Leveraging Events for Face-to-Face Feedback

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"I know clients putting together conferences, and they haven't talked to [their audience]," Diane Arseneau, CEO of Zagora, told me last month. "They say they know what people want, but I wouldn't put on a program without having heard from the market. It takes time."

She also said that events are a great place to get feedback for future initiatives—nothing can replace face-to-face research. "Every occasion I do is a good time to get more feedback."

It's probably best to have a structure in place to get that feedback—maybe it's pre-scheduled customer meetings, a last-day breakfast or a staff person charged with "just talking" to folks. Unfortunately, post-event surveys don't always capture the conversational expression and discussion that onsite interviews do or even the immediacy that paper surveys can right after a session. 

"[Maybe] you have a new research dashboard or learning management platform you'd love to get [your audience's] input on?" Samantha Whitehorne of Associations Now asked in a post last week. "Set up a kiosk and let them give it a whirl. Or, perhaps, you'd like feedback on a unique room setup you're thinking of trying out next year. Consider staging the room and asking attendees to stop by and tell you what they like and don't like about it—or how it can be improved."

I recall former WIS CEO Benny DiCecca describing to me the popularity of a big bowl of wrapped candy at his event registration desks. "Throughout the day people will come and take candy," he said. He suggested that instead of just saying hi when someone takes a candy, your staff should ask, "What are you enjoying? What don't you like?" An attendee once approached him with a pained look on his face. "You've run out of Butterfingers," he said.

Last month Hilton opened an Innovation Gallery, "a first-of-its-kind incubator and experiential showcase for cutting-edge product developments that will shape the future of Hilton hospitality... It is a physical space where conversations between thought leaders, design experts and hospitality professionals deliver new products and solutions for Hilton's guests."

Hilton has designed 5 experiences for their Innovation Gallery:

Product Showcase: A space for visitors to interact with physical and virtual products that Hilton is exploring for use in hotels. Could be great for your vendors. 

Food & Beverage Concept Studio: A showcase for their latest restaurant concepts. A mid-afternoon snack place?

Virtual Reality (VR) Stage: A dedicated space for visitors to use virtual reality headsets to experience new Hilton concepts. This stage may become mandatory soon.

Darkroom: A progressive model guestroom dedicated to showing cutting-edge material technologies.

Innovation Theater: A gathering space to brainstorm, collaborate and intersect around innovative ideas. And get audience feedback!

Spaces like these can serve two big purposes:

  • You can gauge what other topics your audience is interested in;
  • You can add some zest to your event and provide more vendor opportunities.

Last year, Marriott Hotels opened its own innovation lab—M Beta—at Charlotte Marriott City Center. The lab "allows for rapid prototyping, inviting guests to test and give feedback in real time, ultimately shaping their future hotel experience." Beta Buttons measure consumer feedback with a live tally, as guests and visitors share their approval for the corresponding innovation.

Don't be afraid to ask tough questions of your audience, Andrew Mullins, chief executive, Knowledge & Networking Division, Informa, once told us. As events increase, the question of sustainability inevitably comes up. Mullins admitted that you have to accept that certain formats have a lifecycle now. "You have to ideally know before it's over." How? "By talking to [your customers] 365 days a year." Have a group that you can come to. Without that, you're guessing, and "you're going to get it wrong."

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Ronn Levine began his career as a reporter for The Washington Post and has won numerous writing and publications awards since. Most recently, he spent 12 years at the Newspaper Association of America covering a variety of topics before joining SIPA in 2009 and SIIA in 2013 as editorial director…