by Alex Palmer | December 01, 2015
There's more to an effective meeting than meets the eye. There's also what meets the ears, nose, fingers, and tongue.

A meeting makes a much stronger impression when it stimulates several of attendees' senses. That was the finding of a recent survey from London & Partners and CWT Meetings & Events, released in October. Seventy-eight percent of the 600 event organizers interviewed expressed the belief that multisensory events offer more memorable and creative experiences for attendees. Additionally, 42 percent of event planners maintained that such sensory activations help meetings and events distinguish themselves from competitors.

"Aside from the actual psychology -- for example, sense of smell is closely linked to memory -- we know the simple fact that more sensory touch points leads to a more emotive experience," says Thierry Duguet, CWT Meetings & Events' global marketing director. "That emotional engagement leads to better brand recognition, which is what we can measure and ultimately what can drive sales and behavioral change in the future."

He adds that CWT Meetings & Events works to consider the attendee's entire journey from pre- to post-event, and how best to enhance every element. Engaging the senses is one of the most direct ways to do that. It might be the feel of a carpet as they step into an event space or much bigger sensory experiences such as the food they're served, music they hear, and interactive activities that can stimulate multiple senses at the same time.

But despite these strong endorsements for sensory-focused events, event professionals admit that they could be doing more. According to the survey, just 27 percent of planners say they believe the events industry effectively engages all five senses.

When respondents were asked what keeps them from delivering sensory-led experiences, the top three responses were: not having the budgets (43 percent), lack of time (26 percent), and inability to find sensory content (24 percent).

"I believe this is where we need a rally cry to our industry and those using events," says Duguet. "We're not just creating moments, but memories that will last a lifetime. Let's not forgot the unique position we're in as an industry and celebrate the fact we are able to create those sensory experiences."

Still, a significant number of planners are embracing the benefits of multisensory meetings. Changing technology is allowing for more engaging (and affordable) sensory experiences. And venues are also adding design elements and undergoing complete renovations to enhance their sensory impact.

Sensory Success 
"Event planners understand that they need to stay one step ahead of the curve in order to captivate delegates, and by appealing to sight, sound, taste, and touch they can create far more effective and engaging experiences," says Chris Lynn, vice president of North America and emerging markets for business tourism at London & Partners, which co-sponsored the research with CWT.

He adds that planners new to this trend can easily employ any number of strategies, from "mood lighting to high-impact projections and visual illusions," to doing more with sound. For example, at an event staged for Dolby Europe in London, the space was slowly darkened until it was pitch black, then a spotlight shone on a speaker who told the story of the history of sound.

"Throughout the speech came these vivid sounds generated by a Dolby audio system, including sounds of shifting tectonic plates as well as sounds of the evolution of fish, birds, and mammals, which filled the room and really brought the event to life," says Lynn.

Of those professionals who have succeeded in incorporating sensory activities into their events, 42 percent said they have used light activations -- including projections and visual illusions -- while about one third used culinary experiences to stimulate taste. Three-quarters of respondents said that sight was the sense most effectively integrated into meetings, while smell and touch were felt to be the least effectively incorporated.

Bryan Mattimore, cofounder and "Chief Idea Guy" for Growth Engine, an event and innovation consulting company based in Norwalk, CT, has seen firsthand how enhancing the sensory experiences of an event can stoke creativity. The firm was recently asked by L'Oreal to do a multi-city tour, leading meetings with more than 100 salon owners at each stop to help the attendees generate ideas for new hairstyles as well as devise creative ways to promote their businesses.

"We knew that sitting and listening to speakers was not going to cut it with these action-oriented, kinesthetic people who like to use their hands," says Mattimore, who is also the author of 21 Days to a Big Idea, published by Diversion Books last month. "So we designed a multisensory experience to get their creative juices flowing."

Mattimore and his team facilitated a "triggered brainwalk," setting up "ideation stations" around the room where teams of three would go to a station, write down an idea, then move to the next station and build on their neighbors' ideas. To activate their visual, aesthetic senses, Growth Engine posted a range of evocative visuals above each station -- photos and drawings of expensive jewelry, designer fashions, and beautifully designed rooms and furniture -- to trigger their thinking and get them generating new looks and hairstyles. The firm also provided modeling clay to allow the owners to sculpt their creations and try them out.

"Getting them up and moving and involving them kinesthetically was critical to the meeting's objectives of sharing ideas, building teams, and having fun," says Mattimore. "I had so many of the salon owners come up to me at dinner saying how much fun it was, how they loved being able to be creative immediately with strangers. They also said that standing gave them more energy for the exercise."

Music and sound is also an effective gateway into bolstering creativity. For a pair of packaged-goods companies, as well as a pair of pharmaceutical companies, Growth Engine led meetings of 75-150 attendees where teams would collaborate on writing a song for a new product they were about to launch, a brand they were working on, or the company's annual sales goals. At one event, attendees created a tune titled "The Billion-Dollar Brand," and at another, they created a song set to the tune of the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction."

"Creating and performing these songs was, of course, a lot of fun and made for wonderful teambuilding," says Mattimore. "But as importantly, [the activity] reinforced the message of the brand, and/or the financial goals for the division, in a memorable way."

It also provided a way for the message to stick. As a follow-up to the event, Growth Engine professionally recorded the songs the attendees had devised, in musical styles such as rock and roll, country western, jazz, reggae, and even polka. Each participant received a CD -- a funny, memorable souvenir that reinforced the brand's positioning or quarterly sales goal in a way far more powerfully than any PowerPoint presentation could have.