With greater emphasis on corporate events as marketing tools, it's critical to put on an event that stands out. To learn how, we consulted with James Gilmore, founder of Strategic Horizons, an Aurora, Ohio — based consulting company, and co-author of The Experience Economy. There are four elements to an engaging event, says Gilmore: entertainment, education, escapism, and aesthetics.

While it's essential to carve out a specific time for entertainment, it's also important to integrate entertainment throughout the event. “It could be moment to moment,” he says, something as simple as placing a plasma-screen TV near the registration line so people can watch while they wait.

As another example, Impact Unlimited, a Dayton, N.J. — based meeting management company, infused entertainment into a client conference by hiring an Austin Powers look-alike. “We brought Austin Powers in to be the foil to one of our people,” says Stephen Mapes, vice president of creative services at IU. “We always take the expected and give it a twist to make people pay attention.”

Unlike entertainment, which Gilmore calls “passive absorption,” education should be “active absorption.” Too often, he says, it's not active enough. A good educational experience should have attendees building, doing, interacting, and reaching outcomes that they can take home and use.

An event with an escapist quality transports attendees from one sense of reality to another. “They are so immersed in this event that they don't want to check their voice mail or e-mail or do the things they normally do,” says Gilmore. One way to do this is by creating a theme, but Gilmore warns that if it is not the organizing principle for every aspect of the meeting, it doesn't really work.

Aesthetics has to do with event design. “It should be a great place to hang out and network,” he says. Conferences should have more structured breaks and informal follow-up sessions where attendees can discuss what they just learned. Strategic Horizon's ThinkAbout U conference is a case in point, designed with 10-minute sessions followed by 60-minute breaks. “Sometimes, the best stuff at a conference is when you strike up a conversation in the hallway. That kind of interaction can be more systematically designed into the structure of the event.”