Convening Leaders kicked off with some serious star power. At the opening session for PCMA’s annual convention, actor Matthew McConaughey took the stage to illuminate the wonders of Austin, Texas, his hometown city, which plays host throughout the year to popular events like SXSW and Austin City Limits.
The audience at the Austin Convention Center was galvanized, a sea of cheers and raised phones with blinking camera lights.
It was the perfect exciting opening to three charged days of inspiration, education, and networking as marketers from all over the globe converged on a major gathering of the event industry. The central theme this year was “Designing colLABoration,” featuring a suite of audience behavior, design thinking, and collaboration tools to deal with the rapidly changing event industry. These tools — and the themes surrounding them — would present themselves repeatedly during the conference.
The digital revolution has arrived
The whole world, including the event industry, is undergoing a seismic shift due to the digital transformation. As PCMA CEO Deborah Sexton said during the opening sessions, “Digital is here to stay.” This substantial change was echoed by many speakers, including famed economic theorist Jeremy Rifkin during a Wednesday presentation on the main stage.
Much of Convening Leaders focused on making sure the event industry is able to navigate and thrive in the uncertain dawn of the digital revolution. This concentration got off to a sound start at the opening session when bestselling author and TED speaker Rachel Botsman gave the keynote speech on finding that profitable intersection where trust, tech, and collaboration meet. She explained that marketers must understand that effective digital tech facilitates offline relationships and communities. Companies like Airbnb, Facebook, and Uber leverage cyberspace to bring people together in real space. This is the type of goal marketers must strive for, according to Botsman, while also nurturing trust with stakeholders in the great unknown that is the digital age.
Continuing the digital education, virtual reality officially arrived at the event industry at Convening Leaders. At the already bustling TechCentral, crowds eagerly awaited their turn to wear virtual reality headsets. A picture may say a thousand words, but the looks on participants’ faces after a virtual reality demo told a thousand experiences. When applied to brand experiences, virtual reality will allow planners to take simulated tours of a site or explore how various design approaches look in a specific space. Marketers can employ the technology to show how their product or service works in the home or workplace, as well as create memorable experiences on an expo floor.
Other cool tech on display included interactive holograms and the next generation of LED walls, touch screens, and signage, as well as leading-edge tracking and measuring tech like beacons. And let’s not forget the exhibition of the latest event apps, software, and niche social media.
Experience before brand is the new normal
Another prevailing theme at Convening Leaders? People are more interested in an experience than an event. The age of the experience has begun.
At the “Predictions Event Professionals Need to Know” panel, Freeman CEO Joe Popolo talked about the reality that marketers are defunding everything but digital and live events. Successful event professionals will meet their audiences in that happy and customized middle of digital and live events. Popolo called this new paradigm “face-to-face marketing 2.0.”
That concept was illustrated by Freeman speaker and AV guru Mike Wohlitz during a session on budgeting, highlighting the 30 percent higher retention of information when mobile devices are part of a presentation. Gone are the days when participants are asked to turn off their mobile devices; now, marketers should encourage the use of mobile devices for social broadcasting, recording, interacting, or anything they want.
Beyond the innovative ideas and technologies on display, Convening Leaders was brimming with useful sessions on all topics in the brand experience category — from rebranding to maximizing ROI, show floor strategy to attracting talent, and everything in between. This comprised several dozens of labs, workshops, and even wellness sessions and a walking competition. In fact, corridors were often filled with meditating and stretching attendees, a Zen counterpoint to the digital integration people experience daily.
Highlighting the importance of extending the experience after hours, the event offered a number of entertaining special events for attendees outside the informative and educational sessions. Many social gatherings were held throughout the Austin Convention Center and beyond. And without a doubt, the closing party at the nearby Austin American Statesman, an old newspaper warehouse-turned-venue, was unforgettable — complete with an outdoor performance by the timeless Texan Willie Nelson.
Creating spaces for maximum engagement
It’s well known that PCMA truly understands the power of experience design and how spaces best suit audiences in brand experiences of all sizes and scopes. Therefore, Convening Leaders was a living case study of tapping into space for best attendee engagement, a supercharged event feng shui if you will.
A prime example was at the opening sessions, where the staging and seating were diagonal to the auditorium, creating more access points and a unique feel to the event. This effect was accentuated by lighted trusses that arched from the stage and ended at the back rows; and also drew attention to the speakers while generating a sense of intimacy. Add to this design three large, mobile LED screens and four projection screens behind the stage, always populated with content, and the crowds were captivated and relaxed at the same time during sessions.
Convening Leaders would continue to play with space throughout the conference, taking advantage of the immense Austin Convention Center. At locations like the Design Lab, Experience Insights Lab, or TechCentral, sessions started alongside product displays or casual seating areas. But this didn’t disrupt presentations at all since wireless headphones were available for audiences. In other sessions, a variety of tables, chairs, and couches were set in between stages and seat rows, allowing attendees a personalized choice of how they would interact with a speaker.
What's more, the convention center was teeming with casual lounges of different décor and atmosphere, including the always-packed Braindates lounge where like-minded attendees could meet up. The Overflow Lounge streamed content for any overcapacity sessions, while live streaming was available to remote audiences as far away as Asia. No one interested would be left out at Convening Leaders.
The key to good content
Content fuels the internet as much as it fuels experiences. Using the right content for the right audiences was another prevalent theme at many sessions. One of the most engrossing sessions on content came from Sourabh Kothari, founder and CEO of Not-Content.com. He explained that content is defined as the heart of what a brand experience is trying to convey. The event is just the packaging. Thus, experiences need to be designed for content, and not vice versa.
How do you create good content? Per Kothari, it’s simple: imagine the audience owns the content. Marketers are just there to package and deliver the content. Content stops working when the audience stops owning it.
Several thought leaders emphasized that all event professionals should consider themselves as content producers, not just at events but throughout the year.
Embracing the future with the tools of today
This year's Convening Leaders ended with a touching presentation by former child actor, Supreme Court clerk, and entrepreneur Isaac Lidsky. He shared his story of overcoming blindness as a teen and becoming a unique success story in business and community. One of his main points was that we must never replace the unknown with fear, or we will live in an inner darkness. Instead of worrying about the future, we must do what we can today with the tools available to us to move forward.
As highlighted at Convening Leaders, the tools to do what’s best for attendees — and the brand experience category — are within reach today. You could almost hear the voice of Matthew McConaughey throughout the conference saying, “Alright, alright, alright.”