How often do you go to a conference? A few times a year? Just once? Maybe you haven't been to a conference in years. If you haven't been to a conference in a while, you might be in for a surprise the next time you register and attend. These once stiff, white-collared, corporate events are changing, and have seriously raised the bar on everything from venue selection to attendee engagement.

‘Engagement’ has been the buzz word for event planners and marketers for some time now. Events have become the perfect playing field to really engage audiences and give companies connection with their consumers. Those companies that invest, pave the way for a more enriching and memorable experience for their customers and are likely to turn them into lifelong advocates. The next question then becomes, how are companies breaking the mold and turning their conference into an invigorating and unique educational experience?

1. Location Sets the Tone

Usually the most expensive element in event planning is the venue. Over the past few decades we've seen conference venue trends go full circle. In the 90's it was all about hosting your conference in big hotel ballrooms, followed by some networking and post event drinks in some non-descript location just outside the conference room. Coming into the new millennium, conference planners were getting creative and hosting conferences in unique venues or utilizing multiple venues to suit each section of the day. These 'hybrid' events would typically host the information-rich agenda in a hotel meeting space after which attendees were then directed to a unique venue for the informal networking part of the event. While this 'hybrid' event is still very popular and provides attendees with a great experience, it isn't the most cost-effective way to host a corporate event. We're now experiencing a convergence of these two trends, where event planners choose a hotel venue that has enough variety in its meeting spaces to mimic the split locations while remaining in the one venue. Instead of relying on a new venue to inject interest, event planners are turning to new immersive-themed rooms and styling to do the heavy lifting.

Why this works: It goes without saying hiring one venue instead of two is a massive cost-saving already. Using two spaces within the one hotel and investing in theming and styling is a great way to ensure you’re giving guests the best environment for each agenda while maximizing your budget. Hotel meeting spaces give you the AV support and space needed to deliver your key messages and support your speakers. Once the formalities are over, your guests can move to another space within the venue for the next section of the conference whether that be a sit-down gala dinner or styled cocktail event.

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2. Design Immersive Conferences

Gone are the days of a stuffy ballroom, lined with endless rows of chairs and a small stage as the only speaker venue at a conference. Corporate conferences are turning to styled, immersive themes to ramp up the atmosphere, provide talking points and truly immerse guests in their brand. After all, events are one of the only occasions a brand has an uninterrupted interaction with their target market. So, they’d better make the most of it.

If you’re not adopting this new event planning mindset, you’re in danger of being left behind. Immersive Events are where styling, audio visual, digital, staging and design services merge into one harmonious environment. It’s about using these services in combination to truly transform your event into a branded experience.

Why this works: A conference is the ultimate marketing event for a company. Whether it’s a corporate, training, education, or a sales conference, organizations need planners to design events that build brand loyalty and drive advocacy. Effectively branding an event builds attendee engagement that translates into increased connection. In addition, aligning your message with a theme provides a tangible vehicle to carry your message across all touch points. From the invites, to the entrance, room decor, multimedia content and post event communications.

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3. Encourage Attendee Engagement

Our third corporate event trend is attendee engagement – that ‘engagement’ buzzword again. This means event planners are actively seeking new strategies and technologies to encourage two-way conversations with attendees, driving participation and building a positive brand experience rather than asking them to sit and listen for hours on end.

Increasing engagement can come in a variety of forms. Today’s event planners are ditching PowerPoint slides for total engagement activities such as live social feeds, video conferencing, audience polling, on-site bloggers, event-specific apps, event hashtags and much more.

Why this works: Encouraging your attendees to participate and share ideas results in a much richer experience for your guests and allows event hosts to unearth insights and gain valuable feedback that mightn't have been possible without the audience participation. Increasing engagement translates into better overall experiences. By becoming active participants, attendees are more likely to gain knowledge and skills than by simply being spectators.

4. WOW with High-Tech

Events are the perfect playground for showing off your brand and wow-ing guests with the latest technology. When it comes to creating truly unique and personalized experiences, technology is your best friend. Having free Wi-Fi is no longer a nice add-on, it’s an expectation. So, what are conference organizers turning to surprise and delight their attendees:

  • Event apps featuring presentation and workshop schedules
  • Real-time social media integration on-screen
  • In-app scheduling and communication capabilities
  • GPS event locator and navigation assistance
  • On-demand video feeds and special keynote webcasts
  • Live audience polling and contests
  • Personalized push notifications (think meeting agenda or announcements)
  • Real-time language translations

Why this works: Technology bridges the gap between the event and the individual guest experience. Utilizing event apps and social media allows you to effectively communicate to your guests and provide instant updates. Technology and innovative audio-visual solutions provide a cost-effective solution for engaging and create last impressions.

5. Build an Event Community

Brands invest huge amounts of their marketing budget into growing and nurturing a solid community of brand advocates. It therefore makes perfect sense to treat events as a sub-brand which has its own community where people with common interests and likes come together. Building this fan-base takes a lot of time and effort and has changed the life cycle of the traditional event. It’s no longer just the event day itself, event planners need to consider the journey months before the event, the event itself, and then post-event follow ups and content. The overarching objective? Keeping their audience engaged and coming back year after year.

Your event hype plan usually starts with creating the necessary channels and touch points where your community can grow and interact. The heavy weights here are an event Facebook page, YouTube channel for your video content, Instagram and Twitter account and a dedicated branded event hashtag. Utilizing these channels to house engaging content provides you with a cohesive platform to keep your event community engaged throughout the event life-cycle.

Why this works: Positive word-of-mouth is the holy grail of marketing. If you can create and sustain a dedicated community of enthusiasts for your event, you are tapping into a rich source of insights, free advertising and invaluable instant feedback. In the past, event planners would rely on paid advertising to promote the event and would only be able to review all event happenings weeks after the event ended to learn what was successful and what wouldn't be used next year.

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6. Embrace Green Events

Companies that demonstrate they’re environmentally conscious are reaping the benefits of positive brand operations. Additionally, we’re seeing a lot of corporate events taking on a ‘local, organic and sustainable’ approach to their event planning. This mindset is being adopted across every possible facet of the event, from environmentally conscious AV and staging processes, down to local and organic catering, as well as using recycled and sustainable materials to design, communicate and run the event.

Why this works: In some cases, going ‘green’ can be very profitable as people are generally happy to forgo higher quality / luxuries for the sake of being environmentally conscious – think recycled paper, more efficient energy and recycling processes, cardboard chairs etc. Aside from the obvious benefits of a demonstrating corporate social responsibility, it allows companies to build relationships with new audiences via this common interest and strengthen ties with existing customers.

The corporate event scene is experiencing a huge overhaul. Audiences demand interaction, immersion and innovation. The great thing is, it’s being driven by a common need to discover and improve ways to engage audiences and communicate the event message effectively. This means, it’s a landscape that is forever changing. When organizing your next event, make sure you remember these 6 trends and consider working with a dedicated CVB for lots of free help.

Content partially sourced by Encore Event Technologies, Photo Credit Tom Gennara, James Lenon and the Greater Lansing CVB.