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6 Trends Redefining the Conference Experience

This is a guest post by Stephen Spencer, a keynote speaker, business coach and consultant, helping organisations create better customer experiences to unlock team and profit potential. He has over 25 years’ experience as a leader, trainer and experience developer with some of the UK’s most prestigious retail, tourism and hospitality brands. Stephen’s also writes the highly popular POSITIVE Customer Experience newsletter.
It used to be a certainty that at every business conference, at least one speaker – if not every speaker – would present a PowerPoint slide quoting the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, saying “The only thing that is constant is change.” In fact, you could say that the only thing that is constant (at a conference) is a consultant saying “The only thing that is constant is change”.
After all…
Forty-five years ago Britain wasn’t a member of the Single European Market…
Twenty-five years ago we didn’t have the internet.
Six years ago we didn’t have the iPad.
Four years ago we didn’t have a male British Wimbledon champion who wore short trousers on court.
And a week ago we didn’t have a second female British Prime Minister.
I sum it up like this: the world is changing faster than ever, in ways we could hardly imagine even just a few years ago. Consumers have more choice and they increasingly make their choices based on recommendations from those they trust – including those who have shared their experiences via social media. Marketing as we know it is in its death throes: trust in institutions is at an all-time low, and only the organisations that can offer experiences that are relevant, personalised, life-enhancing and (paradoxically) competitively priced, can expect to have a bright future.
Related: The conference director’s checklist: Everything you need to know (and do) on the day
If this sounds like “Project Fear” I apologise! It’s actually very exciting: if you can build high-quality, consistent, flexible (another paradox!) and authentic experiences around a compelling brand story, the future will be yours.
“We must be able to predict what the customer wants next. Today it is reactionary – after the fact. [By] 2020 customers will expect firms to be ahead of them, knowing what they need before they themselves have shown the need.” – Walker Information, Inc.
So, how do we do this? Specifically, how do conference organisers need to react to the fact that change is a constant, without resorting to speakers trotting out quotations from ancient Greek philosophers?
Dr Ian Yeoman, Associate Professor of Tourism Futures at Victoria University of Wellington, has identified the key trends which he believes will determine the foreseeable future for Customer Experience – I’ve summarised them into the six points below.
1. Demanding consumers
Consumers are better educated, more culturally aware, price sensitive (a legacy of years of recession followed by austerity), they have a wider choice of products, services and experiences than ever before. This means that your conference must offer differentiated experiences, capable and worthy of being shared, high-quality content and demonstrable value for money.
Related: How associations can increase membership growth and engagement
2. Mobile living
Consumers are living life through smart devices – think of how often they are turning their backs, literally, on live experiences in order to capture themselves via the medium of the selfie! Wearable technologies, augmented and virtual reality, and facial recognition are changing the definition of live experiences: no longer do all participants have to be in the same place at the same time. Social media both changes the audience focus and multiplies the number of ‘participants’, exponentially.
For conference organisers this means designing events to facilitate sharing, as widely as possible, in real time. It also means acknowledging that your delegates’ focus will often be outside the room, as they share the virtual experience with their networks. Your challenge is also your opportunity – to leverage this trend to maximise value – to clients, delegates, partners, sponsors and to far wider, dispersed audiences.
Related: Increasing event ROI with technology
3. Global economy

The impact of deflationary (driving down prices) and disinflationary (driving down the rate of price increases) pressures, leading to over-supply, and (again) more choice for consumers, means that conference organisers must demand value from supply chains and focus on maximising value for clients, delegates and partners. It also means that content must offer powerful and valuable insights, enabling clients and delegates to gain and demonstrate actionable knowledge and strategies that maximise competitive advantage in their networks and marketplaces.
Related: What are the right metrics for measuring corporate event success?
4. Professional concierge
Because we are living in the Experience Economy, every aspect of the Conference Experience should be memorable, valuable and shareable. Indeed, as LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman has observed, “We are in the early stages of transitioning from the Experience Economy to the Network Economy” – meaning that every experience has vastly greater resonance because it is capable of being shared with, and potentially enhances our status within, our professional and personal networks.
From booking to registration to concierge services to post-conference interactions, the focus should be on personalised, one-to-one interactions, enhanced via technology-enabled predictions.
5. Demographics
According to Helpage.org, the world is getting (much) older – within ten years over one billion people will be aged over 60. At the same time, the traditional paradigms associated with an ageing population, although still relevant, are being disrupted.
Older people now have attitudes and expectations previously associated with their children, and as medical and related technologies become better at holding back or reversing the effects of ageing, we are increasingly seeing an ageless society, with older people either choosing, or (due to the devaluing of pensions) being forced to work longer, whilst demanding fuller, more active lifestyles. They also want experiences that are meaningful: creative, educational, self-improving.
For conference organisers, this means reflecting on both the primary and secondary audiences for events; designing content and facilities to meet their needs; to (again!) consider the role of social sharing and the power of family, friend and professional networks; and recognising that, alongside the rise of the Millennial Generation, the ageing population represents a vitally important set of consumers – be they in the conference room, or waiting outside it, to deliver their verdict on your delegates’ products, services and experiences.
Related: Why top speakers say yes (and no) to speaking at your event
6. Political instability
As the citizens of the UK are now well aware, political and geo-political pressures have the potential to change the very parameters of the world in which we operate. Among the key drivers of change are immigration, institutional failures, war and terrorism, as well as the traditional impact of the electoral cycle (in democratic countries and alliances).
Trust is now redefined as trust in our families, social and other networks – consumers are increasingly mistrustful of politicians, corporations, even ‘experts’. So those consultants with their “change is a constant” PowerPoint slides are likely to be swallowed up by their own metaphor! Replacing them should be new ways of delivering insights (using VR, AR and/or live streaming technologies to ‘internationalise’ your event; immersive experiences; real-time opinion sharing and as many new perspectives as your creativity (and budget) will allow.
Conclusion
So what does all this mean? “Whereas consumers may once have simply accepted without question whatever suppliers offered them, the dynamics have changed and they now want low prices and high quality, attentive customer service yet speedy convenience, personalised offers yet their privacy respected, complex solutions that are also easy to understand.” – Future Foundation, nVision Trend Report
Combine a creative, value (for money and time) driven approach with excellent, personalised service for your clients, delegates and partners, and your conference will become a ‘trusted partner’ – helping to shape understanding and inspire proactive responses to the challenges and opportunities in a world where change is a constant… oops! There I go again…
Source: Eventbrite

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