Part 5: A newness perspective check

One of my friends recently attended a big corporate event at his company. Naturally, I was curious about his experience as a regular plain-guy attendee, so I peppered him with questions. I asked him about activities and team building and PowerPoints--not-so-stealthily conducing my own focus-group-of-one.

He patiently answered my questions, but when he came to the team building activity, his eyes lit up. "Oh, there was this REALLY cool thing. We all got drums...and we were led by this guy and he had us drumming and eventually we were all creating music together...and it was just SO COOL and I've never done anything like that."

I rolled my eyes and started to fill in the details for him; describing the drums and the outfits the leaders typically wore and the schtick in their routine. After all, how many drum-based team building activities have I seen at events? A dozen? More? The light dimmed in his eyes as he realized that this was something rather commonplace. I felt like I had just let the air out of his tires.

The point is--event planners have seen a lot. Audience members, as a rule, have not seen as many things as we have. It's helpful to remember this when dismissing elements as "been there, done that". After all, I've never seen an audience so bored and unaffected as when I attended an event-for-event-planners.

Events are your world, not theirs. Your audiences--unless they are meeting planners themselves--do not live, breathe and eat events like you do. They don't think about the details--they go with the experience...and the experience is novel in and of itself. Most people don't go to events on a weekly, monthly, or even bi-yearly basis. Only attending, say, one event a year gives a lot of leeway for experiencing new event concepts and ideas.

What's old to you is new to them. That being said, the average audience member hasn't experienced the full event environment often. Something that feels old because you've seen it two dozen times before may be brand-new to them, or even still feel really fresh if they only experience it at the event once a year.

They pay no attention to the man behind the curtain: they get lost in the experience.  The average audience member has no idea what is going on behind the curtain; what elements had to come together to produce the experience. Because the event is outside their typical routine in so many ways, they tend to take it as a whole. This means they're both very adaptable (more willing to try new things because they're outside of their comfort zone anyway) and somewhat forgiving.

Event elements can feel like tradition. While it may seem old hat to you, participants can look forward to a stable, consistent element at an event. For instance; playing a traditional game show every year might feel stale to you, but it might be a competitive element that the audience looks forward to year after year.

It's often helpful to take off the event professional glasses and see the event through the perspective of the audience. Sure, you've seen a million motivational speakers do a million speeches, but that doesn't mean that it won't excite your audience. You've had it with round-style seating, but that doesn't mean your audience experiences that every day. Taking your audience's experience (or lack thereof) into account can be a refreshing take on your event elements.

Part 4: Here today, gone tomorrow...still at your event.

When something becomes part of the public consciousness, we joke that 5 years later we'll be seeing that anecdote/element at corporate events.

For a while, flash mob videos littered social media. Just this year a client came to us: "I have a fresh new idea...we're going to do a FLASH MOB at our sales event."

Eyebrows were raised. Eyes may have been rolled (just a little bit). At this point, it was already a stale trend, but the event world was just catching on.

Why do events lag behind pop culture? Why are we still (now) seeing Survivor-themed events, Harry Potter parties, flash mobs, corporate rap songs, and the guy who performs "the evolution of dance"?

The answer is multi-faceted:

It takes a while for some of these elements to become "safe". After an idea or concept has been in the public eye for a while it becomes less risky or edgy. This is why we see 50 Shades of Grey jokes tossed about at corporate events; it's longevity has dulled the taboo. That might be a very specific example, but things like corporate raps, dance groups, etc., were once considered risky or counter-culture and have now made their way into the relatively sterile environment of the corporate event without the teeth that gave them their cultural bite.

Social and peer proof is strong persuasion. Event professionals, naturally, have varying levels of risk tolerance--just like any other professional group. However, when one is putting on a large event with a large budget, one tends to go with tried-and-true solutions. Social proof--seeing an element be successful at a smaller event or even a similar event--is a powerful contributor to trend elements. Therefore, when one group utilizes a flash mob and they are asked for recommendations, the flash mob trend is passed to another group and so on. This can cause a ripple effect for several years--making a "trendy" element show up in the weeks and months and years past its freshness expiration date.

A lot of event planning is done years in advance. That being said, a lot of companies have a 1-2-3 year event plan, and popular speakers must be booked well in advance. That trendy Olympian from Sochi still has a good story, but their keynote doesn't seem fresh, new or topical anymore.

So what's an event planner to do?
  • Choose new ideas that are less trend-based and will stand up to years' worth of planning. For instance, basic concepts like team competition, multimedia presentations, etc., will always be on-trend because they're not tied to a specific moment in pop culture. A team competition may take on a "Hunger Games" (or similar) theme, but it can be easily modified to accommodate trends that are on the downswing.
  • Accept that some trendy ideas are a flash in the pan (but are still effective) and others will fizzle. Trend-based elements are always a risk. Fortunately, not everything will always go perfectly, and so long as the audience is still engaged and entertained, an event can withstand a few less-than-stellar elements. 
  • Don't base the whole event on a trend. Make a trend element a small or ancillary part of the larger event.
  • Try to gauge the demographic of the audience. A "hipster" theme night may seem stale to a young audience, funny to a slightly-older audience, and may be completely lost on the older demographic. Remember: Just because you "get" the trend doesn't necessarily mean your audience will understand the concept.

Part 3: Baby Steps to Big Impact

During our last entry on event trends and traditions, we noted that to persuade some members of one's team to embrace change, sometimes bargaining was needed.

Not only are half-measures sometimes necessary, but they are often *good* for your event. You don't need to re-invent the event wheel to bring change--and in some cases, to layer on metaphor, doing so is throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Not everything has to be brand-new. It's tempting to go for a complete overhaul when consciously adding new elements to your event. After all, it feels good to have a fresh start. However, trying a ton of untested elements can lead to confusion and can be overwhelming for both the audience and the event design team.

Add freshness to stale elements: Some elements are unchangeable. If the president always gives the keynote speech at the beginning of the event, and it will be that way until s/he's no longer the president--well, there's not much the event designer can do about it. However, the element itself can be modified to incorporate new components. Maybe the standard q&a session features questions collected pre-timeslot on the event app. Perhaps after the president's address, the audience plays a game show to review key content and goal points. Perhaps the speechwriter works with the president to incorporate multimedia components. There are a lot of ways to make a stale element seem fresher by playing off the element itself.

Change/modify elements you want to keep: We had been producing an annual game show for a company for years. It was extremely popular and the company wanted to keep doing it...but it was also years-old. They didn't want to get rid of the game, but they wanted it to be different enough to be distinctive from other years. What we ended up doing was radically changing the way the game was played. We added team captains, physical challenges, and a random-raffle element to freshen up what was traditional (but that needed an update).

Slowly incorporating new elements: Maybe this year is the year of the event app; but that doesn't mean that all paper agendas should go away, for instance. While complete adoption can force participation, sometimes the learning curve is just too steep to make an element effective at an event. When this happens, it's hard to see whether an event element is truly unsuccessful, or if was just executed in a non-ideal way.

Isolate new event components: Along those lines; you may want to isolate the new components of an event so that they are independent of the other components. When one thing doesn't work ideally, the whole system doesn't shut down.


Part 2: Persuasion for People Who Don't Want Change

We attend this event every year that is dedicated to showing internal event planners the latest and greatest in the industry. The audience leaves the event totally psyched about all the new possibilities they can bring back to their event in large and small ways.

And what we hear--time after time--is that they return to their team brimming with ideas and innovation and... are hit with the death-knell for creativity: "But we don't NEED to change anything. What you're proposing sounds risky. What we're doing now is fine. I's okay...not too many people complain. Why risk it?"

Some people are strongly motivated by security and a lack of risk--especially when it comes to putting on an event with, say, 3000 of their biggest clients. NOT EVER changing your event--even if what you're doing is working--leads to a stale event. There are tons of new technologies, creative ideas, presentation formats, etc., that are improving events every day. To reject them all summarily is madness--and yet we hear it all the time.

So how does one take brilliant new ideas back to their team and get them to adopt some of those ideas in the face of such aversion? We don't promise miracles, but here is some advice:

Provide examples
Give examples of other companies or events that have employed the same tactics with success. More than that, though, provide examples of exactly how what you're proposing will work; where it comes into play, what it looks like in the event, how it could be used outside of the event, etc.

Peer testimonials
Get testimonials not only from your own peers in the event industry, but also from the peers of the people you're trying to win over. How have other VPs been impressed by the same thing you're suggesting? What impact has it had on their event? Were they skeptical at first but saw how amazing the concept was once it played out? 

Put them in the moment
Try to immerse your team in the moment of the event through demonstration and examples. If you want to use a new social media platform, for instance, start trying it out during your planning meetings. If you can get them to attend an event employing a similar strategy--do it. Seeing is truly believing.

Make a bargain
You can provide the best examples, testimonials, and illustrations and there are still some people who will say, "That's fine, but that's THEIR group, not our group." The truth of the matter is that--despite huge demographic differences--all audiences have some pretty basic needs. They want to be entertained and engaged. They want to be interested. They want to play along (even if it takes some good pre-framing). To get the event strategy that you want, you may have to bargain. Baby-steps are better than no-steps-at-all, and if they agree to employing something for the first day (knowing that if it doesn't work it can be redacted completely on the second day) may make them more willing to try something different.

Click to see all parts of this 8-part series.
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Part 1: Is your "trend" worthy?

Before incorporating something "hot" and "trendy" into your event, it's worthwhile to weigh the benefits of the trend against its potential harm.

Harm? Well, we're not talking about any deep, lasting effects on your attendees, but sometimes doing something trendy for the sake of trend can have a negative effect on your event overall--especially if it's not thought out.

Some examples of trends that we've seen that have obvious benefits, but that also have drawbacks that are worth measuring against the actual impact they might have at an event. Often times, the difference that they make is minimal compared to the amount of hassle or time one has to spend encouraging attendees to get on board with the application/trend.

Here are a few trends at recent events that have had some great benefits, but also some obvious drawbacks.  This list isn't comprehensive, of course--and any time you choose to incorporate technology (especially bring-your-own-device) it comes with its own set of issues: privacy concerns, a social vs. professional tension, and basic logistics--like phones running out of charge or being unable to transmit in a no-reception ballroom:

Hashtags: distraction or discussion?
Creating an event hashtag and using it to start discussion, recap presentations, and engage attendees in the ever-so-trendy social media world seems to be riding a wave of popularity. In some events, however, we've already seen this trend come and go; a brand-new thing one year that doesn't quite pan out. The fizzle puts it on the do-not-repeat list for the next event, because the hassle is often not worth the payoff.

  • We've seen some truly unique interactions come out of the Twitter hashtag--participants can engage personally with a keynote speaker and get questions answered that wouldn't normally come up at the event. 
  • Attendees can engage with each other in a less formal, peer-to-peer way.
  • Twitter feeds at the event can give a real-time pulse of what's going on, and can help solve attendee problems/answer questions at-moment.
  • The hashtag feed gives you an opportunity to make the event encompass the entirety of the time together--not just the general session or breakouts.

  • Adoption has generally been low; people either don't have a Twitter account to engage, or don't want to use their own personal account for a business event (and don't want to create a new account for the sole purpose of the event, either. 
  • The few people who *do* end up participating in the Twitter feed tend to be heavy users (there isn't a lot of moderate participation), and have their own cliquish event discussion apart from non-using peers. This also leads to nose-in-the-phone syndrome during event time.
  • Generating enough use for the hashtag/feed is continual work; presenters, materials and staff are continually "marketing" the hashtag--or it doesn't get used.

Apps: True value or phone clutter?
Many companies have invested in making their own smart-device "apps" for an event. This seems to be particularly common in events where the audience is external (like association meetings), though we've also seen internal event application.

  • Logistics--like agendas, housekeeping, where-to-meet, when to check out, etc. can be updated in real-time and paperlessly.
  • Allows for internal, somewhat-more-secure networking between attendees and things like quick attendee profile access, access to speaker bios, etc. 
  • Enables branded access to the event in a way that extends beyond breakouts and general sessions.

  • Requires a dedicated app manager and, also, dedicated staff to assist in download and instruction for attendees.
  • Many apps we've seen have had various complexity and functionality issues; i.e. loading and navigating the app was slow enough to make it virtually useless.
  • Compliance and adoption tends to be low: company devices often restrict the download of external apps, many attendees don't want an additional program on their personal phones, some will neglect or forget to download the app before the event, etc.

Vine/Instagram: Privacy versus people.
Remember when a lot of events had Facebook Pages, trying to incorporate social media almost in a for-its-own-sake social media push? That trend fizzled quickly with concerns over personal and professional privacy. However, some companies are encouraging the use of other up-and-coming social media darlings in a more piecemeal, personal way with Vine and Instagram.

  • Human element: Little Vine videos and Instagram pictures really capture the *people* that are at your event in a way that your event photographer might not be able to do. These can be great mementos and reminders of the event post-show.
  • Capture cool moments: Inevitably there are many little "viral" moments at an event that become running jokes or themes. Capturing and displaying them gets your audience involved and actively participating in the event.
  • People are already utilizing/familiar with these technologies. There is a potential for wider exposure of your event through your attendees' existing networks.

  • On the other hand, there is potential for wider exposure of your event through your attendees' existing networks.  The public nature of these mediums makes it an uncontrolled element, and attendees may not want to mix professional and personal personas.
  • Incrimination. If your VP has a few too many cocktails at a networking reception and lets a bit of proprietary information you have it on record. Sure, an after-hours karaoke meet-up for attendees is a fun idea--especially if they've had a full, productive day in working sessions--but out of the context of the a public the hands of the media...will it look like a boondoggle?
Sensational moments: Budget-blowing distraction or Millennial attraction?
Recently we were at a presentation geared toward making events attractive to the Millennial generation. The presenters suggested creating sharable moments--big, sensational elements in an event that attendees couldn't resist telling their friends about. This isn't something that's new for this generation--companies have been doing big event openers for ages--but what goes around comes around, and the sensational moment is trending yet again.

  • Sharable: Attendees want to talk about a great big-name comedian, a personal fireworks show, a giant character from their favorite show, a cool meal presentation, etc. Having a sharable moment can generate buzz for your event.
  • Thoughtfully crafted, a sensational moment can fit with the brand or theme of your event.
  • A big opening sets the tone and expectation at an event.

  • Hard to live up to. If your first moment of an event is a huge gospel choir leading everyone into the room, having your extra-dry VP give a finance update is going to seem especially painful. You don't want there to be too much up-and-down at your event; the energy level should increase not crash and burn.
  • Often times, these sensational moments don't further the message. So the impact is superficial, and not sustainable. 
  • To make a true impact, budget is often needed--and often lots of it. We had a client that wanted to make a huge deal of raising a ship's flag on stage: multiple people, lights, sound, everything. In reality, however, the flag was about 6' total and took about 4 seconds to raise--so it looked ridiculous. Is the budget worth the moment of impact is a question that needs to be considered very carefully--especially if the moment isn't going to have an impact throughout (or after) your event.
I'm sure we're missing a few trends (flash mobs still haven't died out entirely), so if you have any other suggestions feel free to share them.

Trends aren't bad--they're trends for a reason--but before you incorporate that hot new trend that every event is doing, consider:
  • Does it add value?
  • Is it "worth it" to your attendees?
  • Is the extra effort giving you a big enough payoff?
Because if it doesn't do ANY of those things, then incorporating a trend doesn't make your event fresh--it just adds a cumbersome element. 

Click to see all parts of this 8-part series.

Balancing "New" with "Tried and True"

We find that clients generally fall into two equally frustrating camps of thought:

1. We want to do something new NO MATTER WHAT.
2. We ONLY want to do what we've done before because it works.

Any event consultant has faced this challenge. You're stuck between the proverbial rock and the tremendously dull place. Your goal is to give your client the best possible solution for their event. The best design. The thing that engages their attendees and really has an impact beyond the event. That thing might be something that they've done before and has been wildly successful, or it might be something that's completely new.

With the first client--the client in scenario one--they they desire ONLY what is new. It doesn't matter if something was well-received the year before, is incredibly effective, and is a fresh, repeatable, or universal idea. If it's been done before--if it's been seen before (and sometimes just by them)--it's out.

With the second client--the client in scenario two--they ONLY want to do what's been done before. It doesn't matter if their event is stale, if their technique or idea isn't serving them well, or if it just flat-out isn't working--if it's been done before with some level of success (nothing in the event blew up), they'll do it again and stubbornly refuse suggestions to do otherwise.

Obviously a lot of clients are in between the categories "Must have New" and "Stuck in a Rut"--and a lot of people have elements of each. But for those that fall into one camp or another, well, they can be frustrating to deal with. Not only that, but they can be making a lot more work for themselves, or falling short of the event's potential simply because of their event philosophy.

We're not saying either way is bad or wrong, of course, but in most cases a little bit of compromise toward the middle (either a fresher approach, or keeping traditional staples that strengthen the heritage of an event) produces a more captivating, powerful event.

So how do we shift our clients...and how do we shift ourselves if we fall into one of those camps?

This topic is also not one with a simple one-part-blog-entry solution.
So we're starting a series dealing with different aspects of this topic. Look for the tag: 8 Trend and Tradition Event-Changers.

1. Is your "trend"...worthy?: Considering new event trends with a critical eye before adoption.
2. Persuasion for Rut-dwellers: Convincing the higher-ups to try something new utilizing the 4 levels of persuasion.
3. Babysteps for big impact: Implementing new ideas in stages for gradual change, and changing stale ideas for fresher traditions.
4. Here today, gone tomorrow: Slow adoption and why the event industry is months and years behind popular culture
5. Newness perspective check: Judging your experience against the audience.
6. Event Classics: A list of event concepts and ideas that stand the test of time.
7. Trend vs. Tradition: The value in ritual.
8. Crowd Sourcing: How the staple of Millennial interaction can energize your event every time. 
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