As in-person meetings resume after many months of virtual-only events, how can planners ensure that live gatherings are engaging and relevant to current audiences? Event experts share tips on dealing with challenges in the current environment.
As more meetings move from the home computer screen back into hotels and convention centers, strategies for successful live events may be a bit different than they were prior to the pandemic. How should planners address changing expectations from attendees? What makes it worth the time and expense to attend a live event instead of a virtual one?
Nine tips for surmounting the challenges of planning live events were offered by Claus Raasted, director of the College of Extraordinary Experiences, Robert Dunsmore, freelance creative designer, and Greg Bogue, enterprise vice president-brand experience for Maritz Global Events, during the recent Experience Design Tips for In-Person Events, a session that was part of the Experience Design Summit held in September. For additional perspective, EventMB spoke with veteran meeting planners and educators Joan Eisenstodt and MaryAnne Bobrow.
3 Tips from Claus Raasted
1. Don’t Ignore Logistics
While it’s great to focus on exciting content and experiences, it will all come to naught if the basics are overlooked. “Everything is about logistics,” said Raasted. “In the end, if you have 50 people who need to get to another room, they all need to go through the same door. The food doesn’t get served by magic.”
Joan Eisenstodt added that logistics are more critical than ever, particularly when it comes to scheduling sessions and breaks. She noted that staffing shortages and room cleaning protocols have complicated the issue of how many sessions to offer and much time to allow between them.
2. Don’t Overemphasize Production
While impressive screen presentations and other production features are desirable, they’re not the only or even the most important consideration, according to Raasted.
“If you have a strong core of experience at the meeting, it’s OK if you don’t have brilliant production value,” he said. “Good production will not save you if your core experience suffers. It’s so easy to spend all of your money on production instead of what really matters for your event.”
Eisenstodt believes that over reliance on flashy production can be a deterrent to effective communication.
“Some want a show at a meeting that mimics a concert, but I want substance,” she said. “Most big productions involve a large, dark room with too much noise to talk with others and the inability to see what’s in front of me — all for the sake of flash. As people are getting back to work, what’s needed are solid productions with sound access for all, good visuals and projection of speakers.”
3. Everything Is a Designable Surface
Every aspect of the meeting — whether it’s the social breaks, buffet tables, hotel rooms, or invitations — is an opportunity to use engaging, creative design elements that add flair and an element of delight to an event.
“Usually we only design within certain parameters,” Raasted said.
As we return to in-person events, this is the perfect opportunity to rethink how we approach all the advantages that come with a truly immersive experience: Sight, touch, taste, and sound can all contribute to the overall event experience.
3 Tips from Robert Dunsmore
4. Develop New Ideas
In today’s competitive environment, fresh ideas for meetings are more important than ever, said Robert Dunsmoore. He urged planners to train their brains in order to be “an ideas factory.”
But where do new ideas come from? According to Eisenstodt, the answer is “everywhere.”
“It is being open to everything and constantly thinking, ‘How can I apply that to a meeting or event?’” she said.
For Eisenstodt, a love of theater and a wide range of reading have been particularly helpful in getting inspiration for new ideas. As for training the brain, she recommends the book A Whole New Mind by Daniel Pink, which explores the power of the right brain for observation and ideas.
Noting that “keeping things fresh is critical,” MaryAnne Bobrow added another possible source of inspiration: those who will be attending the meeting.
“Perhaps hold a contest for a theme for the conference and enlist volunteers to design the theme,” she said. “Give them buy-in.” Crowdsourcing ideas can be a great way to generate content that will resonate with your audience, while also making them feel like they’re an essential part of the conversation.
5. Know Your Audience
Dunsmore spoke on the science of context and the science of behavior, both of them essential for knowing the audience and building a sense of community. The former is about “listening to your audience — it’s their event, after all.” When it comes to fostering community, that’s “where you join your audience. They join your event, but you join their behavior. That behavior drives belonging and that belonging drives community.”
Understanding attendees and their behavior requires careful observation, according to Eisenstodt.
“Observe how they behave around every aspect of your meeting or in other situations where you encounter them,” she said. “At meetings, it includes arrival at the hotel, how they interact or don’t interact with others, where they choose to sit or stand, their facial expressions in sessions or around others.” In-person events allow planners to benefit from all these face-to-face cues.
Even when it comes to surveys, there are new factors to consider. Rather than relying on basic surveys where participants rank speakers and sessions on a scale of 1 to 5, Eisenstodt recommends asking deeper questions, including how the past months have impacted their lives and what their needs are. So much has changed over the past two years, and this is the ideal time to check in with your audience.
6. Add a Surprise Element
To keep events (particularly those that are recurring) from becoming predictable and dull, Dunsmore emphasized the importance of refreshing events with an element of “surprise and delight.”
“Add something new to reboot the experience,” he said. “Add one new thing every time. Give your audience something they didn’t even know they needed.”
Eisenstodt added a caveat that while a surprise element can delight attendees, it can also make them uncomfortable.
“It’s about knowing one’s audience and how they respond to surprises,” she said. “For instance, unvetted speakers or entertainers who offend in any way can be a bad surprise. Speakers who have spent time learning about the group and addressing their specific needs — that’s a good surprise.” In other words, even though a surprise should feel spontaneous, the planning behind it shouldn’t be.
3 Tips from Greg Bogue
Along with his presentation at the Experience Design Summit, Greg Bogue further elaborated on his tips during a video conversation with David Peckinpaugh, president of Maritz Global Events.
7. Be Transparent
In the current environment, transparency has become essential for giving attendees a sense of safety and security, according to Bogue. As a prime example, he cited hotels that have stepped up their cleaning processes and allowed guests to see these new protocols in action.
“Transparency means more communication, but it also means operational transparency,” he said. “Seeing behind the curtain. The hotels have this down. We see something being cleaned and we feel clean. Perception is important.”
At events, it means communicating to attendees about what is going on behind the scenes. “It’s about simple, clear communication — here is what we’re doing,” Bogue said. “It’s about opening up the event and giving people the ability to see the actions that occurred.”
Given today’s labor shortage and other challenges, it’s especially important to be transparent with attendees about what to expect, according to Eisenstodt.
“It’s explaining that staffing is lesser at the site and to please be patient,” she said. “If you know guest rooms might not be ready on arrival, explain it ahead. It’s about advising about changes at the destination such as restaurant closures or pricing for airport transport.”
8. Give Attendees Autonomy
After months of being confined and experiencing a reduced sense of freedom, attendees want a greater sense of control over their own destiny at events, according to Bogue. Giving attendees more choices and less rigidity in the meeting schedule can help accomplish this, he explained.
He advised planners to start sessions later in the morning, with plenty of time beforehand for attendees to enjoy breakfast and well-being options. This was among the tactics employed during a Maritz-planned event in August.
“As the agenda was stretched out with lots of breaks, there was a less harried feeling, a sense of calm,” Bogue said. “We’re so tired of sitting in front of things for hours at a time. We had no sessions over 45 minutes and extended lunch periods. Give people more control over their time.”
9. Sense of Purpose
Delving into the purpose of holding an in-person meeting is even more important now than it was prior to the pandemic when virtual alternatives were less common, according to Bogue. It’s become important to focus on what can only be accomplished during an in-person event.
“Information sharing can be done in other ways, but what can we do only when we’re together? What brings that to light?”
For Bogue, one method is to replace passive breakout sessions with those that emphasize participation and idea-sharing among small groups of attendees. “Breakouts of the future will be where you come together to create.”
Eisenstodt said there is a danger that the purpose and goals of a meeting may become eclipsed in the excitement over resuming in-person events. “Now it’s about ‘we must meet — people are dying to hug again’ — and so meetings are going forward with heavy agendas and not thinking about purpose.”
To bring a sense of purpose back into the foreground, Eisonstodt recommends creating virtual communities beforehand where people share input on what should be discussed and emphasized during the live event.
“Help those who plan to attend set their own goals for being there,” she said. “All meetings need to be intentional. Otherwise they have to stop because time and money are so valuable now.”
Now that in-person events are resuming, it’s important to address how expectations among attendees may have changed since prior to the pandemic. Fresh ideas, surprise elements, and flexible schedules that give people a sense of autonomy are among the strategies that experts recommend.