Kare Anderson: The research shows that there are sensory cues that can create perceptions that are largely unconscious to us. For example, if I hand you a warm cup of coffee, you would perceive me as more caring than if I hand you a cold cup of soda pop. One hotel client used a subtle scent of sunscreen throughout his facility to evoke a happy, “we’re on vacation” feeling among guests. The sense of smell is directly tied to emotions, but most planners don’t use it to their advantage.
Do a “sensory audit” of everything your attendees will be exposed to during the conference, so that you can plan sequences of memorable moments that involve smells, tastes, sounds, sights, and tactile experiences.
CMI: But do you need to engineer the sensory experience throughout an entire conference? That sounds difficult, if not impossible.
Anderson: Think of the meeting planner as a director, and the meeting is her movie. For the three most critical parts—the opening scene, the emotional climax, and the closing scene—it behooves the planner to think through the sensory experience.
The opening scene—when the attendee first arrives at the conference—usually involves walking through a lobby, waiting in line, and registering. It’s boring. What if something fun is happening while people are waiting, or greeters are there to introduce attendees to each other? There’s also something called “the rule of three”: If you evoke three emotions closely together, there’s a multiplier effect. So if attendees walk from a hard floor onto an island of soft carpeting, with natural light or full-spectrum lights that make everyone look better, and then they are warmly welcomed and perhaps given some small, easy-to-hold object, the emotions will be that much more powerful than any one of these experiences on its own.
The closing of the conference is equally important. For example, one conference I was involved with provided big bowls near the exit doors full of quotes from the conference written on beautiful paper. This small memento made a big difference. We measured a 15 percent better perception of the conference from those who got those messages on the way out the door than those who left through a door that didn’t have a bowl with the messages to take away.
As for the climax in the middle, remember that it may not be the session you’d expect. Explore what those moments are for your attendees, then design ways to enhance the sensory aspects of those experiences.
CMI: Are there any sensory inputs that planners should try to avoid?
Anderson: Hard surfaces and right angles make people think of their surroundings and what’s happening in them more negatively. Try to curve the rows in the ballroom so they aren’t a straight line. Use a banner to cut off the corner of a room to create more of a curve to the wall line.
CMI: Similarly, are there sensory cues that help create a better learning environment?
Anderson: Yes, and it’s the opposite of what you see in most hotels. Carpets with big, scattered, bright patterns; walls with big patterns; and low ambient noise from the heating and air-conditioning system all are jarring. Muted, textured carpet, especially if it’s darker than the walls, ground us. You can create islands of calm by overlaying the busy carpet with oval or bean-shaped islands of plain carpeting. Think about how much sensory noise is happening in the room, and how you can quiet it.
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