Events that boast wellness components have become mainstream as meeting attendees are interested in creating a work/life balance during meetings and events of all sizes. From classic yoga on the beach to incentive-focused physical activities, to vegan-based cooking classes, today’s wellness event elements can make a lasting impression on attendees who participate.
Morgan Connacher, CSEP, vice president, events and special programs at Haute, says we have all been in silos in our professional and personal lives to varying degrees during the COVID-19 pandemic, and that being able to safely bring people together in person, in real life, creates the ideal opportunity for incorporating wellness into all facets of an event. “The act of meeting in person again fuels wellness consciously and subconsciously,” Connacher says. “Every person is on their own journey right now, and so our main job as planners is to provide transparent communication that lets attendees know what to expect throughout the experience so that they are able to make their own choices as they plan to engage.”
And it’s important that meeting planners recognize that wellness and the discussion of mental health are much more at the forefront now. Specifically, wellness isn’t a buzzword anymore; it’s deeper. “It isn’t all about sunrise yoga sessions or cardio drum classes — though those can definitely be fun and build community. Rather, it is about creating space for people to truly connect and engage again in a way that they feel safe,” Connacher says. “Wellness is about coming together and building community in whatever way that makes sense for your audience. It takes more than trendy activities to achieve this, planners have to really understand their attendees and what they want to achieve from their events.”
Caytie Pohlen-LaClare, founder/president of The LaClare Group Inc., says, overall, when hosting a wellness event, the goal is to host an event that meets audience expectations. If you are doing hot yoga, but everyone will be in business attire, it’s obviously not a good match. So, meeting planners should strive for an event or activity that will accommodate the majority of their target audience and provide for various levels of fitness and health. “Wellness components are definitely becoming more mainstream. In general, people are paying more attention to their own health and wellness, and want that represented in the events they attend,” Pohlen-LaClare says. “I would say it’s often ‘expected’ by people at the meetings and conferences they attend.”
Wellness covers a broad range of features and activities. It encompasses everything from the meals, snacks and drinks being served, to activities before, during and after the event. Many speakers and facilitators are also bringing wellness features into their presentations. It might be as simple as some deep breathing exercises, chair stretches or a guided meditation. “There is plenty of scientific evidence about the benefits of moving our bodies, getting fresh air, staying hydrated and making time for stillness,” Pohlen-LaClare says. “A more relaxed, focused and well-fed person will learn more, make better interpersonal connections and have an overall higher level of satisfaction in the event. It’s a win for everyone — the attendees and the hosts.”
Incorporating a wellness event or wellness component into an event is ultimately about breaking up standard programming and getting people out of, or into, their comfort zone. For instance, award-winning event producer Melissa Park, global event producer at Melissa Park Events, once had a client who wanted a wellness activity incorporated into every event she produced. “When I questioned the fit into one or two of them, he went as far as to say the only type of customer he was interested in purchasing their product from was the one who would get up early to participate in a run, ride or exercise class,” Park says. “He saw those who commit to exercise as generally positive and solution-focused, which is who he wanted to attract. After understanding that better, it made perfect sense to include wellness activities across the board as a way to better qualify the leads.”
As Chris Chan, founder, CEO and meeting planner at 3C Strategies explains, wellness events should have two goals. The first one is to decrease stress. People are recovering from the trauma brought on by the pandemic, and large events are still stress-inducing for those who are sensitive to large crowds. “Second, building camaraderie is a key goal,” Chan says. “People are starving for opportunities to forge relationships over shared experiences. Wellness events are great for your health and great for building bonds with co-workers, clients and others.”
Accessibility is also key to a successful wellness event. According to Chan, too niche of an activity excludes more than it includes, leaving people feeling as an “other” rather than as part of the group. “Team activities are better than individual activities for building relationships and leaving people feeling a sense of happiness,” Chan says.
Jennifer D. Collins, CMP, DES, president & CEO of JDC Events, says each organization will have different goals of a wellness event — whether it is fitness, women’s wellness, stress management, life coaching, meditation or overall well-being exercises. However, she suggests that when incorporating wellness into an event, consider the areas where you will feature activities, for instance, via food, breaks or educational sessions. “It’s important for your process to work together so that it’s seamless and best represents the organization’s culture,” Collins says. “Creating a theme that coincides with your culture is a great way to bring people in. This theme could then tie-in with customized wellness activations throughout the event. It would also be beneficial to have demonstrations or other interactivity that keeps people engaged and moving. Featuring some form of food and beverage is always a draw, so incorporating that into your theme would be added value.”
The Haute team thinks business is personal, so the first place they like to start when thinking about wellness and attendees is getting to know the audience. How can you craft a pre-event strategy that lets you get to know attendees and individuals? How can you build meaningful experiences for a whole range of personas that will be engaging with your event? As Connacher says, wellness is an approach to the entire strategic planning process, not just certain aspects of the event.
She suggests planners ask themselves: Do you offer a variety of ways for people to consume content — not just a keynote address, but smaller group discussions, matching one-on-one meetings, or crowd-sourcing topics in real-time to address what people really want to learn? Do you push past the ballroom, not just offering yoga in the morning or a 5K run, but thinking about local activities that people can participate in together, or hands-on activities that create a sense of adventure, and teach people new and unique skills? Are you creating a space that provides structure and flexibility for people to really build relationships and have the water-cooler conversations that we’ve all been missing for the past few years?
“Meeting planners need to go deeper with attendees’ wants and needs to provide true wellness,” Connacher says. “Do you really understand why attendees are traveling to your event? We’ve seen that not every event needs to happen in person over the past few years, as some people are more hesitant to travel. Are you understanding what your audience wants and communicating very clearly what they will take away from attending your event?”
That’s why Pohlen-LaClare says that communication is vital. If planners are going to the effort to intentionally plan events or offer wellness features, they need to remember to talk about it. “Promote the wellness aspects throughout the cycle of the event. This includes everything from ‘save the date’ and invitations, to event confirmations and other post-registration communications, and finally, on the day of the event,” Pohlen-LaClare says, adding that putting signage on the registration area, small tent cards on the tables, and announcements from the stage, all help to inform and remind the participants of the wellness aspects available to them. “Communication will inform and get people excited about the various wellness events. Ultimately, this means more attendee engagement,” she says.
The LaClare Group recently orchestrated a client conference that featured a small indoor labyrinth on the floor in a quiet breakout room that was located farther away from the main sessions. The lighting was lowered, there was soft instrumental music playing and some flameless candles were lit. This was added to the agenda and promoted every day of their conference. The labyrinth room was open all day to accommodate everyone’s schedules.
For a virtual event, The LaClare Group showed videos of musicians playing their instruments during the breaks between sessions. This soothing interlude enabled people to reflect on what they just learned in the last session, help bring heart rates down and provided a mental break. “A more upbeat activity we’ve done is a dance break. We played some great music, and the hosts not only encouraged everyone to dance, they also led it,” Pohlen-LaClare says. “When everyone around you is moving to the beat, it’s less intimidating. So many smiles — it was fun!”
Jen Pace, CMP, program design & sourcing manager, consulting solutions, at Event Travel Management (ETM), suggests critical aspects for an event with a wellness focus could include:
Pace started slowly incorporating wellness by looking at menus and food choices differently. She suggests including a good mix of healthy choices and options to appease people who consider being at a conference or meeting a “cheat” or splurge time for their food choices. “I’ve incorporated things like smoothie bars and energy drinks, and I’ve even brought in a health guru to create personalized natural energy shots for attendees,” Pace says.
Pace then started building a wellness focus for specific sessions and started infusing the event with high-energy experiences. She’s brought a DJ onto the main stage during a general session to spin and pump up the tunes to take things to the next level and get people up and moving. “Some planners like to play it safe with more typical music, but I find that music brings people together and can enhance areas of a conference or meeting that can be under attended or considered boring,” Pace says.
Wellness at hotels is a significant focus now as well, so Pace recommends planners tap into the hotel’s resources. Ask if they can offer private morning yoga classes for your attendees, get gym fees waived or additional hours added, or provide more complimentary water bottles to attendee rooms with a note about wellness and the importance of being hydrated. “Planners need to start thinking of these things during the contracting process to help maximize spend, because incorporating wellness components isn’t always cheap and may not be part of the overall event budget,” Pace says.
To ensure wellness events are a success, Collins says it is essential planners know their audience. Wellness events are not for everyone, so it’s important to know your demographics so you can plan for what will best resonate. “For instance, if your audience is not into fitness, offering yoga or similar activities may not be as effective. If needed, consider polling your audience with select offerings to gauge interest,” Collins says. “It would then be important to set goals for your event, establish a planning timeline and begin promoting to build interest.”
As most large-scale events now offer various wellness activity options as part of their sponsorship program, they need to have a unique element that will be a draw for attendees. While you can produce them on our own, having the backing of an event producer’s marketing expertise and their desire for the activity to be a success is going to drive attendance. “When planning a standalone activity, the key is incorporating them into a unique experience,” Park says. “Is there a rooftop with an epic view for an exercise class? A nearby well-known beach for yoga? A famous athlete who could conduct a lesson and then do a meet and greet? With jam-packed programs, you’ve got to think outside the box to pique interest and drive registration and participation. Once you’ve got your activity locked and loaded, you then need to think about the experience. A juice bar, branded equipment, gift bags — these are all the little details that make a big difference.”
Valerie Bihet, director and meeting planner at VIBE Agency, recommends planners watch the trend in wellness and tie it in to be sure you’re accounting for what is going on in society. For example, when it comes to menus, you used to just have to cater to traditional meat eaters and vegetarians. Now, you have a new category of people with restrictive diets that need to be accounted for such as keto, pescatarian, vegan, etc. Also there is a trend that people are drinking alcohol less, so including more mocktails can be tied to the wellness of the event.
“Think about timing too. When talking about a wellness — or rather a fitness — activity, most people tend to think ‘Do it in the morning first thing.’ But not everyone is a morning person, and they usually work out later in the day or evening,” Bihet says. “If you only offer activities in the morning, you will lose out on their participation. Instead, you should think about all the attendees and offer options to accommodate a variety of workout styles, including the lunch-break crowd and post-work, pre-dinner exercisers. This way your activity will fit more into their regular routine when at work and participation will be higher.”
Everything you are doing to account for attendee wellness at the event also needs to be well communicated and promoted to have a maximum of participation and engagement on-site or virtually. Casey Carignan, CMP, meetings and events manager at Exact Sciences Corporation, says the ultimate goal of a wellness event should be participation by as many attendees as possible. “Meeting planners will know if the event was a success if the attendees were highly engaged and had a positive experience,” Carignan says. “In turn, they are more likely to tell their friends and colleagues about the event, enabling a “word-of-mouth” method and free promotion for future events.”
Carignan suggests other tips as well, such as promoting and encouraging attendees to participate in the event, and including testimonials from attendees who participated in previous wellness events. “Utilize a meeting app for advance promotion and include the wellness opportunities in any event gamification,” Carignan says.
And although elaborate wellness events are wonderful to include, they aren’t required. If a meeting planner is running low on time to plan wellness events, provide attendees with local trail/running maps. Or if they have a meeting app, they can build in a “step challenge” that tracks attendees step count, and the winner receives a promotional item. “As planners, we have to stop looking at wellness as a trend. One size doesn’t fit all, and the way to truly embrace wellness is to do the work to learn about our attendees and design an experience that suits them,” Connacher says. “Vanity metrics as the major indicator of event performance are no longer the goal. Numbers won’t be nearly as relevant as they once were. What will matter most is how strategic the event is, how engaged participants are — and this speaks to an emotional investment for a return on dollar investment. Wellness is part and parcel of event design. This includes the duty of care for attendees and delivering lasting, meaningful, and human-to-human connections.” I&FMM