Attendee experience is one of those industry terms that make sense to us internally—but might require a bit of explanation to anyone who isn’t in the events industry.
Especially because it’s used so often.
We like to talk about the New Attendee Experience, how this or that impacts attendee experience, and how to measure our event’s influence on attendee experience.
But what is attendee experience? How do we as an industry actually define it? And how can we break it down to understand what makes better events?
Attendee experience is made up of anything that touches the attendee’s perception. Different aspects create the participation, contact, exposure, and observation that creates the whole of an ‘experience’.
This can be somewhat ambiguous, so let’s look at some of the different ways an attendee interacts with your event—and all of which are part of attendee experience.
Needless to say, human beings interact and participate with the world around us using our five senses—and so our attendees, too, are paying attention to our event using all of their facilities.
Sight, touch, smell, taste and sound each add to the physical aspect of attendee experience.
While optimal taste and sight are commonly pursued in the creation of events—venue set up, look, and décor is very important, and catering is always a big consideration—the other senses can be easily overlooked.
Event guru Tahira Endean spoke about deliberate event design at the PCMA Vancouver Spark! conference, and highlighted some of these aspects. Incorporating fresh lemon or citrus scents can make attendees feel brighter and more alert—and those same citrus fruits can be incorporated into table centerpieces and become a colourful eye-draw as well.
At once, two major senses (sight and smell) are carefully directed by the event planner to create a certain perception of experience.
Another example is the ‘scent science’ that casinos use, which utilize expensive blends of scents and higher percentages of oxygen to create signature smells and induce glee in patrons. The distinct smells remind people of the casino and can even influence behavior. “It’s why all Abercrombie & Fitch stores have the same good smell,” event planner Havovie Suraliwalla shared.
Sounds can have major impact on attendee experience. Music of different genres is proven to induce related moods in people. Piping in some soft or energetic music can help attendees relax or pay more attention respectively, as well as fill out the background noise to reduce the feeling of social awkwardness.
And of course, touch can’t be overlooked. “A ratty or old looking chair won’t have anyone sitting on it,” Suraliwalla said. “There are companies, like Vancouver’s Steelcase, that do event furniture with a focus on fabrics and ergonomics. Furniture with nice cushions, or even a fluffy blanket, can really help an attendee feel more comfortable overall.”
Increasingly accessible technology such as apps, QR code scanners, AR, and VR have literally added a new dimension—the digital—to our everyday interactions.
And with the rise of mobile devices, ‘going paperless’, and smart technology at meetings and events, digital interactions have increasingly become a considerable part of attendee experience.
In fact, most attendees expect there to be digital aspects of the event—whether that’s a dedicated event app, official social channels, or an official event webpage. Event planners need to understand and incorporate digital interactions into the design of attendee experience, because it has quickly become an indistinguishable part of the overall experience.
Think, for example, of big conferences like Marketo or Content Marketing World, where digital personalized schedules that are run on mobile event apps help to organize an attendee’s entire day. Or online voting and pre-event surveys, like the ones used at the Harry Potter themed YourMembership conference. The organizers relied on those digital interactions to gather the data they needed to build a better catered and personalized attendee experience.
Most importantly, event planners need to consider digital experiences as vital parts of the overall attendee experience.
At a physical event, rather than taking over other event interactions entirely—although virtual conferences do exist, they typically take place online and do not have a physical element on the part of attendees—digital interactions should be created to support and enhance the other aspects.
Although not every conference is an educational event, it’s important to consider an attendee’s intellectual engagement. To do otherwise is to have un-engaged, un-interested attendees.
In other words, event planners should also be looking at boredom—or the battle against it—as a crucial part of attendee experience.
It is fully possible, after all, to start off the event with an incredible feast for the senses that quickly becomes dull should the attendee discover a lack of intellectual stimulation.
This doesn’t mean that event organizers should plan to pack every session with challenging material, or cut out breaks and idle spaces in the schedule.
Instead, it’s more important to make sure that there are frequent breaks, to allow attendees to refresh themselves between information-heavy sessions, and to incorporate more interactive content in sessions and at the event itself. The attendee experience leans on physical and digital interactions—so make sure to provide your audiences with the opportunities to interact with the content.
This might take the form of an ongoing scavenger hunt that attendees do throughout the conference, gamification that blends learning with friendly competition, or the occasional quiz to keep information fresh in their minds.
When talking about the multiple points of contact that make up attendee experience, it’s impossible to leave behind the social elements of engagement.
This not only refers to social media platforms and in-person networking at the conference, but to any sort of person-to-person interaction. This includes speakers, staff, and of course other attendees.
Attendees cite networking as a major reason for going to conferences, so it’s definitely important to create opportunities for them to do so. Varying the methods and types of interaction involved in networking can also help attendees network more quickly, efficiently, and enjoyably.
Team-building games, for example, can incorporate the five senses, and create a bit of a physical or intellectual challenge. After-hours events, rather than strictly demarkated networking lunches, are also a great place for attendees to interact with other attendees in a less strict, but still professionally relevant, arena.
Another idea to incorporate a few aspects of interaction is a scavenger hunt that takes place during the day, with attendees having to chat with their colleagues or exhibitors to collect information. Get creative with scavenger hunt ‘items’ and help immerse attendees in the experience of the event by engaging different senses. Instead of physical items to collect, for example, ask attendees to identify the scents of a particular room, guess objects while blindfolded, or solve puzzles in exchange for tokens.
Games or social activities that take place outside of educational sessions—and, if I may be so bold to suggest, even outside of the breaks between those sessions—provide a much-needed escape. Giving your attendees structured opportunities to be social can actually boost their mental well-being, and helps to create positive relationships outside of professional networking.
Attendee experience is more than our five senses. There are many modes of interaction that build up an attendee’s perception and understanding of an event, including socializing, intellectual pursuits, digital interaction, and, yes, the five physical senses.
Thinking about event planning as the creation of an experience, rather than only the creation of an event, helps to conceptualize the attendee’s perspective as they encounter and interact with each aspect of our event. Attendees don’t take away only the sessions, food, and décor. Aspects that we don’t normally think of as part of event design—use of digital spaces, socialization, and intellectual interaction among them—have just as much of an impact on what an attendee takes away from your event.
Ultimately, designing our events around multiple modes of interaction helps create well-rounded and positive attendee experiences that lend themselves to better overall events.
What do you consider most when planning for attendee experience? Let us know in the comments or over on Twitter!
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