As speculation continues to stir, some destinations are beginning to reopen and dabble into the future of in-person programs. The deeper question though is how can planners ease into reintroducing live events, while still sharing a sense of excitement and benefit for attending? The answer lies in reimagining the way we plan, promote and produce an event. Aside from implementing extended health and safety measures, the event landscape has evolved once again. Placed on a hiatus include elaborate food and beverage displays, flashy networking receptions and drawn out presentations—what matters now is the value for our attendees and clients. We must find a way to bring back the soul of live events.
The soul of an event represents the intangible takeaway attendees will gain: the feeling they are left with as they leave an eye-opening session, the camaraderie of being in the presence of like-minded peers, and the palpable energy that will resonate long after the event has ended. The soul of an event is collectively comprised of the diverse members and partners in attendance, the new connections formed, and the priceless memories made.
Where to Begin? It Starts with the Name.
When we reflect on our favorite conferences, many of them share an impactful title to reign in the start of a new opportunity and give people a glimpse into the purpose of the program. The titles that come to mind include:
> Remembering our Roots
> Charting the Course
> Building Solutions and Equity for All
Though program taglines may seem rudimentary, establishing a theme can fulfill several significant goals. First, it provides prospects with a purpose to attend. If a novice customer is interested in user training for software, a name like “Inspire” draws them in and stokes enthusiasm about product updates. In addition, a theme enables you to build from the focus of the event with complementary graphics to create a cohesive brand. “Remembering our Roots” derived from a global summit centered on tourism. Our marketing department designed elements to emulate trees and the symbolism of history, growth and community. Finally, an event theme is the easiest way to present the essence of a program. A label as classic as “Connect” illustrates the scope of the program—to network and gain new connections.
The New Wave of Networking
Networking is a core component of almost every event, and the way it’s facilitated plays a huge role in the effectiveness of the program and attendee satisfaction.
Before COVID-19 brought live events to a near screeching halt, our industry was right on the cusp of uncovering the secret behind successful networking. Most of us can agree the days of after-session happy hours are on a pause. Small talk has become tiresome. Mixers with signature cocktails and name badges will require greater ingenuity. In a time when people are craving genuine connection and human interaction, we must create authentic opportunities for attendees to engage.
Virtual networking is effective, but also limited. Live events should focus on innovative networking solutions, unlike anything that could ever be recreated in a virtual setting. A perfect example of this practice was Frisco’s dog-friendly area at the 2019 Connect Conference in Louisville.
Connect 2019 set-up a “Puppy Play Area” where attendees could pet and play with dogs who were also available for adoption. What better way to spark a natural conversation with a total stranger than through a common love for dogs? The irresistible fur friends convened an excited crowd, breaking down the barriers or expectations of a typical 1:1 meeting. This proved to facilitate organic, casual conversations among attendees—all for a great cause.
Connect identified a common interest and used it to foster new connections. This approach should be applied by all event professionals to cultivate experiences that will generate a lasting impact. Virtual events, even those that try to create “phydigital” moments, lack the magic of in-person programs. It is this socially driven sparkle that we need to bring forth to shape the soul of live events.
Education with Intention
The accessibility of virtual events has enabled people to reclaim their time and be more selective with how they choose to spend it.
With the click of a button, attendees can easily wander in and out of webinars and multitask during virtual meetups. People now appreciate the convenience of digital environments and feel familiar with the features. With that, how do we demonstrate that an in-person session is worth attending again, and how do we keep people engaged from start to finish?
Event professionals must take their planning a step further by embracing the attendee perspective of, “what’s in it for me?” Establishing clear and tangible objectives for each component of the event will showcase the holistic benefits of the overall experience.
> Create a comprehensive agenda. We often find program itineraries are only fully finalized the day of the event. Understandably so, as locations are secured and speakers are confirmed, details gradually come together. However, before an event launch, the website should at least outline the basic functions with clever captions to capture an audience. Throughout the duration of the planning process, the agenda should be continually revisited and updated with refined descriptions. A program should speak for itself and communicate the value of your event from beginning to end.
> Provide key takeaways. Each session should include a clear depiction of the forthcoming presentation and deliverables for attendees. Along with a speaker’s talking points, what practicable information and resources will benefit attendees and how can that information be used to better serve them? Categorize these main topics through tracks. Highlight the experts known for their craft. Cite the solutions to meet challenges. This is your chance to verbalize the educational value of the overall program.
> Prioritize quality over quantity. The goal of an agenda is not to fill up 8-hour days with full schedules. Ask yourself: Who is the target audience? Do you have a firm grasp on the specific and evolving needs of their industry? What topics would spark the most interest? Identifying these key points will help you develop an agenda that aligns with the personal goals and professional priorities of your clientele. More than ever, the content relevance and format will determine how attendees respond to the overall event.
Reviewing the value of each session in comparison to the broader program will allow you to reaffirm if all elements harmonize with the soul of the event. Remember these principles and feel empowered to revamp how educational material is presented.
Greatness in the Making
When in–person events do return, and we’re confident they will, event planners need to be ready to adapt and realign to the collective purpose of our industry. Ultimately, attendees are going to respond differently, and we’ve dialed it down to three types of groups:
> The Eager Extrovert: Some people (especially in our industry) are excited to get back to business and be in experiential surroundings again. Since day one, they’ve missed face-to-face moments and are unimpressed with FaceTime alternatives. For this cluster, it will be easier to reel them in with stand-out activities.
> The Quiet Observer: Most are still weighing their concerns and budget constraints when it comes to in-person programs. Some have even expressed a new preference for digital experiences. For them, it’s important to be transparent about event protocol and perhaps extend a discounted offer to show support.
> The Hybrid Pathfinder: Teetering on the border of FOMO and JOMO (Joy of Missing Out), this group falls in the middle of wanting to attend in-person and still accept virtual invitations. They may bask in the convenience of Zoom, yet boast with elation when interacting with others. Share a balance of both styles with live and on-demand sessions.
The epitome of in-person programs is to inspire, connect and educate an intermix of individuals, backgrounds and interests. As we continue to accept and adjust to our industry’s “new normal,” remember the core purpose of our profession and the main essence of live events: Hindsight is 2020, and the answer may have been right before our eyes all along—start with the event’s name, build off that as you design visual, social and academic opportunities with the attendee in mind.
Paragon Events, Inc. is a full service strategic meetings management, association management, and marketing firm headquartered in Delray Beach, FL with team members across the United States. For over 30 years, Paragon Events, Inc. has been trusted by companies around the world to conceive, plan, and execute meetings and events of all sizes and caliber Renee Radabaugh, CMP, is President & CEO;
Jessica Zell is Marketing Manager, Randa Griffin is Marketing Coordinator and Katherine Stokoe is Manager of Meetings & Events.