Feature Article - September 2019
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Building Better Events

Plan, Execute, Excite

By Chris Gelbach


Starting Simple for Real Improvement

At the same time, if you're doing an event that you have run successfully before, and it's meeting the needs of the community in basic ways, you don't need to focus on overhauling everything.

At the Event Management School IFEA runs with the NRPA, Schmader often sees students overwhelmed by their options. "People sometimes say at the school, 'I have so many ideas, I don't know where to begin,'" Schmader said. "And I'll say to them, 'Pick one.' Don't be overwhelmed by the fact that there's so much. Then pick one and do it well. Improve your event in that one area. You do that, you've now made your event better."

Duerden also noted that, as psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Barbara Frederickson have found, not all moments of an event experience are created equal. "Kahneman calls it the peak end rule," Duerden said. "When you think back on an experience after time has lapsed, most things sort of fade into the background, but you remember the pits, the peaks and the ends of experiences on average."

A prototypical example would be a day at Disney, where if you had people rate their experience every 30 minutes, they might rate things a 7 out of 10 because of things like long lines and OK but overpriced food.

"But in reality, that's not how you're going to remember the experience," Duerden said. "You're going to remember the fireworks show at the end. You're going to remember the picture you took with your daughter when she was overwhelmed with how awesome it was. You remember these peak parts."

To avoid the pits, it's important to provide a basic level of service throughout. But you don't have to invest everywhere. "You should think strategically about the moments you want to turn into peak moments, and how to nail the ending of experiences," Duerden said. "A lot of times the ending of a big event is waiting in a parking lot and that's the memory you go home with."

To mitigate that issue, Schmader recommends doing everything you can to make that process easier. That could include providing buses or renting parking lots somewhat within walking distance that can spread out the crowds a bit more. It could also include taking a cue from Disney by setting the tone with mellow exit music, by keeping some food vendors and shops open as people exit to thin out the exiting crowd, or by providing additional entertainment during that phase.

"If you can figure out a way to make the endings great, that can be a really great resource allocation and strategy," Duerden said.

Getting Experiential

Lacanienta is also seeing more and more events enlivened through a greater focus on making attendees more active participants who play a key role. "They have the opportunity to co-create the event in a way that is personally meaningful to them," Lacanienta said. "As opposed to saying, 'We built this thing, come experience it,' it's 'We built this skeleton for a thing and we need you to come and help us unfold it.'"

This could include creating a narrative structure using the hero's journey that allows the participant to role-play as the hero of the event. Or it could be as simple as going beyond having a food truck rally to instead have events where people can interact with chefs and cook. Or have the chance to interact with artists and paint instead of just viewing art.

"If we're doing some sort of gardening event, let's get them gardening," Lacanienta said. "Let's send them home with a planter box that they can take to their house and continue to nurture and use. It's just thinking about more ways that participants and community members can be doing versus watching or sitting."

Events that get people involved, get the basics right, nail the peak moments and focus on community needs are those with the greatest chance of success — and with the best hope of delighting the key audiences you serve. RM