking place in the way people choose to digest information. Bizzabo recently shared a statistic showing that three quarters of people attending virtual events are there to learn and only a quarter are there to network. On the other side, as Odendaal points out, those who attend in-person events are primarily there to network and connect with people face to face, and there is less of a focus on learning and digesting content.
“This means that those who are looking for learning and development opportunities may be more inclined to tune into that virtually,” Odendaal says. “I believe that events should be designed around a refocus on connection and networking as, I believe, no one has successfully unlocked the door to replicating in-person networking virtually.”
This can have implications for conferences and events, as it could lead to lower attendance of seminars and keynotes, but then again, increased participation for evening events, dinners and networking events. “If you’re a planner that likes to create trends rather than follow them, keeping abreast of all of the latest technological advances and how they can be translated to events is a challenge,” Park says. “The way I’ve been able to combat this is by leaning on each of my vendors who are experts in their space.”
Park says virtual and hybrid events have enabled organizations to reach much broader audiences than ever before. Rather than be limited in reach by the number of people who can afford to travel to and attend the event, meeting planners can offer a lower-priced ticket to get those who want to see what’s happening from the comfort of their home.
“Additionally, it’s opened the new door to a wider range of ways for the event to be incorporated into a comprehensive marketing campaign,” Park says.
For instance, instead of transitioning to a single or multi-day virtual event, and it being one and done, planners can create a platform or portal that keeps the conversation going by releasing year-round online education that culminates into an in-person or hybrid event. “Additionally, now the event can be seamlessly factored into the overall digital experience the marketing team is already creating with webinars, podcasts, master classes and more,” Park says.
Industry experts agree that for the foreseeable future, hybrid events are here to stay. Because of this, meeting planners should be more strategic than ever when designing programs and selecting venues for upcoming events.
“While the full offering should be provided in-person, organizations may consider in-person attendance to be considered a VIP experience limited to a smaller audience than they attracted pre-pandemic. This is a creative way to manage expectations and event spend while we phase back to live in-person events in their full glory,” Park says. “And remember, ‘sold out’ is always a good marketing problem to have.”
From a technology perspective, Bihet says we have to see if the technology will evolve quickly enough from one year to another to always be able to bring new items and solutions to industry clients.
“Since we have started this transformation to more digital experiences, there is no going back,” Bihet says. “People like nostalgia, sure, but we need to be able to continually innovate, and brands need to be looking forward to the next way to engage their audiences. All of this will affect the way we are designing those experiences and technology will continue to be a factor. As it evolves, we will need to find ways to incorporate it into the events we are creating.”
Shifting the focus to smaller, curated gatherings is one of the most fundamental shifts in the future of events. As Odendaal explains, it’s likely that event organizers who will follow the smaller-scale structure will gain a competitive advantage and have a greater potential to bring like-minded individuals together — whether it’s a boutique-style networking event, or what’s traditionally perceived as large-scale events, such as trade shows or conferences.
“Before the pandemic, I went to a smaller, 100-person networking event, and a few weeks later, I attended a 7,000-person conference. Interestingly, I left the 100-person networking event having exchanged and received more business cards than at the large-scale conference,” Odendaal says. “This only proves further that people are getting more intentional and careful with whom they share a space. The events industry is inevitably shifting from large-scale events to small, curated experiences. Large-event producers need to come up with ways to create smaller gatherings at their convention that bring together like-minded people.”
Long-term, Reid thinks planners need to hone their forecasting skills. “I’m not suggesting we spend hours projecting the future. What I am suggesting is that if we are interested in trends that may occur 10 years from now, we should begin to study the interests and drivers of Generation Z,” Reid says. “They will influence event design. You want to know what the design of the future event would look like? Plan an event for a culturally diverse person who loves spending time with their family, who wants to make a difference in the world, and who is a foodie. We can no longer sit and wait for projects to drop into our laps, check off items on a list and consider it a good day. We have the opportunity to be on the forefront and help shape the future.” | AC&F |