Intentional DesignsMarch 11, 2024

Keeping Events Relevant, Useful, Worthwhile to Everyone By
March 11, 2024

Intentional Designs

Keeping Events Relevant, Useful, Worthwhile to Everyone
Successful events cater to the movtivations and needs of their audience and deliver “wow” moments they won’t forget. Photo by Matthew Kaplan / Courtesy of Jeanette Davis / M&IW

Successful events cater to the movtivations and needs of their audience and deliver “wow” moments they won’t forget. Photo by Matthew Kaplan / Courtesy of Jeanette Davis / M&IW

Today’s meetings and events are veering away from the decades-long trends of cocktail hours, networking breaks, buffet dinners and inspirational keynotes. Instead, they are putting intention first — reinventing the industry by building better, more meaningful events — keeping them relevant, useful and worthwhile to everyone.

Heather Herrig, CMP, president and chief event strategist at Every Last Detail, says putting intention first is critical within every phase of planning. When there is purpose driving each decision, element and invitation, you get to a level of intentionality that makes all the difference in the world.

“It’s more than ROI-based planning; we are designing each element to contribute toward an overall experience,” Herrig says. “It’s almost like taking strategy to the next level by incorporating this intentional design.”

Herrig says that it feels like emerging from the pandemic has allowed today’s corporate meeting planners to be more intentional.

“When we weren’t able to connect with each other like we were before, we saw even more how essential and precious our time together was (face-to-face or virtual), and the need to make every minute matter became even more pressing,” Herrig says. “It’s valuable to be intentional so that every aspect of your event feels like it’s in the gravitational pull of your core strategy and purpose, and everything feels like a cohesive whole. Being able to articulate this benefit is vital so that we can earn the trust of our stakeholders and decision-makers, receiving their buy-in to move forward with planning accordingly.”

Lee Gimpel is the founder of Better Meetings in Washington, DC. Gimpel says that with events, people often confuse being thoughtful — thinking about decisions and choices — with being intentional, which is to say really having an intent and then designing an event to manifest those intentions.

“Yes, being intentional requires thought, but a lot of events skip true intention-setting and then spend a lot of time and thought on details that aren’t connected to the purpose,” Gimpel says.

“When we are really intentional about designing events, it might turn out that we don’t need a networking break or a reception at all. Or it may turn out that the event should mostly be about networking instead of only having a few breaks or a single reception between mostly passive presentations. Or it may turn out that it makes sense to have those networking breaks and the reception, but what they look like, how they function, when we do them, and what happens during those segments is quite different than what we expected, or what we did in the past, or what happens at other events.”

When planning meetings, Jeanette Davis, customer success director, enterprise solutions at Meetings & Incentives Worldwide, says that more than ever, event owners and stakeholders are looking to brain-based approaches grounded in science to better understand their attendees’ motivations, engagement, needs and behaviors – and intentionally design events to meet these elements.

Through the lens of neuroscience, event planners are focused on ways to positively impact human performance, their sense of belonging and potential. Intentionally designing brain-friendly environments fosters learning, decision-making, and retention. In turn, this intentionality helps organizations align outcomes to their goals and objectives.

“A well-designed event is the most potent form of influence,” Davis says. They become extraordinary when event planners focus on infusing their culture and values, accelerating trust and connections, creating deeper meaning, engaging the social brain and inspiring innovation. At Meetings & Incentives Worldwide, they created an event design framework where event planners can apply neuroscience to build better, more meaningful events: Experience and Engagement, Health & Wellbeing, Technology & Innovation, Communications & Connections, and CSR and Giving Back. These five pillars are centered around Community and Belonging.

“Every year, we host our top clients at our signature event. The M&IW Summit is thoughtfully designed as a highly immersive, experiential day that creates moments of meaning and insights, influences strategic decision-making, and inspires creativity and innovation. The content is curated specifically for industry leaders and change makers,” Davis says. “Much thought is given to the flow and format of the agenda to maximize engagement, energy, excitement, as well restoration and retention. The experience is designed to deepen relationships and foster trust by bringing together our clients, employees and suppliers.”

Davis and the team at M&I Worldwide are finding that event attendees are placing a higher priority on where they give their time and attention. Events that have established a solid reputation for delivering “wow” experiences, customized around the motivations and needs of their audience are highly successful. She notes that attendees respond positively to more intentional meetings as they are more engaged in discussions and activities. They are more likely to retain the information shared and leave with greater satisfaction and a desire to attend future events. This is supported through quantitative and qualitative feedback.

Intentional Design Components

So, what does it mean to design a more intentional meeting? From event designs that foster conversations to a new environment that creates a wider community and speakers with diverse voices, planners are focusing on event designs that are purposeful and intentional.

“Networking breaks and cocktail hours are no longer enough. Business networking at events requires a structured approach that fosters intentional conversations,” Gimpel says. “From event designs that foster conversations to a new environment that creates a wider community and speakers with diverse voices, planners are focusing on event designs that answer the ‘why’ behind every decision.”

He goes on to explain that designing more intentional meetings means being really clear about what exactly your intention is. It means first thinking about “why” you’re doing “everything” rather than just jumping to planning the “what and how.” Wanting to bring people together or to show them a good time, or even to share learning, only gets to the surface of an event. You need to go deeper and be very specific about the real value of your event.

To Gimpel, an event needs to have an intention or a reason to exist and the different elements of the event should align and contribute with that goal. If you’re planning an event that welcomes in a new cohort of managers, for example, you would probably want to be intentional about how you connect them and make them feel included in the larger organization.

As an example of something that really hasn’t changed, but feels like it should often be part of a discussion of intentionality, is the size of the tables being used at events. As Gimpel explains, many events have an element of intentionality where they need to bring people together, connect them and have them engage with each other. And we assume that this will happen when people are sitting at a round-table session or at a meal. Then we use tables that seat 10 or 12 people and it becomes effectively impossible to have a conversation with anyone other than the person right next to you.

“There’s almost always a lot of thought about what goes on that table, but not a lot of thought about why we are using that table (as opposed to other sizes or configurations) in terms of the overarching intention of the event,” Gimpel says.

Societal Influences & Intentionality

Societally, today we seem to have more awareness of thinking more about our choices and how they affect others; that we should be intentional in the cars we drive or the food we buy or the companies we support. As Gimpel explains, the modern environmental movement seems rooted in this, as does a move over the past decade or so towards inclusivity, DEI and similar conscious decision making.

“At the same time, it feels like we are living in a very curated world where a regular lunch or a regular hotel or a regular speaker won’t cut it. We see an Instagram world where so much polish goes into all of those elements — or we are led to believe that,” Gimpel says. “Yes, it’s good for an event to make conscious choices about the environment and diversity, for example. And it’s also true that people increasingly expect more polish or at least a different kind of thinking today. Is it beneficial that speakers and panels are more diverse today than they were in the past? Do attendees appreciate an event that isn’t just run of the mill but is worthy of being shared on social media? Yes, they do.”

The reality is, says Gimpel, even with a different set of speakers or a really unique location or Instagram-worthy food, a lot of events are really just changing the paint job and not the destination to which the car is driving, which is at the heart of intentionality.

For example, many events exist to connect attendees, make them feel like they are part of a group and share knowledge among them.

“If we are intentionally choosing speakers from more diverse backgrounds to speak at the event, that’s good. But the reality is a bunch of people doing PowerPoint presentations — regardless of who they are — probably doesn’t align with the actual intention of the event. Such events end up being stagnant and largely passive and are often at odds with the very reason for bringing people together. In that case, it might be a nicer paint job on the car, but the car is still driving in the wrong direction,” Gimpel says.

Gimpel ran an event recently that brought together several large manufacturers who were working together on addressing climate issues. The event was in Washington, D.C. A big part of the intention was to make this group feel a sense of trust and urgency despite being competitors.

“We wanted them to really come together and understand that they needed to find true alignment on some really difficult topics with billion-dollar ramifications. We were in a beautiful hotel space that was accustomed to a very standard room setup for presentations. And what we realized was that the way the room was set was only going to keep the individuals and their companies divided and not foster a sense of cohesion,” Gimpel says.

“A big piece of the intentionality came down to how good design is often invisible. By the end of the event, there was a real shift in how attendees related to each other, but it was as unsexy as changing the size and shape of the tables and where people were sitting, as opposed to the more Instagrammable moments from the event.”

Gimpel advises planners to know why you are doing an event, as a lot of people and organizations putting on events aren’t entirely clear why they are doing it themselves. For example, Gimpel frequently finds that if a client has a planning committee of four people and you ask them why they are doing the event and what would define true success, each of their bottom-line answers are dramatically different and misaligned.

“Events can do different things and have more than one intention, but I like there to be one guiding intention that we can metaphorically put on a banner that hangs above our heads when we do our planning and then keep referring to it as we make decisions about everything else,” Gimpel says.

To this end, Gimpel almost always starts an engagement by going through his “Five Whys” exercise, or something similar, with a client. Although it comes from the process improvement world, he finds that it is a really simple but powerful exercise to understand what the intention of an event is.

“A lot of clients have really only thought about the surface ‘first why’ and it only scratches the surface of what the event should be. We will also often do a personas exercise where we will very clearly spell out who’s going to be at this event, why they are going to be there, and what would make the event worthwhile and an absolute home run for them,” Gimpel says.

Events tend to be dominated by logistics and people think of events in a template mentality. For example, we know what a corporate strategy retreat always looks like and we know what a sales kickoff meeting looks like, and so we largely recycle those templates, but add some thoughtful flourishes. “Planners are still skipping a crucial phase of understanding and are jumping right into logistics. We know a birthday party has historically had a cake so an early set of decisions resolved around how big a cake, what flavor, what color, etc.,” Gimpel says. “Maybe the best way to celebrate a birthday has little to do with cake. Planners may ask this intention-based question more often.”

Herrig has been extremely fortunate to have worked on meetings where establishing intentionality is essentially her primary role. She and her team design an agenda in which every session/function is meticulously considered, so it’s in the right environment (including elements that touch all the senses), with the right people, hearing the right message and for the right amount of time.

As Herrig explains, it’s a “Goldilocks” approach, and they want it all to be just right. To accomplish this intentionality, they carefully map out the attendees’ journey through the agenda, so there is time to reflect, process, pause, discuss and interact. And it’s just as important to give them the right content as it is to provide time to digest, so ideas and action are not lost in the moment.

“Every other aspect of the entire program receives the same precise and methodical consideration – arrival/check-in, giveaways, menu selections, furniture, décor, production elements, etc. Truly each element is considered for its alignment with the whole,” Herrig says.

And today’s attendees are taking notice of this intentionality. Herrig says it’s incredible how positively they respond to this level of thought and detail that she and her team put into the experience. She feels they receive much more from a meeting/event overall that is designed with careful intention.

Continued Intentionality

“With all my heart, I do hope this continues to be a focus for the event professional community. My advice to other meeting planners would be to not fear going into this depth of detail, but to embrace it,” Herrig says. “Allow yourself to be immersed in the ‘why’ of the event or meeting, so you can focus your attention on ensuring all the elements coalesce.”

This means creating a theme to articulate or illustrate this “why.” Then, consider the event pieces on their own merit, but don’t neglect to consider them as a whole.

Herrig recommends meeting planners place themselves into the perspective of various stakeholders and ask if your intention is understandable and makes a difference.

“Putting that extra time and care into your design, strategy and planning will absolutely be worth it,” she says.

Davis advises planners to also understand attendees’ preferences, learning styles as well as demographics and culture to create a more inclusive experience. “Prioritize positive emotional connections through senses, their physical setting and engaging interactive sessions,” Davis concludes. “As for the future, this focus is here to stay and is likely to continue evolving.” C&IT


Back To Top