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Report Recommends Innovations in Event Design

**This article was originally posted to Associations Now

New research is challenging meeting planners to make their events more personalized, inclusive, and playful.

Guiding Principles in Experience Design,” released last month, is based on a survey by Marriott International in collaboration with the Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA), along with its foundation and a subsidiary, the Corporate Event Marketing Association (CEMA). The report outlines six principles “intended to drive experience innovation for years to come,” according to a release.

Among the principles listed in the report are exploring attendee identities; helping attendees make better decisions; creating a sense of belonging; rethinking the factors in the event’s value proposition; gathering emotional data; and encouraging “play” and experimentation.

The report includes some “tools and takeaways” to guide event planners around implementing its findings. Beth Surmont, FASAE, CAE, VP of event strategy and design at 360 Live Media, says personalization and flexibility can be a challenge at association events.

“We’re very accustomed to having things designed just for us, like our phones,” she said. “But in general, events are terrible at it. I sometimes say that events are the last one-size-fits-all experience.”

"We have to stop asking things like, “Did you like the chicken at lunch?” and “How was the hotel?” - Beth Surmont, FASAE, CAE, 360 Live Media

To start the personalization process, Surmont encourages organizations to think not just about attendee demographics but also about personas—the handful of character types who are likely to attend an event. Developing personas is time-consuming and complex, she cautioned; it requires multiple one-on-one interviews and an eye for fine distinctions.

“We have a set of questions that will help us start to understand their motivations, behaviors, how they approach the world,” Surmont said. “From there, we’re usually able to develop a set of patterns.”

Persona development is related to gathering emotional data, which Surmont said should expand beyond simplistic questions about the conference experiences.

“We have to stop asking things like, ‘Did you like the chicken at lunch?’ and ‘How was the hotel?’” she said. “I’m interested in the things that people tend to have an emotional response to. ‘What makes you excited about your job?’ Or ‘Why did you get involved in this work in the first place?’ I find that to be very powerful, because oftentimes people have very personal reasons for what they do.”

Creating a sense of play at an event can be particularly tricky at association events, especially for medical and scientific groups, Surmont said: “There’s this idea that play will negate any scientific rigor.”

But she added that a tweak to phrasing might help get attendees more comfortable with more interactive and “playful” activities: “I don’t typically use the word ‘play.’ I’ll say something like ‘intentional networking’ or ‘intentional problem-solving.’ Some of this goes back to persona research—you want to know what kinds of things excite your audience around play and fun, and then design around that.”

Regardless of the specific tactics a meeting planner uses, Surmont said, the overall strategy should think beyond familiar attendance and demographic data.

“Your association and your event is not made up of numbers; it’s made up of people,” she said. “When you stop designing for numbers and you start designing for people, you’re going to have a lot more impact on your audience and on what you want the event to achieve overall.”

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