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Setting the Stage for a Stellar Event Experience

Setting the Stage for a Stellar Event Experience

Gina Bonar

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Twelve truths and one lie to the makings of a winning event experience

Marketers across functions and industries are often charged with delivering events. These help to drive some combination of professional development, reputation, relationships, engagement, leads and revenue. Live events can also provide the forum for a unique customer experience.

According to a Walker Information study, customer experience will overtake price and product as the key brand differentiator by 2020.

How do marketers design events to deliver authentic, relevant, positive and valuable experiences?


The following insights—which I’ve organized into 12 truths and one lie—are garnered from my own career, in which I’ve spent decades serving as organizer, exhibitor and attendee.

1. The Experience Window is Wide

Don’t box yourself into the time frame of the agenda. Expand your experience thinking to include a lead-in and follow-up. How do you seed and fuel a great experience in advance and reinforce it post-event? This creates opportunities for content, logistics and networking. But beware of overpromotion: Use this opportunity to make it easy for your attendees to prepare for, absorb and capitalize on the experience you are creating for them.

2. Everyone Counts

You’re creating the experience for attendees, but you can’t do this without your speakers, sponsors, staff, volunteers and vendors. They’re in the room experiencing the event from their unique and often expert perspectives, which can translate into testimonials, referrals, social media engagement and potential business. Don’t leave out these essential constituents but avoid diluting your message. You can deliver a great support-system experience without sacrificing your primary audience experience.

3. Turnkey is for Turkeys

Sometimes a template can impede continuous improvement and differentiation. People attend events to experience something new. Even if it’s a regular occurrence, your event and audience deserve positive change. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel, but remember not to rest on your road-worn laurels.

4. Energy Powers Experiences

When it shines, the program moves. When it doesn’t, crank up the generator. Setting the tone from beginning to end is a must. Dynamic speakers, enthusiastic greeters, engaged staff and a lively environment—including energetic sights and sounds—can turn even a modest part of the program into a feel-good experience. Don’t go overboard, though. “Fake” is easy to spot and becomes a detractor.

5. Small Stuff is Worth Sweating

Mapping out every detail can seem tedious, but it pays off. Some of the greatest moments of truth in a live event are the in-between spaces that often get overlooked in the design—it’s where the most unexpected things go wrong. But beware of losing the forest in the trees; you don’t want to forget to experience your own event.

6. The Best-Laid Plans Change

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned is to be flexible in the moment. Watch for signs that you need to course-correct and be ready to adapt quickly. Don’t panic; it never helps the experience. Build some give-and-take into your design, be present and be decisive. Often you’re the only one who notices when something is amiss, so don’t make things worse by over-apologizing or explaining.

7. Gamification Plays Well

Knowledgeable, inspirational speakers and practical takeaways are table stakes. No one needs that tip. But delivering with flair is unfortunately still a bit of a unicorn. Sometimes you need something different to deliver a memorable experience. Interactive, competitive gamification can steal home. Make it uncomplicated, fun and relevant.

8. Automation and AI Cut to the Chase

Personalization, convenience and data are increasingly essential components of customer experience. AI-based technologies provide tremendous shortcuts and enhancements to deliver timely, tailored information and resources. But don’t lose the soul and potential of the interaction; enable the technology before it enables you.

9. Networking is Awkward

Small talk seems frivolous, and no one wants to get cornered into a sales pitch. But it’s also one of the main reasons people attend live events, and part of designing a great experience is to provide a forum for people to connect. Be overt; tell them it’s networking. Get creative, draw them in and facilitate. You’ll never get everyone talking, but if you focus on willing participants, they’ll love you for it.

10. You Can’t Fake the Feels

Visceral is memorable. Incorporate shared moments that get people out of their chairs and comfort zones. The best experiences I’ve had involved music, tears, laughter, dancing, inspiration and even puppies. But trying too hard or being too silly can make you lose authenticity or make people uncomfortable. Epic is possible, but not guaranteed.

11. FOMO Sells

We’ve focused on designing and delivering experience through events, but it’s a longer game than that. You’re not just aiming to make people happy in the moment, you want them to rave about it later and attend again. This list of tips—wrapped around your relevant, valuable content—can create FOMO (fear of missing out). When you deliver a truly differentiated experience, people will share it and others will wish they were there.

12. People Love to Give Advice

Seek feedback before, during and especially after the event, and make providing it easy. Don’t just rely on a survey, ask attendees in person. This gives your audience a sense of ownership and ultimately turns your event into a co-creation with your customer. The truth hurts sometimes, and although you can’t please everyone, it always makes you better. Remember that requesting feedback creates an expectation that you’ll use it, so be sure they know you listened.

The Lie: You Control the Event Experience

Experience design is all about caring, not control. If you care how people feel, why they show up, who they meet and what they take away, everybody wins.

Your audience knows that you’re human and that you don’t have to be perfect—you just have to care enough to try. Experience design for events sets the stage for exceptional delivery with real people in real time. Caring is the single most important thing you can do. Prepare to deliver, co-create and be present. In my experience, attendees will feel it.

Gina Bonar is CXO and founder of 5 Whys Marketing LLC, a Cincinnati-based marketing consulting and services provider focused on strategy and content development and delivery.