Conferences as Testing Grounds

Major hotel brands are opening innovation labs that allow guests, partners, and employees to test out products and features before they're officially launched. Should your association use one of its conferences to do the same?

Last month, Hilton announced the opening of its Innovation Gallery, a 4,300-square-foot space “where conversations between thought leaders, design experts, and hospitality professionals deliver new products and solutions for Hilton’s guests.”

Upon entering, visitors can make their way through five experiences:

Product Showcase. A space to interact with physical and virtual products that Hilton is exploring for use in hotels, such as a noise-masking product and a real-time translation solution.

Food and Beverage Concept Studio. A place where guests can experience the latest restaurant concepts developed by the F&B team.

Virtual Reality Stage. A dedicated space for visitors to use VR headsets to experience new Hilton concepts and view model rooms.

Darkroom. A progressive model guestroom that highlights cutting-edge material technologies that may lead to better sustainabilty and operational returns.

Innovation Theater. A gathering place to brainstorm and collaborate around innovative ideas.

It’s “a space for us to incubate, test, scale, and showcase the products and processes we’re creating to enhance our guests’ experiences and redefine the future of hospitality,” said Jon Witter, Hilton’s chief customer officer, in a press release.

And Hilton isn’t the only big hotel name getting in on this idea. Last year, Marriott Hotels opened its own innovation lab—M Beta—at Charlotte Marriott City Center. The lab “allows for rapid prototyping, inviting guests to test and give feedback in real time, ultimately shaping their future hotel experience.” Beta Buttons, located throughout the hotel, gauge consumer feedback with a live tally. By  pushing the buttons, guests and visitors share their approval for the corresponding innovation.

What Hilton and Marriott are doing is super cool. They are getting feedback and input—sometimes immediate—from customers, partners, and even employees. Keeping these global hotel brand examples in mind, consider this: Could your association execute something similar at one of its upcoming conferences or events?

After all, your annual meeting is probably the place where you have the largest number of members and partners gathered at the same time, so it’s also the perfect time to let them try out some new products and services you have in the works. You could even consider some type of association-branded innovation lab.

For example, do you have a new research dashboard or learning management platform you’d love to get their input on? Set up a kiosk and let them give it a whirl. Or, perhaps, you’d like feedback on a unique room setup you’re thinking of trying out next year. Consider staging the room and asking attendees to stop by and tell you what they like and don’t like about it—or how it can be improved.

On a larger scale, if your organization is considering rolling out a new conference next year, you might hold a mini version of it during your annual meeting. Yes, it’s a lot of work, but it could also help you straighten out some glitches beforehand.

Not sure your association could do it? Take note of the American College of Emergency Physicians, which first built out the emergency department of the future in its exhibit hall in 2013. Called InnovatED, it included an ambulance at the entrance to the space and, inside, a check-in desk, several exam rooms, and nurses’ stations, with cutting-edge vendor products showcased throughout. InnovatED has been so successful that it still continues today.

Has your association ever used one of its meetings to allow attendees to test out technology or other products or services you’re thinking of launching in the future? Tell us how it went in the comments.

Hilton's Innovation Gallery in McLean, Virginia. (Handout photo)

Samantha Whitehorne

By Samantha Whitehorne

Samantha Whitehorne is editor-in-chief of Associations Now. MORE

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