Create an experience not an event

It’s time to step away from the PowerPoint presentation and make business events a memorable experience to capture the attention – and imagination – of customers


When Jaguar Land Rover launched the Range Rover Sport, the company invited guests to watch a live film of the up-market vehicle being driven from New York docks to the venue. So far, so dull. But when it arrived, 007 actor Daniel Craig stepped out from the driver’s seat.

The event not only engaged the 750 invited VIP guests, but also connected with 20,000 others who had registered to watch it at the same time. It was subsequently viewed by almost four million people online, while the hundreds of mobile phone pictures taken by guests at the event went on to have a life of their own.

“We had a stunt at the heart of the event, with a wow factor, but also with a customer response we could measure,” says Patrick Reid, Europe, Middle East and Africa chief executive of Imagination, a creative agency that organised the event. “Social media has meant a much greater audience reach.”

It demonstrates a fundamental change in the business event industry. No longer is a business event a one-off; it is part of a whole corporate communications strategy. It’s about how to make more of each moment of an event – how to package it up and make it portable.

A well-managed event can raise your public profile, enthuse your sales team, build your turnover and improve your customer service

Business events often become a bad habit – something that appears in the annual corporate calendar, a fixture and an end in itself,” says Tim Leighton, senior vice president and creative strategy director at agency Jack Morton Worldwide. “That’s a big opportunity missed.”

A well-managed event can raise your public profile, enthuse your sales team, build your turnover and improve your customer service, but only if you start off on the right foot.

“If you’re thinking about it as something that’s going to cost you money, you shouldn’t be doing it,” says Dale Parmenter, group chief executive at communications agency drp. “The key is what you are going to get back.”

So, for example, how does a three-fold uplift on last year’s sales sound? That’s what JCB, the multinational whose yellow machinery is seen on construction sites around the world, achieved with a global dealer event: a three-day event that ran 13 times in four weeks, with more than 3,000 customers coming in from around the world.

“Yes, JCB invested heavily on the infrastructure – there were marquees and fireworks and dancing diggers – but from the moment delegates arrived, their feet didn’t touch the ground. It was a fully immersive experience, and the orders were placed there and then,” says Mr Parmenter.

And that kind of engagement is exactly what today’s business event needs to achieve, according to Mr Leighton.

“Feeling a part of it is critical, especially for the millennial generation [those born at the end of the 20th century],” he says. “These people want to be involved and have their voice heard; they want to contribute. There is a need for the business event to ‘unconference’ and be genuinely dialogue-based.”

Technology has changed the face of the business event; if you want to hold a two-hour meeting with a global sales force on 60 different sites, then yes, we have the technology, but it still needs to be managed.

“In that instance, we started by getting every group to take a selfie,” says Mr Parmenter. “It was the best of both worlds; hosted, face-to-face groups that were linked into a global meeting.”

Presentation
Companies must start thinking of their events as more of an experience.

But technology is not the whole story. Mr Leighton points out that most people will turn up at an event with more technology in their pocket than many events will use. Mr Parmenter cites a conference where they ditched the whizzy apps in favour of tablecloths printed with comment and ideas boxes, on which the delegates wrote their thoughts and opinions. “It’s about what will best achieve your aims,” he says.

That might still mean a slide presentation in a conference hall, but those slides had better be working hard and your presentation had better be good. Event management these days is as much a question of graphic design and coaching classes for the chief executive, as it is about hiring a hall and buying the sandwiches.

Stop thinking about your next business event and start imagining your next business experience

Critically, companies need to be applying business metrics to their business events. “Companies can spend lots of time measuring how happy people were at a conference, when they should be measuring the effect on the business,” says Mr Leighton. “If you are spending the money, you have an obligation to get it right. Businesses should be thinking about what value an event adds.”

If you’re looking for tips on how to make your annual conference more interesting, then step away from the PowerPoint; you’ve got some much more constructive work to do first. What do you want to achieve with your event? What outcomes do you want? How do you want your audience to feel as they leave? What do you want them to be doing in a week’s time?

The message is stop thinking about your next business event and start imagining your next business experience. Only then will you achieve those really surprising results.