Veteran planners know that every detail counts when designing an experience that leads attendees on a journey of the senses. At Smart Meetings, we call the attention devoted to enhancing the look, smell and sound atmosphere in a room “jeuging it up”—a take on the French term for enhancing something.

In the television show Queer Eye, a similar concept was expressed as an effort to “zhuzh” an outfit or a space. However you spell it, the desire to go that extra step by adding small details to make a big difference is one of the things that differentiates top event professionals.

Decor is not just about making a space pretty, however. The right elements set the stage for a cohesive message that both consciously and subconsciously prepare those in the room to learn and grow. Plus, all that shazam must be accomplished on a budget, so smart event professionals have to get strategic and creative when they’re working to add wow to a ballroom.

Hillary Smith, executive creative director at PRA, eloquently explained the business-focused approach to introducing on-trend design. “It really is about aligning with the client’s greater needs and making decisions based on what we see in the things around us through our daily interactions, real life experiences and social media,” she said.

Smart Meetings asked some of the leading designers for their insights on what is new, trending and effective. These table warriors have seen it all and aren’t afraid to praise the truly innovative and call out the tired and overdone. Look for these trends at a convention center near you and share your best design ideas with us at

Design Tech

The year 2019 may be remembered for the “smart meeting.” Mara Marian, owner of Fuse Weddings and Events in Salt Lake City, has seen a surge in the use of technology at corporate meetings. From facial recognition check-in to wearable wristbands and chat-bots designed to answer attendee questions regarding schedule and logistics, these innovative elements can be integrated and branded in ways that enhance the overall experience.

Karen Waldmann, production services manager for San Francisco-based Entire Productions, is seeing more merging of technology and furniture. “We’re getting requests to incorporate couches and armchairs that have charging ports built-in, and we’re seeing furniture rental companies releasing these pieces in their new catalogs,” she said. Overall, she suggests picking furnishings that fit with the theme and the space.

Billy Cook, design director with Taste Catering and Event Planning in San Francisco, has seen robot greeters and virtual servers. “James, the holographic bartender from Obai, was pretty cool,” he said.

Rolando Espinoza, creative director at Champagne Creative Group, pointed to younger workers as the driving force behind all those RFID tags and LED lights. “Right now, meetings are hungry for hands-on experiences, including photo activations, interactive art creation and branding, branding, branding,” he said.

Where does this come from? “A workforce called millennials,” he said. His advice? “Technology is now a seamless part of any meeting, so keep an eye out for more augmented reality to creep into experiential moments.”

In Las Vegas, where Espinoza lives, everything seems to be bigger and brighter, so it can be difficult to pick out one over-the-top application. He pointed to Instagram pop-ups, such as the Ice Cream Museum, as an example that incorporates the unknown and technology, branding and experiences, and can be brought into the conference space in a meaningful way.

In the Spotlight

Lighting (even candles, if they’re allowed) is the most transformative decor element you can use to create a mood or an environment within any given space, Marion says.

Kate Patay, owner of Patay Consulting, agrees. She has found that creative use of audiovisual can stretch a budget. “I tend to try to piggyback effects and use items to their fullest capabilities,” she said. Patay suggests talking to your techs: “They know their equipment best, and many times there are multiple uses for one item.”

In some cases, hotels have been able to provide fairly expensive rigging and sound at little or no cost because they were already in place for another group prior to an event. In fact, the group using the space next kept the staging and lighting to further absorb expense.

Smith suggested that planners consider audiovisual through the lens of the attendee experience. She is seeing lots of large-scale LED walls, 70-foot-wide screens and video mapping to create a flow. “In order to ensure guests circulate, we divide rooms for the event journey, creating various environments. It is our job to leave nothing to the imagination,” she said.

Espinoza explained the power of a well-placed spotlight this way: “Basically, if you want it to look like a movie, you need lights—lots of them. Theatrical lighting can add mystery, elegance and surprise, and help define focal points. Don’t skimp on the lights, please.”

Soft Decor

They say beauty is in the eye of the attendee. Taste’s Billy Cook looks to the softer elements to set the meeting tone. “There is a tendency toward rich colors, and luxurious linens and furnishings,” he said.

Why throw on a white tablecloth when you can ground the meal with saturated burgundy, or mix and match patterns and solids in a family of sophisticated hues? Nancy Stoltz, director of design with Creative Coverings in Sparks, Nevada, suggests incorporating organic, textured fabrics in coordinating colors.

Fuse’s Mara Marian has also noticed an increased focus on visuals—floral and greenery, and small decor (think candles, vases, tchotchkes) to liven up lounge areas and barren charging stations.

PRA’s Hillary Smith is balancing all that tech with a mix of neutral, tone-on-tone colors blended with fabrics and textures—such as dark brass, metal and wood mixtures.

Or, focus on the light. For Smart Women in Meetings Awards gala at Paris Las Vegas, Style Event Design added glam touches to the chandelier-topped room with ghost chairs and mirror-top tables to reflect the twinkling glow.

Budget-Friendly Pop

Because budgets are not infinite, sometimes event professionals must make hard decisions and prioritize, based on impact. Our experts had some creative solutions.

Espinoza advocated going big. “Perhaps the biggest bang for the buck is large-scale printing, including vinyl and die-cut adhesives,” he said. “The combination of these two inexpensive elements allows you to wrap an entire room/floor/car with striking visuals and the all-important logo.”

The Smart Meetings team has seen this approach work on everything from airport terminals to conference center windows and hotel lobby ceilings. A robust cling program can give new meaning to the term “citywide takeover.”

Festivalized Touches

An entertainment trend Smith has seen is the folk-style alternative rock band—think Mumford & Sons, with full-throttle waxy mustaches, acoustic guitars, banjos, piano and double bass, played with a rhythmic style of alternative rock and folk. “Our teams are using this type of entertainment and blending it into the local flair with a twist of bluegrass, swing or soulful. It crosses over demographics and is pleasing to the older and younger crowds, creating a community feel,” she said.

Waldmann is also a fan of serenading guests, even solo guitarists. “Live music completely changes the vibe of an event and leads to visceral reactions in attendees,” she said.

Interactive F&B is another area ripe for creative brand expression. Whether it is a mojito muddler, s’mores-maker or flavored cotton-candy station, the key is that it includes limited components prepared in small batches and put together on the spot, Smith said.

Fort Lauderdale, Florida-based Smith also looks to a themed bar as an effective way to add to the festive flair of an event. “This area typically has the highest congregation, similar to how house guests gather around the bar in the kitchen; it is the place where people strike up a conversation and rarely leave,” she said.

Similarly, raised communal tables ensure the crowd networks and moves around the room more actively than with rounds. “In the sea of social media and starvation for face-to-face connections, people are clamoring for more interaction in their daily lives,” Smith said.

Sustainable Wow

Event professionals and attendees are more conscious than ever of limiting waste. This is affecting everything from buffets and silverware to floral arrangements.

“Many groups see extensive florals as expendable,” Smith said. This has resulted in planners moving toward a deconstructed style—blending items such as globes, books and lanterns to resemble a residential feel and sense of home. Incorporating variations on the centerpiece from table-to-table can also make the overall feel more interesting.

Memorable Touches

Smith has created moments of delight by creating hidden rooms—unexpected areas within an event that guests can stumble upon. She recently produced an event in a large ballroom and utilized the existing stage for entertainment. However, a behind-the-scenes experience contained an interactive photo booth, shoe shining, craft cocktails, green room-inspired decor and a behind-closed-doors vibe.

Inspired by speakeasys, the hidden room space was not promoted to guests, but word spread during the evening and it became more popular as the night wore on. “The best part was the reaction of the guests and the looks on their faces, as if they had just landed on another planet in a different time,” she said.

Strategic Design

Marian explained that adding creative touches that enhance, rather than distract, is paramount to the overall success of a program. “Think of branded touches that engage in a way that attendees feel like they’re part of the story you’re telling with the event; for example, a piece of table decor at the opening session that is a takeaway for the attendee and used at a session or an event later in the program can reinforce a theme and add continuity.


Our informal poll of what experts hope to never see done at post-2019 meeting brought some enthusiastic responses. ​Marian hopes there will be a hard stop on scheduling multiple speakers in a room, with attendees wearing headsets…unless the speakers are prepped for it and can present without becoming distracted. If a speaker is not seasoned and prepped for this, it can ruin the attendee experience—something she has witnessed as a speaker and an attendee.

Espinoza gave the honor of most tired treatment to the now-ubiquitous plastic boxwood hedge. “It is terribly overdone, I’m afraid,” he said.

Smith had two requests, saying, “Please, no more glowing gel beads in centerpieces or champagne served from entertainers hanging from the ceiling, swinging from chandeliers.”

Waldmann was finished with mason jars as decor. “Our office definitely feels this is a trend that has run its course,” she said.