Lessons from a focus group on event activation optimization

What happens when you bring together six meeting planners, into a meeting, to talk about meetings? Ha! Bright ideas, for one.

This past May, Smart Meetings welcomed some longtime friends to gather in a remote focus group to discuss a range of topics all related to event activations—and to share their knowledge and experiences with one another to further their understandings of how planners can optimize those moments.

We learn from each other, we teach each other. After all, that’s the bread and butter of meetings.

A Warm Welcome

There’s nothing like an icebreaker activity to get everyone in the mindset for connection from the very start. By knowing the group of attendees and the meeting’s theme, icebreakers can be tailored to get attendees in the right mood and mindset.

This group, being accomplished meeting professionals, were each invited to share the most creative engagement activity they have witnessed, whether they’d planned it, participated in it, or dreamed of it.

Amongst stories of an immersive 4-D ride (complete with the smell of strawberries and the feel of wind), gathering for a drum circle, a spirited guacamole-making competition and more, the participants introduced themselves as Romanita Ross, executive business administrator at Microsoft; Holly Keeter, event manager at Walmart, Inc.; Alex Zapple, senior director of meetings at the American Society of Nephrology; Cheryl Rogers, corporate events manager at Palomar; Maureen Sloan, manager, global accounts at HelmsBriscoe; and Brittney Cobb, director, global events at INNOV8 Meetings + Events. The discussion was moderated by Smart Meetings, along with Tracy Tirrell, director of marketing at JW Marriott Marco Island.

The Pillars of Optimizing Activations

After sharing what makes meeting planning such fulfilling and exciting work, the group started to dig into the nitty gritty of what makes it so wonderful.

What’s Trending?

businesspeople sitting in circle high-fiving

The group began by examining today’s biggest trends: namely, outdoor and unconventional meeting spaces, intimate group settings to fuel discussion and creating fun. Cobb jumped in with a discussion on think tank spaces. “Your teams come together in a space that allow people to relax and retreat truthfully; to allow those creative juices to start flowing and having a collaborative space…meeting spaces that are not just your standard board rooms—it’s your lounge setup, but you have the technology that also allows them to dive deeper and work more effectively.”

Read More: Savvy Marketing Activation Tips From a 20,000-Person Virtual Edutainment Experience

The major group consensus upon this point was that choice of the venue determines the atmosphere of the meeting. Keeter added that, in her experience, outdoor meetings have been the name of the game. “Taking that outdoor space and reworking it to what you need and how to fit your attendees…challenges your creativity. And looking at utilizing the CVB or other community partners—it’s not just staying on your own team, but asking for help and ideas.” Collaboration is key, from pre- to post-event.

Wellness in Meetings

From there, the conversation transitioned into wellness. Now, wellness may have started as a trend, but at this point, it’s big enough to be a pillar of its own. So how are these bright planners incorporating wellness into their meetings and events?

When we hear “wellness,” we tend to think of a yoga session or stretch break incorporated into a meeting schedule. However, the term may not mean exactly what we think. Zapple came in with the point that, in the Freeman Trends Report, wellness was actually found to be one of the lowest motivators for people to attend events. The most important aspect of wellness, Zapple explained, is about knowing your market.

Read More: Caesars Demonstrates the Power of Wellness at Inaugural Global Wellness Summit

businesspeople walking alongside each other“Our physicians, some of them get up at four in the morning and run. That’s their thing; we’re not going to get involved and make them do a race. They’re just on a different schedule…[The Freeman Trends Report] was an interesting study in that [wellness] is not a motivator for people to come to the meeting. Immersive experiences are number one, by a long shot, as well as personalization and technology.”

Ross chimed in with agreement, remarking that at one meeting, her team found their attendees wanted to walk more. They established a scavenger hunt activity to facilitate it, and when the participants met at the end point, many of them stayed later to get drinks together. “Not only were they able to get their walking in, but they were also able to socialize with each other and network. And they truly enjoyed it.”

So, wellness may not mean a stretch break in-between speaker sessions, as we are often inclined to imagine; it may be much more subjective. It’s freedom—offering attendees the freedom to choose their own forms of wellness and incorporate it how they please. And with that comes having a flexible schedule and, as Zapple pointed out, knowing your audience and offering them what they need.


Like wellness, sustainability started out largely as a trend, but the general consensus these days is that it’s far too significant to be only a trend; it’s a lifestyle, workstyle and meeting-style.

Zapple jumped in once again to bring up the topic of functionality. Sustainability certainly can be fun, but those things that make the biggest impact tend to err more on the logistical end. She remembers recently attending an event that offered lanyards made of a material that held seeds, which recipients could later plant. Fun! Right?

“It’s an interesting idea, but it does not work for more than a one-day meeting. They rip, they fall apart, you lose your badge. So, in turn, it ends up using more supplies and more resources because then you’re getting more of [the lanyards].”

As a planner for the American Society of Nephrology, Zapple is well-versed in the wide range of factors that make a meeting more sustainable. With 45% international members, she needs to be aware that some attendees may not be able to travel to the U.S. from international locations due to the carbon impact that travel would have; so her team works with the venue, with the partners, with the general service contractor, and together, they manage the waste that could occur on the exhibit hall floor, donations, reuse or recycling of materials, creating post-meeting sustainability reports and more. All of these factors are not only sustainable—they are functional and lasting.

Read More: Your Complete Guide to Sustainability

She made a particularly important point when she said, “As a non-profit organization, [sustainability] is not our number one mission—it’s curing kidney diseases. So that’s where our money has to go.” Sustainability can get expensive. Many planners who track carbon offsets find that when sustainability is offered to attendees as a choice, such as paying for an airline’s green travel option, the extra cost disincentives them.

“It is tough to do the carbon offsets unless you’re going to pay for all of it, underwrite all of it, which some corporations do for their travelers…It’s hard to put it on the individual.” Like everything in a meeting, sustainability comes with costs and benefits (in a very literal sense). In this aspect, it’s about weighing your priorities, identifying where sustainability falls on that list, and then giving it the level of attention that its place on your list allows for. Every little thing we can do counts, but when its large businesses, particularly big contributors, like air travel companies, any changes they can implement to make sustainability more prevalent and accessible are the most impactful.

Engaging Younger Generations

woman on phone going down escalator

When we look towards the future, one of the most pressing tasks is inviting the youngest generation of event professionals into the strong community of this industry. Smart Meetings asked the planners in the meeting what they were seeing as the most successful methods to attract and retain attendees from different generations.

Ross’s answer: Social media. Cobb agreed, saying, “I’ve found social media to be very useful in staying present and in front of your audience. And one of the key things is being consistent. I know everyone is busy, and it can be a very daunting task, but there are a lot of tools and resources, whether you hire somebody to manage that for you, or use AI, which as a lot of great tools now that can generate and push content for you,” she explained.

“And, of course, each platform has a little bit of a different demographic. So, understand the basis of who uses those spaces; marketing accordingly in those spaces can be very effective.”

Using social media effectively is a seriously smart skill, and in this online, technologically savvy era we find ourselves in, comes the opportunity to learn how to create engaging content that captivates an audience and capitalize on the tools that we have access to.

Technological Innovation

There’s no denying that technology is progressing at a seemingly exponential pace. It plays a huge role in our lives, from social media to chatbots. It’s important to remember that behind technology is humanity; and the meetings industry is all about humanity, so technology becomes a tool for furthering it. Zapple says, “I do think we can use technology to help up, whether that be through AI helping us with specs or marketing…you can have chat bots in places to help people answer questions [at an event]…From a workforce standpoint, these technologies are going to help us from the hotel or front desk standpoint, to all these different fields. And that’s going to keep us going forward.”

Read More: Why AI Might Mean Salvation for the Meeting Industry

There is much discussion about how trustworthy technology is, as well. Zapple expressed that many people don’t immediately believe everything they see on social media—and they shouldn’t. Keeter agreed, saying, “We live in the world of starting to question, is that real?”

When it comes to this situation, the most important element is falling back on that humanity. Always keep the human involved to double check and ensure truth.

Virtual events seemed to be out, according to these planners. Though it proved the hero of the events industry throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, people want to connect in person. Keeter says, “There’s still a need for it in certain instances, but our in-person connection is really valuable…So we hold hardly any virtual meetings and are indefinitely back to everything in-person.”

Measuring Success

woman showing laptop screen to another woman

There are many ways to measure the success of a meeting. Post-event surveys are key, but how are planners going further?

Rogers believes that it can be much more impactful when it’s personal. “I have great relationships with our board members, our C-Suite. Because we’re such a small group in these meetings, I’m like, ‘Hey, let me know if the temperature isn’t right.’…If I can improve something, I want to do it in real time. And I want to share that with my hotel partner too.

“If I lead with the idea that if they’re going to have a great experience, it comes from the feedback that they provide, so I do love a good survey.” One major tip Rogers shared: seven questions is the sweet spot for a survey. If it’s shorter, you may not get enough information, but if it’s longer, people may be less willing to take the time to respond. “More often than not, when you touch base with people, just saying, ‘Is there anything I could have done differently?’ People feel valued,” she said.

woman putting hand in clear case full of raffle tickets

Another secret for getting people to answer surveys? Incentivize, incentivize, incentivize. A raffle works wonders. “You work together, you’ll get honest feedback, because [attendees] recognize that you’re asking this because you value what their experience and their opinion is,” said Rogers. “I always felt like you shouldn’t get something without giving a little something. It’s a give-and-take situation.”

Sloan jumped in to wrap it up in a perfectly clear statement. “It’s the hospitality background. You want to make someone feel welcomed and recognized and valued. That’s the bottom line.”

Achieving Strong Partnerships

Eventually, all meetings must come to an end. This focus group closed out with a lightning round, responding to the question: What one thing would help you better engage your clients that a hotel, venue or CVB could help make happen?

A menu, or lookbook, at what’s available at the hotel or destination was a common request, as was more communication about give-and-take, when the planner and the hotel, venue or CVB team comes together to discuss what worked and what didn’t, and examine how they could have done better. “That means a lot because it means that [we] value [each other] and [our] business,” said Rogers.

Sloan chimed in to reiterate the importance of post-event surveys, which her team shares online in their intranet. Lately, she’s noticed, there are slower response times. Sometimes, the answers are simple: in this case, communication makes the greatest difference.

A shortened version of this article appears in the July 2024 issue. You can subscribe to the magazine here.