The Value Of Expertiential Event Design
By Lisa Paul, Head of Marketing at Kuoni Destination Management
It seems that over the last 12-24 months, our industry's lists of trends and buzzwords have frequently reflected the popularity of incorporating interactive, experiential elements into event design. However, long before our industry's trade shows, educational events and news publications started focusing on this "trend," many of us were already racking up success stories driven by effective experiential event design. The companies who have been doing this for years are typically those who take a more strategic approach in helping corporate clients achieve their meeting, event and incentive goals. Here at Kuoni we refer to the practice as "client enculturation." Others might refer to it simply as strategic partnering or as the act of serving as an extension of a client's team. Before we get into some of the current interactive, experiential offerings available today, let's first look at why weaving participatory elements into a program can effectively drive a company's strategic goals.
Planners often receive proposals from event design companies that promise to deliver to attendees an "unforgettable," "memorable," and/or "impactful" experience. However, more often than not, such vendors typically rely on what I like to refer to as "passive event design" to deliver such experiences. They often put forth solutions that might deliver an initial "wow" when an attendee enters an event space or while they're enjoying the festivities (e.g. an intricate entry treatment, immersive décor inside the room, top-tier entertainment, etc.) All of these types of event design elements are passive, in that they might stimulate the attendees' senses temporarily, but because they're not participatory in nature, they may not likely result in a truly "unforgettable" experience. And here's why…
We know that the science of memory encompasses three stages: encoding, storage and recall. Studies have shown repeatedly that most memories that make it through to the second and third stages have meaning attached to them - a process that scientists refer to as "semantic encoding." The logic here is that we remember things better and retain them longer when there is meaning and/or knowledge attached to them. And as most of us learned early on as children in the classroom that engagement through hands-on activity more effectively cultivates memories that have meaning and knowledge attached to them, versus simply being passively told or shown something new. Teachers often refer to this philosophy as "hands-on is minds-on," and I believe it's the perfect crystallization of how and why interactive, experiential event design can result in long-term memorable and impactful attendee experiences.
The bottom line: It is sometimes no longer enough for events to have a general theme supported by décor, entertainment, and F&B. An initial aesthetic "pop" might dazzle and wow upon first sight, but in order to create lasting memories and mind share, participatory immersion, interaction and engagement is often key.
Align your attendee demographic with the right experiential event elements: Developing an effective program is not solely about the incorporation of interactively-engaging event elements. The best event design companies, including DMCs, will know how to properly align experiential activities with a client's attendee demographic. In order to ensure attendee engagement at an event, which will ultimately lead to optimal post-program buzz and impact, attendees must actually want to participate in what's being offered. Nothing disappoints an event's host company (or the company's event planner) more so than money, time and enthusiasm wasted on a solution that attendees do not connect with.
For example, an evening networking event attended by mostly male professionals aged 45-70 who will wear business attire is probably not the right environment for the currently popular Hashtag Printer (a social media-driven activity that creates buzz) , Body Marbling (a mesmerizingly beautiful tattooing process that makes attendees part of the event aesthetic) or the trendy Silent Disco (an immersive "sub environment" within an event where guests don headphones and dance to music being played just for them). However, our 45-70 year-old attendees can just as easily get their "cool" on in a trendy, interactive manner via offerings such as the Robotic Bartender (a computerized "mixologist" that will create and serve up an attendee's drink order), Virtual Reality Total Immersion Pods (enabling attendees to bungee jump, sky dive or fly fighter jets using immersive 360 degree content) or the Tilt Brush (a virtual reality 3D painting experience that amazes the senses). Event design companies should dig as deeply as their clients will allow them to. Knowing as much detail as possible around who the attendees will be, as well as what the stakeholders want to accomplish overall (both from a corporate-wide perspective and from a program-specific perspective) will help to identify interactive event elements that hit the mark.
What's hot today? As you can tell by the offerings mentioned above, technologically-driven solutions, as well as those offering a creative outlet and / or social media visibility, comprise today's biggest trends in interactive event solutions. Robots that interact with attendees, virtual and augmented reality experiences (yes, they're two different things), social media-integrated activities that allow attendees to personally contribute to the landscape of the event itself and / or share their experience among their personal network --- these are all examples of "hands-on is minds-on" event elements that can truly result in indelible experiences that attendees will be able to recall long after the event has taken place.
To avoid giving away the contents in our arsenal of interactive, experiential solutions (because after all, we do want to keep the phone ringing here at Kuoni), I will share with you that, no matter what the event budget is, there are solutions out there that can drive attendee engagement and not break the bank. For example, while brandable, interactive solutions such as LCD Touchscreen Pod Displays (interactive, branded "storefronts" that feature photo capturing / sharing, product showcasing, video capability, data capturing, etc.) can be hugely impactful and engaging, they can be somewhat pricey. While other highly popular solutions such as The Bumbys (anonymous performance artists who provide "A Fair and Honest Appraisal of Your Appearance" using nothing more than analog typewriters and charming wit) can be easily affordable and often draw the biggest crowd in the room.
How to back your selected interactive activities into an over-arching event story: We're often charged with developing theme concepts that are relevant, timely, fresh and / or supportive of a company's brand and messaging. While this is sometimes a challenging task, there is usually no limit to how a theme or creative idea can be conceptually brought to life utilizing passive event design elements, such as décor, entertainment, creative food and beverage, etc. However, because there is a somewhat limited collection of interactive, experiential activities on the market today, it is not quite as easy to start with an event theme and then follow with well-suited, supporting interactive activities. Sometimes the reverse approach – identifying interactive experiences that will most likely resonate with attendees first and then backing those solutions into a theme concept – is the easier path.
For example, let's assume that you received a proposal from your DMC partner that contained two dozen interactive, experiential event activities for the Welcome Night event of your company's Global Sales Conference. And then let's imagine that you and your DMC partner discussed the nuances of each proposed activity and together pared down the list to your favorite (and most affordable) top five selections. Your list may have included: Body Marbling (as mentioned above), Tilt Brush (also mentioned above), Luster (guest-generated, hashtag-powered mosaics comprised of hundreds of social media-posted images from the event), an LED-Interactive Dance Floor (with real-time animation and music synchronization driven by body movement) and Adult Coloring (a creative, collaborative branding opportunity that leverages the popular trend of therapeutic adult coloring, resulting in a unique "masterpiece" made by your people for your people).
And perhaps you also chose some experiential elements that attendees might not actually participate in actively, yet still offer an experience that I like to call "engagement through amazement," such as creative food and beverage "experiences." Examples include "Dancakes," which are works of art drawn with pancake batter and / or via a 3D printer that uses pancake batter. Or the "Fill'er Up Gastro Garage Guys," who are dressed like mechanics in jumpsuits and masks and who torch things left and right, before suddenly presenting you with a gourmet brioche style donut. Or the Hydroponic Salad Bar where attendants snip fresh greens and herbs from hydroponic towers and customize salads for guests.
Once we know that you want to incorporate these eight offerings, we will then look to back all eight into an overarching theme concept. Now, there are numerous common thread attributes among your eight chosen solutions … Creativity. Artistry. Wonder. Color. Fun. Exploration. … and surely several more.
The next step is to marry any one of these common thread elements with your event's "North Star," a concept I walked you through in my Feb 21st article on Breathing New Life into Frequently Utilized Event Destinations:
"Developing the spin that will make your attendees' experience unique and fresh requires not only research and creative conceptualization, but, whenever possible, a "North Star" comprised of valuable strategic insight to guide attendees' engagement from beginning to end. Having your finger on the pulse of your stakeholder's program-specific goals, their vision, their attendees' interests, demographic and past experiences will help ensure you hit the mark and design a program rooted in empathy and driven by relevancy. Gather as many descriptive adjectives from your stakeholder as you possibly can – what kind of vibe, energy and aesthetic are they envisioning? What kind of words and emotions would they like their attendees to be using and feeling once the program has ended? Throw all of this strategic insight onto a whiteboard under a North Star column, and refer to it often – over and over, as you brainstorm and design your program's overarching event story. Ensure each and every attendee touchpoint underpins the collective strategic guidance in this column. It will drive not only the unique twists you put on your attendees' experiences in a repeat destination, but it will guide you into a rewarding and successful program execution that will have your stakeholders blown away by its relevancy, timeliness, and fresh feel."
Let's assume your North Star column contains the following items for the Global Sales Conference you're planning:
- Openness Unlocked
- Idea Sharing
- Our People are Our Future
- Create Enthusiasm, Energy and Optimism
- Take Risks, Reward Failures Associated with Taking Risks, High Risk equals High Growth
- No Idea is a Bad Idea – this company is a "safe room!"
- Innovate or Die
- Have Fun!
- Attendees should go home with wheels turning, creative juices flowing and ideas popping up non-stop
When I review the North Star attributes listed above, and when I revisit the list of common thread traits that your eight chosen experiential elements have, one potential theme concept that comes to mind for the Welcome Night event is a "No Boundaries Bash." This event concept will nicely underpin your broader program's overarching "event story," in the way that the nature of the eight experiential elements you chose will encourage, showcase and cultivate creativity, participation, sharing, togetherness and innovation. And presumably, those eight interactive offerings will be bolstered by carefully selected passive design elements, such as décor, entertainment, food and beverage… each one chosen by your DMC for its perfect strategic alignment with your North Star attributes.
I'll close this out by saying that incorporating any industry trend into your program, including interactive, experiential elements, solely for the sake of being "on trend" or appearing current, should not be the end game. There will always be instances where the solutions that align best with your goals are conventional, traditional, tried and true, "passive" offerings. And there will always be ways to deliver such solutions in freshly, repackaged ways. The main objective should always be to achieve the strategic goals of the event stakeholder. And should those goals be best achieved by serving up "hands-on is minds-on" interactive experiences, well there are plenty of options out there – and new ones are surfacing all the time. Just look to your North Star to guide you. Always. And if you need more than a North Star to find your way to a truly "unforgettable," "memorable," and/or "impactful" event, ping your DMC partner. We live for this stuff.