Engaging delegates for interactive experience

We live in a society where we’re encouraged to interact rather than passively sit back and watch. Mike Fletcher discovers how conference formats have changed accordingly

Travel is recognised as an important element in conference success, but for one group of delegates attending a customer service conference last year, it was much, much more.

The attendees, all staff from Chiltern Railways, found themselves divided into teams and told to travel to the event in Leamington Spa by different train routes. They were instructed on how to buy their ticket and which connections to take. They were given digital cameras, a set of tasks and information to collate into a five-minute presentation.

Dale Parmenter, managing director of DRP Group, the events consultancy that organised the conference, explains: “The teams were given deliberately tight timeframes for their travel so they arrived at the conference frustrated, late and keen to share their experiences of being a commuter. By putting delegates into the shoes of the commuter, they directly engaged with the issues.

“The following month, all the short-term ‘quick fixes’ to improve customer service across the Chiltern line were implemented, resulting in a 85 per cent decrease in customer complaints.”

We’ve had a period of seeing technology for technology’s sake used within conferencing

It was an object lesson in how engaging delegates can produce far better results than the “death by PowerPoint” presentation, and an example of how it’s not just technology that can engage and motivate conference attendees.

“We’ve had a period of seeing technology for technology’s sake used within conferencing,” says Tim Leighton, creative strategy director at Jack Morton Worldwide, a brand experience agency. “Hologram speakers, projection 3D mapping, and other lighting and visual techniques create a wow factor, but may not engage the delegate’s needs. For brands, such as Ericsson, we focus on creating environments and event formats that stimulate ideas, encourage conversation and tap into the actual needs of a particular audience.”

Even changing the seating layout of a conference can make an audience feel more engaged, says Mr Parmenter. “If you seat 1,000 people in the round, you can ensure that nobody is more than five rows away from the presenter. Sometimes we simply remove all the furniture from seminar rooms so that everyone is on their feet and interacting.”

Adding Value, an events agency that works for, among others, Peugeot, Canon and Kaspersky Lab, uses techniques such as the Human Spectrograph, where delegates are asked to move to a part of the hall depending on their opinion of a certain subject.

“It gets an audience up and active, and allows the client to take the temperature of the room,” says Randle Stonier, Adding Value’s chief executive.

Not that technology cannot be used effectively to engage interest. XL Events, a production support company that specialises in technology, are working on new presentation techniques that will keep audiences wideawake.

“We now have the ability to place interactive surfaces within 3D projections,” says David Mulcahy, XL Events’ technical director. “In other words, you could have a spinning holographic cube on stage with a webpage on each of its sides showing information or delegate feedback, which can be interacted with just like a touchscreen.”

Crystal Interactive, an audience engagement consultancy, helps conference planners make their events more interactive by incorporating everyday technology, such as iPads, into the programme.

“Conference delegates expect the same level of engagement and interactivity as they experience in other areas of their lives,” says Chris Elmitt, Crystal Interactive’s managing director. “We achieve this by a blend of technology and audience interaction techniques.”