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Planning Events One Experience at a Time: WEC 2017

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Heidi Welker

Heidi Welker

Vice President, Marketing

Freeman AV Canada

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Design thinking and original tech took center stage to transform audiences into inspiring creators

They say what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. Luckily that’s not always the case, as the World Education Congress (WEC) from Meeting Professionals International (MPI) delivered an experience worth buzzing about in Vegas and beyond. Thousands of planners and event professionals from around the world left the MGM Grand Hotel & Casino with invaluable education, inspiration, and connections.

WEC made sure to declare its theme from the start: “Stop planning meetings. Start designing experiences.” We couldn’t think of a better one, too, since in the age of the digital revolution, success comes from connecting brands and audiences by architecting unique, personal, and unforgettable experiences. And an experience is only an experience when there is an intimate, human connection.

MPI executed this theme by serving as a living case study in creating experiences for its attendees and offering the tools to help them design their own. Truly, it was a program geared to transform today’s meeting planners into tomorrow’s experience designers.

Here are some ways it happened:

Invaluable, actionable ideas

WEC delivered an impressive array of speakers, all steadfast to the theme of the event. Bruce Mau, chief design officer at Freeman and chief exemplar of the design thinking approach, brought visionary insights to his keynote, as well as in a later session and a Facebook Live interview. Mau contended that we all have the ability to be designers, to holistically conceptualize any project or opportunity from beginning to end with almost limitless possibilities. It simply takes a shift in thinking from material results to imaginative potential, all while learning from the experiences — mistakes and all. Mau shared some of his own mistakes and how he transformed missteps to new methodologies. “The best designers make the most mistakes,” he said. “Have 100 ideas, and then throw away 98 and keep the two that work.”  

Concerning new ways of thinking and the digital revolution, Mau addressed the understandable reality that people are naturally nervous about change. But he explained that a core principle of design thinking is empathy and its ability to understand your audience’s anxiety, which can help solve it for them. The solution, he has learned from his experience, was the idea of reinforcing stability while embracing innovation. Let your stakeholders know what’s currently working and how change will improve it. In the business world, the biggest risk of all is not changing. Brands get stuck in the “what worked last year” trope, sometimes even when it stops working. “If we don’t change,” he said, “We become invisible. If we don’t renew, we become irrelevant.

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Healthy inspiration

Speaking of empathy and being holistic, another impactful keynote came from physician and inspirational speaker Deepak Chopra. In short, Chopra explained that for business success, the first things that should be considered are our own bodies and minds. “Your body is not a thing,” he explained, “It is an activity. It is a verb, not a noun. Ninety-five percent of our health is about how we live.” Beyond stressing such wellness approaches as yoga or mediation, Chopra offered practical solutions to living a better life that included 7-8 hours of sleep a night, 10,000 footsteps a day, and sometimes just walking barefoot (living barefoot worked for Steve Jobs, why not us?).

Beyond these main speakers, the notion of designing experiences in all facets of our lives kept the foot on the pedal at WEC. Sarah Prevette, founder and CEO of Future Design School, agreed with Mau on the importance of empathy in design, as well as being holistic and universal. To her, the process of creating experiences includes idealism, validation, and rapid profiling — it’s never linear, but a dynamic ecosystem of ideas and approaches. Creative guru Ron Tite summarized in his keynote the challenges and opportunities of designing experiences in our era; affirming this point, he noted, “We're in a digital kickback — we crave face-to-face experiences more than ever.”

Launching pads for experiences

Great ideas are even better with great tools, right? WEC showcased tech that both innovated and broke out of traditional event spaces. Some examples included 3D mapping and 3D rendering, as well as stunning breakthroughs in floating videos. These solutions make perfect sense today, as events live on past the event itself and can be experienced year-round digitally. This was exemplified by one display that revealed how couples can plan their entire wedding in a remote, 3D environment.

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Sessions and panels that bring change

WEC covered many valuable topics including event marketing, event operations, personal and career development, and tech and big data, just to name a few. From the sessions on transforming from planner to producer to sessions on evolving from supplier to partner, the education component had it all and more — like a basics boot camp covering A-Z meeting fundamentals.

One notable panel focused on the timely issue of security, especially with less than 50 percent of planners having a security plan in place for their events. Senior VP of MGM Michael Dominguez explained that the most important question a meeting planner should ask during a site visit is who oversees the emergency plan in the venue; then get involved in the planning process. There should always be a plan as well as a chain of command in the case of inclement weather or other potential disruptions and emergencies. Yes, design thinking even works for security!

Leading by example

It’s no exaggeration that WEC served as a living case study for designing experiences. Just before the event, a planning calamity hit — keynote speaker and former NBA great Magic Johnson was unable to attend. Working furiously overnight, WEC organizers drew upon the principles of design thinking and event marketing to make a quick change; they filled the celebrity absence with a panel of industry experts to engage attendees with relevant thought leadership. The main topic? What to do when things go wrong at events. By the enthusiastic reception, it was clear the audience was elated, not disappointed. In the end, they still got magic in their experience — just like everyone else at WEC.

Las Vegas continued the enchantment for inspired audiences beyond the event with casino playing, nightclub dancing, and Elvis sightings. What’s more, Joan Jett performed to a mesmerized WEC crowd, showing why she remains a pioneering force for women artists, as well as the reality that a good experience never gets old — especially when it’s well orchestrated by creative design thinkers.

Ready to apply design thinking today? Learn how this thoughtful approach can transform events into experiences.

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