Event Design – Creating Long Term Value (and Getting a Seat at the Table!)
The meeting and event industry has always struggled to get a ‘seat at the table.’
For years I watched my mom work to have event planning established as an industry. She worked with MPI’s Canadian Council and the Government of Canada’s Department of Human Resources Development to establish the occupational standards for meeting managers and for meeting co-ordinators which were published in 1994. In Canada that was one of the efforts to have this industry be recognized as a job! When I joined Details, the buzz was beginning to reach into the C-Suite and event planners wanted to be there! Five years later, a younger generation of planners came along and said the same thing: “We need a seat at the table!” And five years after that, and the five years after that … we began to see a pattern.
This latest discussion continues, that there is a desire to be ‘at the table.’
What does being “at the table” even mean? It means you are a respected and valued part of the upper leadership. Too often event professionals are way down the rung in the corporation and not part of the strategic discussion.
Part of it is that often the C-Suite doesn’t value events. In the wake of COVID-19, events are being cancelled left and right, and no one wants to spend the money. As well, our society is questioning the value of social events online. But that ignores the value that these events still create! So, why is it that our society isn’t seeing this value? One thing we can start doing to show more value is look at how events are designed. Not just planned, but designed as a long term strategy.
What is the Design Ladder and How Can We Climb it?
Chiara Orefice writes in Designing for events – a new perspective on event design about the design ladder (International Journal of Events and Festival Management, Volume 9, Issue 1), as is pictured here. There are various steps on this ‘design ladder’ and event managers aspire to reach higher steps in their careers.
If we look at this design ladder, here’s a breakdown of the steps.
- Step 1 – These events are planned at the very basic level. Not much consideration is given to the needs of stakeholders.
- Step 2 – This step views stakeholders as consumers. An event theme is developed but is still a very basic event. Planning here is very operational.
- Step 3 – This step is where you are solving a problem. The event is an experience and event professionals aim to take attendees on a journey. There is usually more purpose of the event at this level.
- Step 4 – The final step is a strategy, not just one problem. This is a long term perspective and how your event provides more VALUE and adds to the organization’s mission.
I would venture to say that many event planners work at Level 2 on the design ladder – the event is managed as a project and the design develops a theme, décor, and some ‘wow’ factors. The next step up on the ladder is where your event is designed to actually SOLVE a problem. It is on this ladder rung where we see the importance of event professionals needing to be at the table in order to help solve the problem – we need to understand the processes before, during, and after the event. This third level requires event professionals to look at the entire journey that stakeholders take, and the actual experience that the event creates.
The design of the event goes much further than simply putting on the event.
I was once interviewed for an event where they wanted to merge two teams together and have better work between the teams. This simple desire shows just how important it is to actually DESIGN an event and not just simply put one on. There are smaller steps that require greater effort than just the event, as the work needs to be done before and after as well! It’s the same as any team building event. Yes, you can go play laser tag, but will that actually change anything within your team? You could use team building as an example here:
- Step 1: Lunch.
- Step 2: Laser tag or a holiday party. It’s fun but nothing changes except you might get to know each other better.
- Step 3: An activity is designed where you solve a problem. This might be looking at communication styles, or personalities. Maybe you deep dive into how to solve an organization challenge.
- Step 4: An activity is designed where you bring people together to work on strategy. So this doesn’t solve just one problem but is a much bigger piece. For instance, maybe you have teams doing research and the event is one step in how teams are working together to solve a complex challenge.
On Orefice’s fourth level of event design is where much of our industry still strives to get to. It is this fourth level where the event is part of an organization’s strategy. Here is where events deliver LONG-TERM value – supporting the organization’s mission and vision. An example of this step is the Event Design Canvas where behavioral changes are mapped out.
The focus here is LONG TERM.
Rather than an event being a single touch point, events should be part of a long-term strategy with ongoing activations. This change in attitude takes event professionals from being someone coordinating logistics and developing good themes and décor, to a professional who adds value and contributes to specific objectives.
Why Do People Gather at Events?
When considering the top 2 reasons why individuals gather at events, one of these elements is always so that people can NETWORK. As we think strategically about networking, we need to develop ideas on ways that people can collaborate and work together outside of that 3-6-12 hour event window. Networking becomes a longer-term idea where the outcome of the event cannot be measured right away, but instead must be analyzed months or years later. LONG. TERM.
Unfortunately, sometimes we all take the lazy way out and we don’t design events that have significant impacts. We simply go through the motions and ‘put on’ an event that will be enjoyed by the attendees. But what if we all started looking at what VALUE we could provide on the various levels – the value provided to a person, a team, an organization, or a community! To do this requires a seat at the table… but the value we could provide once we got there would be truly substantial!
So, what do we do now?
How Do We Create Long-Term Value and Get That Seat at the Table?
Here is my challenge to the event industry as we move forwards in a COVID-19 and post-COVID world. Let’s stop talking about how we want to be seen as more than ‘party planners’ and let’s instead work on figuring out ways to show the long-term value of what we do! And not by simply showing that 85% of people would come to your conference again. We need to go beyond that. We need to prove value by showing things like: “This new project came about because of hearing X speaker and they connected with Y person, which helped in continuing the conversation and now we have this Z impact.”
THAT is what we need to show. THAT is how we get to the table!
- Chiara Orefice writes in “Designing for events – a new perspective on event design” (2018, International Journal of Event and Festival Management, Volume 9 (1): 14 – Mar 5, 2018)