Los Angeles– based event designer Roger Hampton, created a series of globally inspired environments: a beer garden strung with lights, a cantina, park benches set against a skyscraper-filled mural backdrop. And the cost of decorating the room was distributed over the entire conference - the ballroom also was the setting for an opening-night party, with a central fountain later replaced with a center stage for the opening session.
Although Cote and her team prepared extensively for the Aug. 14 Sage City session, opening session, the outcome was ultimately out of their hands. “We have done so much planning and discussing and strategizing,” Cote said in an interview the week before Sage Summit 2012. “ We've done what we could - now it is up to the attendees.” Minutes before the session, Cote told her boss she needed to excuse herself for a moment - to throw up.
Convene had been invited to attend, so we were there to see how Sage City was received. Things opened with the dramatic staccato of drum notes, and then Michel took the stage, explaining the session’s structure - which had already been detailed in multiple platforms, included pocket guides tucked into every attendee badge - and introducing two short TED-style talks by top Sage executives. Michel then formally opened Sage City - fully expecting, she said in an interview before the event, a few minutes of “controlled chaos.” And there were: Music throbbed as hundreds of attendees crisscrossed the ballroom toward a sea of bobbing signs.
The center held, however, and attendees soon sorted themselves into groups of anywhere from two to more than a dozen, and the cacophony in the room settled down into a steady buzz. The plan for the two-and-a-half-hour Sage City session included a break and an invitation for attendees to choose another group to work with. Most people, it turned out, chose to stick with their initial groups. Some groups were so engaged with one another, they had to be gently shooed away well past the end of the session.
The hours of research and training paid off. Linda Schleihauf, marketing manager for IndustriOS Software Inc., in Ontario, acted as a village mayor and reported in a blog post that, although she worked with a diverse group of manufacturers and business partners, many of them had “the same common burning issues.” The process, Schleihauf wrote, gave each participant an opportunity to share his or her experience and insight in finding solutions.
One of the most successful elements of Sage City was the generation of content by the attendee groups: Organizers printed oversized “outcome cards,” with spaces where key takeaways could be written. The cards had adhesive tags on the back - think jumbo Post-It notes - so they could be easily stuck to walls provided for that purpose.
The sticky notes stayed up in the ballroom, where breakfast was served every morning, giving attendees a chance to learn from conversations they themselves had not participated in. And Sage City delivered a benefit to the company - a pool of data outlining customer needs and issues, Cote said, that will help drive product development. The company is compiling the session’s business solutions into a digital archive and plans to share them back with customers.
There was one big surprise: In addition to the low-tech handwritten takeaway cards, Cote’s team had expected that Twitter would serve as a primary communication tool and, by way of a conference hashtag, as a conduit for ideas. But the Twitter stream slowed to a crawl during the Sage City session. “That was largely due to the fact that people were actually talking to each other,” Jones said. “Everyone put their phones and tablets away.”
After the session, however, the conference’s social-media channels “lit up,” Cote said. Weeks after Sage Summit, blog posts filled with takeaways from sessions continued to circulate. In previous years, there were always a couple of days of congratulatory messages - and then nothing, Cote said.
Another positive year-over-year change was that Cote could look at conference data without getting a sick feeling in her stomach. By the time of the opening session, about 1,000 attendees were checked in to the conference, Cote said. Of those, 63 percent participated in Sage City - more than double the level of participation from the previous year.
Beyond the immediate boost in attendance, the larger gain is the creation of connections and communities that are lasting beyond the meeting, Cote said. And one of the biggest successes is the executive support gained for Sage Summit. Leaders are “more excited than ever about what this program can mean for the company.”
A Place for Everyone
When planning for Sage City, organizers expected and made plans for those attendees who had a tendency to stand back a little from group activities - an estimated 25 percent of the total. A video feed was displayed on a monitor in a low-key social-media and networking lounge set up just outside the ballroom, where couches and armchairs stayed occupied throughout the Sage City event.
Organizers also took pains to make sure that discussions were structured to allow everyone to speak, and distributed flyers with a few best practices, including “Practice active listening” and “Encourage others to share their experience.”
“Our group had a couple of quieter individuals,” reported participant Linda Schleihauf. “But with the format used, they were comfortable sharing, and more importantly had an opportunity to do so. The group was very focused and worked hard to collectively discuss alternatives, and was very respectful of what each person had to contribute.”
For a look at Sage City through the eyes of Patricia Tynan, Sage’s social media and community manager, visit convn.org/sage-city.
Danielle Cote and Sarah Michel will present an experiential “Sage City” case study at PCMA 2013 Convening Leaders. To learn more, visit conveningleaders.org.
Innovative Meetings is sponsored by the Irving Convention & Visitors Bureau, irvingtexas.com.