Create Memorable Events That Leave Your Attendees In Awe

It’s no longer enough to offer traditional sessions delivered by top-notch speakers; give your attendees a meeting to remember.

Nowadays you’re competing even more for your meeting attendees’ time, attention and money. And those attendees expect way more than a conference packed with traditional sessions. They want an event to remember.

How can you rethink your meeting and create a new memorable experience that is the perfect fit for your unique attendees—while still meeting their educational, networking and playtime needs?

If you’re Meeting Professionals International (MPI) you throw out the old playbook and reexamine all aspects of your meeting. MPI’s World Education Congress (WEC) in June in Indianapolis was held entirely in a huge open-plan exhibit space at the Indiana Convention Center. No walls. No conference rooms.

Building off Indy’s sports history and reputation, MPI started and ended each day with a high-energy pep rally, complete with bleachers, cheerleaders, pompoms and thunder sticks, and competitive jump ropers. “It really gave a different start to the day—and end of the day to reinfuse that enthusiasm coming out of education sessions,” says Melinda L. Burdette, CMP, HMCC, Director of Events for MPI.

In one large exhibit space, the entire meeting was divided into four villages, instead of traditional tracks:

  1. Experiential Village
  2. Leadership Village
  3. Innovation Village
  4. Social Village

“You could maneuver around and go however you needed to go based on your educational needs,” Burdette says. “The education came in 30-, 60- and 90-minute bites so that at any one time you could go to a 30-minute session and then possibly hop into a 60-minute session. We had these chunks of education time where we were flowing people through exhibit halls.”

At the center of it all was MPI Central, a focal point for membership and foundation information that also offered mini education sessions and meetups. Mixed throughout the open layout were exhibitors, making them a significant part of the space and meeting.

“One of the things that we specifically wanted to show our meeting planners was if you go into a city and the only opportunity you have to put your meeting in is an exhibit hall space, don’t automatically say no to that,” Burdette says. “We proved that we can have quality education without feedback or bleed-over from an audio standpoint on an exhibit hall floor.”

(To see how MPI set up the space, watch its WEC18 preview video.)

Before you reexamine your meeting and start booking cheerleaders, you need to ask yourself what’s right for your audience. The first question should be: What’s our objective?

“If you don’t really have an objective and know how you’re tracking or measuring it, then you’ve started wrong,” says Sarah Mullins, DMCP, Vice President of Event Services at Accent Indy, an accredited destination management company (ADMC). “Tell me why we’re doing this and what you’re wanting to get from the experience.”

MPI was able to successfully retool its event because meeting staff took the time to hold an event canvas design retreat, identifying their business goals, how those goals connected with the organization’s larger objectives, and how to measure it all.

“For each of our events, we have very set areas that we measure in terms of loyalty to the meeting, satisfaction, value in the education, value in the networking,” says Jessie States, CMP, CMM, Head of Meeting Innovation at MPI. “And then also we’re always tying that back to our overall business objectives. So, we’re looking at membership retention, new membership, loyalty of our members, different business objectives that we have as an organization.”

Outlining objectives and a measurement plan is key. Organizations shouldn’t simply borrow ideas from other groups’ successful meetings. What is right for your audience? Identify your stakeholders beyond just the traditional member buckets. MPI also included its board of directors and Indianapolis as key stakeholders.

Mullins says you should consider the different personalities of attendees also. Creators need interactive elements, while spectators might like to hang back and observe. MPI provided hands-on elements—flower-crown making and essential oil blending stations—at its opening event for creators, while providing comfy inflatable lounge furniture for spectators.

Sharers like to join in the activities and share the experience on social media. Provide them with props and inflatables to take photos with. Create photo frames branded with your organization to increase your social media footprint.

States explains that during the planning stage MPI staff talked through what behavior changes they wanted their attendees to have. “What are they going to be, do, look, see differently at the end of the conference that they weren’t doing before the conference—and then driving that through our design process,” she says. “Looking at that, we came up with the village concept as a way for us to get them to where we wanted them to be at the end of the event.”

MPI launched the WEC18 experience as soon as attendees stepped off their airplanes. The team partnered with Visit Indy and the Indianapolis International Airport to create a WEC Lounge in the airport’s central atrium, which all arriving passengers must walk through. Attendees could pick up their registration badges, grab a bottle of water or hang out for a while relaxing and enjoying snacks and wine. Not only was it a welcome sight, but it helped solve potential attendee concerns by allowing them to get their badges early and hang out if their hotel rooms weren’t ready yet.

“We had people that showed up at the beginning of the opening of that lounge and stayed all day until the last bus was departing to take them to their specific hotel because they just felt it was a nice, relaxing opportunity for them,” Burdette says.

MPI changed up the way lunches and receptions were done as well, moving more events off site while maintaining convenience by taking advantage of Indy’s walkability. The Opening Night Celebration was held at nearby White River State Park, while the Closing Night Reception took over the iconic Indianapolis Motor Speedway. A punt, pass, and kick-style networking lunch was held in Lucas Oil Stadium, while another took advantage of the numerous food trucks the city offers.

Ready to start brainstorming and overhaul your next meeting? Remember, clearly define your objectives and stakeholders, then let the creative juices flow to create a memorable event your attendees can’t stop gushing about.

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(Kristin Hornberger)