How do you plan a conference that’s so extraordinary that attendees are still raving about it months after it’s over?
It’s a confluence of factors, to be sure; engaging and relevant content, dynamic speakers, interactive sessions, and networking activities all play essential parts in making a conference impactful. But these are now baseline expectations. Without them, your conference might indeed become a topic of conversation, but for all the wrong reasons.
We're emphasizing that while you must get all the fundamentals right, that might not be enough to make your conference stand out.
You need something extra - an X factor - to elevate the conference experience from meh to memorable (and drive traffic to strategic areas in the venue, of course). “We try to build in moments of childlike joy into real-life experiences.. says Lauren Olerich, Sr. Director of Events at Gainsight in our webinar. “At [Pulse - Gainsight's annual conference), we have had people dressed up as superheroes who walk around the conference; we’ve hired a Taylor Swift impersonator to sing and serenade and walk around on stage; and we had a ferris wheel in 2018."
And that’s where activations come in.
A is for activations
What are activations? A quick refresher.
Activations are engaging experiences that encourage attendees to participate in the conference - beyond the sessions, panels, and workshops, and which leave a lasting impression on attendees.
They can take many forms, such as interactive exhibits, experiential installations, workshops, games, live performances, etc. Organizers can use activations to meet strategic goals, such as driving traffic to the sponsors' area in the venue or driving awareness around a concept, product, or service.
Here's what Lauren recommends keeping in mind when planning your activations:
(1) Experiences for attendee to self-explore in their own time: If you think about the footprint of your event, [you can put activations on different zones and floors]. You can put activations throughout the Expo Hall or the hallways as people are starting to walk to different breakout rooms.
(2) Encourage attendees to seek out the activations: You can encourage people through push notifications to find the activations. And you can gamify [it] by giving people points if they scan [the event app] at certain activations to encourage them to experience these things.
5 activation ideas that we loved
Idea 1: An interactive installation
What is it: A real-time, interactive artistic display that is built by attendee submissions
Why it’s a great idea: Conferences often focus on knowledge sharing and professional development, but incorporating live art serves as a creative counterbalance, stimulating senses and imagination and providing a unique way to express ideas and narratives.
A real-life example: The Brightline Initiative, in collaboration with Domestic Data Streamers, had a participatory art installation at their 2019 conference. Attendees were asked to write down their thoughts about speakers, sessions, and conference content on transparent tiles with permanent marker, creating a visually engaging and interactive experience that allowed participants to contribute to the event's narrative actively.
We love this idea.
Another example: At the TED Bigger Than Us Exhibit, attendees were invited to write an idea worth spreading on a piece of paper. They were then photographed holding it and their photo was added to a gallery. This activation engaged attendees in the core mission of TED, allowing them to actively participate in sharing and promoting their own innovative ideas, while also fostering a sense of inclusion and community.
A fantastic embodiment of the theme of the conference.
Idea 2: Puppies at the conference
What is it: Quite simply - puppies at the conference!
Why it’s a great idea: Incorporating puppies into a conference provides a delightful and unexpected element that can reduce stress, boost mood, and encourage social interaction among attendees. It adds a unique and memorable touch to the event, as it's not something commonly associated with conferences.
A real-life example: At Quantum Metric’s user conference, the team set up a puppy adoption center in the sponsor area. Attendees were thrilled to encounter adorable puppies, which not only attracted significant traffic to the sponsor area but also ended up with two dog adoptions.
Honestly, if you had this activation at your conference, you'd have trouble getting us to leave.
Idea 3: Smoothie bikes
What is it: Smoothie bikes let attendees select their preferred flavors and then pedal to blend them into their own custom fruit smoothie or signature cocktail, which they can take with them.
Why it’s a great idea: People love an activity, and people also love free food and drinks. Smoothie bikes cleverly combine both by offering a hands-on and fun experience that you definitely don’t expect at a conference and a yummy payoff.
A real-life example: HP set up smoothie bikes at Curry’s Peak Conference, as it perfectly exemplified HP sustainability, but works well at just about any event organized by a company that cares about sustainability (because you produce your own electricity!).
Idea 4: AR scavenger hunt
What is it: VR/AR/AI adventures are usually immersive and interactive experiences that leverage virtual or augmented environments, often involving headsets or devices. An AR scavenger hunt is an interactive game or activity in which participants use AR technology, often via a mobile app, to locate and collect virtual items or complete challenges within a physical or digital environment. Like Pokemon Go.
Why it’s great at a conference: VR/AR/AI adds oomph to your event and lets attendees explore a concept related to your conference’s theme in an exciting and cutting-edge way. The scavenger hunt, in particular, is a creative and fun way to get attendees exploring the venue, and interacting with products, services, and sponsors, which promotes deeper engagement between participants and event stakeholders.
A real-life example: The AR scavenger hunt at the 2023 Advertising Week APAC conference was a big hit. Attendees were encouraged to explore Lunar Park - the conference venue - to find and collect rewards from sponsors throughout the park. Participants would be entered into a draw to win a major prize.
This is a smart way to employ gamification at the conference in a way that feels authentic and enjoyable to attendees, and helps you meet strategic event goals too.
Idea 5: Nostalgia arcade
What is it: An arcade of retro games designed to connect attendees with positive memories of the past.
Why it’s great at a conference: It adds a touch of fun and familiarity, making networking easier through shared memories, and conversations more enjoyable, and the event itself distinct and memorable.
A real-life example: AWS re: Invent in Las Vegas featured educational sessions, networking opportunities, as well as a variety of retro games, including a Giant Human Claw Machine in which attendees played the part of the Giant Claw. They were lifted into the air by the machine and lowered into a giant pit of untold treasures that were up for grabs.
There's no denying the power of a 90s throwback.
To sum up…
In the quest to make events truly memorable and strategically impactful, activations stand out as powerful tools.
But to make them truly effective, organizers need to carefully align the experiences with your company and event’s personality, goals, mission, and values, and with strategic objectives you’re trying to meet through them - for instance, driving footfall to sponsors.
So, be thoughtful, be strategic, but above all, be boldly unexpected.