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Design with Intention

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Photo © Mike Nakamura

What could happen if your conference transcended the traditional format? Does the décor make a difference? “The right design can increase the impact of your event,” says Allison Lazar, sales executive for Triumph Expo & Events, Inc. Lazar recommends that anyone planning an event consider the design and décor of the space where the event is held. Event planners should think about ways to keep the theme alive throughout the event. She calls the process design with intention.

“Design with intention is the thoughtful process of creating a whole experience for your attendees. A carefully-considered design can change behavior and increase the impact that the conference has on the participants,” explains Lazar. “People are taking time out of their day and often spending money to go to the event, so you should do everything you can to make it a special experience.”

Even small gatherings should consider the design

Some planners may think that this approach is only appropriate for a large convention or trade show, but Lazar says that even a small retreat can benefit from thoughtful design.  It can be as basic as using creative signage to lead attendees from the parking lot to the venue. “Design a journey from the car through the registration all the way to the breakout sessions,” she explains. “For example, you can create a route so that guests don’t have to wander through the entire casino floor to get to a small meeting room.”

Use design cues

Lazar works with planners to create the look and feel of the conference by using design cues. Design cues help establish a theme that is relevant. The cues might be related to something about the organization or a unique element of the organization’s culture. It might also be related to the physical surroundings. The whole idea is to make it organic, natural and consistent. You want to create a story.

Begin planning early

Begin creating the story in the marketing before the event and then lead attendees along the pathways that match the theme. Lazar explains, “If organizers are working with an event planner, they should keep the conversation ongoing. Perhaps use a shared drop-off point such as an online group to capture ideas and suggestions.” She says that event planners can lead the conversation and help the planning committee develop a design that is relevant to the group.

Lazar cites the recent Meetings Industry Summit, a conference for meeting and event planners held in Bellevue, Wash. She met with the planning team early to help them determine their approach and to identify the design cues. The team members drew inspiration from the great outdoor experiences available in the region and developed a winter ski theme. Every aspect of the conference was tied to the theme. As Lazar explained, “the conference planning committee created a story and developed a captivating path for the attendees to follow.”

Consistency is important

The Summit’s exterior decorations were stylized mountain scenes and, even though the event was held in a large conference center, the design was able to suggest a mountain ski lodge atmosphere. As participants entered, the décor at registration evoked the experience of buying a lift ticket. An immense escalator went directly from the second-floor registration area to the fourth floor exhibit area, providing the chair-lift experience. Lazar notes that elevators were readily accessible but they were rarely used. Attendees naturally joined their fellow “skiers” on the lift.

Small changes can make a difference

For the Summit, signage at the top of the elevator was a large map showing the different routes participants could take depending on which sessions they wanted to attend. The second-floor auditorium was labeled the base lodge and the fourth floor (where most of the activity took place) was called the summit lodge. Meeting rooms on the “summit” floor were labeled with names of nearby mountain peaks.

Also, consider the furnishings. Perhaps you can think about using different types of chairs rather than the typical conference set-up. If the room is filled with white chairs, you can add one red chair. Lazar says, “a pop of color creates a different visual feel. It can make people feel more at home and encourage conversation.”

Extend the experience

Design with intention goes beyond the physical décor. It involves looking at ways to facilitate interaction. It also involves developing ways to extend the event experience for attendees after the event is over.

Lazar notes that she sees trends in events that encourage participants to bring it back to the office. A conference can often create information overload and much of the information will be lost as soon as participants leave. Some of the tools used are cheap and easy. A “where are you from board” with a map on it where event attendees can indicate where they came from to attend the conference encourages interaction and conversation.

Many groups are using a writing wall. This is a poster board where people can write about a topic or question. A typical topic might be “this is what I like about the session.” The writing wall and the map board allow the group to bring the information back to the office and keep the conversations going after the conference.

Photo booths are another popular and fun way to extend the experience beyond the event. Team photos can be posted on the group’s website. The idea is to encourage interaction beyond the standard conference presentation.

Be creative

One group Lazar works with has developed a take-away related to the organization’s mission. A small mascot is given to every attendee. The only way people can get the mascot is to attend the conference. Each year a new mascot is unveiled. The idea is that the mascots become valuable and are seen as collectables. She says, “the mascots have become a constant reminder to participants about how great the event was.” To extend the aura of collectability, they set up a claw machine every year that has a few mascots from previous events.

Keep your eyes open

Lazar encourages her clients to attend as many other events as they can, even ones where they may not have a deep interest. Note their design cues and what type of experience is created. “Keep your eyes open in the world,” she adds. You can find inspiration and ideas anywhere. Look for ways to make your décor say something about the organization.

“Décor is transformative. Design with intention is all about creating a transformative experience. You want to create a space that nurtures. You want to create a place where people can explore and learn,” explains Lazar.

According to Lazar, successful conferences place emphasis on creating experiences that encourage interactions, enhance communication and foster the building of relationships. They focus less on the transference of information and more on providing the opportunity for participants to build connections, share stories and have a dialog around the topic. Participants come away from these conferences inspired.

By Ron Engeldinger