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  • Kari Lynn Larsen

experiential conferences – a nicety or a necessity?

What makes a great conference these days? The atmosphere of being immersed in a crowd of people who share the same passion as you? The lessons you learn and advice you take in? The friends you meet up with and the new ones you make? Most people leave a good conference re-energized – full of passion for their job and bursting with fresh ideas. But how do we ensure these learning’s stay top of mind with the attendees throughout the year?

The biggest challenge in planning conferences today is keeping up with a world where the only constant is change. With shorter attention spans and the increase in desire to be entertained, guests don’t want to watch the action from their chairs; they want to be a part of it.

High-sensory experiences lead to a greater emotional connection, which can ultimately drive better brand recognition, increased sales, loyal client retention, and behavioural change – ensuring it’s an impactful event for those attendees, who will walk away with lasting memories.

This need for greater engagement has resulted in an increase in the demand for experiential learning. This demand is what makes bringing people together and building relationships and bonds at conferences so important. Let’s face it, “networking by the watercooler” no longer exists in today’s virtual office environment.

When setting out to develop an experiential meeting design, there are eight stages that include almost every interaction attendees can and might have for a conference or event. These include:

1) Announcement of the event,

2) Attracting the participants to attend,

3) Anticipating their involvement,

4) Arriving at the event,

5) Entering the event space,

6) Engaging in the content,

7) Exiting and departures, and

8) Extending the experience.

Experiencing the Announcement

Each and every conference has a purpose – a message to deliver.We believe that the first step to making a conference memorable is thinking about how you want your attendees to experience the “Announcement”.This begins immediately with the request to attend.If you’re sending out digital invitations, try using video to announce the conference details – keeping in mind that a picture is worth a thousand words!If you’re sending print invitations – add a sensory element to it.Play with the texture of the invitation, include some sort of fragrance, or even consider having an audio chip inserted into the card.

Attracting the attendees When creating an agenda for your conference, ensure it has content that the audience can’t afford to miss. It’s essential to include business and personal growth topics to make it desirable and relatable for your attendees. You want your attendees to be excited to be there, and stay for the entire duration of the conference – so be creative when scheduling speakers, and activities throughout the course of the agenda.

Anticipating personal involvement Consider adding some pre-conference thinking or “home-work” in the invitation. Asking attendees to do research on certain topics, themes or pre-reading of a certain speaker can really pay off, and in return… make for greater interest and retention on-site. Prepare a scavenger hunt of items that participants must find and bring to the conference. For example, lyrics to a particular song, pictures of images they believe represent them, a childhood photo, etc. The sooner you can get the attendees involved, the sooner you’ve started creating a set of memorable experiences for them.

Arriving at the meeting or event

If the conference attendees are receiving a welcome package or a gift bag upon arrival, consider creating a boutique experience in the registration area, and allow the guests to choose their gift bag items. Whether it’s a choice of different snacks, carbonated, still or vitamin water, water bottles or coffee thermos’ or even a choice of personalized lanyards for their namebadges, not only will the participants be appreciative of the choice, but this encourages engagement with each other which is what we ultimately strive for with each and every encounter.

Entering the event space If you really want to be unique, consider all the room set up options and then throw them out! Why not remove all the tables in the meeting room? Try using alternative seating options such as beanbag chairs, or bleacher seating. This encourages the guests to think differently when they enter the room and removes the habit/routine of sitting in one spot at a table, and staying there for the entire day.

Engaging in the content

Hands-on exercises can range from teams competing to build the best giant sandwich, blindfolded cake decorating, or completing a puzzle where the pieces are scattered amongst a larger group. While at first they may think they need to only work within their group to win, in time they will learn that in reality, they must all work together to complete the challenge. Cohesion, co-operation and creativity are all encouraged, learned and remembered from this simple challenge.

Another suggestion is to place a branded cardboard “bento box” at each seat, including items such as coloured pencils, a journal, sticky notes, mints and candy, or Silly Putty or Play-Doh to keep the guest’s hands and minds engaged.

These are all high-sensory experiential items that add to the day’s engagement. If you feel attendees are starting to look bored or complacent, breakout a Play-Doh challenge, giving them a short exercise that encourages some right-brain thinking. The same thing can be done by providing custom branded ETCHA sketches. Sometimes it’s about going back to the fundamentals, and simply encouraging that creative, and sensory-type of thinking.

Exiting the meeting

When the conference is over, it doesn’t mean that the experiences should end there. As guests leave, consider giving them a branded snack bag for the road. Another recommendation would be a thank-you gift of fortune cookies, with customized fortunes inside that include quotes from the conference speakers. This is an easy way to extend their learning’s and make their departures another memory to keep.

Extending the experience We all want our conference attendees to keep the conference content top of mind long after they depart the event. You can keep the experience going post-conference by creating experiential activities such as social media contests. Ask participants to submit Facebook posts or Twitter feeds, summing up their experiences at the conference. Not only does this encourage involvement after the conference is completed, but it’s also a great way to get others involved in the conversation. We are by nature a group of competitive individuals, who love a challenge with a prize at the end, so consider giving entries and winners something to excite them about the next year’s event. Also include a countdown calendar, with a conference destination and preliminary content for the next conference. There’s no better time to get commitment for next year than right after the current conference ends.

If you are interested in incorporating some of these experiential techniques into your next program, contact Dragonfly Meeting Solutions Inc. We can provide you with some of the most creative, and memorable ideas while you sit back and watch your attendees explore their surroundings.

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