While meetings industry associations always tout their annual conferences as immersive learning laboratories for meeting planners, the new “5,000 People, 5,000 Personal Journeys” report shows how two organizations are actually living their mantra.

The PCMA Foundation and Steelcase Event Experiences, a division of high-end office furniture design company Steelcase, captured attendee feedback via live interviews and data collection at PCMA Convening Leaders 2019 in Pittsburgh to discover ways to support engagement and learning at business events.

Listen to Tyler Davidson's conversation with Steelcase from PCMAEducon:

According to Steelcase Event Experiences Event Strategist Kim Condon and her colleague Lauren Bachynski, applied research consultant for the company, the study data included interviews with PCMA leaders, onsite observation and contextual interviews.

The result? Six insights straight from attendees that meeting and event planners can use to create and implement engaging event experiences.

6 Meeting Engagement Tips Planners Can Use Now

The following are the six insights from the report and our expert advice for how to incorporate these insights into your event planning strategy.

1. Aim for Simplicity and Streamline Event Scheduling

Finding: Though PCMA works to support all the needs and desires of participants, the event scale, volume of content and level of activity can contribute to participants feeling overwhelmed.

Streamlining schedules and implementing a simpler event app design can help your attendees participate in more sessions and glean more value from each.

  • Participants felt the event provided “something for everyone” and that it was valuable for people at different levels of experience in the industry in different ways.
  • However, the push to provide a diverse set of sessions and experiences caused attendees to be confused by the event schedule. Combat this by eliminating sessions taking place concurrently and clearly articulating start times.
  • The abundance of signage and information to assist with way-finding areas was not effective in supporting navigation of the space in some areas. Volunteers were also often not helpful in this effort, which resulted in significant time wasted for some attendees. Reevaluate your signage content and placement and also train your volunteers in the event space and schedule so they can better help attendees in real time.
  • The PCMA app contributed to participants feeling overwhelmed due to the amount of information and lack of understanding of the app’s features. Event apps are more common and can be useful—work with your app developer to ensure the app is easy to navigate, and ask attendees to download it before the event begins to familiarize themselves with its functionality.
  • While conference tracks were developed for managing schedules, PCMA did not see evidence of these being used. Reevaluate your conference tracks. Are they categorized correctly? Or, to avoid confusion with the schedule, consider eliminating the tracks and have attendees select sessions a la carte.

Comments from study participants included the following observations:

  • “Sessions starting at different times disrupts the ability to network. Since the times are not reliable, there is a lot of confusion and wasted time checking and rechecking the schedule.”
  • “I [have] idea where I'm going, so I just follow the pack.”

2. Enable Meaningful Experiences

Finding: Active and interactive experiences created throughout the event seemed highly valued.

  • Crowds drew crowds—people were seen spontaneously joining visibly highly attended sessions and preferred in-person experiences over the digital ones found in overflow rooms. For future events, consider eliminating overflow rooms and blocking off large spaces for sessions you anticipate will have higher attendance.
  • Sponsor experiences that included interactive elements and services (i.e., coffee bars, notebooks) increased participant engagement, however this was also influenced by location. When planning for your next event, consider these popular locations and adjust your event map accordingly.
  • Amenities, especially those that promoted wellness like a massages and water-flavoring sessions, massage, water-flavoring stations, claw machine) were well used and created an atmosphere of fun, delight and exploration. Remember that attendees like relaxing break times in between sessions to reenergize and chat with other attendees—make these amenities more accessible by placing them in central locations.

Comments from study participants included the following observations:

  • “I love how there is so much to do in between sessions. It really makes the whole event seem like a party.”
  • “It’s interesting to feel the personality of different cities through their experiences.”

3. Accommodate Connection Strategies

Finding: Networking is important to attendees. Participants had differing goals, strategies and motivations for connecting with each other—cater to these varied wants and needs at future events using the following input from attendees.

  • Participants took different approaches to networking—some unplanned and organic, some planned and strategic in order to achieve different goals (i.e., business development, learning, personal development, building new relationships, maintaining existing relationships and fun/socialization). Leave time in the schedule for organic networking opportunities and incorporate inviting common areas into your event setup to make it easier for attendees to casually connect.
  • Some participants felt smaller and more intimate gatherings that allowed for more time would help networking to happen more efficiently. Consider adding networking time blocks to smaller rooms or at the end of sessions.
  • Networking was effectively facilitated through focal points, prompts and shared experiences (i.e., claw machine, dessert display, lunch discussion cards) but could have been better supported through the physical space (with the exception of a few specific areas: Braindates space, lounge seating next to PSAV Inspiration Cafe).

Comments from study participants included the following observations:

  • “Being here inspires me to become a Subject Matter Expert—to become like the people here—respected with so much expertise and knowledge and connections in the industry.”
  • “Creating soft connections and organic networking is what PCMA does best!”

4. Enable Learning Strategies

Finding: Participants desired a variety of learning opportunities with a multitude of available approaches.

  • The variety of ways learning was supported at the conference helped to make it more pervasive and personalized for participants.
  • The combination of analog and digital content created richer informational and learning experiences that spoke to different audience demographics.
  • Testing and experimentation were highly valued by attendees, who saw the conference as a safe space to take risks and try something new. Missteps were valued as learning experiences.
  • Participants valued a mix of high-level aspirational and more applicable tactical content from the sessions.
  • Feedback on the session content was mixed; some found it very valuable while others felt it didn’t challenge their thinking.
  • Some participants, especially those with more experience, felt learning happened more through interactions with others than through more-formal sessions.

These insights support the idea that people have different approaches to learning and are eager to leave your event with information they can immediately apply to their work.

Continue to provide these varied learning strategies to your attendees, but also pay more attention to skill levels and communicate to whom educational sessions are best suited—for those with limited experience or extensive experience, for example.

Comments from study participants included the following observations:

  • “I love when I can point stuff out to my people and say, ‘You see what is happening there … how could you do that differently?’ It really gives me the opportunity to coach outside of my own event, where the stress level is much lower.”
  • “The fluffy stuff is fun, but the meat and potatoes is more what I need. When I go back, I need to be able to share what I learned and demonstrate the ROI.”

5. Encourage Participant Wellbeing

Finding: When personal wellbeing needs were under-supported, participants experienced stress, tension or agitation.

  • Unmet needs cause a sense of low-level stress and anxiety. For example, lack of places to do individual work, not having easy access to food between meals, sessions running long and conflicting with other sessions/activities, etc., can be a real source of stress and burnout for your attendees.
  • Areas for privacy and respite were difficult to find throughout the space. Participants were observed implementing workarounds to meet these needs.
  • Participants remarked on large windows and views in foyer areas but felt natural light in session studios and lunch area (Hall A) was lacking. Some felt the artificial light in these spaces contributed to feelings of fatigue. Keep this in mind when selecting venues and consider hosting activities like networking sessions and meal breaks in outdoor spaces.
  • Wellbeing amenities such as the water stations, massages and aroma therapy were well used. Continue to make these amenities accessible to your attendees and consider increasing the amount of wellness stations available at your event so everyone can take advantage.

Comments from study participants included the following observations:

  • “I like to book my hotel nearby so I can step out several times a day for short periods—it’s exhausting having to be ‘on’ all day.”
  • “When sessions run over, I don’t know what to do … stay and be late to my next session or get up and leave.”

The wellness trend is no longer a fad—it’s expected to be naturally weaved into the design of your event. Work-life balance is important to your attendees—provide them with ample times for breaks and light, bright spaces for work sessions or downtime.

6. Design for a Journey

Finding: Boundaries, paths, views and adjacencies shape and support the participant’s journey. Meeting spaces can no longer be four walls in a hotel room—attendees are looking for a variety of meeting space designs to achieve different event goals.

These may include networking, individual work and general sessions.

  • Space could better support unstructured time in terms of waiting, networking, eating and working, with more seating, gathering spaces and places for temporary periods of individual work not far away from the action.
  • The activity level in different spaces was unevenly distributed—some spaces were challenging to move through and crowded, and others uncomfortably quiet. Utilization of specific spaces seemed to depend on significantly on location and surrounding adjacent spaces.
  • Bottlenecks in circulation were observed outside the main stage entrance on both sides of the bridge during busier times in the conference.

Comments from study participants included the following observations:

  • “The Braindates space is awesome!—but, I would like to have more areas to relax and network.”

[Related Content: 3 Trends to Watch From IACC’s Meeting Room of the Future Report]

Based on these findings in event design, your attendees are looking for variety in meeting spaces that cater to specific activities. In addition, the meeting experience—flow to and from sessions, networking and downtime—can affect their satisfaction with your event as well. Come up with creative solutions for meeting space design when planning your next event.

The Next Phase of the PCMA/Steelcase Study

According to Condon, the next phase of the 5,000 People, 5,000 Personal Journeys study will take place at PCMA Convening Leaders 2020 in San Francisco, January 5-8, 2020, and will delve deeper into two of the current Insights:

  • Insight #2: Enable Meaningful Experiences
  • Insight #3: Accommodate Connection Strategies.

These two insights, which are highly focused on attendee-to-attendee interaction and networking, show that event participants place high value on the input and expertise of peers in their industry. As PCMA and Steelcase continue to study these areas in 2020 and beyond, consider how you can better facilitate networking and connections between your attendees.

Meetings are valued experiences for your attendees. Read more about these trends to better incorporate the insights from this study into your event planning: