Feature Article - September 2019
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Building Better Events

Plan, Execute, Excite

By Chris Gelbach

User-Focused Event Design

From the start, when planning any event, considering the needs of the community and individuals being served should be paramount and can be the inciting incident for a more creative process.

"I think it's really easy to get into the mindset of, 'Let's just keep rolling with what has worked in the past. Let's just keep doing what we've always done for this concert service or Easter egg hunt or Christmas festival,' " said Mat Duerden, associate professor of experience design and management in the Marriott School of Business at Brigham Young University.

But the rise in technology and social media has created an expectation in consumers and participants that they have more participatory and co-creative relationships in these events, requiring a greater focus on human-centered design.

So Duerden recommends starting the process by thinking about the needs of the community. "Let's talk about what the needs are, and why those needs are there," Duerden said. "And then that might be the starting point to say, we really don't need this event we've been running for a long time because our constituents have this other need. Let's start from there and involve them in the process of figuring out what that [new event] might be."

Duerden's new book co-written with Bob Rossman, "Designing Experiences," was created to walk people through a systematic process for designing these kinds of more innovative experiences.

Recreation managers can have more success in doing this by simply adopting a very iterative process for creating these experiences—and avoiding the impulse to just work on an idea in-house for a long time before rolling out the final product to the public.

This involves identifying the needs, then prototyping a storyboard of what the event that meets them might be. "Then let's meet with some people and see what they think and tweak and have more of a back-and-forth and identify what is wrong early on—before we're actually running the event," Duerden said. "Let's fail fast up front while it's just in prototype conceptual stage, so that by the time we roll it out, this is like the 12th iteration."

A Series of Encounters

When planning the event itself, Ellis recommends looking at every step of the event from the visitor's viewpoint to see the event as a series of distinct encounters that should be structured and optimized.

"The first time you communicate with that visitor is with a promotion gimmick," Ellis said. "So the promotion experience ought to be structured." Other phases of the experience should be similarly structured, from the arrival experience, through to the reception experience, orientation phase, participation phase, signoff and takeaway phases.

"The most important thing I can say about planning is to keep in mind that the event experience is a process," Ellis said. "And each phase of it ought to be structured. Don't let it take care of itself. Ensure service quality and delighters at each phase of that process."

According to Steve Schmader, president and CEO of the International Festivals and Events Association (IFEA), one way to help do this is to consider filler entertainment and activities at certain points of the process. "If you have concerts at 1, 3 and 5 at a festival, what are you going to do in the meantime? Do you have wandering entertainment or some place where people can take selfies and pictures?" Schmader said. "If people have to walk from point A to point B, is there stuff along that route that's entertaining?"

This process can also include a level of prototyping that goes beyond running ideas to include actual test runs to ensure that service standards will be met. "With events, we often think that we've run through everything in our head, but it hasn't actually been tested," Lacanienta said. "So whether that's how the registration line looks or how some of your activity booths look, actually set those things up in a mock way and do them. Make a prototype of your registration line and have 15 people run through it. So when that gameday comes, you've already prototyped it multiple times, and you're fairly certain it's going to work the way you say it's going to work."

According to Duerden, charting the various touchpoints visitors will experience, both verbally and visually, is a great starting point. "And then the key is to say, 'What do we want people to say or think at each of these touchpoints?'" Duerden said.

This enables you to specifically design the experience so that any design decisions you make lead people to say and experience that thing at that time. It also makes it much easier to train staff, particularly volunteers or seasonal staff.

"You can say, 'Remember, we have these policies and procedures and things, but ultimately, for the touchpoints you're involved in, we want people to say this very specific thing: 'Wow, it was super easy to check in and the people here are really friendly,'" Duerden said.

According to Duerden, the benefit of this approach is in giving frontline staff members direction that provides specificity, but also gives them autonomy, because you can't tell people how to respond to every single situation that could arise.

"This can be a really nice training tool. It can be a really nice design tool. And on the back end, it can be a really nice evaluative tool," Duerden said. "So you can just ask people, 'When you checked in, what did you think?'" Then you can compare those results to your goal for that touchpoint to evaluate your success.