Each year, BizBash publishes a list of the Top 100 Events in the U.S., as determined by attendance, buzz, innovation, economic impact, and the event’s importance on the market it serves and represents. You may not think that you have much in common with Art Basel Miami Beach, the Robin Hood Foundation Gala, Fashion Week, the Sundance Film Festival, the Aspen Ideas Festival — or the other 95 top events that made it to the list — but you can still borrow from their approach in your event design.
First among the characteristics they share is that they capture, amplify, and embody the best of the industry and the ecosystem they convene. They coalesce the essence and soul — the zeitgeist — of what makes those that participate in the event tick. For example, the Atlanta International Gift & Home Furnishings Market added a curated shopping experience using lifestyle influencers as guides. E3 created a live ESPORTS arena within the show. The Essence Festival went beyond music to bring together influencers, creators, and celebrities at its daytime Conference & Expos. Notice how these events intentionally create relevance for their audience?
Second is that they all go for the wow. They work to reinvent themselves each year and are not content with better sameness. From redesigned formats to moving to new cities, to creating new programming, each event is working to deliver the most ROI for attendees — and step out of its comfort zone to try something new. More examples: The Sohn Investment Conference created a fantasy stock game, giving players one million tokens’ worth of fantasy capital to invest. Not only did the highest-performing portfolio win a prize, the donation to participate was then collected for charity. Tales of the Cocktail, which is a bar industry event, threw an alcohol-free opening party. That’s right, a dry party at an event for bartenders. This bold move showcased the growing trend of mocktails (non-alcoholic cocktails).
Cultural significance, capturing major trends, and riding the wave of a social movement is a third way to have a major impact. This year, many of the events focused on diversity and #MeToo. For example, ESPN awarded the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage to the U.S. Gymnastics Team survivors of sexual abuse.
Fourth, many of these events focused on enhancing the attendee experience. By making it easy for attendees to get what they need, while delivering a great experience, they increase the chances that they’ll return. There are many great examples in this category, and here are four: SXSW made it easier to navigate sessions, with a color-coded status display in its app; Lollapalooza created a new ticket level that gave access to a VIP experience; Google I/O allowed attendees to scan their badges to receive more information from sessions; the National Association of Broadcasters covered channels — like podcasting and streaming — that are outside its traditional scope but growing in popularity.
Last but not least, these are all ideas you can use at your own events. You may not be the NCAA, but you could create a playoff bracket for participants to vote for their favorite exhibitor. You don’t have to be the Tony Awards to create a VIP-room experience — a quiet space with snacks, exclusive swag, and maybe an open bar counts as an upgrade. You aren’t Comic-Con, but if you think of your audience as fans rather than simply attendees, you can create some exclusive experiences that celebrate your industry.
When you look at your annual meeting or trade show through a new lens, I guarantee you’ll begin to see the possibilities.
Don Neal is founder and CEO of marketing, strategy, and experience agency 360 Live Media (360livemedia.com).