Today’s associations are at an inflection point. For many, event attendance is flat or declining, and there is no clear path to turn that around. The hard truth is that the world moves faster than the pace of most association events. With the introduction of so many new technologies and consumer experiences, attendee expectations rise every year. Our audience is thinking: If we can have these things in our daily lives, why can’t we have them at our events?
Most association events suffer from better sameness: Each year, the event is largely the same, with a new coat of paint or an interesting reception venue. Too many are not moving the needle on experiences. Yes, budget is a factor. But some people mistakenly think a big budget is necessary for great experiences.
Instead, planning teams should assess their events through four dimensions: physical, psychological, emotional, and intellectual. This ensures that the needs of attendees are met at every level so that they gain as much from an experience as possible.
Physical: The physical dimension is the platform upon which a live experience is built: the geographic location, venue, staging, seating, etc. The physical dimension of an event must be designed to support an environment that promotes learning, inspiration, enjoyment, and effective communication.
Physiological: The physiological dimension represents the attention that must be focused on the human needs and requirements that create optimal conditions for a receptive attendee. Proper sleep ahead of time, and then movement, exercise, hydration, and nutrition right around the sessions are all important factors that planners can influence.
Emotional: Don’t be naive—the majority of all decisions are driven by emotion. The emotional state you build at an event is crucial to your audience feeling engaged, being receptive, and forming relationships. Building an emotionally engaging environment through lighting, color, pacing, and social engagement is a necessity.
Intellectual: Conferences are where people come to learn. All events are designed to influence knowledge bases and beliefs, and to ultimately change behavior. Creating an environment that inspires an open mind, learning and application of knowledge, and collaborative stimulation is essential.
Don Neal at ASAE's Great Ideas conference
How do you get started on these dimensions? Ask yourself how each of the human senses is represented in your events:
What does it look like? Is it a serious classroom set, or collaborative round tables? Is there natural light and visual variety? Are the surrounding colors relaxing, boring, or distracting?
What does it sound like? Are you playing music with a tempo to match the desired mood, or is there just dead air?
What does it feel like? People can’t focus if they are too cold or too hot. Is the room comfortable? Also, is the schedule packed? Do people feel rushed? Is there white space to step into and recharge for a few minutes?
What does it taste like? Why is so much of the food at events a brownish hue? Make sure there is color, good nutrition, and of course good taste.
What does it smell like? From fresh-baked cookies to the scent of the outdoors, this is something that attendees don’t notice until they do notice it. But smell is the deepest, most primary sense we have, so don’t miss an opportunity to tap into different parts of attendees’ minds and elevate their mood and concentration through scent.
Formerly the CMO at Marsh & McLennan, Don Neal is the founder and CEO of 360 Live Media, an experience-design and marketing agency catering to associations.