The experience matters: Event attendees want more than traditional breakouts, panels

What event planner Lynn McCullough calls the “doors open moment” involves all the senses.

It’s the first sights, sounds and, yes, smells and tastes of conventions (that’s why build-your-own doughnut bars are in fashion, McCullough said). 

“When you walk into that opening session or dinner event, how do attendees immediately feel?” she said. “What lighting will there be? What sound? What kind of content will be playing on the LED screens? All this stuff is going on that can tell you it’s going to be a great experience.”

Years ago, people went to a convention because they wanted to hear a certain speaker. Or, let’s face it, because they had to.

There’s a higher standard that is being expected of conventions today, said McCullough, director of meetings and association management at CMA Association Management. 

One big reason for that? The economy is sailing along nicely. The business of convention planning tends to keep pace.

A decade ago, the recession put a cork in event planners’ parties. Budgets dried up; corporations cut back. The opposite is going on now.

“It’s a competitive time for event planning,” McCullough said. “One of the impacts of that is that you have to be sourcing your hotel space earlier and earlier. These spaces are quickly filling up. And it’s also not a time when you can sit back and do things the way you always have done it.”

Those busy planning conventions today are having to get more creative as tightly packed event schedules pull people in different directions.

An example of an engaging stage set stands out from the traditional breakouts and panels and give attendees of company events something different to help keep their attention.


Things were once much simpler.

If you arranged a good hotel, had some networking events, good speakers … you did your job, McCullough said. 

“Now that there’s so much more out there, you really have to make your case for why people should be attending your event,” she said.

“The good thing is, there’s all sorts of things out there that we have to make an event stand out.”

The business of having people walk out of convention halls impressed begins, McCullough believes, with turning events into more of a hands-on experience than another chance to sit and watch someone talk. Convention planners are moving toward finding ways for guests to make events more interactive to better entice them into the program.

“One of the trends is that people want to do things (like) go to destinations for events and not just sit in the hotel ballroom in the convention center,” she said. “They want to get out; they want to experience the destination.”

In the past, offsite activities were usually limited to dinners or small breakout sessions. Now, event planners are thinking more outside of the box and using local environments for full-scale workshops, McCullough said.


Good event planners are following the lead of Corporate America.

Corporate social responsibility initiatives increasingly are becoming more popular.

Trade shows, bottom right, also can benefit from an atypical setup.

No doubt inspired by millennials, these are opportunities that accompany events to bring attendees to places such as soup kitchens or beaches that need cleaning. Or event attendees can prepare hygiene kits or assemble food packages for local charities at the event itself.

It might not be for everyone, but McCullough expects it will become more widespread as time goes on.

“That gets people at event networking and interacting with one another in a new and different way, while at the same time supporting local community through charity work,” she said. “That’s definitely increasing in popularity in event planning.”

Interactivity has also arrived in the form of technology, which has enabled event attendees to participate in what’s going on at a conference in a number of ways. Some of that is just the experience people are having on social media. But there are also customized apps and even mobile games that event planners are creating to get people more involved.

In the end, it’s about pulling together these new interactive elements to achieve an overarching goal: People should enjoy themselves.

“Your best marketing tool is people walking out of a place saying they had a great time,” McCullough said. “That’s the best marketing message.”