Convening Leaders Recap: What Worked and What Didn’t

Author: David McMillin       

Convening Leaders recap

Craig Davis, president and CEO of Visit Pittsburgh, welcomes Convening Leaders attendees. The main stage, with seating on two sides, was one of the innovations PCMA organizers used at the event. (Jacob Slaton Photography)

We take risks so you don’t have to — it’s the mantra that guides the experience design decisions each year at PCMA’s flagship event, Convening Leaders. With more than 4,000 event professionals and suppliers gathered in one place, the organization puts new ideas on display to help the audience figure out what works, what doesn’t, and what they should try with their own audiences.

At Convening Leaders 2019, Jan. 6–9, in Pittsburgh, the bold ideas were the brainchild of Tonya Almond, CMP, PCMA’s vice president of knowledge and experience design. It was Almond’s first year spearheading the event, but she had plenty of Convening Leaders memories as an attendee to draw on. She leveraged those experiences to identify new opportunities to make the four-day program even more meaningful for the PCMA community.

Convening Leaders

Keri Kelly of SoulMining Inc. explains essential oils, used in aromatherapy, to Convening Leaders attendees. (Every Angle Photography)

Using Scents

Learning is more than seeing or hearing. As Almond and the PCMA events team conducted more research on the role that the five senses play in how an individual learns, they recognized an opportunity to explore how smell can contribute to a more immersive attendee experience. “Your nose can be faster than your ears,” Almond said. Scents “help to create an emotional trigger in the learning process.”

Almond hired a scent consultant to identify the best aromas for each educational studio in Pittsburgh. The events team had some experience with understanding of how the scents — which came from a collection of 56 diffusers strategically placed around the convention center — would play out via a test at a PCMA Asia-Pacific conference in Bangkok in November of last year.

“We knew we had to really bring it to life and be deliberate,” Almond said of the Convening Leaders activation. “So we placed signage in all the restrooms on the stalls to make sure that attendees were aware of the scents.”

Since PCMA now owns all the diffusers and oils, Almond expects to leverage the scents in the future. However, it may not be used throughout the entire environment. “I don’t know if I would do it everywhere,” Almond said. “It makes sense in the lifestyle studio to help create a feeling of calm and detoxification, but maybe a heightened sense of smell isn’t necessary while listening to a panel of experts.”

Convening Leaders

Tonya Almond, CMP, PCMA’s vice president of knowledge and experience design, led PCMA’s efforts organizing Convening Leaders. (Every Angle Photography)

Changing the Main Stage

When PCMA and Freeman, the organization’s production partner, conducted their first site visit at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, they realized that they would face a new challenge with the main stage environment. “We needed all the ballrooms for the studios, so the only space that could accommodate 4,000 people was Exhibit Hall B,” Almond said. “We recognized that there would be plenty of light coming through the windows and the bridge above the hall. We knew we would never get complete darkness, but that was fine. We wanted to own the environment and embrace it for what it was.”

Freeman developed three stage options, and the most non-traditional idea — a stage in the middle of the floor with two sides of seating — won. “It was a risk,” Almond said, “but it was calculated.”

The risk came with extra rehearsal work. “We knew it would create challenges for speakers,” Almond said, “and we had to be mindful of training them to turn.”

While one speaker did complain prior to taking the stage, Almond said that his tune had changed by the end of his presentation. More importantly, the audience in their seats appreciated the new design. “The audience was closer than they’ve ever been in a main stage setting at PCMA,” Almond said. “Freeman has been receiving calls about how to replicate the design at other events. So ultimately, the challenge of the light worked to our advantage.”

Convening Leaders

Attendees strike yoga poses in front of Tourism Vancouver’s selfie wall activation at Convening Leaders. Such activations helped sponsors get results from their participation. (Every Angle Photography)

Spending More Time on Sponsorship ROI

With a senior-level, decision-making audience, Convening Leaders attracts the support of many sponsors and partners, and Almond wanted to help them achieve more meaningful results from their participation in Pittsburgh. “As partners examine their ROI, we wanted to figure out how to integrate them more into the experience instead of a simple logo display or sponsorship message,” Almond said. “It took time to understand what they wanted to achieve.”

In addition to thinking about what partners wanted, Almond knew what PCMA did not want. “There’s never been a trade show at Convening Leaders,” Almond said. “It’s what we are known for, and we needed to showcase sponsors without veering into that trade-show territory.”

The solution was to feature sponsor activations throughout the convention-center environment. Each partner provided an experience that tied to its brand identity. For example, Tourism Vancouver invited attendees to strike a yoga pose in front of an oversized image of outdoor scenery from British Columbia. It celebrated Vancouver’s namaste culture, and the organization spread its love for nature to Pittsburgh, too. Tourism Vancouver planted a tree in Pittsburgh for each photo captured at Convening Leaders.

An Inspiration Wall featured logos while appealing to PCMA’s mindfulness goals. PCMA recognized partners through an interactive display wall, which elevated the brands as attendees walked through the Hall of Fame. A flip-disc wall in the Innovate & Elevate Arena featured a display, and a claw machine offered giveaways from sponsors with a fun spin — in the spirit of an arcade game.

Convening Leaders

Cards inside interactive display boxes flip as attendees pass through the Hall of Fame. The display elevated sponsor brands. (Every Angle Photography)

Just Lunch

The Convening Leaders schedule always has been full of new ideas. Some might say it’s been too full. Like many conferences, the lunch hour included keynote speakers. It was a tradition that Almond wanted to break. “I didn’t want content over the lunch,” Almond said, “because attendees would have felt they were being talked at all day long.”

However, creating some white space for networking needed some extra approval. “I had to get leadership comfortable with skipping speakers during lunch,” Almond said. “It had served as a prominent piece of the program in years past, and people develop expectations.”

The decision paid off. Almond received feedback from participants in behind-the-scenes tours that the content-free lunches provided a good break for their brains.

Building Momentum for San Francisco

Almond wasn’t the only one who wanted to do something different with lunch. San Francisco, the host of Convening Leaders 2020, informed PCMA that they did not want to host a kickoff lunch on Wednesday. It’s a regular tradition for PCMA that sends attendees home with a taste of what’s to come. Almond had to figure out how to adjust the schedule. Fortunately, San Francisco wanted to sponsor a speaker that connected with the destination. Instead of a closing lunch on Wednesday — when a significant percentage of attendees have already departed for the airport — the Tuesday afternoon main stage session featured a conversation with Billie Jean King, moderated by San Francisco Travel CEO Joe D’Alessandro. A happy hour with plenty of beverages from California’s celebrated wine country followed the session, and the afternoon slot seemed like a win-win for the sponsor and the attendees.

While there were plenty of new initiatives in Pittsburgh, there’s one that didn’t happen that seems like it would have been a hit. “At one point, we were going to have [2018 chair of the PCMA Education Foundation] David Peckinpaugh zip-line in for his entrance on the main stage,” Almond said. But the cost of the stunt was prohibitive. “For less than 30 seconds of a wow factor,” she said, “we recognized that we should cut it.”

Well, there’s always next year. Until then, members of PCMA can catch up on the education with on-demand content from Pittsburgh.

David McMillin is a Convene associate editor.


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