What makes a conference truly stand out from others? It’s not necessarily how much money was spent but how many positively memorable and meaningful moments the attendees recall. If you run a store, tourist attraction or other facility, some of the tips you read below may also help you enhance the experience you offer those you seek to serve, and pull them into returning.
Many conferences involve a theme, reinforced through a logo, theme, events, and speakers to create an overall “feel” and value throughout the convention. Why not further reinforce your meeting content and mood by enveloping attendees in planned sequences of memorable moments that involve sensory combinations of smells, tastes, sounds, sights, and even ”touchable” experiences?
Few meetings can or should be able to compete with the sizzle of a modern amusement park or an action movie, but meeting planners and hotel and other site managers can multiple the number of positive exposures attendees experience and thus increase the possibility that those attendees will rave about their meeting.
Conduct a Sensory Exposures Audit
To make the most of the event, conduct a “Sensory Exposures Audit” of all the images to which your attendees will be exposed, from the pre-meeting mailings and other contacts, through the meeting itself and post-meeting reinforcements. Just as political campaigns have “advance agents” who walk through every step of an event ahead of time to consider all that might go right or wrong (from slippery steps to photo-opportunity backdrops), you can mentally visualize each “vignette” attendees might experience.
Ask hotel and convention center staff for photos of the actual colors and patterns most frequently used in their sleeping, eating, meeting, and gathering spaces, and take notes on the combinations during your site visit, so your theme colors and images are compatible and even complementary.
Ask the staff where you’re going to find the most conflicting and comforting background sounds from piped-in music, other meetings, mechanical operations, catering procedures, or beyond-the-facility noises.
Where do the smells go from the cooking and catering areas?
Are the walkways carpeted?
Is the carpet plush or thin?
Is the facility signage large and easy to understand?
What do the chairs feel like?
Are there many comfortable places to relax and converse between organized activities?
Is there much access to natural light (to elevate attendees’ moods) during daytime activities? In short, consider the impact attendees might experience on all the senses.
Drive and walk through the major and minor “paths” your attendees will use from the time they leave an airport (if they use one) to the time they arrive back at the airport and observe what sensory delights they might receive before they go or upon their return.
Storyboard the Meeting Experience
Borrow a storyboarding trick from TV advertisement creators. Write out the meeting “story” as a three-part series of sequences or “exposures” attendees will experience: pre-meeting, meeting, and post-meeting.
For each “exposure” that the attendee will experience:
1. Write a brief description of the exposure in chronological sequence, as the attendee is most likely to experience it, down pages of paper in one of three columns: positive, negative, and neutral (exposures).
Describe how the exposure is most likely to be experienced. For example:
* positive: Candid photos taken as they enter the opening-night mixer, placed in pressed-board white frames inscribed with the meeting theme and hung on fishline strings in the buffet breakfast room the next day for their take-away souvenir.
* negative: Inevitably long treks between certain meeting rooms
* mostly neutral: Conventionally decorated hotel rooms
2. Then write out what the potential attendee will see, hear, smell, taste, and/or touch. How many of the senses can you include in each exposure to make it more positively memorable?
Try creating more “low-tech” sensory experiences, such as more human touch. Increase the number of times an attendee is greeted by name or a handshake. Two studies were done in 1996 and 2006 in which two groups experienced the same public event, with the only difference that people in one group were safely touched (for example, shaking hands, touch on the top of the hand) just twice in a three-hour period. The so-called “touched group” described the people sponsoring the event as more intelligent, caring, and good looking than did the other group.
Try higher-tech sensory moments, such as scenting a general session in keeping with the speaker and convention theme, gradually changing the scent three times, from lemon to lime to suntan lotion during the course of the 40-minute, midwinter, pre-lunch keynote speech. Lightly scent the handouts to match. Technology does now make it possible to scent to refresh, relax, or renew ñ without allergic reactions.
You’ll begin to see your meeting as a theatrical production, considering the attendees’ every waking moment. The possible payoffs? You’ll find ways to move more of the exposures to the positive side, often not through more costs but through changes in planning.
Inflame Their Imaginations
For a “negative” exposure such as a long, boring walk between meeting rooms, you could “Burma Shave” the build-up of interest and excitement in the trek with a sequence of messages on stands or on the walls, like the old highway signs of rhyming phrases car passengers passed on long stretches of road. The messages could build suspense toward the identity of award recipients, an entertainment event with a surprise guest, a contest they can win with the right answer for a vendor, or a trivia contest that encourages attendees and exhibitors to talk.
Messages could also be placed in sequence around corners and on the way into meeting rooms, some with cryptic instructions to look under their chairs for more.
Related messages can also appear on the backs of meeting leaders at the podium, who turn for attendees to read them, followed by some of the waiters who appear to serve each other “back” messages. Other messages and clues and teasers might appear under attendees’ hotel room doors while they sleep, next to their plates at lunch, or on the seminar handout on their seats.
Prior to the meeting you might send a “Burma Shave” series of postcards (sending them with increasing frequency as the event approaches) offering more reasons to attend and to sign up early. For example, the first postcards for a midwinter meeting in a sunny locale might be a series with images of blue water and yellow sun, messages to come prepared for warm sun and sizzling topics, and scented with coconut suntan lotion.
Send companion messages via e-mail, directing attendees to your web site for a convention preview and contest.
Use the Suspense-Building Tricks of Blockbuster Movies
As in a blockbuster movie, the most important exposures are the “opening scene”, the handling of potentially slow times, the climax, and the ending. Many meetings have a slow, unexciting beginning (hotel check-in, meeting registration, dead time before the first meeting).
Make Attendees Feel Coddled and Cared For from the First Moments of Their Arrival
Consider having a team of people greet arrivals at the hotel door(s), perhaps in costume and certainly giving them a welcome gift. Make the gift fun to see, touch, and taste. Have a second gift waiting for them in their room, perhaps a contest announcement. The more cared for attendees feel up front, the more they will perceive subsequent meeting experiences in a positive light, want to participate, and forgive later mishaps.
“Move” to Emotion and Playtimes
In all waiting times, from registration to coffee areas, plan amusements that catch the eye or that people can hold or play with or hear. For example, have modern clowns or ventriloquists or magicians roam the gathering areas around registration areas to build movement, excitement, and involvement. Or mimes might follow and imitate attendees in gentle fun, perhaps giving mementos provided by exhibitors that make them eligible for a drawing if they visit the booths.
Let Them Literally “Picture” Themselves Having Fun
Create ways to get attendees involved and interested soon after they arrive. The best ways are to get them in motion and to let them see motion around them, because motion literally increases the emotion people feel. Here are some examples:
1. A videographer can capture attendees’ responses to the interactions for later use in a continuous-feed loop shown on TV monitors at eye-level in gathering places between meeting rooms.
2. The videographer can interview people for their opinion on a meeting topic and/or comments on a favorite co-attendee. Let the resultant video run as a continuous-feed loop on eye-level TV monitors for future waiting times.
3. Several photographers with digital cameras can photograph groups and individuals. These can be shown in rotation as a “Meeting Montage” on a central wall that attendees see frequently.
Eavesdropping on Conversations Along the Way
Consider adding some “localized sound” along the “paths” attendees will walk. At strategic times and in excitement-starved places, put portable audiotape and CD machines. Obviously the security of needed equipment is a consideration, so you’ll want to place equipment where staff or volunteers can see it. Consider the registration area or inside the doors people enter for banquets.
The “sounds” can be music, related to the meeting theme, or sound bites of attendees who have been interviewed about their advice or praise for their peers, or an “Eavesdrop”: lively conversation between meeting leaders about the meeting high points. Change the tapes sometimes so attendees can look forward to new experiences.
Sweet Smell of Success
At an association conference designed to strengthen member unity and celebrate success, our theme was “Success is Sweet.” Here ís one way:
When participants enter the opening evening “Five Heavenly Chocolates” mixer in a ballroom, they are enveloped in the enticing, wafting scent of chocolate from the AromaSys-designed scent machines. As they arrive, they are given scented “player cards” with the name and “stats” of a person’s accomplishments, printed in brown ink in the format of a baseball card, and invited to find the person who matches the accomplishments. Huge enlargements of the cards are projected on the walls and constantly changing.
When attendees find their person, they can return to get a new card for a different person. The ten people who find the most matches win chocolate player-card prizes and chocolate “MVP” statues later in the evening. People can use roving mikes to ask for help in finding their person. As attendees mingle, a singer’s song list naturally features chocolate and athletic themes.
Continue the Story Through the Meeting
At breakfast the next day, all attendees receive two forms: one to fill out their own MVP player accomplishments and another to fill out for a colleague they admire, who is attending the convention. All attendees who fill out forms are eligible to have their photo taken for their own two-sided MVP Player card, enlarged to poster size. The poster of the attendee who is most written up by his or her colleagues is blown up to wall size and mounted on a wall the last day of the convention, when the person’s name is announced with game music in the background and a rally squad dancing to celebrate.
Make Memories Palpable in a “High Touch and “High Tech” Way
Before the convention even starts, lay out a post-meeting newsletter filled with comments the speakers will offer, awards announcements, and news of important dates. Include actions such as signing up for the next meeting or volunteering for a committee.
Leave places for photos and attendee comments you gather during the convention. Place them in the holes left in the newsletter, and then quick-copy and label the newsletter on the last day of the convention so attendees receive this unexpected “Meeting Memento” very soon after returning home. Send an e-mail version of the newsletter, too, with a “Thank you for participating” message.
Make Meeting Memory Reminders, Sent Home
A week later, send a gift pack of gifts provided by some exhibitors, along with their product offers, and your message, again thanking attendees and reminding them of the calls for action on their part. Few meetings include immediate follow-up to attendees. Fewer still follow up more than once, soon after a meeting. Stand out in their senses and their minds, so they’ll step forward for your next meeting. In Convene Magazine discover more ways to make your conference meaningful