Traditional conferences may deliver on content but often come up short in providing compelling, memorable, come-back-next-year experiences. At ASAE’s new Xperience Design Project event Tuesday, participants got a guided, hands-on tour of the design mindset.
The association professionals who had assembled for day one of ASAE’s Xperience Design Project Tuesday morning presumably arrived not knowing exactly what they want their organizations’ events to become, but they seemed to agree on one thing: An event shouldn’t be an occasion for “wrap rage.”
Kicking off the inaugural edition of XDP at National Harbor, Maryland, host Lisa Kay Solomon invoked that infuriating moment when you wish you had a stick of dynamite to open up the plastic package encasing a lightbulb.
“The lightbulb itself is beautifully designed. It does its job. It lights the house, it’s energy efficient, it’s beautiful,” she said. “But the design memo did not get to the packaging people.”
Great design connects to our human sensibility. It allows us to feel surprise, delight, excitement, energy. This is the part that often gets overlooked.
Solomon, managing director of Singularity University and an emcee of sorts for the day’s activities, drew a parallel with association events, where, often, “the content is spot on, it does its job, but the wrapper gets lost.”
It was all about the wrapper at XDP, as Solomon and six expert faculty took participants through guided discussions aiming to find practical solutions for improving meeting experiences. Although conversations were concentrated in five separate zones focused on specific topics—with color-coded tables extending from a central stage in a wheel-and-spoke pattern—one theme cut across the room: People who plan and execute meetings need to think of themselves as designers.
“Great design does two things,” Solomon said. “It delivers functional utility, it gets the job done. But it does something else: Great design actually engages us emotionally as well. It connects to our human sensibility. It allows us to feel surprise, delight, excitement, energy. This is the part that often gets overlooked. We spend so much time focusing on the functional utility that we forget to connect emotionally.”
In 90-minute zone sessions, attendees took deep dives into three of the five topics: location, learning, marketing, technology, and experience. Jim Gilmore, management advisor at Strategic Horizons LLP, who led the Experience Zone, said that although the word has become ubiquitous in recent years, “experience” has long been a core business of associations.
“But for too long we’ve approached it with a service mindset, focusing on what we do and not how we do it,” he said. “We’re going to talk about the difference between merely delivering a service versus staging a compelling experience. There’s a distinct difference that requires distinctly different work.”
He meant design work, and zone captains in all areas acknowledged its difficulty.
“We are asking you to think of yourself as a designer, to be a rebel with a cause,” Solomon said. “It can be scary to have a new idea, to put something out there that hasn’t been tried and tested. But if it’s backed by purpose and intention and a sense of service to the people you’re serving, that will allow you to be courageous to bring that idea forward.”
She encouraged participants not to hold back as they worked in preassigned groups that moved together from zone to zone throughout the day. In creating new things, “we experience highs and lows—intentionally. Because that is where the insights are—when we’re excited about something and, equally important, when we feel nervous, fear, worry. There’s data in that too. Allow yourself to feel that.”
In addition to Gilmore, faculty members included:
- Michael Dominguez, chief sales officer for MGM Resorts International, leading the Location Zone. “When done right, [location] creates a sense of place, it creates a sense of community. When done right, it creates memories,” he said.
- Jonathan Finkelstein, CEO of digital credentialing company Credly, led the Learning Zone. Associations’ credibility and ability to bring people together make them especially well positioned to provide learning, he said: “All of these things are unique and should be brought to bear with all of the tools we have today that make for great learning experiences. All the things that we’re competing against, we can harness those and bring them into our events.”
- Kiki L’Italien, CEO of Amplified Growth, and Eric Kuhn, chief marketing officer at Layer3 TV, led the Marketing Zone, urging attendees to leverage the power of FOMO—fear of missing out—to build social currency around event experiences.
- Reggie Aggarwal, CEO of Cvent, led the Technology Zone with a call to participants to harness technology “not to replace but to amplify the power of human connection.”
When associations approach these varied disciplines with a design mindset, they can avoid the packaging failures that often drain traditional conferences of their impact, Solomon said.
“When you’re a designer, your job is to know what your members, your customers need from you to deliver functional utility and emotional engagement. It suggests that you need to have empathy for the pains in their life and what might bring them joy so that you can make decisions that lead to a great experience for them,” she said. “That’s your responsibility as a designer, to make choices that trigger the right responses.”