Designing Meetings: Consider the ‘Why’

by Harvey Chipkin

Are best practices always best? That question was asked at a seminar during the recent Convening Leaders conference of the Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA) in Boston.

Greg Bogue, an experience architect with Maritz Travel, and Gary Schirmacher, senior vice president of Experient, discussed ways to explore best principles for experiential meeting design.

“Forward-thinking planners now approach events with discovery and exploration of the best design principles that will help to achieve objectives and desired attendee experience,” Bogue and Schirmacher told attendees.

Following are highlights of the session:

Consider the “why” factor when designing meetings, not just the “what” and the “how”
•    Rethink best practices, which are usually done repeatedly because you have become proficient at them.

Instead, think of best principles – those things you really believe in – and build on them. A best principle is a framework used for thinking. It might be time to view things through a different frame.

Re-think the experience
•    A recent American Express study found that nearly half of all travelers want trips with more substance. That should apply to meetings too. People want substance; events that will provide them with greater value.

•    The meetings industry needs to rethink the definition of experience to include direct observation of, or participation in, events as a basis of knowledge. An experience is a memorable event that engages the guest in a personal way and evolves over time.

•    Consider what many hotel companies are doing to make this type of thinking part of the guest experience. Put yourself in the guest’s shoes. It’s time to put humanity into planning.

•    Novelty is crucial. Many promise novelty but deliver nothing special. Do reverse engineering. What is your guest expecting? Write that down and then come up with something other than that.

•    Live music adds to any event by providing a pleasant surprise when attendees enter rooms. One event allowed tweeting song requests. At another, five songwriters were brought in. Each took a group into a separate room where they wrote songs based on the meeting content.

•    Lighting also provides tremendous options for changing the environment.

Map it
•    Do a “journey map” – an “emotional road map” of the event. Maritz designs meetings to include a series of phases – from entering the room to leaving it – with a half dozen phases in between.

•    Map the event according to the emotional highs and lows. The ideal is to get to the point where emotions can be measured effectively. It should be possible to find out that the audience doesn’t like a particular speaker. It should also be possible to spot the “zone of nothing special.”

If you’re bored, they’re bored. The brain continuously needs new stimuli. The ordinary needs to be interrupted. Think of the map as an event heartbeat – with emotional highs and lows.

Simplicity is key
•    The brain is like a bargain shopper. It compares value versus effort when it processes information. The brain loves simplicity. Planners should boil a meeting down to one word.

In a recent interview filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola said he would advise novices to find the organizing principle of their movies and carry it all the way through. The one word carried throughout the making of “The Godfather” was “succession,” for “Apocalypse Now”, it was “morality.”

Focusing on one word forces you to make hard decisions. How does this work in practice? A recent meeting used the word: “exchange.” That translated into attendees bringing their favorite business books and exchanging them with their colleagues. That was the first of a series of exchanges.

Build to a great ending
•    For the final session, when many seats are usually empty, consider changing the configuration so that the room appears full. Attendees will leave remembering that.

•    People have a bias for intense, short periods of input, especially at the end of an event.

Make it memorable
•    Planners can create a more memorable experience if they can trigger emotions. You want attendees to talk about what happened. “Remarkable” means they remarked on it. Think about what people will be saying about the event after it’s over.

•    Distinguish between the “experiencing” self, which experiences the event at the moment, and the “remembering” self which will talk about it later. That’s key to the success of an event.

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