Get MovingDecember 12, 2022

Meetings With Health & Wellness Activities Excite Attendees By
December 12, 2022

Get Moving

Meetings With Health & Wellness Activities Excite Attendees
This 5K fun run at the recent IMEX America 2022 conference is an example of the kind of health and wellness activity attendees appreciate at today's meetings and events. Courtesy of IMEX America

This 5K fun run at the recent IMEX America 2022 conference is an example of the kind of health and wellness activity attendees appreciate at today’s meetings and events. Courtesy of IMEX America

As the global community emerges from the longstanding COVID-19 pandemic, it’s no wonder organizations are turning their attention to the health and well-being of employees and constituents. More organizations, across all industries, are incorporating health and wellness programs across all facets of their companies, and the meetings and events arena is no exception.

According to Jeff O’Hara, CMP, DMCP, president, PRA New Orleans, a business event management firm, a fitness aspect can certainly be incorporated into financial and insurance meetings. This can take the form of on-site group fitness, a morning “fun run” or taking advantage of the destination with a hike, seaside walk, bike ride, etc.

The next piece is the nutrition aspect — including healthy food options at all events and identifying them as such. In the meetings, regular stand-and-stretch breaks during the program content is very important to keeping good circulation, mental fitness and avoiding stiffness and discomfort. Having water easily available and encouraging people to maintain hydration is key for mental and physical well-being.

“So, it is much more that throwing a 6 a.m. yoga session and saying you are addressing health and wellness,” O’Hara says. “And if the CEO or the senior leader at an event is known to participate, that drives participation way up. We have seen on many occasions where the 6 a.m. ‘fun run’ has 90% participation from the group because the CEO was known to be there.”

The other piece that drives high participation in health and wellness facets within a meeting is having options at different times of the day rather than forcing them early in the morning. Having activities that take advantage of the destination are popular as well. “One meeting had a nature walk through the trails surrounding the resort. That was great as you got exercise and learned a few things on the way. In a city destination, a group walk through the known sites of the city before the crowds set in gives you a new perspective on the destination,” O’Hara says.

Ashley Cardini, CMP, owner of The Mindful, worked as the financial services event manager at TD Ameritrade for 13 years before leaving that career to pursue teaching mindfulness and meditation at companies and conferences worldwide. Her passion is to weave wellness design into meetings. Early in 2022, she spoke at an MPI event in New York City about how to incorporate mindfulness into meeting planning. She also facilitates wellness programs at companies and within events and conferences alike.

“At this point, infusing health and wellness into your meetings and events is table stakes. Post 2020, it’s more important than ever to help your attendees take care of their bodies, minds and nervous systems,” Cardini says. “Not only will they be better primed to pay attention and actively engage during your meeting, but the typical elements that go along with meetings — long travel days, stuck in a ballroom for hours on end, no sunlight, long nights out — are not conducive to our overall health.”

Cardini also advises that meeting planners don’t always need to make a big “to-do” about all the ways they’re incorporating health and wellness. Successful initiatives will weave in health and wellness elements into their event cultures seamlessly, because it’s the right thing to do. “It’s expected and should be a core pillar of programming moving forward, whether it’s something you’d market for your particular event or not,” Cardini says.

More than anything, health and wellness programs are prevalent when there is a strategic alignment with the host, event theme or participant base, says Heather Herrig, CMP, president & chief event strategist at Every Last Detail Events. For example, if a host organization has an existing health or wellness program, and promotes within its culture, there is a natural opportunity to incorporate it into an event or meeting. In these cases, such programs are much more prevalent.

“There is a strong indication of increase in interest for these types of programs from attendees for many reasons, so if an organization does not yet have such an element, it’s a great time to start thinking about including one,” Herrig says.

A few years ago, Herrig had the opportunity to work with a consultant who specialized in this area, and together they crafted an underlying foundation of wellness for a client’s meeting. “We co-created a menu with the executive chef that focused on serving energizing and delicious food, incorporated elements of physical activity into the event — even something as simple as the encouragement of using stairs versus elevators through fun signage, and strategized on an agenda that would give attendees much-needed rest,” Herrig says. “Most importantly, we communicated to our attendees what we were doing and why, so they knew we had taken the time to take care of them.”

Melissa Park, global event producer at Melissa Park Events, has been including health and wellness activities in all events she has planned or coordinated for the better part of a decade. “Overall, I’ve seen the number at each growing, though it’s still a relatively small portion of overall attendees when it’s individually driven versus a corporate culture reason for inclusion,” Park says.

Adding a health and wellness component to an event can be as simple as doing chair exercises or chair stretching.

Adding a health and wellness component to an event can be as simple as doing chair exercises or chair stretching.

Form & Function of Health & Wellness

Cardini points to five important pillars to focus on with successful health and wellness programs: instructional design, content and programming, social connectedness, physical health and mental health.

Instructional design: The most important piece is weaving an understanding of health and wellness into your overall instructional design and culture. It’s taking a moment to breathe, meditate, set an intention or stretch before a person brings their nervous system and brain to a regulated state. Eliminating laptops from the room reduces distractions, and inviting attendees to be present in the room, stating outwardly what you hope to accomplish during the meeting — these small reminders, although they seem fluffy to some, can drastically change outcomes for meetings. “I always say mindfulness is being intentional about what you pay attention to. Planners have the unique ability to set this tone for each meeting with intentional decisions and directions,” Cardini says.

Content & Programming/Speakers & Activities: Consider incorporating more wellness speakers into your speaker lineup. Bring in experts in their field who may fill that “inspirational” slot and who may not be directly associated to your business, but with cutting edge points of views. Also consider moving that “fluffy” speaker time slot that’s always at the end of your conference or event to the beginning of a conference. It’s a unique opportunity to set to set the tone for what’s to come for the rest of the conference. “Get creative with your engaging networking activities and incorporate a few that focus on health, wellness and mindfulness as it makes sense,” Cardini says. Art therapy, making mocktails, harvesting local honey, even a luxury experience such as creating your signature scent has a mindfulness component that taps into your senses.

Social connectedness: We meet in person to connect with each other, as it helps foster deeper relationships, builds trust and meaningful connections and improves our mental health. As Cardini explains, the online learning boom of 2020 made us realize you can easily watch your favorite keynote on, but there’s definitely something special about getting a group of people in a room together that can’t be replicated virtually. “Capitalizing on that connection must take precedence over content curation moving forward,” Cardini says. “Content can be delivered anywhere, but we have to think about what is going to take place in our meeting and event that can’t take place virtually — and make that frame of mind paramount.”

Physical Health/Safety, Activity, Nutrition: Just because risk factors for meeting in person have died down in the media doesn’t mean all we’ve learned since 2020 can be forgotten. Now that health and safety protocols have been established, it’s a planner’s job to systematize and automate your best practices so they’re easy to execute without exhausting your resources. “Incorporating physical activity into your meeting needs to happen to keep the energy up,” Cardini says. “Of course, not everyone is going to want to run a 5K at your event or head out to the golf course, but having an activity available for every level of physical prowess is inclusive.” Offering some sort of morning movement activity, afternoon walking session, or even bringing in some mindful movement instruction/chair yoga during a midday session will get blood pumping and improve focus.

With regard to food and beverage, think hearty breakfasts that are not all muffins and bagels made with white flour that will have people crashing in an hour. Incorporate healthy snacks after lunch — no more sugary hotel cookies — and consider pitchers of water and iced tea instead of sodas. “You don’t need to serve salad every day to have a healthy lunch, but work closely with your chef and find a balance to keep attendee energy and focus up,” Cardini says.

Mental health: Cardini is a huge proponent of incorporating meditation or breath-work sessions into meetings. These can be activities involving everything from starting off the day with an early-morning session, to bringing in a speaker to lead the whole group mid-day, or even offering a “meditation lounge” where guided sessions are scheduled throughout the day. “Not only does this help regulate nervous systems for the day ahead, it also helps to teach these incredible habits where people may not practice them often,” Cardini says. “Alternately, allowing for quiet spaces or quiet pods throughout your meeting space can offer attendees a space to get away and connect with themselves in the midst of event chaos.”

One of the biggest benefits of getting attendees outside for a hike, bike ride, or even a tour around the destination, according to studies, is that they actually retain information better as a result. Courtesy of Scottsdale CVB

One of the biggest benefits of getting attendees outside for a hike, bike ride, or even a tour around the destination, according to studies, is that they actually retain information better as a result. Courtesy of Scottsdale CVB

Making It Work

Health and wellness programs can take any form so long as you can logistically deliver it seamlessly and it doesn’t impact on official event programming. Park has delivered on- or off-road bike rides, 5Ks, yoga and dance classes. She says the two biggest factors to consider are that it needs to fit in with your official programming, and it can’t be an afterthought introduced for the sake of ticking a health and wellness box.

“Whatever the activity, it needs to be held with enough time for participants to go back to their hotels, shower, get ready for the day and travel to the venue without having to rush to make the first session,” Park says. “If there isn’t enough time to be able to do this, you’re inadvertently forcing attendees to choose between the two, and being on time for the first session will usually win out.”

In addition, the activities need to be delivered by skilled and experienced facilitators. Park recommends including a little participation gift, as well as beverages and healthy snacks, on completion. It needs to be an experience, just like the main event. “Yoga, cycle class or general workouts are always fun on the expo floor. However, those who are truly into health and fitness always appreciate getting outside and enjoying the fresh air much more than an activity hosted within the confines of the space they are already having to spend so much of their time,” Park says.

Park’s conference on- or off-road bike ride always started and finished at the convention center to make the activity as simple as possible for people to attend. She hired experts with all of the correct ride and safety equipment to facilitate the activity, and even designed a custom cycling jersey that became somewhat of a collectible. Participation in the activity was definitely sought-out, selling out each year, and it even had a lengthy waitlist.

Herrig says whatever form the health and wellness programming within a meeting or event takes, the key is to provide options. “When we think about health and wellness as planners, we are thinking about nutrition, physical activity, rest and mental well-being,” Herrig says. “Our goal is to create a balance of options so that participants can enjoy themselves while still being mindful of taking care of themselves physically while away from home and out of their usual routines.”

In terms of must-haves, the miss would be in ignoring wellness completely. Are you serving participants food that will nourish and energize? Are you providing ample opportunities to stay hydrated? Are you allowing enough breaks so that participants aren’t sitting all day? Do you have some fun and engaging opportunities for group exercise, or perhaps provide walking/running route options around your meeting property? Do you give participants time to take care of themselves, or are they rushed from session to session? Have you considered adding downtime to allow for mental breaks from information consumption or for the stimulation that comes with socialization and networking?

“These are the key questions we should be asking ourselves while designing a wellness-based meeting,” Herrig says.

According to David T. Stevens, director, field marketing and global events at Data.World, the big thing surrounding today’s health and wellness is inclusiveness. If you feed people only grilled chicken and steamed broccoli, you’re going to have a rebellion.

“So, it’s more about catering to a larger span of attendee desires. Running and yoga don’t cut it anymore for ‘morning workouts;’ you also need to include something for the attendee looking for really work up a sweat, and on the flip side, breath work or meditation is a must,” Stevens says. “Menu items should have something for the person who wants to stay calorie conscious, so maybe you do have grilled chicken as one option, but for dessert, you have whole fruit and cookies. The other part of this is agenda design. Don’t act like you want people to be healthy, and the lock them in a dark room for eight hours of non-stop meetings with no breaks and keynote after keynote.”

Ashley Cardini, CMP, owner of The Mindful, says attendees have an expectation that meetings will have some sort of health and wellness activity. Courtesy of Ashley Cardini

Ashley Cardini, CMP, owner of The Mindful, says attendees have an expectation that meetings will have some sort of health and wellness activity. Courtesy of Ashley Cardini

A Growing Trend

Cardini says attendees expect their health, physical and mental wellness to be taken care of and invested in. They expect the little things to be weaved into content and experiences seamlessly, not to take away from the goals of each meeting, but to enhance them.

“We also go to meetings to learn about new approaches and experience activities we normally wouldn’t do on our own,” Cardini says. “Planners should feel confident in pushing the envelope as much as your company culture allows, and keep health and wellness content, and experiences, at the forefront of their plans and weaved into their meeting culture initiatives.”

And health and wellness components have been an optional, yet much appreciated, addition to today’s event program. “With such a focus on mental health, avoiding burnout and general stress management, I see events being redesigned to factor health and wellness into every aspect,” Park says. “Right now, there is a huge push for dry parties and health-conscious catering. I think we need to strike a healthy balance.”

Stevens adds that planners are starting to realize that by integrating health and wellness elements into their meetings and events, their pre-sales tickets and survey score are skyrocketing. “The attendees are actually learning more,” Stevens says. “And the execs are seeing the return on investment.”  I&FMM.

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