Designing Connections: 7 Ways to Drive Engagement at Events & Conventions

By Nicole O’Leary, Vice President, Creative, The Expo Group

Written for Facilities & Destinations Magazine

Audiences expect to be engaged by their event experiences, and thinking tactically is not going to help an organization exceed expectations. Aim to be strategic in creating events and conventions that compel attendees to transform their work, improve themselves and crave the next one by using design thinking. Designers are used to questioning the status quo and can help your teams rethink the event or convention experience from start to finish. Designers are well-versed in how to incorporate technology, how to stay on budget and the generational needs of your attendees. Design thinking encourages everyone to think about the human beings and how each element of an event will impact their individual and group experiences.

From the start, bring event designers and design thinking into your team, but everyone should be paying attention to these 7 Ways to Drive Engagement.


  1. Plan for One – Looking at your audience as 1 and not as 1,000 or 10,000 or even by segment allows the team to create an experience for human beings. Once you see your audience as real human people, think about what they need. Provide opportunities where you help break down the barriers between attendee and exhibitor, for example. Consider creating a space to align first-time attendees with long-time exhibitors.
  2. The Unexpected – People are fascinated with discovery and simple, positive surprises – particularly when they earn them. Infuse paths or mechanisms into the event that draw them into a mystery they need to uncover. Don’t spoon feed. Imagine if attendees were challenged to find a lost lecture, or a VIP speaker hidden away.
  3. Entertainment Matters – A simple fact iscreating a fun atmosphere that mimics where and how people seek entertainment is an entrenched concept for business events – Think live music, colored lightning, motion, digital displays. When people have fun together they mirror behaviors, leading to stronger connections.
  4. Be “Insta”worthy – When it comes to physical design, bringing in authentic details, unique vignettes and natural elements is key to creating environments in which people not only thrive but also gives them a reason to share their live experience with their vast social network. This drives their own connectivity up and grants you access to their community of followers.
  5. Casual Interactions — When attendees interact with people multiple times in smaller settings it leads to more meaningful and longer-lasting relationships. Plus, with the human aversion to the hard sell, business conversations increasingly are happening in more casual atmospheres. Sprinkle smaller lounge areas and small group activities throughout your event.
  6. Show Purpose — Engagement areas that have the why infused in them, a reason to give back or a common bigger problem to solve for helps people come together in small-group discussions and also as a larger community. Humans need to be part of something bigger than themselves.
  7. Less is More — Edit the event. From education sessions to printed signage to networking opportunities, do fewer things really well to drive up quality experiences. When you are designing a series of experiences for human beings, it’s easy to overwhelm, so stick to what really matters.

Events and conventions are in a state of change, and it can be hard to keep up, but the only wrong decision is to stagnate. Challenge the design thinking on your team and with your vendor partners. Beta test a few things and let go of a few things at every event. About 20 percent to 30 percent of the elements within the overall experience should be in beta each time around.

Measurement is critical to understand what types of engagement is working. Collect quantitative and qualitative data that will build event after event, year after year, to support new experiences and ideas that deserve resources to grow and to identify ones that didn’t work.

Always think, if you were describing your event to a friend or family member over coffee or a glass of wine, would it be something you would say “Oh my, you had to be there!”? Design your event to be a must-attend experience!


Table Topics – It’s not natural for younger audiences to start up a conversation – think about ways to group people by what they may be interested in personally and provide pre-set topic tables that give them a reason to start connecting.

Food Alleys – Millenials spend 30% of their income on food – it’s important! Consider how this is reflected in the F&B budget. Healthy options are way past trendy and now mandatory. Try an international food tasting, and think about heading outside the walls to gourmet food trucks.

Movie Night – Repurpose all that AV! After a general session could you transform to casual seating, wheel in the popcorn and watch a popular movie? Or try a series of cult movies that get to the heart of your attendees’ personal preferences.

Challenge Them– People crave adventure and competition. When you bring people together to solve a common challenge whether it be a Guinness Book of World Records attempt or a simple step challenge. Memories are built with joint activities.

Nicole O’Leary, Vice President, Creative, leads Experience Design at The Expo Group, overseeing creative and strategic teams to deliver unique, compelling and memorable experiences that attract, engage, immerse and reward. Nicole has led experience design and creative efforts for large associations, corporate events and global brands in her 15-year career. She believes focusing on attendee-journey-centric design means creating physical, emotional and learning environments that ensure a complete immersion of client’s audiences in their brands, for all generations and all budgets. In addition to her leadership role at The Expo Group, Nicole loves sailing in Buzzard’s Bay off Cape Cod and snowboarding with her family.

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