Ready to disrupt the boring annual meeting and conference experience?

I’m not a meeting planner, but I attend and speak at a fair number of events. And I know a poorly designed meeting when I see one.

I recently attended an annual meeting that I speak at regularly, and this year it was just totally OFF. Disjointed scheduling. No general session to launch into the event, or a closing one to round it off. Poorly designed session rooms with bad acoustics. Odd, low quality food options. I could go on.

So I was eagerly awaiting my participation in XDP just 2 weeks later for an opportunity to take part in a bold new event STYLE and FOCUS on rethinking the entire meeting experience.

Xperience Design Project by ASAE is a radical approach to help upend the boring status quo “same old same old” of meetings. (And you can see from the space alone, it’s already trying to think different!)

XDP meeting spaceI was invited as one of 100 Table Leaders to facilitate this inaugural and innovative event experience. I began the day cautiously optimistic and ended it ready to rock!

Delivering a service versus creating a memorable experience

Too often events are designed solely for functional utility (offer classes and continuing ed credits) instead of also marrying them with *experiences*.

Raise your hand if you’re tired of sitting in long rows of seats and being spoken to for an hour with 15 min for Q&A?!

Do you feel like you’re a slave to the conference schedule instead of being given time for discovery?

Does it upset you to know that most of the folks passively in a session are quietly sitting on incredible ideas that would be amazing to tap?

XDP tables XDP was a day of mini lessons by thought leaders, followed by intensive hands-on table work with colleagues, designed to dramatically rethink event experiences.

My day as a Table Leader for XDP was a really eye-opening, helping association execs and meeting planners unleash their power as designers.

Running a digital agency, I’m used to creating and thinking about user journeys, so it was exciting to facilitate discussions around designing experiences and thinking holistically about how to create moments of impact that are both creative and collaborative. And I’m talking about all aspects of the event, setting the tone from the first email, to your arrival at the host city airport, to your interactions with the local environs to engaging all five senses throughout the day.

XDP notebook First of all, XDP put us in an incredibly creative space to inspire design.

The ballroom had a theater-in-the-round with 5 spokes that served as learning zones.

Each zone was thoughtfully designed to encourage creativity, with funky seating options and well-planned details covering everything from a beautifully designed workbook begging to be filled to colorful gel pens (seriously, it’s the little things that folks remember sometimes. We all fought over the colors!).

Our deep-dives focused on how to rethink events from the ground up to:

  • Promote discovery
  • Engage the *whole* person
  • Create a narrative arc

So, what does this type of brainstorming look like?

Some core topics we drilled into included:

  • Ways to collaborate with CVBs and hotels to use local spaces, personalities, food and music to bring in the city culture
  • Outlining a truly integrated tech game plan to engage before, during and after the event

    For example, why not offer relevant webinars leading up to the event? Why not webcast your top-rated sessions after the event to elongate the meeting? Why not survey registered participants about what they want to see in specific sessions a few weeks before and let presenters and panels fine tune?!

  • Ideation around bringing variety to session rooms, meeting spaces, networking areas, exhibit halls
  • What tactics allow you to broaden your reach to bring in new audiences while not scaring away existing ones?

Disrupting the annual meeting, one component at a time

At my table, we had a fascinating discussion about what the new-and-improved General Session could like like.

What if…you ditch the typical 90 minute build up to a big featured speaker, and offer TED-style fast content bits, interspersed with a case studies, activities, and active participation (like polling)?

What if you…changed the speaker role to a facilitator, and disallowed them to use a canned speech where they shoehorn a few minor mentions of your actual industry?

What if you…brought in your competition, or a panel of opposing viewpoints to really drive discussion of big issues?

What if you…forego the big paid speaker with the big sky narrative and instead feature one of your members sharing how they solved a big problem?

What if…the seating wasn’t set up in long boring rows, but with options like couches and standing high tops?

What if, like Cirque du Soleil, you had people in the aisles engaging attendees with questions, trivia, or activities BEFORE the general sessions started to whet their appetite?

Was it a bit scary to think this boldly about radical levels of change? Sure.

But if it’s not challenging, and doesn’t feel hard, you probably aren’t learning anything.

At the end of the day, everyone was energized and buzzing with the energy of the ideas created. No one that I spoke with got that typical 2pm post-lunch-I-wanna-take-a-nap feeling. We were too busy being engaged and working.

We were event *participants* instead of attendees.

ASAE took 2 years to pilot and refine the XDP event, and I tip my hat to them. It was a bold, audacious goal, and one that could have bombed because it was truly so different. But that what makes it great.

Like I said, I don’t plan meetings. But I sure hope the folks who do make plans to attend XDP, because I’m never to going to see the events I attend in the same light again.

Layla Masri

About Layla Masri

Layla is a co-founder of Bean Creative. She leverages her ad agency background and 15-plus years as a marketing and web copywriter to maximize interactive impact for strategic planning, usability/accessibility, and digital promotion.
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