How We Do It: Jaimé Bennett on Beginning and Ending an Event With Authenticity

The opening and closing sessions at Convening EMEA 2023, which dared to be a little different, paid off by creating memorable experiences that supported the goals of the event — and what matters most to participants.

Author: Barbara Palmer       

man and woman on stage singing

Local musicians Ole Kibsgaard and Kaya Bruel lead participants in singing Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” to open PCMA’s Convening EMEA 2023 in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Welcome to our first installment in a new Convene series How We Do It. We’re tapping the talent of PCMA’s staff so they can share the design thinking and process behind the innovative experiences they create for PCMA events. In other words, we’re showcasing the event professionals behind the events for event professionals.

Most meeting designers know that beginnings and endings matter, but struggle to craft meaningful experiences that resonate with attendees. We asked Jaimé Bennett, PCMA’s managing director for EMEA and a former senior event producer for Web Summit, about the behind-the-scenes thinking and planning for the opening and closing sessions at PCMA’s Convening EMEA 2023, held in Copenhagen Sept. 20-22.

people singing

Convening EMEA attendees join in singing “What a Wonderful World” to open the event. One participant later said she cried during the song.

During the conference opening session, most of the 500-person audience stood to sing along to Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World.” One attendee wrote on LinkedIn that she had attended countless events, but this was the first time she started a conference with tears in her eyes. How did that session come together?

The event’s themes were belonging, impact, and future. From the outset, we intentionally consider the experience we want to create to not only bring the event themes to life, but also create a safe and comfortable environment for participants to learn, grow, and collaborate. And each year, Convening EMEA is opened by PCMA and the host destination — we believe it is an opportunity for the destination to present itself to our audience in the most authentic way. One of the things we talked about with Wonderful Copenhagen is how music had set the scene for previous Convening EMEA events. We saw it last year at Convening EMEA in Vienna — music transcends borders and boundaries connects people from all over the world irrelevant of their background or interests.

The bureau had been telling us about how, during the pandemic, the nation gathered to sing along with a television broadcast every morning in their homes, and how it became a moment of connection. When they suggested inviting two of the musicians who led Denmark in singing together during the pandemic to open the conference, we gave it the green light. We felt it would be a very authentic way to start the event with a true sense of belonging — to have everyone stop and create a moment together in a unique way.

The way you closed the event was unique as well — you dimmed the lights as a local meditation teacher led the group in a session, including a loving-kindness practice which asked them to send good wishes to themselves, their loved ones, and those around them. There was at least one group hug.

The program content started with the head, and we wanted it to end with the heart. Many of the keynote talks were on heavy topics that required a lot of thinking. The final session was on nuclear war and disarmament — you cannot then end on a high with, “Thanks so much and now we are off to X destination next year. Woohoo and safe home everyone!” You need time to consider what has been said, how that could impact you or others. We felt the guided meditation would allow that to happen and for people to have some time to stop, consider, and reflect individually and collectively.

woman sitting with one leg crossed in from of giant screen showing lavender field

Julia Gräßer guides Convening EMEA participants in a meditation during the September events’ closing session in Copenhagen.

Were you at all nervous about attendee participation in such interactive and unconventional sessions?

I don’t know if nervous is the right word. When you try new things or experiment with event design and creating unique experiences, I suppose you always worry about how it will land. But as long as what you are trying to achieve is from a place of authenticity and it intentionally adds to the overall event experience and complements what you are trying to achieve, you should carry on regardless of nerves.

We must take risks with our events and experiences to evolve and innovate. When I looked around the room during the singing to see that people were visibly enthralled by the experience, with some having tears in their eyes —”What a Wonderful World” was a great choice, which also obviously added to the experience.

And I have never known of or been to an industry event that closed on meditation, so yes, I would say this was also a risk. But having talked it through with our team, some colleagues, and our speakers, and knowing it was what we felt our community needed to close the program and the experience we had worked to create, we wanted to try it. Many of the attendees said that the sense of belonging and connection they felt and experienced was very different and authentic.

Barbara Palmer is deputy editor of Convene.

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