The competitive advantage of a creative mindset in the corporate meetings and events industry
In an era of shrinking budgets, dwindling timelines and an ever-expanding list of client and stakeholder demands, today’s corporate meeting and event planner is more stressed than ever before. To better cope with that stress, many planners strive to acquire the skills they need to stay at the top of their game and a step ahead of the competition. Despite a growing curriculum of post-graduate programs teaching business and management skills, however, there is an essential skill set possessed by nearly every successful planner in the industry that many believe simply cannot be taught: Creativity.
From making the most of a meager food and beverage budget by using more seasonal and local produce to exploring unique event venues that can bring added pizzazz without breaking the bank, planners have learned that it takes far more than a university education to make it in this business. Instead, success is often predicated on the ability to see new possibilities, do more with less and distinguish yourself or your clients from the competition.
“Creativity is the descriptor by which the event industry is best known for,” says Leanne Andrecyk, creative director for Halifax event planning firm ZedEvents. “It is the element that separates one meeting from the other and defines how guests and attendees will experience an event. Without it, meetings and events would become carbon copies of each other, resulting in no need for attending more than one and leaving the industry to disappear along with a formatted arena to share ideas and innovations.”
Start at the beginning
Few would question the importance of creativity in the event planning process. For planners such as Sharon Bonner, president of Bright Ideas Event Coordinators, creativity has the ability to move people beyond words and should be implemented from the very early stages of planning an event’s objectives.
“Creativity bonds planners, delegates and clients,” says Bonner. “If an invite is creative with specific branding impact, guests will remember it. And if the brand shows up at the event on all collateral, lighting effects and guests giveaways, they recognize it. Chances are they will not forget it. Creativity creates lasting impressions.”
Creativity in the meeting planning process is critical because clients most often engage professionals to deliver what they are unable to do themselves, says Lynn Ferguson Pinet, chief team architect of teambuilding event specialist Conundrum Adventures. It is creativity that provides the spark to make events and meetings stand out to participants and is an entirely different skill set that successful planners bring to their clients.
“Creativity can turn the mundane into the enjoyable,” says Ferguson Pinet. “As people become more and more digitally connected, it becomes more challenging for meeting planners to get and keep the attention of participants. When planners truly understand the intended goals of a meeting, and are creative in achieving that goal in unconventional ways, they deliver great benefit to their clients.
“Creativity is such a broad term; it definitely refers to the creativity of graphics and look and feel of a meeting, but it also means being creative with how time is utilized and how people can connect and engage in unique ways.”
Like most attributes of success, being creative comes with its own set of challenges, from figuring out how to conjure something out of nothing with the barest of financial or other resources to choosing event themes, décor and food that will appeal to a wide cross section of delegates. It also involves balancing a number of different approaches and mindsets such as innovation and critical thinking.
Balanced approach needed
“Creativity isn’t just about coming up with new ideas,” says Dana Zita, president of aNd Logistix. “The process may start with imagination, but the critical thinker in me then takes over to see if the idea is viable: Will it work within the client’s budget? Will it work within the limitations of the venue space? Will it provide benefit to the client’s objectives? Will attendees enjoy it?”
“Budget, location and availability of resources are problematic in that these areas may sometimes limit creative options from an execution point of view,” says Andrecyk. “However, the biggest challenge is a closed mind not willing to think outside the box. This state of mind is highlighted in such road blocks as ‘It has always been done that way’ or ‘our Board of Directors are a conservative bunch.’ People sometimes make the mistake of assuming they know what people want without actually asking the question.”
Another key question is: Can creativity be taught? While some might be unclear as to the answer, industry professionals such as Zita believe that creativity is an ability inherent in everyone and is a quality that can be encouraged and fostered. Still others say there are definite skills that planners should be looking to acquire in order to become a more creative planner.
“Skill sets such as being resourceful, being a good researcher (knowing the internet inside and out) and awareness make a creative event planner,” says Bonner. “Also, you must ‘tune in’ to your target audience. For example, you could plan a super creative “Martha Stewart craft style” of event only to discover that the guests are environmentalists who spend their days working in the jungles and fields. They have no interest in working with a glue gun so all of your creative planning is not as effective as it could be.”
Andrecyk agrees, adding that reading and research to maintain a constant awareness of what is new and trendy is easily accomplished with industry related publications, blogs and social media.
“The event industry is one of the fastest growing amongst Generation Y/Millennials and with that is a proliferation of a variety of courses, diplomas and certifications that can provide new skills or knowledge and credibility amongst clients,” says Andrecyk.
Once armed with a set of creative skills and a willingness to think “outside of the box,” planners can then focus on the many diverse components of their meetings. From choosing the right entertainment options to selecting speakers to taking advantage of the latest technological developments in the audio-visual department, planners have plenty of opportunity to flex their creative muscles.
“Creativity is what leaves a lasting impression and creates that memorable experience for all the right reasons,” says Goldie Marks, owner of Hollywood Heaven Entertainment in Toronto, which specializes in providing celebrity impersonators popular at many corporate and social events. “Events are often very predictable but at Hollywood Heaven, we change all that. From being greeted at the front door by a Joan Rivers or Austin Powers lookalike, to having your caricature done, or learning magic tricks from a strolling magician, you have already just created some sort of unexpected excitement.”
When it comes to hiring a speaker for an event, many clients say they want creative “out-of-the-box” speaker ideas, and yet no one wants to roll the dice with a speaker, according to Martin Perelmuter, president and co-founder of Speaker’s Spotlight.
“Some clients want to engage speakers who are not typically speakers, such as company CEOs or celebrities, which is also inherently risky, especially if speaking is not a priority for that individual,” says Perelmuter. “The challenge is to find speakers who are not over-exposed to your delegates, and yet have a proven track-record of excellence. There are many undiscovered gems currently on the fringe of the speaking world, and a big part of our job is to know who they are, and discover tomorrow’s stars, today.”
Perelmuter also believes that because audiences are more sophisticated than ever before, meeting and event planners need to think creatively in order to keep them engaged. This not only applies to the type of speaker selected, but also to the format used at the event.
“Many people now watch TED videos for education and entertainment, and expect the speakers they see at conferences to be of similar calibre,” says Perelmuter. “More and more people are ‘tweeting’ at events, making it more difficult than ever to get and keep an audience’s attention. What worked five years ago, may no longer work today, and the choice of speaker is critical to ensure that your events stay relevant.”
Keep the audience in mind
Similarly, planners also need to keep their specific audience in mind when planning for the audio-visual portion of events. Cal McCarthy, president of SW Audio Visual in British Columbia, says new developments in technology, such as audience response systems and increasingly affordable webcasting and teleconferencing, are providing a wide variety of options to planners looking for more creativity in their events.
“Sophisticated audiences expect information to be presented in a dynamic and highly visual way,” says McCarthy. “Good AV technology adds impact and force to the delivery of the message. If done poorly it can be distracting and reflect negatively on the message. Good audio visual services can also be expensive and therefore good planning and thoughtful advice can ensure the AV elements complement the presentation and add real value to the audience experience.”
Ultimately, though, the question of what exactly makes a meeting “creative” most often depends on whom you ask, says the Idea Factory’s Ed Bernacki, author of the books How to Get the Most Value From Your Next Conference and Seven Rules for Designing More Effective Conferences.
“Normally we talk about creativity to solve problems in ways that add value,” says Bernacki. “It is hard to suggest ideas to make conferences more creative until we have a sense of what this means. It seems to me that the truly creative meetings involve redesigning the shape of the content and how speakers and participants engage. . . Some of the most interesting conferences focus on making the participants more creative in the way they participate in the conference,” says Bernacki. “The goal is to prompt participants to leave the event with more creative ideas.”