There were three huge events scheduled to happen simultaneously in Las Vegas last week. Rock behemoths The Rolling Stones were in town for a series of shows, the final televised presidential debate was due to happen at the University Of Nevada and IMEX America was taking place at Sands Expo. Each offered an intriguing insight into the fastidious planning, complex project management and innovative marketing techniques used to generate and engage event audiences.
The Stones are a great case study for implementing high quality production values, on a never-ending global tour, with core content that is (mainly) decades old. As it turns out, this gig would also be an exercise in crisis management when the concert was cancelled on the morning of the show. Mick had laryngitis, presumably – in a city where free Wi-Fi access is limited – from shouting at people to get off of his cloud.
The presidential debate emphasised the intense security – coordinated by multiple agencies – needed for a meeting of this stature. The Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Authority (LVCVA) partnered with the University Of Las Vegas and contributed $4 million to help pay for the debate’s associated costs. With the eyes of the world expected to be on Las Vegas during the debate, the LVCVA predicted it would generate upwards of $50 million in publicity and exposure for the area.
But it was IMEX America that I was here for. With 3,250 exhibits from 139 countries and 3,000 hosted attendees, the sixth instalment of this annual event was the biggest yet. More than 60,000 individual appointments and booth presentations were made and there were a further 10,000 attendances at group appointments. If you add into the mix keynote speeches, breakouts, campfire sessions, topic tables, a technology showcase and various CSR initiatives, it was clear from the start that it would be a busy-yet-valuable three days of education, entertainment and networking.
I kicked things off with an IAPCO/PCMA educational session on the use of beacon technology. Beacons can be deployed at conferences and congresses to engage participants so that organisers can better understand their behaviour and deliver a more customised experience. It is estimated that by 2018 there will be 4.5 million beacons permanently installed in the United States. These beacons vary in design and size, from a fist-sized, psychedelic nugget to a svelte, subtle credit card. The beacons themselves are extremely low tech. The challenge is creating an app or interface to create a meaningful, contextual use for them and ultimately gather usable participant data to help design and deliver unique experiences. An interesting question asked of the presenters was whether venues would follow the lead of retail and take it upon themselves to start installing permanent beacons in their meeting space. The pioneering ones are already working on it.
Afterwards, NH Hotels introduced me to their new interactive 3D meeting planner, a cool tool for conceptualising the layout and flow of an event. Using floorplans, furniture, fixtures and technical capabilities for their properties in Madrid, Seville, Berlin, Milan and Frankfurt, you can configure a room to your meeting or event specifications and then view it virtually. If that wasn’t cool enough, they also have holographic projectors installed in several properties should you wish to recreate the Death Star attack from Star Wars, host an Elvis concert, beam a virtual keynote speaker into your event or float a client logo in 3D.
With it being both a hot topic and a technology well suited to destination marketing, there were ample examples of virtual reality usage. What was clear is that this immersive tool shouldn’t be used just for the sake of it, and that each virtual experience needs to have a strong narrative or hook if it is to truly provide a return on the (usually large) investment in content development and requisite equipment to support the experience. The Visit Dubai booth had gone to great lengths to install a hanging chair (which is great for a fuller immersion into the virtual experience) but had overlooked audio, meaning their aerial journey over the Emirate wasn’t as impactful as it could’ve been. The Thailand Convention & Exhibition Bureau had a choose-your-own-adventure experience, with a gaze-activated menu and consistent narrative, which totally suited their diverse product. Visit Albuquerque usurped headsets altogether and housed their content in the type of metal 360° binoculars that you usually need to put 50p or a quarter in to see a particularly resplendent skyline.
The second day started early with an interesting proposition; a hearty breakfast and wholesome activity with the goal of ending hunger in our lifetime. Since 1998, Stop Hunger Now have dished up 225 million meals in 74 countries, providing food and life-changing aid to the world’s most vulnerable people. Meal-packaging events are at the heart of their work and see event attendees work in teams to turn a pile of bags, rice and other ingredients into a uniform set of sealed meals, packed in boxes and stacked on pallets ready to be distributed. Our output – which was enough to feed 15,000 people – was destined for Haiti and the Philippines. The exercise was a great way to educate volunteers about global hunger and inspired everyone to such an extent that we were still working away after the task had finished. Due to the complexities of working as a production line, weighing, sealing, scooping and packing, this team-building task can help with leadership development, creative problem-solving and goal-setting. It would be a great and easy addition to any conference looking for a CSR element.
I made appointments to see many of our global preferred partners throughout IMEX. Maintaining relationships with key contacts is imperative in delivering consistent events in common destinations and in many instances we have worked with the same people for several decades (such as Kipling in Greece, Cititravel in Spain and Vega in Portugal). As well as catching up to see how we can work smarter and better, it is always useful to get destination updates from knowledgeable locals. Not that the intelligence is always what I want to hear; unfortunately there are still no new four-star hotels planned for Lisbon, a city which desperately needs more venues to cater to the medical meetings market.
Other interesting things that caught my eyes (and ears) included Song Division (who can write a song about anything in five minutes; perfect for a closing plenary), MPI’s Paws For A Break session (where cute dogs were brought in to help alleviate the stress of event planning) and sumo wrestling (courtesy of Japan Convention Bureau). In general, all the booths seemed better thought-through than previous shows I have attended, with interactivity, personalisation and engagement high on everyone’s agenda.
Las Vegas is, famously, a city that is used to holding spectacular events full of razzle and dazzle and IMEX America didn’t disappoint. With 42.3m visitors annually and 150,000 hotel rooms, the desert city hosts 22,000 meetings and conventions every year. “Underlying that Las Vegas is a serious place to do business is something that we at the LVCVA has been working on for a number of years” says Cathy Tull. “Having this type of programme and destination just really underscores that messaging.”
Maybe we could all learn something from Las Vegas and IMEX America. Know your niche. Aim high. Be bold. Embrace less vagueness.