New age of business events is here

Russ Lidstone, group chief executive of The Creative Engagement Group, parent group of events division WRG, explains how events have evolved to reflect a new culture of business

We’ve all been there. A conference where the speakers read their speeches in a monotone, one after another, part of a rigid agenda, in a faceless hotel, making delegates feel they’ve time-warped back to a Soviet party congress. In a rapidly evolving business culture of engagement, curiosity, inclusion and innovation, this is unforgivable.

Events ought to be inspiring, immersive and provoking. When done well, they can utterly change the way an organisation is perceived and impact how engaged stakeholders behave.

WRG has more than 25 years’ experience in creating stand-out business and consumer events, working with brands from HSBC and Nissan to Shell and large pharmaceutical businesses. We have built a reputation in Europe and the United States for delivering some of the most outstanding experiences in the corporate world.

The changing nature of business and a new direction from innovative leaders needs to be reflected in events

However, in recent years we have partnered with clients to lead the way in helping them transform how they run their business events, to reflect their changing cultures and capitalise on new technologies available to our interactive and immersive team.

Like all companies, the blue-chip organisations we work with are seeing a radical evolution in their workforce. Mobile and remote working, multi-generational teams, and the transparency required in the glare of social media mean businesses have had to evolve, and move from command-and-control to connect-and-collaborate philosophies.

Look at chief executives like Vas Narasimhan at Novartis. They are in the middle of transformation programmes to create more open, responsive cultures. Employees are engaged, constantly feed back and management respond to their ideas. It’s brought companies and employees together, which is critical for any organisation in today’s fast-moving landscape.

The changing nature of business and a new direction from innovative leaders needs to be reflected in events and here are a few things we’ve learnt to create more participation, increase engagement and deliver greater commercial effectiveness.

Move from “inform” to “involve”

Companies have to think much more about what an audience wants to get out of the event. Delegates don’t want to be lectured, they want to be involved. I often say employees now want to work with their companies, not for them, so transparency and two-way communication are at the heart of the way we plan meetings. Therefore, businesses and event agencies need to be braver in providing the space and tools for that engagement.

We recently designed and delivered a conference for a large pharmaceutical organisation with an ambition to foster an environment of “safety to fail”, and asked delegates to vote for the best successes and failures of the business. The content then morphed to fit the results. We boldly left a blank agenda on the final day for delegates to present their own stories and work with a speaker coach to help deliver their content. This transparency allowed the delegates to deliver their content in a psychologically safe environment. As a result, 90 per cent of delegates were inspired to do things differently, and 100 per cent of delegates felt energised to build partnerships and collaborate more.

Extend beyond the event

All engagement activity needs to reflect the multi-faceted, multi-screen, always-on communications landscape. Engagement starts before the event and continues afterwards, so we always aim to be creative with formats to recognise events as a part of an ongoing engagement programme. We help many clients to create eclectic formats to suit the audience environment. For example, we often encourage the capture and broadcast of film content from meetings, so our in-house hybrid broadcast team can engage those unable to attend, plus create thought-leadership content to support local and global post-event online media campaigns.

Businesses can see the impact of the content well after the event has finished and engage with a larger audience, regardless of whether or not they attended. This drives participation and extends reach, ultimately delivering greater return on investment.

Use physical space to strengthen experience

The physical environment for events increasingly needs to put people into the right mindset to receive content and experience messaging, rather than just hearing it. After all, they can listen to it online. Thinking about the physical flow of your event and how delegates are going to navigate the agenda or floorspace, as well as the use of touch, taste and smell, can have a huge impact on their experience. This is why our environments team work to bring the brand values into a physical and tactile environment for clients such as Google to land messaging with more potency.

Let technology facilitate real-time agility

An integrated solution for clients incorporating responsive technology enables us to adjust live experiences in real time. While event apps have become standard, increasingly we are supporting clients to use RFID (radio-frequency identification) and anonymised facial recognition camera tracking technology to track delegate movement. This enables us to analyse data and adjust environmental flow or layouts in real time.

Talk to “the real self”

Alongside the business-orientated agenda, delegates are increasingly keen to learn and experience new ways of thinking about themselves and bringing their real selves into the corporate environment. This means providing breakouts or content that also recognises their life beyond the organisation. For example, for a healthcare client, we delivered workshops on sleep management which demonstrated the importance of wellbeing in the workplace. They were highly informative and totally oversubscribed, demonstrating how engaging and effective they were.

Bigger speakers, smaller stages

Clients value meaningful content over potentially vacuous, shiny production with bells and whistles. This means having compelling speakers matters more than ever, but you also need to make the most of them. Rather than simple podium-based broadcasts, we encourage a compelling mix of keynotes, fireside chats, panel discussions and huddles, alongside off-site business visits. This requires a more agile approach, combined with exemplary production discipline.

Events provide some of the best opportunities for companies to engage and embrace key stakeholders. Getting maximum impact means reinventing the experience in line with how our work and life experience is changing. This requires an innovative mindset and clients to cede some control.

Delegates will thank you for it and engagement with your organisation will benefit as a result. Importantly, we will all be thankful never to experience that Soviet party congress time warp, ever again.

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