Challenge Your Teams to Innovate Every Year

SVP Chris Strong of the National Business Aviation Association shares how he thinks about innovation and strives to improve his events year after year.

To creative innovative and interactive meetings, planners around the nation are raising the bar on productivity and capitalizing on attendee experience. In Orlando, seven planners have exceeded in this realm, setting the bar high for both their peers and the industry. In this series, we’ll learn how these planners are driving change, creating memorable events and inspiring their attendees at each and every meeting.

Meet our first “Planner of Productivity”: Chris Strong, senior vice president for conventions and membership at the National Business Aviation Association based in Washington, D.C. His team is responsible for the Business Aviation Convention & Exhibition (BACE), which is held in Orlando every other year with 25,000 attendees. The team also plans annual conventions in Geneva, Switzerland, and Shanghai, China, plus U.S. regional forums throughout the year.

Visit Orlando: How do you define innovation and what are you doing to infuse this into the meetings you plan? 

Chris Strong: We challenge ourselves annually to have three new things as part of the attendee and exhibitor experience. That list ends up being about 20 when it’s all said and done. Part of that is the industry’s evolving, and part of it is us challenging ourselves to create new things all the time. Our show is going to be our show—you’re going to see an opening session, an exhibit hall, the aircraft at the airport—every year. Our responsibility around the edges is to create energy. We want to make sure innovation and doing new things are at the front of all of our conversations.

Our show is a big show. Orlando’s one of only two cities that can host the show. Half of our show is in the Orlando Convention Center; the other half is out at the local airport, which is the Orlando Executive Airport. We will park between 85 and 100 aircraft at the airport for attendees to be able to tour the aircraft. Additionally, the City of Orlando works with us to allow us to bring airplanes into the convention center. We stage those airplanes at Orlando International Airport, and the Friday night before the show we will tow anywhere from six to 10 aircraft through the city around midnight. We usually get them into the convention center by 4 or 5 in the morning. The convention center built elephant doors for us to be able to bring in the aircraft. The city works with us to make sure we control traffic in this space. Obviously, we’re shutting down some big roads to bring these aircraft through. They work with us to take down signs and streetlights and all kinds of things that need to occur to do a move like this.

VO: How have such innovative approaches allowed for greater productivity in meetings?

CS: The convention center has been flexible with regard to food. We do a great deal of entertaining on the show floor, and a lot of it is high-end. Our end-users are people who use private aviation. We’re able to count on the convention center to create an experience where you’re not only in a great facility, you’re in a great booth and you’re getting white tablecloth service and food that is uncommon for a convention center. That’s a big deal, and that’s added a great deal to the show.

VO: Taking advantage of smart, flexible meeting space is one of the largest trends this year. How have you utilized this for greater productivity?

CS: We’ve had our Innovation Zone for the past five years. That is an area that provides education on the show floor. It is uniquely designed—it feels like a version of a great theater and with comfy furniture. We host conversations there that are less technical or standard, and much more “this is what’s coming; this is what’s new.” These are much more engaging conversations in a lot of ways. This space has become an anchor on the show floor.

VO: What advice would you give to peers about keeping up with consumer expectations? How should they not only manage this, but continuously surprise and delight attendees? 

CS: One thing we’re really disciplined about is attending other shows. We have occasionally done this in conjunction with our key exhibitors as well—go with them to an event like the Kitchen and Bath Show and ask, “What do you like here? What are you seeing here that would translate well to our show? How do you like how they manage signage or registration, for instance?”

Something that was unique this year—Freeman, our decorating company, was producing another large show that was talking about doing a unique entrance unit that had video screens and a cool look. And they suggested, “We think you can use the same entrance unit; obviously, we’ll decorate it differently. And you can split the cost.” It was a great way for the industry to help take care of itself. And the end unit looked great and didn’t cost us nearly what it would have cost us if we had decided to do it on our own.

VO: Describe a few of the initiatives you’ve spearheaded—no matter how large or small—to improve the attendee experience. 

CS: This year we introduced a product showcase. We had more than 60 companies submit applications to have 10 minutes of stage time where they could get up in our Innovation Zone and talk about their new products. We had 11 on stage, and we videotaped that so they could reuse those presentations. We also celebrated all 60 companies that applied, through the website and on the show floor. It’s one thing for us to be innovative; it’s something else for us to celebrate all the companies that are truly innovative at our show.

We’ve also seen and done a lot to create energy around our young professionals at the show. These are folks generally under 40 years old who are relatively new to the industry. Our internal YoPro group was created about six years ago to engage our industry’s YoPros. Over time they have moved from social/networking to educational to now a group that additionally gives back to the community. This year, they created a Helpy Hour on the show floor, where they filled weekend food bags of non-perishable items to help feed young people. This is a cohort that has been a challenge to engage historically. We’ve created a home for them in what is typically an older industry. It’s dynamic, and it’s unique.

VO: When thinking about unique experiences in Orlando, which offsite location do you prefer: Café Tu Tu Tango? Cuba Libre? Icebar*? ICON Park?

CS: Definitely the Icebar. I think they’ve created a really fun experience. It’s pretty immersive, and it’s hard to do that in a restaurant.

This article has been provided by Visit Orlando.

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