by Andrea Doyle | November 03, 2017

If you want to keep attendees engaged, entertained, and interested, there's one word to keep in mind: experiential. Experiential meetings and events aren't about creating content for attendees to consume; they're about creating opportunities to participate and engage.

"For meetings to be viable in this modern age there is a required element of experience in order to cut through the noise, keep attendees engaged, and make the outcomes of the meeting sharable for a greater organization," says Scott Dzierzanowski, associate creative director of Mosaic, an experiential agency that teamed up with technology pioneer Oracle to reimagine OpenWorld, the long-standing annual global tech event. Together, the organizations created a groundbreaking, five-day learning experience.

But Dzierzanowski emphasizes that "there are elements of experiential strategy that can be applied to even the simplest meeting." For planners seeking creative ways to put experience at the center of their events, here are some insights from the experts:

1. Tap Into the Power of the Crowd
An experiential approach is at the core of planning for Oracle OpenWorld, and each element is designed to help attendees interact and learn in innovative ways.

Oracle OpenWorld brought the
Collective Learning concept
to sessions.

"In an age where professional development and training is always at your fingertips thanks to the Internet, we know that the conference must deliver more than what can be found online. And that is experiences," says Dzierzanowski. "So whether it's the environmental design of the conference, the sessions that make up the learning component, or the entertainment that happens after hours, each should create an experience that delivers upon Oracle OpenWorld's promise to help attendees connect, learn, and share. If we have not delivered an experience that fulfills that promise, then we have not done our job."

This year's event drew more than 40,000 people to San Francisco to share ideas, innovation, and experiences that span the full spectrum of cutting-edge technology -- ranging from artificial intelligence to autonomous vehicles. The experts that make up the community are drawn from more than 152 countries, making it a truly global conference. The event's organizers closed down an entire city block on San Francisco's Howard Street to create an organic "gathering hub" and delivered an A/V experience of more than 250 hours of live content programmed throughout the event's five days.

But the subject matter of OpenWorld was not the only aspect the organizers used to keep attendees engaged, interested, and entertained. This year, they reevaluated how this subject matter was delivered, which drove Oracle to partner with Mosaic to redesign the basic idea of a session at a conference. This initiative, called Collective Learning, drew on research from Stanford University to create session tracks aimed at making attendee engagement of equal importance to the content. The sessions had attendees working together to solve problems, and through the process gain a greater understanding of the subject matter being presented.

Dzierzanowski emphasizes that in a time of new technology and growing distractions, an experiential approach is more beneficial than ever.

"Research shows that the human attention span is now less than eight seconds, less than that of a goldfish," he adds. "So when we live in a world with constant distraction and noise, a meeting that is not in some form experiential will not be effective."

2. Offer Immersive Content
Founded in 1987 in Austin, South by Southwest (SXSW) is best known for its conference and festivals that celebrate the convergence of the interactive, film, and music industries. Its combination of high-profile speakers, notworthy bands, and memorable experiences has helped it to draw approximately 440,000 attendees from 95 countries last year, injecting $348.6 million into the Austin economy.

SXSW brings together music, film,
and cutting-edge technology for
a smorgasbord of interactivity
and engagement

From presidents and pop stars to NASA scientists, SXSW aims to take innovative experiences to the next level. President Barack Obama, Bruce Springsteen, Al Pacino, Lady Gaga, Pete Townsend, Pharrell Williams, Prince, and Little Richard have all spoken at and/or performed at SXSW, but Mike Shea, chief logistics officer and partner of SXSW, is quick to point out that there is much more than just music and big-name speakers here. "It's not the glitz and glamour that people are coming for. They are coming to build valued interpersonal business-to-business experiences," he explains.

Through workshops, conversations, and panels at events, SXSW encourages attendees to participate, learn, and network at one overall conference with 24 tracks. These tracks of highly targeted programming  include subjects that run the gamut from brands and marketing to design, code and programming, government, health and wellness, intelligent future, entertainment influencers, film and TV, music, storytelling, food, social impact, and sports.

"'Experiential' seems to have replaced 'impressions' as the marketing buzzword du jour and it's changed the way SXSW, our attendees, and our sponsors interact," says Shea. "Events are experiential by nature, people attend SXSW to be immersed in live and in-person networking, deal-making, enlightenment, and entertainment. This is one reason our trade shows and expositions are among the centerpieces of SXSWeek."

He adds that companies at SXSW are increasingly seeking out "experiential activations that not only promote their brand but really add value to the SXSW attendee experience."