Maritz Travel Blog

6 Principles for Better Event Design


Greg Bogue, VP of Experience Design at Maritz, recently produced a webinar for the Event Manager’s Blog titled, “Architecting Your Event for Success – Better experience = Better Events.” A link to the webinar can be found here. I have seen first-hand how transformative experience design can be for our clients’ programs. So, I wanted to expand on Greg’s webinar and share 6 principles from the presentation that any event designer can use.

1. Perspective taking – Journey mapping the guest experience 

When talking about the attendee or guest experience, most event designers think about “before, during, and after the event.” That is a great starting point, but we like to get even more granular.  We have developed what we call the 8 Phases of the Guest Experience™. The concept behind journey mapping the guest experience is similar to the “customer journey” in marketing, but we apply like-minded principles to the “guest journey” throughout the life-cycle of a live event.

By mapping the guest experience, companies understand where the “emotional low points” are throughout their event life-cycle and determine how to improve them. For example: if your typical meeting room feels boring when guests walk in, we change the environment to be more engaging. Companies also identify the most memorable points of their events and determine how to amplify them. The goal of journey mapping the guest experience is learning how to surprise and delight guests at every step in their journey and keep them engaged with your brand.

Here is a quick 2-minute video about how experience design and journey mapping transformed one of our clients’ meetings.

2. Simplicity – Avoid “agenda fatigue” and design around a single concept of an “organizing principle”

Do your sessions feel like the color palates in a paint store? Are they all similar yet slightly different, making it hard for attendees to decide on the right ones?

Francis Ford Coppola, a famous filmmaker (Known for The Godfather), once gave some advice to new filmmakers: “Find the theme of your movie.”

With The Godfather many people thought that the theme of the movie was family. Coppola has said that while family is a critical element in telling the story, he was actually focused on telling a story of succession.

An “organizing principle” is not outward marketing theme, message, or tag line of an event. An “organizing principle” is one to two words that are laser-focused on the event or brand purpose. It is an internal message and is used as a filter or directional guide for making decisions.

For example, there are generally numerous stakeholders influencing and executing an event. What can happen is an overwhelming amount of input for how the event should be run or what content should be covered. The power of an internal guiding principle is the ability to filter out ideas that don’t align with the essence of your event or your company’s vision.

3. Leverage Storytelling – Scientifically proven to engage the brain

What happens in your brain when you tell someone a story vs. tell someone facts? It is very simple – more areas of the brain are engaged during story telling. Therefore, regardless of industry, you should try to tell stories instead of projecting facts and figures during meetings/events.

The art of storytelling is nothing new. Take a look at Gustav Freytag’s Dramatic Pyramid from the mid 1800’s – exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution – this is the way many Hollywood stories are still told today! When planning events think about the following ways to incorporate storytelling:

  • How are customer, employee, or channel partner success stories being told? Can these people tell their stories with you?
  • What personal stories can speakers/executives tell that people can relate to?
  • Are there any personal stories that relate to the values or culture of your organization?
  • What is the most valuable take-away of each meeting or breakout session? How can you tell a story about it?

4. Novelty – Take the brain to a place where it cannot predict the outcome

Unfortunately, this image is a weekly occurrence for some. Interrupt the ordinary! Employ surprise and interest! “Sameness” is the enemy of innovation and engagement.

Disrupting a “normal meeting environment” is one of the easiest ways to break people out of autopilot. For example, instead of having a hotel ballroom with stadium seating for a general session, what if you had lounge furniture close to the stage and communal tables towards the rear of the room? Suddenly, it becomes a different kind of meeting and fosters collaboration. Check out some additional meeting environment and design ideas here.

Interest is driven by curiosity, particularly when attendees or guests feel a gap in their knowledge, or tension to answer unresolved questions. Event designers can introduce random or unexpected program elements (challenges, polls and surveys, games, etc.) to elicit interest.

Ask yourself:

  • What are your attendees expecting from your event?
  • How can you disrupt “the norm” or deliver it in a different way?

5. Scarcity and Status – Employ strategically to drive behavior. Scarcity affects our value of perception

In 1975, in “The Cookie Study,” Scientists asked test groups to rate the value and attractiveness chocolate chip cookies:

They put 10 cookies in one jar and two of the same cookies in another jar. The cookies from the two-cookie jar received higher ratings—even though the cookies were exactly the same! Not only that, but if there were a lot of cookies in the jar, and then a short time later most of the cookies were gone, the cookies that were left received an even higher rating than cookies that were in a jar where the number of cookies didn’t change!”

So how can we use scarcity as a practical tool when designing events?

Regarding user conferences or customer events specifically, we’ve all seen the early bird special – Sign up by X date and get an amazing “discounted” price. But a majority of the early bird registrants usually wait until the day before the end of this promotion, so what is really being accomplished? Yes, you are driving behavior to register by a certain cut-off date, but are you increasing the total number of ticket sales?

What if we changed the promotion to a limited number of early bird tickets/passes and advertised Event designers can also offer additional access to attendees (to special sessions, to meet speakers/executives, up front seating for a keynote etc), or additional status to drive behavior. Why is status important? The pursuit of status changes behavior.

Think about airline frequent flyer programs. People will literally take extra flight segments on a trip instead of direct flights (even though it takes more time and is less convenient) because of their pursuit of airline status. Frequent flyers are loyal to their airline of choice because they get rewarded and recognized for their status.

So how can we use status when designing events?

If we can provide some unique level of status for guests at events (if they are a returning attendee, if they have been a customer for several years, or if they have achieved a certain level of professional success) reward options include:

  • Public or private recognition and acknowledgment (from the company, executives, or peers)
  • Consider using progressive tiers instead of a single level of high-status qualification.
  • Use symbolic rewards and limited access experiences that convey special meaning and are exclusive offerings of each tier
  • Link status tiers to tangible rewards and special privileges
  • Provide special access to respected leaders and influencers (and/or keynote speakers)
  • Consider expanded responsibilities based on status attainment: mentors, teachers, leadership advisors, brand ambassadors, etc.

6. Experience & Memory – Challenging how we exist

In his book, Two Selves, Princeton professor, Daniel Kahneman explains that we each have an “experiencing self” and a “remembering self.” Essentially he says that how we remember things is much different than how they actually happen. For those of you interested in psychology, you can view his TED talk on this topic here. But to sum it up:

The “Experiencing Self”

  • Lives life continuously
  • Is psychologically present (constantly creating 3-second “movies” of what is happening to and around us)
  • But we have no real voice in decision making about what we are experiencing

Whereas the “Remembering Self” or your memory allows you to:

  • Be the Story Teller (we turn our experiences into stories)
  • Not be affected by time
  • Be the decision maker

What are the three things we can take from this to create better memories at our events:

  1. Create a variety of experiences – Variety does not mean a multitude of sessions. Variety in this sense relates to physical experiences within an event.
  2. Stage Significant moments – Understand what are the most significant moments of your event and amplify them.
  3. The Ending – For the Seinfeld fans out there, Geoge Costanza once said, “always end on a high note,” because that’s what gets remembered. Humans have a bias for intense moments of brief joy, especially at the end!


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