Notes from the Road: Event Industry Gatherings of 2023 Showcase Community-Infused Experience Design

6 Ways to Help Learners Connect at Conferences

By Kara Dao

Last month, I hit the road and traversed the country to attend CEMA Summit, Connect Marketplace Minneapolis, and CEIR Predict. As a self-proclaimed extrovert, nothing makes me happier than connecting in-person with old and new friends. Whether sitting next to someone at a keynote, chatting with an exhibitor on the show floor, or enjoying a friendly debate with a speaker, what I look forward to most about attending industry events is building connections. So, as I headed home with my social battery fully charged, I reflected on what stood out about my onsite experiences.

How did the environments of these three events help a seasoned industry networker foster meaningful connections? By intentionally infusing community into the event design.

Observation #1: A Throwback to Analog

In a world where digital engagement seems to have reached saturation, I noticed a refreshing resurgence of analog experiences. Event organizers are rediscovering the power of tangible, hands-on interactions, and attendees (like me!) are responding with enthusiasm. At Connect Marketplace, the return to analog activations was particularly striking. Here are a few standout examples:

  • Pancake Art: Who would have thought that pancakes could be a powerful networking tool? Some events have introduced pancake art stations, allowing attendees to have a custom image drawn onto pancakes and then devour their unique creations. This quirky and playful activity adds a fun dimension to the event and sparks conversations and laughter. And, yes, I ate my face.
  • Curling: Curling, often seen in the Olympics, has become an unexpected teambuilding exercise in corporate events. Participants bond through the shared experience of mastering this challenging sport. It’s an excellent example of how physical activities can foster connections that digital interactions simply can’t replicate.
  • CSR: Although not new, corporate social responsibility (CSR) activations provide a meaningful way to connect with attendees’ values and create a sense of shared purpose. By combining charitable initiatives with immersive experiences, events can raise funds and awareness for important causes while strengthening participant bonds.

These analog experiences offered a breath of fresh air. They reminded me that genuine connections can be forged through touch, taste, and shared physical challenges.

Observation #2: Activations – Get Involved 

Activations have taken on a whole new level of engagement. The key is getting people actively involved. As mentioned above, the trend is decidedly analog, pushing the boundaries of creativity to deliver meaningful and unforgettable experiences.

Events now offer activities like painting murals by numbers, where attendees contribute to a larger work of art, fostering a sense of collective creation. But it doesn’t stop there. Event planners are thinking outside the box with ideas that border on the delightfully quirky. Imagine encountering a larger-than-life Cheez-It dispenser coupled with a “show your cheesier side” photo booth. Attendees can indulge in cheesy snacks and capture the moment, creating a lighthearted connection to the brand.

For those who prefer a tactile experience, events may feature stations where you can craft your own silly putty or customize everyday items with a personal touch. The common thread among these activations is their emphasis on interaction. They’re about experiencing a brand rather than passively watching a demo or listening to a lecture.

Activations also provide a fantastic opportunity to thread deeper purpose into an event. Whether building wheelchairs for veterans with disabilities, assembling bikes for kids in marginalized populations, or even creating essentials bags for local unhoused individuals, any activation that combines meaningful gifting with teamwork forges deep connections. Most CVBs can provide direction on what is needed in the local community and whom to contact.

This shift toward interactive activations is becoming more prevalent in corporate events, signaling a departure from the traditional trade show model. Attendees are no longer satisfied with being mere spectators; they want to be participants.

Observation #3: Festivalization 

Attendees are no longer content with merely attending events; they expect events to deliver surprise, delight, and a continuous stream of exciting and meaningful engagements at every turn.

Gone are the days when a standard keynote would suffice. Today’s keynoters must channel their inner rock star, delivering insightful messages and actionable tips. Attendees want to be inspired and compelled to jump out of their seats, cheering for change.

Receptions, once staid affairs, have transformed into multi-level experience zones. Attendees roam these immersive environments, not just for refreshments but for shared experiences. These spaces facilitate connections, allowing attendees to share the joy of discovery.

However, the most significant shift is happening on the show floors. Trade shows risk dwindling attendance if they don’t adapt to the festivalization trend. Attendees expect more than aimlessly wandering up and down aisles, hoping for serendipity in their sourcing efforts. To remain relevant, event organizers must reimagine the show floor. Traditional displays and demos are giving way to activations and gamification, where attendees can experience products in a dynamic and engaging way. The focus shifts from passive observation to active participation.

In this age of heightened expectations, events must deliver content and unforgettable moments. The festivalization of events is the answer. It’s a shift that keeps attendees excited, engaged, and eagerly returning for more.