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The Value of Experiential Event Design

It seems that over the last couple of years, our industry’s trends and buzzwords have frequently reflected the popularity of incorporating interactive elements into event design. Long before our industry’s trade shows, educational events, and news publications started focusing on this, 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 it as “client enculturation.” Others might call it simply strategic partnering or serving as an extension of a client’s team. Before we get into some of the 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 get proposals from event design companies that promise to deliver “unforgettable,” “memorable,” and “impactful” experiences. More often than not, however, they rely on what I refer to as “passive event design.” Their solutions might deliver an initial “wow”—an intricate entryway, immersive décor inside the room, top-tier entertainment, etc.—but they are forgettable. They might stimulate the attendees’ senses temporarily, but because they’re not participatory, they aren’t a truly unforgettable experience. Here’s why: 

Science has shown that there are three stages to memory: encoding, storage, and recall. 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. Most of us learned early on as children in the classroom that engagement through hands-on activity more effectively cultivates memories 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 attendee experiences that are memorable and impactful for the long term.

Consider Your Demographic
Developing an effective program is not just about incorporating interactive, engaging elements. The best event design companies, including DMCs, know how to align these activities with the attendee demographic. To ensure attendee engagement—and ultimately post-program buzz and impact—attendees must actually want to participate. Nothing disappoints an event’s host company more than money, time, and enthusiasm wasted on a solution that attendees do not connect with.

For example, an evening networking event for mostly male, 45- to 70-year-old professionals wearing business attire is probably not the right environment for the currently popular Hashtag Printer or the trendy Silent Disco. They’re more likely to connect with the Robotic Bartender, Virtual Reality Total Immersion Pods, or the Tilt Brush. Event design companies should dig as deeply as their clients will allow. Knowing as much detail as possible about the attendees, as well as what the stakeholders want to accomplish (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?
Technologically-driven solutions, as well as those offering a creative outlet and/or social media visibility are today’s biggest trends in interactive event solutions. Robots that interact with attendees, virtual- and augmented-reality experiences, social media-integrated activities that allow attendees to contribute to the landscape of the event and/or share their experience with their personal network—these are examples of “hands-on is minds-on” event elements that can truly result in indelible experiences that attendees will recall long after the event.

While brandable, interactive solutions such as LCD Touchscreen Pod Displays can be hugely engaging, they can be somewhat pricey. But impactful doesn’t have to break the bank. Popular solutions such as The Bumbys, the anonymous personal appearance appraisers, are affordable and often draw the biggest crowd in the room.

Create an Overarching Story 
We’re often charged with developing theme concepts that are relevant, timely, fresh and/or support a company’s brand and messaging. While there are endless ways to bring concepts to life with passive event design elements—such as décor, entertainment, and creative food and beverage—the collection of interactive, experiential activities is more limited. It’s 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 resonate with attendees first and then backing those solutions into a theme concept—is the easier path.

For example, let’s say you received a proposal from your DMC with two dozen interactive, experiential activities for the welcome night event at your company’s global sales conference. Then let’s imagine that you and your DMC partner pare down the list to your five favorites—body marbling, tilt brush, luster, an LED-interactive dance floor, and adult coloring. In addition, you chose some experiential elements that attendees don’t participate in actively, yet still offer an experience that I like to call “engagement through amazement.” Examples include “Dancakes,” works of art drawn with pancake batter; the “Fill’er Up Gastro Garage Guys,” who dress like mechanics in jumpsuits and masks and torch things before presenting an attendee with a gourmet brioche-style donut; and 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 at all of them for an overarching theme, perhaps something like creativity, artistry, wonder, color, fun, or exploration. The next step is to marry any one of these common threads with the stakeholders’ “North Star” goals.

Let’s assume your North Star ideas for the event include:
• Openness unlocked
• Idea sharing
• Our people are our future
• Create enthusiasm, energy, and optimism
• Take risks, reward failures associated with taking risks
• No idea is a bad idea—this company is a “safe room!”
• Innovate or die
• Have fun!
• Attendees should go home with creative juices flowing

When I review the North Star attributes and consider your eight experiential elements, a potential theme concept comes to mind: a “No Boundaries Bash.”  This concept will nicely underpin your broader program’s overarching “event story” in the way that the experiential elements will encourage, showcase and cultivate creativity, participation, sharing, togetherness, and innovation.  And presumably, the interactive offerings will be bolstered by carefully selected passive design elements for perfect strategic alignment with your North Star attributes.  

Incorporating any industry trend into your program, including interactive, experiential elements, solely for the sake of being “on trend,” is a mistake. There will always be instances where the solutions that align best with your goals are conventional, traditional, tried and true, “passive” offerings. The main objective should always be to achieve the strategic goals of the event. If those goals are best achieved by serving up “hands-on is minds-on” interactive experiences, there are plenty of options out there—and new ones are surfacing all the time. Just look to your North Star to guide you.

Lisa Paul is the head of marketing and manager of global accounts for Kuoni Destination Management. She is a 26-year industry veteran, a member of WINiT’s 2017 Board of Directors, and has served as co-chair of WINiT’s Conference and Event Planning Committee since 2014. She resides in the Berkshires in West Stockbridge, Mass.

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