Looking at In-Person Events With a Fresh Lens

The Four Dimensions hold the secret to creating engaging experiences for a new era of events.

Author: Beth Surmont       

conversation pods

Conversation pods are a great way to keep attendees from feeling overwhelmed at events. (Jacob Slaton Photography)

beth surmont

“We must re-evaluate our pre-COVID event models and restructure them to meet audiences where they are today.” — Beth Surmont

One of the things that I have been curious about recently is how we all have changed in subtle ways from the COVID-19 pandemic. From the way we set priorities, to how we interpret risk, and even to how we perceive time, everyone is a little bit different than they were before, in ways we may not even realize. We must re-evaluate our pre-COVID event design models and constructs through a new lens and restructure them to meet audiences where they are today.

We have been taking a fresh look at one of our core event design models, the Four Dimensions, which are:

  1. Intellectual — everything that stimulates thinking
  2. Emotional — the opportunities to engage feelings
  3. Physiological — the open space and wellness attributes
  4. Physical — everything that can be touched

Intellectual Redefined: Think About It

In-person event attendees are looking for a different kind of intellectual experience compared to online. Copious amounts of content are available digitally and when they invest the extra effort, time, and expense to travel to an event, attendees expect education of a different order. We do not want to provide the same one-way speaker experience that they get online. Instead, we want to create peer-to-peer sharing groups, where real issues and problems can be tackled with like-minded people. The content can become the appetizer to the in-person event. Produced and packaged appropriately, digital sessions could be provided in advance, and then those who put in the extra cost and effort to travel are rewarded with a learning experience on a higher level. How are you maximizing the educational opportunities for your audience? What content can you make available in advance?

Emotional Reimagined: How Does It Feel?

In this first year of reconvening, the emotion seems to be handling itself. I’ve witnessed multiple reunions, excited hugs, and the huge smiles of people who had previously only met online. There is something special about sharing the energy of fellow attendees that creates a tangible sense of being a part of something larger. There has never been a better time to leverage the emotional triggers of music, lighting, and imagery to inspire our audiences. Also, creating as many opportunities as possible for people to see how they are a part of a larger whole, and keeping them connected with a big-picture perspective, will go far in helping them make the decision to come back in person the following year. What emotions are you seeking to evoke during your opening general session? How are you using videos and other cues to create a unifying feeling and sense of community?

Physiological Reassessed: Is Every BODY Okay?

Coming back to in person can be overwhelming for some people, so it is important to remember that our audiences are returning with different comfort levels. Providing clear safety protocols and areas of calm are important. Instead of cramming all the content into a few days, use pre- and post-digital content to cover some of the needed education, and provide opportunities for downtime on site. People need unscheduled time more than ever, whether it’s to recharge, catch up on work, or get outside and enjoy the destination with a few peers. Networking is the No. 1 element that shows up in surveys as what people missed most over the past two years, so it’s vital that we provide the space for it. How are you helping your attendees connect? What are the activities and intersection points that will make it easy for them to find their people again?

Physical Reconsidered: The Purpose of the Place

As we go back to in person, everyone should be considering how to leverage their host destinations and venues to their fullest. Meeting pods and small nooks help to keep people from feeling overwhelmed and create organic spots to enter conversations. Bright colors and comfortable seating (think homey couches and upholstered chairs) help people feel at ease, while greenery and sunshine help them recharge. The room sets also contribute to creating a communal feeling. Social distancing at big rounds can make it hard to engage, so consider small seating groups with side tables, and multiple highboys that allow smaller groups to gather. Additionally, outdoor space is a key value-add, both for safety and psychological health. How are you adjusting your floorplans to make a more welcoming space? What else could you be doing to leverage the areas outside of your convention center footprint?

As you begin to bring people back to your events, use the Four Dimensions as a framework to design a more engaging attendee experience, reminding them of the pure joy of gathering in person. This is your chance to reimagine — and reestablish — the value that your event brings.

Beth Surmont, CAE, CMP, is vice president of event strategy and design for marketing, strategy, and experience agency 360 Live Media.