Maritz Global Events Blog

Our Experts Review 2019’s Top Trends in Event Strategy and What to Watch for in 2020 and Beyond

A lot has happened over the past year. In fact, amidst all the political, social and technological goings-on, you may have missed the biggest and boldest shifts in event design and experience strategy in 2019.

No worries, our Design Studio™ team has you covered. Recently, they convened to discuss their observations from 2019 and share their prognostications for 2020.

Our panel included:

Design Studio event strategy

  • Greg Bogue, enterprise vice president
  • Tim Simpson, brand & engagement chief strategist
  • Bianca Ferrer, creative director
  • Dan Sundt, master designer and brand strategist

It was an action-packed meeting, and an event unto itself. Sparks flew, wild ideas ran free and there was poetry. (The kind that only event professionals can appreciate.) You would've loved being a fly on the wall, but you’ll love even more being able to read and reflect on what they said below. Fair warning: it’s a hefty read, so now’s a good time to unplug your laptop and relocate to the couch.

And if you’re crushed for time, consider the following highlights—use them as conversation starters at holiday parties—or to jump to the topic that piques your interest best. Come back for a deep dive any time you like. The post will be waiting for you. It's the perfect primer for a prosperous 2020 and our gift to you.

Here are the highlights:

  • 2019 was the year that organizations shifted focus to the guest. (Yes, it finally happened!)
  • And did you know 2019 was the year personas were invited to the party? (Or the event, anyway.)
  • The power of shared values and purpose came into full focus, too.
  • And if you listen carefully, you can still hear event organizers singing Auld Lang Syne to generational stereotypes.
  • Change — both personal and professional — was definitely in the air in 2019.
  • It was the year people made the distinction between an event and an experience.
  • In 2019, experience design became more collaborative — and transformative.
  • Incentives found the incentive they needed to change in 2019.
  • And did you know 2019 was the year that time officially sped up?
  • In 2019, people looked beyond annual sprints to multi-year event strategies.
  • And in 2019, event design saw its role as a humanizing force in the world.

Interested? Intrigued? Confused? Continue on to read every kernel of wisdom from our distinguished Design Studio panel and get the full context of their revelations.

2019 was the year that organizations remembered the guest.

Greg: After advocating for this for years now, what I think has finally caught on as of 2019 is a guest-centered design mindset vs. an organizational focused design mindset. What I mean is our clients are now looking at the guests' needs way more than they were in the past. It used to be based on organizations saying, “I need to tell them this.” And now it's shifting to organizations starting with, “I need to know what they need.” I think they’re finally listening to their guests and using what they learn to inform their design.

Personal values and personal preferences will become increasingly more important as time goes on. To me, this is a big macro shift that’s occurred, and we will see this play out in 2020 in a big way.

Tim: Greg is exactly right and this is why we’ve seen the richness of engagements grow with clients. Clients traditionally said, “We want some help around experience design.” Now they are saying, “We're all in on that. Help us bring that to life more deeply into our event.” And so those deeper engagements are much more strategic and include multiple phases, like design studies, onsite assessments or even strategic event marketing engagements—all of those delivered on the foundation of our industry-leading experience design work. This is a big thing we saw in 2019; and in 2020 we will see the majority of our engagements involve more than just experience design work. And this builds on what Greg said, as the future of events isn’t just in staging experiences or delivering great experiential moments, but it’s about leveraging events to guide transformation for the individual guest.

2019 was the year personas were invited to the party. (Or the event, anyway.)

Bianca: For 2019, I would say one of the big learnings for me was seeing how we were able to reverse-engineer the event persona into an event marketing persona. And I’m happy to put it out there that we are one of the few teams in the market using event persona-based marketing to drive results for organizations.

There has been this view that you could approach personas from the traditional marketing approach. Then we’ve slowly seen a shift over the years of organizations getting better and better at creating event personas—although there’s still ground to be taken there. What we’re seeing now is doing away with the traditional marketing persona and from there, translating them into the event personas for marketing.

Taking the event personas and making marketing personas is creating much deeper opportunities for personalization and articulation of the event’s true value prop.

Tim: Great call, Bianca. And one big association event this year provided a perfect example of that. We went in to do strategic event marketing and theming work, and where we started was understanding the event personas and then we translated those event personas into marketing personas. Through that we were able to develop a specific strategy and tactical plan to speak to those personas rather than broad, blanket-based event marketing. It was a much more targeted experience, but also not your traditional marketing persona. It was like an event-based persona translated into a marketing-based persona so that you could actually speak to those guests in a meaningful way. As a result, the client tripled or almost quadrupled the majority of their marketing metrics this year.

Bianca: Exactly, Tim. That’s why in 2020 I think we’ll see more organizations move in this direction.

The power of shared values and purpose came into full focus this year.

Tim: Purpose was another big conversation in 2019 that I think needs to continue in 2020. I think we really helped kickstart that conversation in our webinar series which started in January. Guests have changed and their purpose is a driver of preference. Guests want to be associated with organizations that have purpose and shared values that are a match for their own.

Dan: Yes, and the light turns on when organizations actually realize they do have a higher purpose. What we will see happen in 2020 is more organizations seeking support to gain clarity around this.

Event organizers sang Auld Lang Syne to generational stereotypes.

Dan: I think this whole notion that anybody younger than the Gen Xers doesn't like events has been thoroughly debunked—and side note by the way, this fully supports our persona strategy. Anyway, forget demographics, we need to focus more on attitudes, behaviors and motivations. There are a lot of millennials and especially Gen Zs, who indeed like personal contact. Yeah, they're going to have the phone with them—so you learn how to leverage that tool—but they still like to be together. They're not robots. And then you can design an experience that speaks to their sensibilities, which are far more around purpose-laden experiences than they are about events. Then you'll really hit the sweet spot. So when you think about experience design as a way to salvage event attendance with younger generations, it's spot-on. That's exactly what they're looking for. They want experiences, not things.

Tim: Preach on Dan! I love how in our Design Studies, something almost always happens: it gets brought up by clients that “these millennials” are changing the game. And it's like, well, okay, let's talk about “these millennials” for a minute. If we look at them from a segment-based perspective, one of the things that always comes out of that as an aha moment is when they are faced with the realization that values transcend generation. When you're talking about creating meaningful experiences, a lot of that can be very values-based. And I can share the same value with someone who's 20 or 60 or anybody in between. When you approach design from the whole person, and you approach it from a values-based perspective, you can transcend the generations.

Greg: I agree that there's this underlying thing that is way more important than demographics and generations. And it kind of connects back to purpose and values. That's what's important to people now: You know, whatever is important to me is what's most important.

Bianca: So then maybe experience design provides the avenue for moving out of reactivity into receptiveness and into community-building. Successful events forge strong communities, and they are doing it—and unlocking that very thing, Greg! Sounds like a mega-trend for 2020.

2019 showed signs of growing pressure to change.

Greg: I think that there's an underlying trend in people's minds that they need to transform. It's no longer, “If you build it, they will come.” There's this this pent-up underlying knowledge that “I’ve got to do something different.” The facts are simple—old models aren’t working.

People are looking for greater insights. They're looking for information and insights to help them be more effective.

Dan: That's really what people want, especially in the professional context. When you think about an association, more and more guests are there to get better, not just to collect their continuing education credits. They're there to not only be a better professional, but a better person entirely. So especially for the association space—but also for any user conference or trade show—the current reality is that if you are not delivering thoughtfully curated event experiences, you are behind the time. 2020 will be a make or break year for many when we look back five years standing in 2025.

This year people made the distinction between an event and an experience.

Greg: I love that Dan drew a very clear distinction between event and experience, and I think that is a really interesting thing. You know, the assumption in our industry is an event equals experience. It doesn't!

This has been one of the challenges I present to the industry in my speaking engagements: that experiences have become this ideal—"status symbols” that we collect and curate. As an industry, if we're doing that—if that is really true—it's those experiences that bring about individual and personal transformation for the audiences we serve.

So the challenge to the industry is how do we help guide transformation? I believe Gilmore and Pine were killing it when they said that when you customize an experience, you guide transformation. To me, that's where we're heading.

Bianca: I agree. People have a general understanding of Gilmore and Pine’s “experience economy,” whether they know it or not, and as a result are savvier about the choices they make. And I would even say there are just more events in the marketplace, so there's more access and opportunity to collect more experiences. Looking from the lens of all the different roles that you play in life, there's an event for every interest you have, or every tribe you belong to. So, the challenge is how do event professionals ensure that their events fit this reality? It comes back to creating a clear connection to shared purpose and providing the avenues which enable that transformation.

Experience design became more collaborative and transformative.

Bianca: The cherry on top of the work we do is actually seeing the realization of entire teams or groups of people leave an event altered, changed or transformed in some way. I think it is high time for event professionals to recognize that their own purpose is far beyond just designing a physical space or ensuring all the logistics for an event are handled. We're here to design the experience and the journey. I think that's what I value most about the work we do: that we enable event professionals and their teams to take on more strategic roles in their organizations while delivering high-quality strategy and design.

Case in point, through work we did to provide strategic direction on theming and messaging, we enabled one client to completely transform how they interacted with and leveraged existing partners who drove the actual experiential delivery of the event. The two partners that were responsible for designing the physical space for the event are still talking about how the strategy work transformed the relationship and how the strategy we delivered drove every decision they made for the physical environment. The future is definitely being built on better strategy.

 Tim: YES! One of my most favorite things about my job is that very thing, Bianca. One of the surprising benefits I’ve seen over the last year-plus is how organizational silos get broken down and teams work better together as a result of the event leader in the organization bringing us in to change the dynamic. In fact, where we see this most is with marketing teams and the events team, or the content team with the events team with the marketing team—and all the other iterations. The internal transformation is a happy byproduct—and also a necessity—of investing  in strategy and design.

Greg: If we're in the events industry, the hospitality industry, our true job, if we really want to go back to our clear purpose—our higher, deeper purpose—is to help guide people to transformation. By creating and helping them have richer experiences, that will be the catalyst that will help them to transform into a better self. That truly excites and inspires me!

Incentives present a prime opportunity for repurposing.

Greg: I think the intention of an incentive program is to engage as much of the organization as possible. When they become top performer recognition programs, you're really only engaging the top 10 percent because nobody has a chance to win or earn—except for those that are in the very, very top tiers.

So the idea is, how do you create a program that engages more of your organization, whether that be your sales organization or your distributor network or whatever. It's the idea of using more effective design to engage a broader or a bigger percentage of your audience. A lot of organizations become very comfortable with a recognition program versus intentional design to drive new behaviors in the organization.

I think people are beginning to recognize that, and they're going to look to deploy better strategy and design to engage a larger percentage of their audience or a bigger portion of their organization.

It kind of goes along with this whole idea that Tim and I talked about recently, that experience for the sake of experience is dying.

Tim: Thinking about the totality of the program, that's where organizations often miss a big opportunity to unlock and leverage the most strategic value from their investment. By focusing too much on making the onsite experience rich, organizations can miss their chance to really drive home the kinds of behaviors and the kind of culture that help them win in the marketplace.

Greg: Exactly! In 2020, we are going to do more to challenge the status-quo of incentive program design. Incentives account for a huge part of our overall industry, and organizations are spending big dollars on these programs. They have the opportunity to touch people more deeply while doing good for their shareholders, employees, and ultimately their consumers.

In case you missed it, time compressed in 2019.

Bianca: As an experience designer, I have a theory that time started to move faster in 2019. My simple example of this is how email no longer moves fast enough for people. What was once the most efficient form of communication is now an annoyance.

The frequency with which things move has gone into hyperdrive. This is playing out in our engagements with clients. Seeing the frequency by which we're getting design engagements and what we're being asked to provide…it seems that we're almost always told by the time we get started doing the work that it’s too late in the event cycle to make changes.

Tim: My favorite example of that is a recent project we worked on, Bianca. When we were brought in, we were told by the team that they really should have brought us in 3-4 months sooner. And you’re so right about organizations and events teams moving fast. And I think you point to something that must start to become a norm from 2020 onward: events teams need to hit pause on planning the logistics and content, and start leading first with event design and experience strategy. From there, the ability to align an event with what the market wants becomes obvious and all of the planning and execution flows seamlessly.

Annual sprints are giving way to multi-year event strategies.

Greg: One of the smartest things I've heard anybody say in an event was, “We need to do the extending work while we're planning the event, because when the event is over, we don't have time for it.”

I really like this idea of beginning to take a longer view. I mean, if you're transforming from just the planning to something more, you need to take a longer view; it's not just the fiscal year cycle.

Bianca: Yeah, I'm starting to see the tip of it on the planner level. That’s what organizations are asking for, and then that's where we have to solve this problem for our clients. This next year, we will be looking down the pipeline at what we're going to be doing to move the needle for all our clients in this regard because that’s what we are being asked to do: “Hey, help me release myself from the fiscal-year cycle over and over and over again so I can be more strategic.”

It’s a helix; it's an ongoing creation. It’s really going to be hard to get rid of our cycle we're so used to as planners—you know, of going really hard, celebrating, then being done, and then going really hard again.

Tim: I think this is happening especially with the organizations who are investing in event design and experience strategy. I’ve seen it multiple times this year—organizations being surprised by the richness and depth of insight we unlock via our collaboration. They come to the realization that what they thought would be some simple fixes are actually going to require a three-year plan to make the kind of meaningful change needed. I believe that we will see this emerge more often in 2020.

Event design is becoming a humanizing force in the world.

Bianca: As a volunteer for PCMA, every year, I participate in the judging for the new “20 in their Twenties” class. Something I’m noticing, generally speaking, is the youth of our industry saying they want a sustainable world and a society for future generations to come. In describing the role of the events industry on society, their ideal is a better world, a peaceful society, opportunities for income that are outside of government and opportunities for creating a sustainable future.

I think this really demonstrates that what we do is outside of any generational divide. In this context, we're talking about 2040 when we see the output of guiding transformation through experience design.

Tim: So, it's no longer, “I want to be the best event planner in the world.” Nobody is really saying that anymore.

Greg: They aren’t. In the end, I don’t think people are into just coming and getting their badge. I think they're really interested in coming and being personally enriched. So, it's much broader than just “where I am in my industry.” It's become “where I am in my life.” And that leads me to the question: When will organizations adopt the responsibility to help somebody become a better person? You know, that's a really interesting question. Is it their job or not? And I think that’s what we're seeing.

I love the work of Mark Bonchek. He says there are three layers of brands. Brands that do something to you. Brands that do something for you. And brands that do something with you. It's the brands that do something with you that seem to be resonating in our culture today. This whole idea of organizations that begin to own the responsibility of creating better humans—it seems like that’s resonating. So, how about that for 2020!

Tim: AMEN!

What are your hopes and dreams for 2020 and beyond?

If they include harnessing the power of purpose in your experience design, creating deeper connections with guests or developing a more sustainable long-term view for your events, we can help. Set up your free, 30-minute consultation here.