Adding elements of exhilaration and excitement can spark genuine connections and conversations at your next networking event.
People frequently decide whether or not to go to a meeting based on the destination and the opportunity for meaningful networking, according to a recent report from The Experience Institute. The promise of a singular experience and promoting new things to see or do at your destination can change an attendee’s plans from “maybe” to “definitely.”
High expectations put the pressure on event planners. For a one-of-a-kind experience, planners can seek out and use venues unique to a location—whether your group is traveling or attending an event in the city where you work and live.
There are no rules for meeting venues anymore, says the 2018 Meeting & Events Future Trends report. “The desire is to create a memorable experience in an unexpected venue. Planners are forgoing the ballroom and convention center to take advantage of what the destination has to offer,” reports Beau Ballin, senior director of business development for CWT Meetings & Events, in an interview with Successful Meetings magazine.
Circuit of The Americas, or COTA, located in Austin, Texas, is one of three purposely built Grand Prix Formula 1 race tracks in the world and the only one in the United States. COTA has become an attractive venue to organizations for creating experiential, highly customized events. “It started out as a small wave and now it’s a tsunami,” says Tracy Terrell, the Special and Private Events Manager for COTA. Terrell says event planners and team leaders reach out to them because they want attendee connection and engagement. “People want to develop relationships on a deeper level than you can in a conference room or event at the office.”
Recent surveys attest to that—more than 60 percent of people who attend meetings say networking is “very important” and the availability of opportunities to do that may impact their decision to attend, according to The Experience Institute report. If attendees like their experience—both in the meeting and the destination—nearly 90 percent are likely to return and to recommend the meetings, and the location, to colleagues.
At COTA, groups can drive professional go-karts on a special track, speed along turns in Audi race cars or attend parties in the hospitality suites overlooking the Formula 1 race track straight away. It may not sound like professional development, but the mental and physical experience keeps attendees focused and engaged. “When you’re in an Audi R8 going 140 mph on a straightaway, you’re fully present,” Terrell says. “It engages a person’s senses beyond what you can engage in a formal conference room or classroom. That shot of endorphins wakes people up and inspires conversation of a different sort.”
Choosing a unique venue outside of hotels and convention centers can be a challenge for meeting planners, however, with unexpected costs and increased work managing vendors and suppliers, according to the CWT report. Savvy event planners should seek out venues with experienced staff who are deeply connected to local businesses to create a unique experience. They should also be able to handle most of the work.
Terrell and the COTA team, for example, put together a carnival-themed event for more than 4,200 attendees involving more than 45 local vendors and suppliers for Applied Materials’ 50th Anniversary Family Appreciation event. It featured a custom go-karting track, zip lining, and 15 local food trucks in the paddock; classic arcade games and a car museum in paddock garages; casino and carnival games in paddock lofts; hot laps in Audi R8s on the Grand Prix track; two cinemas featuring Cars and Talladega Nights and three live music stages.
“They had a blast! The company really just wanted to celebrate its associates and the families who support them. They did it in a big way,” Terrell says. It was a huge private event and the COTA team planned and executed it with four weeks’ notice. “It was a lot of fun pulling it together,” she says. “It was terrifying and exhilarating!”
Event planners should think strategically about their goals for a meeting or event and then be willing to consider unusual and unique experiences that can help them meet those goals. “Experiences create more random collisions,” Terrell says, no pun intended. “They might lead you to that ‘a-ha’ moment or to a much needed connection.”