by Sarah J.F. Braley | November 2, 2017

Sarah J.F. Braley, senior editor, Meetings & ConventionsAmy Ledoux of ASAEThere are many theories for how to get attendees more engaged while improving meetings outcomes for shareholders and participants alike, the essential idea behind the meetings-design trend. Putting those theories into practice takes some gumption, which Amy Ledoux, right, senior vice president of meetings of expositions and events for the American Society of Association Executives, has in spades. She is the main brain behind the execution and design of ASAE's new Xperience Design Project, which had a small launch last fall and went big this past May. (Read more about the event here.) In the following Q&A, Ledoux shares some of the lessons she learned along the way, to help other meeting planners start taking a more holistic approach to redesigning their events.

How do you define the term "meeting design"?
I think one of the best definitions that resonates and has stuck with me is the comparison to architectural design. Just like an architect designs a house or a building, so does the meeting architect design a meeting. The first step in a meeting architect's work is identifying the meeting objectives, then the design, and on to execution and then measurement of the results. Meeting design is critical because it is what advances the quality of events. It helps to achieve meeting objectives, allows for better engagement and increased learning retention, as well as retention of participants for future events. Technology has certainly helped advance meeting design and engagement, so it is therefore important to the process.

How do you assess the success of the method you are using?
There are a lot of things that can be used to measure your success or lack thereof. I think first and foremost, are people talking about your event – what is the BUZZ that is happening before, during and after your meetings? What are people saying? It's good to get a sense of the pulse of the community that is participating and how they are feeling about various aspects of your meeting.

Obviously when innovating an event, setting goals and objectives for it and measuring those against outcomes is critical. This will help identify what motivates your participants and drives engagement and therefore retention. Also, having tools to help participants set goals for your event and then asking them whether they met or exceeded those goals. An example of this was at our new event, XDP, after which we asked participants, “Will you change something about your meeting or event as a result of attending XDP?” – and 80 percent said yes. This is a great measurement showing that the new and different things we delivered resonated with those who attended.

Lastly, I would say, challenge the norms – do things that others are not doing, and help participants experience new things and see things through a new lens. Some people will like the changes and some not, but when you try, the people who were looking for new and different will remain more engaged with your organization and will look to your meeting and events as relevant instead of disengaging and sometimes decide not to attend.

How can planners convince stakeholders to try something new?
The first step is to gather data about a current event and perhaps trends within that event. Perhaps a meeting's attendance, trade show and/or revenue is down, or the meeting is evaluating poorly. If things are down, then something is wrong with the event. So research and then outline a strategy for a next step.

Looking at the competitive landscape as well as determining your organization's market position can help you best serve your target audience. Data can demonstrate trend lines and help make the case for innovation. Many organizations fear change, and that is natural. But many organizations do not look at the potential cost of NOT changing and continuing to do the same thing. Not making changes can affect the organization's reputation, its relevance, member and participant retention, and revenue. Although there might be costs associated with change, there might be even greater costs with a decision not to change. I also encourage getting input from internal and external stakeholders, so they can be champions of what is new and different and why the changes are being made. Their buy-in is critical, and they will be more likely to support the new and improved meeting or event if they are catalysts to the changes.

How can planners with a small budget approach design change?
Try not to think about change too much, and instead think about what improvements you can effect today in the environment that you are in. You can do this by bringing internal and external thought leaders into brainstorming, and then prioritize ideas on what is doable in year one, year two and year three. Focus on making things better and not on making things different for the sake of making things different. Most ideas are scalable, so you need to focus on ideas that will create more engagement, lead to a better experience and add value. If you do those things, you will be on the right track.

What do you learn from a design failure?
Designers must learn to embrace failure. The best lessons are learned through doing. In fact, early failure can be crucial to success in innovation. In meeting design, you map out the best plan knowing that there may be issues, but being able to react and adjust in real time to design failures is critical to the event's success.

One thing we did with our new XDP event that we launched in May was to do a pilot of it on a much smaller scale to work out the kinks of the operations, as well as to get feedback from actual participants. We then implemented changes from that feedback for the actual event. We have even tested out different innovations at smaller events before we launch them at our annual meeting. Both options help give you insight as to how you can improve before you implement them on a larger scale.

What are two things planners can do NOW to get their meetings on the right track?
Data, data, data… Look at the data of your events and start to course-correct for downward trend lines. Understand what is happening at your events. What are the elements of the event that are healthy, and which elements need surgery? “Better sameness” is not a good business plan for the future of your events.

Have the important conversations: Again, what is the cost of NOT making improvements to your meetings? Understand that those planning and designing meetings who are able to innovate to increase the relevance of your events are the team members you want on the bus.

The role of a meeting architect is no longer solely about logistics and operations. It is about being a meeting designer and producer who is responsible for creating live experiences for your members so they will stay engaged with your organization and see the organization as indispensable.

Click here for Part 1 of our series, and here for Part 2.