The customer is always right — that guiding principle for the retail industry is also key to the way the business events industry operates. Event destinations and venues, for example, rely on customer feedback to shape their future development plans.
Atlanta’s Georgia World Congress Center (GWCC) is no exception. In the past, it has solicited feedback from some customers, but limited the scope of their input to current or near-future developments at the center. When Joe Bocherer took on the role of chief commercial officer of GWCC in 2016, he wanted to create a more structured customer advisory board (CAB) — one that could meet on a regular basis and take a bigger-picture view, exploring, for example, the expectations of the next generation of attendees.
“Our previous adviser roles involved talking to people about projects on our campus, like our recent exhibit-hall expansion,” Bocherer told Convene. “We wanted to arrange a formal board that could be part of an ongoing conversation—one that extended beyond specific initiatives to focus on how we can make better experience decisions each day of the year.”
In 2018, Bocherer felt that the time was right for an official board, and he turned to Michael Greto, owner of brand activation and event design firm The Chatt Hills Company, to outline plans for its first face-to-face meeting, Dec. 5–7. Greto, who has experience sitting on a number of CABs in the travel and tourism industry, knew that there might be challenges engaging board members.
“These are people who have been around the world twice and done everything four times,” Greto told Convene. “They don’t want to go on site visits unless they’re necessary.”
So Greto focused on providing participants with an experiential event that would set those few days apart from CAB members’ previous experiences — one that would not only engage them, but in turn, provide inspiration for the way they design their own events.
Rather than convening at a top-rated Atlanta restaurant or at a special event venue in the area, the opening-night gathering for the group of 14 corporate and association leaders took place at a recently renovated private home in Atlanta’s tony Buckhead neighborhood. “It’s a beautiful Southern home,” Greto said, and the homeowners, John and Anna Haber, “are the consummate Southern hosts. For our event, they rolled out the red carpet, providing tours of the home and adding their personal touch to the evening.”
To help break the ice, the CAB participants engaged in what Greto called the “Rose and Thorn” exercise. “Everyone shared the best and worst parts of their days,” he said. “It provided a way to get to know people in a different fashion.”
Greto said that candor is an essential ingredient for an effective advisory board. “Giving and receiving feedback can be uncomfortable,” he said. “When you are placed in a relaxed and familiar environment, barriers break down, and conversations become more productive. Where do some of our best conversations happen? Around the kitchen table, which was exactly the environment I wanted to create.”
But the entire CAB meeting couldn’t be conducted at the Habers’ kitchen table — and the group, after all, was together for the benefit of the GWCC. How to combine the two? When the group went to the congress center the next morning, they experienced a déjà vu moment when they were brought to an alcove in the middle of the building. Greto had partnered with Juice Studios, a local DMC, to take high-resolution images from the Habers’ home and blow them up into life-size images using Freeman’s Smart Wall technology. “It really tied the entire ‘at home’ theme together,” Greto said.
The decision to weave the kitchen environment into the congress center was shaped by a concept called “neuroscaping,” utilized by Ben Moorsom, president and CEO of Debut Group. Moorsom, who worked with Greto to design the experience, said that neuroscaping combines cognitive psychology, social psychology, and neuroscience to design more compelling experiences. “When you’re sitting in an advisory board meeting, cognitive overload is bound to kick in,” he said.
“Our research has shown that, at any given time, 52 percent of your audience’s minds will be wandering. You constantly have to battle to keep their attention.”
To keep all 14 members focused, Moorsom delivered a presentation on the scientific processes behind neuroscaping and shared how the concept could apply to each board member’s constituents. In other words, they were learning about immersive learning environments while they were experiencing one. “The board meeting became a mini experience- design program,” Greto said. “We wanted to send them home thinking differently about how they design their own programs and capturing their audience’s attention.”
A post-meeting survey showed that those efforts paid off. All survey participants indicated that they were interested in using neuroscaping to reimagine how they think about their own meetings and events.
Surprise & Delight
Other portions of the several-day program took participants out of “the kitchen,” but stuck to the premise of breaking tradition — even when it came to site visits. Those weren’t originally on the itinerary, Bocherer said, “but we had a lot of requests to see the recently completed Mercedes-Benz Stadium.” Instead of taking a typical tour, the CAB took part in a progressive lunch through the stadium.
As for making the closing evening meal memorable, Greto created “an old-school supper club” environment — complete with a cabaret singer — for the group at Ventanas, a rooftop event space that overlooks Centennial Olympic Park.
On Friday morning, before advisers headed home, Bocherer collected their insights to help inform their continued collaboration. “I really wanted to get a sense of what they want out of an advisory board,” Bocherer said. “These people are constantly asked to give their time for these positions, so we have to make sure that we reach our aggressive goals.” Among those goals is to rise to the top of planners’ site-selection lists.
While some of the discussion points that the CAB will be involved in may cover familiar ground — service, square footage, or competition in the convention industry, for example — the way they are addressed will continue to deviate from the norm.
“Looking ahead to our next board meeting this summer and those to follow, we will focus on developing even deeper content coupled with unique experiences,” Bocherer said.
“No matter what the program will involve, there will be a focus on creating feelings of being unconventional with surprise-and-delight moments at every corner.”
‘The Price of Abundance’
The makeup of most customer advisory boards comprises experienced C-level executives and other busy leaders who have traveled the world. And that presents some engagement challenges. Debut Group’s Ben Moorsom referenced the results of “The Price of Abundance: How a Wealth of Experiences Impoverishes Savoring,” a 2015 study conducted by professors from Spain, Canada, and Belgium. The study indicated that the more countries an individual has visited, the less likely s/he is to enjoy a future trip to a pleasant but ordinary destination.
“It’s why doing something extraordinary is so important with an expert audience like this,” Moorsom said. “They’ve already been around the block.”
David McMillin is an associate editor at Convene.