Two Ways to ‘Engineer the Unexpected’ at Events

Author: Beth Surmont       

I have a dream that someday, instead of ordering slightly stale coffee by the gallon, I’ll be able to provide my attendees with their favorite coffeehouse-style beverage — a dirty chai latte with soy milk, delivered right to their seat as they sit down for the morning general session. So I was excited to read the PCMA Foundation and Marriott International’s recent “The Future of Meetings & Events” report, published earlier this year.

Beth Surmont

The first trend cited in the report is emotional intelligence — designing with the end-user in mind. The advances in artificial intelligence and predictive analytics, combined with consumers’ willingness to give up data in exchange for more individualized experiences, makes my coffee delivery dream start to feel within reach.

There’s been a shift in the responsibility of organizing events in the past few years, and it’s something I take very seriously. Attendees are asking for experiences. Sponsors are asking for more ROI. Organizations are asking for more revenue, with a smaller budget. But more than all of this, I feel the duty of planners has moved from seamless logistics to enabling transformation.

If we are going to dedicate the time, money, and resources to bring people together, then we owe it to them to create a space that changes them in some way. The trends report calls this “orchestrated serendipity” — engineering and embracing the unexpected for more meaningful moments. The best ideas come from conversations. New ideas come from the convergence of different backgrounds. And we have to invent ways to wake people up to what is possible at our events. Do this by providing the unexpected — anything to take people out of their daily haze. The mind benefits from novelty and unexpected questions and details.

I love the idea of engineering the unexpected. One idea suggested in the report is to plan programming that you deliberately cancel, giving attendees found time. I would add a layer of intentionality to this, so it’s not just free time for them to go back to their room and check email.

Imagine gathering people for the opening keynote. The lights dim, maybe some music plays. The voiceover introduces your event host, who gets up on stage, clicks to the first slide and says, “Nah,” and walks off. The audience sits silent, unsure of what to do. Then you put someone up there, someone unexpected — not the CEO or president of the organization, but maybe the person who works registration, or one of your young professional members. They say, “We are hacking the general session today and instead of a presentation, you have been given found time — and we challenge you to use this found time in a meaningful way.”

Then you give them five things to try: Go to coffee with the person sitting in the row behind you, go to one of the four corners of the room to join a discussion group on a specific task, come to the exhibit hall for a meditation session, follow the walking map in your program guide, or write down a question you’ve been wondering about and ask as many people as you can to answer it.

Imagine what that would feel like? The group expected a sleepy morning with maybe some nuggets of information, but now you’ve given them permission to explore and think in a way that resonates with them.

Beth Surmont is director of experience design at marketing, strategy, and experience at 360 Live Media. She’ll pick up where she left off with her take on the other trends identified in the “The Future of Meetings & Events” report in Convene’s August issue.