Events Are Akin to Large Family Gatherings

Post authored by Cynthia Hornketh, CMM, VP, Experience Design

Have you ever been to a gathering and felt like everyone had an identity or role except you? Like family dinners where Aunt Sue is in charge of dessert, Agnes is the chief dishwasher, Uncle Joe is the conversation antagonist and so on.

Everyone brings something to the table. Even the ‘first-timer’ friend has a role—a fresh audience to hear the worn-torn family stories.

Now, let’s translate and apply this powerful family dinner dynamic to the events we design.

From Transactional to Aspirational

We need to move from designing events that are transactional to ones that attract, engage and fortify what could be called modern families, tribes or communities—a group sharing values, interest and purpose. I’ve added the word “modern” as a descriptor to move away from traditional definitions suggesting hierarchical systems. At the heart of this belief is the need to engage people in ways that are meaningful for the individuals, while beneficial to the whole.

Research shows that people often join a community because there’s someone they aspire to be and they can only become that person when they do it with other people who share that same purpose. How do we help people actively find and engage in the community? How can events serve as a catalyst to speed up and enhance these aspirational journeys?

Beyond the role of session learner or networker, in what role can people express themselves and use their strengths to engage in the community? How can they contribute their talent and knowledge in a way that’s personally rewarding and beneficial to others?

Speaker: A Role Sometimes Miscast

One prominent, commonly available event role is that of speaker. But what if your personality doesn’t match with the experience one gets from being a speaker? More importantly, what if the role one aspires to could negatively impact the experiences of others?

A colleague, Megan Ogden of NACE, shared a story with me. They receive over 400 speaker proposals and accept only 80. How do they address that sizable dilemma? In addition to sending a polite “rejection” letter to 320 people who have raised a hand offering to be actively involved in the program, they suggest alternative ways to contribute to the community. Some folks are invited to proctor labs or facilitate other learning formats. Others might become valued partners of the marketing team. They also strive to repurpose proposal elements as blog posts, webinars, tweets or as member interviews for the association’s magazine.

We may not have the resources to identify roles for the entire population, but perhaps start with this microcosm. What formal and informal opportunities to teach, share and in some respects, “be on stage” can be designed into their event experience? Subject matter ambassadors, competition leaders, conclaves and workgroup members, genius bars or learning navigators… or maybe like Megan, use these enthusiastic volunteers as marketing advocates?

Authenticity is a huge component of the brand strategy. Testimonials and published opinions from these people can help elevate the event brand. Activate their support to help tell your story before, during and after the event, thus nurturing one of your most precious community assets: Word-of Mouth buzz.

Activating Personal Passion Drives Loyalty

event designWe could blow out this strategy further and brainstorm ideas for using our community to support entertainment and other experience touch points. For instance, I have a few clients who have produced Battle of the Bands social events using constituent talent. It’s no small effort, but it has incredible and lasting impact.

Providing a unique opportunity to demonstrate personal passions with the tribe can be as rewarding as sharing professional interests. Done right, it’s also a huge loyalty driver.

Now I’m not naïve. I appreciate that managing volunteers can be trickier than moderating controversial conversations at an extended family dinner. You may need to dedicate additional personnel to these tasks.

You might also consider adding creative incentives. Financial rewards and discounts are attractive, but clearly not our only option and often not what really inspires people. Public recognition and notoriety can be more impactful, as is exclusive access, social currency and status.

As you’re thinking about the design of your next event, consider how Aunt Sue cherishes her reputation as the family baker, how Agnes would feel uncomfortable sitting on the couch watching others clean up, and how Uncle Joe gets more joy and satisfaction from telling his story then he does from eating the meal. Best of all, as you help cast each member in their best role, the family collects unforgettable memories—some worthy of retelling at the next family supper.


What roles are savored at your event table? How might you adjust your experience design plan to help your event guests imagine themselves taking on new roles?

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