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For More Memorable Meetings, Walk in Your Attendees’ Shoes

Techniques like a sensory exposure audit and storyboarding can help you understand—and improve—the attendee experience.

What makes a meeting truly stand out from others? It’s not necessarily how much money was spent, but rather how many positive, memorable moments an attendee recalls.

To get a handle on the flow of experiences in your meeting, start your planning with a “sensory exposure audit” of what attendees will experience, from pre-meeting communication through the meeting itself and then afterwards. Just as political campaigns have “advance agents” who walk through every step of an event to consider all that could go right or wrong, you can mentally visualize each “vignette” that attendees could encounter.

During your site inspection, drive and walk through the main paths your attendees will use from the time they leave the airport until they arrive at the hotel or conference facility. Consider the colors and patterns in the meeting, eating, and informal-gathering spaces so that your event's theme, colors, and images can be compatible and even complementary with what's already on site. Ask the staff about minimizing conflicting background sounds from piped-in music, other hotel guests or other meetings, mechanical operations, catering procedures, or elements just outside the facility.

Other sensory questions to consider:
• Where do the smells go from the cooking and catering areas?
• Are the walkways carpeted?
• Are walkway and meeting-space carpets plush or thin?
• Is facility signage large and easy to understand?
• Is session seating comfortable enough for extended use?
• Are there comfortable places to relax and converse between organized activities?
• Is there access to natural light during at least some activities?

Storyboard the Meeting Experience
You could borrow a trick from the advertising world: Write out a meeting's “story” as a series of moments or exposures: pre-meeting, meeting, and post-meeting. For each exposure, write a brief description noting if each encounter is positive, negative, or neutral. For example:
Positive: Candid photos taken as attendees enter the opening-night mixer, placed in pressed-board white frames inscribed with the meeting theme and hung on fish line in the breakfast room the next day as a take-home souvenir.
Negative: Long treks between certain meeting rooms.
Mostly neutral: Conventionally decorated hotel rooms.
Next, write out what attendees will see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. How many of the senses can you include to make the exposure more positively memorable?

You can add low-tech sensory experiences, such as more human touch, by simply increasing the number of times an attendee is greeted by name, a wave, or a handshake. In studies conducted a few years back, two groups experienced the same public event, but the only difference was that people in one group were touched lightly twice in a three-hour period (for example, through shaking hands or a touch on the top of the hand or forearm). The group that was touched described the people sponsoring the event as more intelligent, caring, and good-looking than did the other group.

Another idea for creating sensory moments is scenting a general session to match the speaker and convention theme. For example, you could gradually change the scent a few times—from lemon to lime to suntan lotion—during the course of a 40-minute keynote speech, lightly scenting the handouts to match. Technology now makes it possible to deliver scents that refresh, relax, or renew—without allergic reactions.

From all this, you’ll begin to view your meeting as a theatrical production, where you’re working to make more of the exposures positive—often not through more cost but through simple changes in planning.

One technique to counter a potentially negative exposure: “Burma-Shave” it. Burma-Shave brand of shaving cream was famous for advertising along highways with small sequential signs that kept travelers reading across long stretches of road. Could that work for a long walk between meeting rooms to build interest and excitement? Your messages could build suspense toward the identity of award recipients or the surprise entertainer. Messages could also include instructions for attendees to look under their session chairs for more information. You could take it further with related messages appearing on the backs of speakers at the podium, who turn around so that attendees to read the message, or on the waitstaff serving dinner. The same technique works well pre-meeting, using a series of postcards that provide various clues or reasons to register for the event.

Some of the most important exposures can be during slow or less-exciting times: hotel check-in, meeting registration, and downtime before the first session. This is when you have a chance to make a positive impression that attendees aren’t expecting. Try these:
• Have a team of people greet arrivals at the hotel entrance, perhaps in costume and/or with a welcoming gift. Make the gift fun to see, touch, or taste. Have a second gift waiting for them in their room, perhaps a contest announcement. The more attendees feel cared for, the more they will perceive all the other meeting experiences in a positive light.
• Whenever you ask attendees to wait, plan amusements that catch the eye or that people can hold, play with, or hear. For example, a magician might roam the registration area to build involvement and excitement. Or mimes could follow and imitate attendees in gentle fun, perhaps handing out mementos provided by exhibitors that make attendees eligible for a drawing if they visit the booths.
• To get attendees involved, get them in motion and to let them see motion around them, because motion increases the emotions that people feel.

While meetings aren't meant to be an amusement park or an action movie, planners can be deliberate in increasing the number of positive exposures, which increases the likelihood that attendees will rave about their meeting once it ends.

Speaker, consultant, and author Kare Anderson, principal at Say It Better, works with companies to improve employee performance, collaboration, and loyalty.

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