Q&A | Christina Sion, California Science Center Foundation

Christina Sion knows how to organize a memorable event. Her event resume includes a fake showgirl murder scene featuring the Los Angeles coroner and an event to welcome the retired Space Shuttle Endeavour (with $150,000 in in-kind donations). For more than two decades, “Chris” Sion has worked at California Science Center Foundation (originally California Museum of Science & Industry), where she learned to react at a moment’s notice. How is planning a meeting, event or conference different than it was 10 years ago? “There used to be a greater distinction between being a meeting or a conference planner versus an event planner. Now I see a greater merging of these skills. Today’s meeting planner needs to know about the event planning aspects. The meeting planner needs to incorporate more event planning into their conference or meeting. The event planner used to just focus on decor and entertainment to make a party fun, and that’s something the meeting planner needs to know now. Savvy event planners need to be up-to-speed on technical aspects.” What has contributed to that change? [inlinead align="left"]"If someone is going to take the time to attend a daytime conference or meeting, make sure it’s worth their while or they won’t commit.”[/inlinead]“There is a lot of competition today for people’s time. To ask them to be present at a daytime conference is a huge commitment. Everything moves very fast. People have a lot of demands on them. If someone is going to take the time to attend a daytime conference or meeting, make sure it’s worth their while or they won’t commit.” What are some of the big trends in corporate meeting planning? “I am very interested in immersive meeting environments. Instead of one or two large screens flanking the podium, consider surrounding the guests with images. Instead of focusing on the tabletop, think about how to better use the space between the table and the ceiling or the floors. Build an event that surrounds your audience, and it’s apt to be more captivating. Borrowing a trend from social events, I also prefer lounge furniture to stand-up cocktail tables that are standard at post-conference mixers. Having a chance to relax on a comfortable couch with fellow conference attendees after a long day is more enjoyable and conducive to engaging discussions than traditional setups.” Why do you think corporate meetings are becoming more experiential? “Borrowing a model from the education arena, when you ask students to actively participate in the learning process, studies show that the student can have better understanding and retention. California Science Center employs a great deal of hands-on learning tools where guests are engaging with our exhibits and educational programs, not just reading plaques or watching monitors. It makes sense if someone actually builds a model rocket and then launches it, he or she would have a greater sense of understanding than if they read about it in a book. If you applied that philosophy to corporate meetings, an active participant who engages in the meeting in a more meaningful way and can take ownership of something they experienced firsthand would have a different takeaway value at the end of the day than someone who just sat and listened to a speaker discussing the topic.” How has that changed the life of corporate event planners or someone who is in marketing and trying to brand a conference? “I would challenge corporate planners to think about how they would like to engage their meeting participants beyond what is being said at the podium. What could the guests personally experience that would make an impact and be remembered long after the conference is over? Sometimes the venue can be of assistance in this regard. For example, one perk of hosting a meeting or conference at California Science Center is that meeting guests have an opportunity to see our latest artifact, the Space Shuttle Endeavour, while they are here. Nothing drives home the message about “dreaming big” or “soaring to new heights” than having a group photo under an orbiter that traveled to space 25 times.” What advice do you have for planners? “You never want to forget creature comforts. Make sure your guests are comfortable. Is the air temperature correct? Is it too drafty? Is it too stuffy? Do they have correct signage to get where they are going? Do they know where the restroom is? Is the restroom comfortable? Is the microphone loud enough? It will kill an event if any of these elements aren’t correct. Before you go over the top and wow them, they have to be happy.”   Chris Sion is the vice president of food and event services for the California Science Center Foundation in Los Angeles.