Event Trends: Building a Healthier Attendee Experience

Imagine you’re an attendee sitting through a long morning of education at a three-day conference. You’re trying your best to absorb all the great ideas and interesting bits of information being thrown at you from the stage, yet your energy is dropping—fast. You’re having a really hard time staying awake and engaged, and then something unexpected happens. Just as the presentation ends, an energetic woman in brightly colored workout clothing jumps on stage and Latin-themed dance music fills the ballroom. She asks: “Are you ready to Zumba?” A surprise afternoon Zumba break, or a 10-minute session of simple and high-energy dance, is one example of a growing trend in meeting and event programming: healthier lifestyle features and activities designed to support attendee well-being. It doesn’t have to be Zumba that pulls you out of a glassy-eyed stare at the projector screen to feel more awake and refreshed. Healthier food and snack options, outdoor group activities and free time, and morning fitness programs can be added to events to help attendees be more engaged, energized and able to retain more information, and have a more productive conference experience. “I think wellness is becoming more prevalent at events because people are more concerned about health in general,” says Tamara Kennedy-Hill, executive director of the Green Meeting Industry Council, producers of the annual Sustainable Meetings Conference. “When they go to events, they don’t want to have to sacrifice what they normally do.” Incorporating wellness activities doesn’t have to be reserved for young audiences, says Kennedy-Hill. “For associations or groups that have an older crowd, walking tours or pre- and post-event activities are becoming pretty common. Oftentimes, organizations link a charity connection to that, so they might do fun runs, for example. Those are pretty common trends that haven’t gone away and are becoming more visible because they’ve become expected.” Here are some of the biggest wellness trends picking up steam at meetings and the activities that have made health and wellness an integral part of conference offerings. Healthier Food Options wellness_foodoptions As more people become educated about food—where it comes from and what they want to put in their bodies, for example—it only makes sense that healthier meal and snack options would be gaining more traction in the meetings landscape. And the fact is a well-nourished attendee is a more productive attendee, so event planners are designing menus to support energy and learning. As an event producer who works primarily with nonprofit organizations, Heather Mason, president of A Caspian Production, says she has definitely seen a dramatic shift toward healthier event food within the past decade. “The heavy-laden cookies, brownies and sugary afternoon breaks are not part of what we do,” says Mason. “We do granola bars, apples and bananas. We still offer cookies because you can’t quite delete them altogether, but I think you have to have a lot of healthy fare. That is a significant movement.” But while healthier eating has become more of the norm, so has the prevalence of food allergies and dietary restrictions. And for planners, that means being prepared and providing menu options that can accommodate all types of dietary needs, including gluten-free, vegan and vegetarian. Accommodating this growing trend has become a big focal point for the National Speakers Association’s annual convention, says Cara Tracy, director of professional development. “I take great care to accommodate our attendees with special dietary needs by working closely with those attendees and the hotel,” says Tracy. “At last year’s convention, almost 10 percent of our attendees had some sort of dietary requirements, not including those requesting vegetarian meals. My staff follows up personally with each registrant prior to the meeting to let them know we received their request, ask clarifying questions and find out which meals they will be attending. I also work closely with my convention services manager to come up with a plan for buffets and food stations, plated meals and box lunches.” Additional efforts include labeling various food items on buffets that contain potential allergens, such as peanuts, tree nuts, milk and dairy, eggs, wheat and gluten, soy, fish, shellfish and corn, making sure all banquet staff are knowledgeable about food ingredients and providing a special on-site contact person that can address any attendee dietary issues or concerns. For GMIC’s Sustainable Meetings Conference, dietary wellness is not only about serving healthy fare but also designing menus that use locally sourced ingredients. “A lot of what we do around wellness is really looking at sustainable food sourcing, brain food for delegates and physical activity or down time for attendees,” says Kennedy-Hill. Locally sourced foods are a requirement for GMIC when looking for a conference venue. “What really helped us in Montreal [in 2012] was paying attention to the pride of local culture… We wanted to showcase local and highlight sustainable while at the same time balance energy levels for attendees and keep to our limited budget.” And that’s the sticking point for a lot of planners: cost. Cookies and brownies may be cheaper snack options compared to fresh fruit, nuts, yogurt, cheese and other healthier bites, but more alert and attentive conference participants get more value out of the conference. Plus, sourcing local foods can be more cost-effective than shipping salmon cross-country because your attendees want a seafood meal. If your meeting is on the coast, find out what fish is native to the area. If you’re landlocked, consider skipping fish altogether. A portion of your attendees inevitably will prefer cookies over healthy options, but the fact that more events are offering a greater variety of nutritious food is encouraging, says 20-year events professional Dianne Budion-Devitt, who has made wellness a major component of her work as an event strategist and speaker. “I love that food awareness is growing,” says Devitt. “I’ve always been an advocate. I was putting spinach in my buffets when people were looking at me like I was Popeye. We can’t force anyone into a lifestyle choice, that is not what we’re here to do…but what we can do is design menus [and ask questions] based on the flow of the event. Where do we want to pick up energy? Do we serve protein? Where do we want to relax people? We can work with professional nutritionists and design fabulous menus and themed menus that keep the energy up.” Fitness Activities wellness_zumbaNothing helps people feel better and more alert than a little physical exercise. Emily Dredd, founder and CEO of Leading Well, a wellness solutions company, says physical activity not only helps keep attendees’ blood flowing, it also increases information retention and positive memories of an event experience. “Several recent studies have shown that bursts of activity several times a day can be more beneficial than a concentrated gym workout after sitting all day,” says Dredd. “Other research has found that sitting more than three hours at a time can boost the aging process. As this research becomes more mainstream, conference planners are becoming more and more eager to get people moving during all-day or extended-length events.” Whether first thing in the morning or between education sessions, yoga, movement and fitness classes held in conference spaces are becoming a more common sight as more organizations recognize how effective exercise can be in getting attendees energized, clear-headed and rejuvenated. “A lot of organizers and clients we work with want to offer yoga in the morning and maybe a hike in the afternoon after lunch to wake people up,” says Mason. “So it’s kind of building that space in the early morning so it doesn’t impact our general session, then building in that one afternoon break. I think people are paying attention more to the way folks’ biorhythms are set. We don’t want to sit down in a room and listen to someone speak from a stage right after lunch unless you’ve had a lot of coffee, and we all know that that’s pretty unhealthy now.” Not every attendee is going to want to wake up at the crack of dawn to attend a yoga class, especially if they’ve never practiced yoga before and aren’t sure what they’re doing. The solution? Integrate fun, bite-size fitness sessions into the afternoon programming so everyone can participate without feeling intimidated, says Kennedy-Hill. “We broke up some of the rhythm and flow of the sessions by [incorporating] five-minute, all-attendee Zumba breaks,” says Kennedy-Hill. “It wasn’t what our attendees expected, but because it was built into the flow of the meeting architecture, it encouraged everyone to participate, feel safe doing so and have fun. I think what people didn’t realize is by doing that, they were mentally more focused in the session and they felt better. Immediately the energy in the room shifted.” Leveraging outdoor amenities for wellness activities in pool areas, golf courses and gardens can be a great option for some groups. From power walks and bike rides to hikes and fun runs for teambuilding or charity, organized outdoor activities allow attendees to work up a sweat and enjoy the scenery while building group camaraderie. Taking wellness activities into creative outdoor spaces has become a favorite practice for Kristen Roget, senior meeting and event manager at Experient, who has been helping with the American College Health Association’s Annual Meeting for the past five years, gradually integrating wellness into its conference programming. “We did a little bit at a time with ACHA, as sometimes budgets can be a challenge,” says Roget. “Besides adjusting their menus, the second component was to get people moving. They sit in education sessions all day long with very little time in between to walk around, so we identified some opportunities to do some things, such as early mornings and maybe during a break. For example, we’ve done tai chi on a river walk—that sure beats doing it in a windowless ballroom.” Although fitness buffs and social types may enjoy capitalizing on such activities, some attendees may enjoy the option of unwinding and recharging through quieter and more passive means, such as chair massage and ergonomically designed lounge areas. In addition, some events are seeing the benefits in providing short breaks right after lunch or prior to evening programming, times when attendees may opt to take a walk, check email or take a nap. Intermittent breaks can go a long way in improving the attendee experience, says Mason. “I’ve watched enough general session rooms fall asleep to know that the hour right after lunch is not very useful,” says Mason. “People might get away or go to sleep, so why are we keeping it? We have to look at all the studies about classroom learning and what works and what doesn’t. [We] all know that there is a finite human attention span, so the more tuned in we become to biology and physiology, the better we’re going to program a day of activities, whether that be general session learning, networking, sitting or eating, that actually follows what the human body and the human mind is made to do.” Tailored Programming wellness_programmingWhether or not wellness features and activities are received with enthusiasm by attendees can depend on several factors, including group demographics and personal habits. So instead of expecting throngs of people to show up at a 7 a.m. yoga class, have realistic expectations and understand that designing the right wellness programming for your group may be a process of trial and error, says Roget. “You really have to know your group,” says Roget. “If you think [wellness is] something your conference needs, then can you really look at the menu, offer leaner options, healthier breaks and add wellness components like classes, whether education or activity-based? Look at the destination and city you’re in and offer experiences that fit the facility. For example, if you’re in Hawaii, do something on the beach. If you have a great spa or pool, do water aerobics in the pool or yoga at the pool—that will help [build] the excitement.” To encourage participation, leverage your messaging and communication before and during the event to let attendees know what you’re doing and why you’re doing it, as well as how your wellness programming will benefit them. For example, if sustainability matters to your organization, explain why you’re eliminating shuttle buses and asking attendees to walk to the venue instead. Offer free pedometers and find fun, creative ways to incentivize their use, such as step challenges and other competitive games. To address any potential pushback from attendees or stakeholders, planners should consider heading negative misperceptions off at the pass by using messaging to clarify and make a case for the value proposition and how these features add value to event content, suggests Mason. And adding wellness activities to events can make them a little more fun, too. “If someone feels comfortable and balanced when they attend an event, they’re going to keep coming back and they’re going to talk about it in a positive note,” says Devitt. “I do hope and I do believe that the trend in the next few years will be recognizing that we’re not autotrons and that we need time to play, to sit and absorb what we’ve learned, to sit and speak and talk to people, that we need simple fun. It’s designing events with people in mind—that’s the key.”