by Steven Hacker | May 01, 2016

When it comes to creating events that energize and excite attendees, there are differing views as to what makes one unique. For example, when I began to imagine ways associations could add sparkle and pizazz to an event, my mind conjured up glistening snowflakes and light beams bouncing off disco balls—all visual images that stimulate pleasing emotional responses.

After attending and helping to plan decades’ worth of association events, it seems to me that both visual and intellectual sparkle make for delightful events. Attendees and planners want to be a part of programs that energize, that surprise, that create memories and that are different. Adding that differentiating sparkle to an event doesn’t have to be expensive. But it does require a considerable amount of forethought.

Event planners as collaborators. Most event planners, myself included, tend to focus on the logistics of an event, such as designing a room layout that supports the objectives of the meeting. And while room layouts, correctly positioned audiovisual support and properly located entryways are all important, these logistics should play a supporting role to a much larger and more complex scheme.

“Event planners are collaborators whose role is to promote engagement by inspiring people,” said David Adler, founder and CEO of BizBash Media in New York City. “Sparkle, to me, means wit and repartee. It’s not just about special effects. It is all about promoting memorable conversations, and it is the antithesis of boring.”

Frankly, I have never considered myself a collaborator, but he’s right. When we plan meetings, we must focus on how to really wow our audience. And this task isn’t completely in the hands of planners—it relies on the communication skill set of those in attendance to some degree. “The most powerful word in the English language is ‘let’s’: Let’s talk, let’s go to dinner, let’s get together,” Adler said. “Our goal must be to inspire and promote people to say, ‘Let’s do something.’ To take some sort of action.”

Adler does have a head for logistics, and one of his methods is to immediately convey that the event is a social one. He makes a point to welcome guests personally.

“The receiving line is coming back into vogue and is an excellent way to ensure a good launch for an event,” he said. “I also assign seating at many events based upon who is attending. This is my way of social engineering. I present a lot of what are called ‘Jeffersonian dinners,’ in which the conversation is controlled by a table host,” whom Adler said he selects. He preps all table hosts beforehand, making sure they are prepared to engage everyone in conversation, a step he believes will result in attendees taking away value from the experience.

“I also strongly believe in the value of spontaneity. I will never read someone’s introduction because reading a script is never genuine,” he said. “While I don’t support Donald Trump’s candidacy, I do believe much of his popularity among voters is due to his spontaneity. He is the rare politician who doesn’t rely upon a pre-programmed script or a teleprompter.”

Environmental stimuli. How much do color and images stimulate us without conscious awareness? Certain color combinations, for example, produce predictable responses often based upon cultural values. The bottom line, Adler said, is “you need to be measured in how you use color.” Floral centerpieces can be an effective use of a color that sets the mood for an event.

“If you want to promote conversations, give people something to comment about,” Adler said. As an example, he mentioned a recent fundraising event designed by David Stark, a New York City–based event producer, in which the centerpiece of the room was a sculpture composed of 1,000 pairs of sneakers that attendees were told would be contributed to several youth organizations afterwards. Unique ideas like these capture the attention of everyone—people grab their cellphones to snap pictures of it—and prompt more interaction and discussion of the event, he said.

Sonic branding. An emerging trend called “sonic branding” is a way for planners to associate their event with theme music or give it an “audio identity.” Think back to the “Seinfeld” television series and how its distinctive theme music prepared us for what was to come and what had occurred. The “Law & Order” music had a similar effect. Event planners are using theme music for their annual meetings and general sessions similarly as doing so helps attendees associate with the events in an audial way. The same theme music is used in videos marketing the events as well.

Adler believes—and I completely agree—that meeting planners often misuse background music at events. I can recall countless times during my career when I urged (and then demanded) musicians to turn down the sound level of their amplifiers. And on several occasions, I actually pulled the plugs. Background music must never stifle opportunities for attendees to converse with each other. Music must never compete with conversation.

Best bets with your budget. According to Adler, event planners should “spend their budget money generously on first-impression pieces because, as we have so often heard, it really is first impressions that count the most.” Flowers, amenities and other elements are secondary when it comes to spending. Putting money into that first big moment, an initial event experience that attendees remember, is important. We wouldn’t think of creating a trade show without a dramatic entryway that sets the tone. Why should any other event be different?

If you really want to jazz up and energize your events, think hard about the characteristics of your audience and what you hope to achieve. Then add concrete and emotional embellishments that will trigger the brain’s neurons to fire off in ways calculated to make the experience memorable. Color, sound, interpersonal connections and creative versions of staid parts of the program are just a few of the elements that you can work with to create association events that really sparkle and shine.