Re-think Your Format

Two hundred twenty degrees in Phoenix may not sound cool, but the folks who attended The PhoCusWright Executive Conference found plenty to rave about after two days in the Southwest this past fall. In this case, 220 degrees was the seating spread at Pointe South Mountain Resort, site of panel discussions and presentations by leaders in the online travel industry.

The traditional format of auditoriums, exhibitor booths, and workshop rooms is “tired,” says Philip C. Wolf, president and CEO of PhoCusWright Inc., who designed an unusual, open layout for the event. While organizers scaled back to 220 degrees their original idea for a full-circle, theater-in-the-round seating plan, they didn't cut back on other technical and design innovations.

Among the show's technical perks was instant identification of participating audience members. When a participant had a question, the moderator whispered into a headset the identification number on the attendee's badge. A technician on the other end fed the number into a database. In seconds, the attendee's name, title, and company appeared on the video screens above the stage, along with a live feed of the participant's face.

Live video of the goings-on in the theater was fed to all points in the conference. Adjacent to the theater, sponsors set up shop in theme “parks” such as a 1950s soda parlor, a fruit market, and a coffee shop. With no walls to separate them, the theater audience could peek at the displays; pavilion browsers, meanwhile, could keep up with the presentations by watching one of several large monitors.

“Our approach was to fully appreciate and exploit things that are unique to live audiences. Everyone knew what was happening at all times,” says Wolf. Some 830 people, from airline and travel agency executives to firms that supply the industry, attended the conference. Sherman, Conn.-based PhoCusWright researches online travel and hosts conferences on the theme.