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A Night to Remember
Today’s business community expects more from the meetings and events it attends, with immersive, hands-on experiences at the top of the wish list.

by Matt Cosentino

Christina Renna will be the first to admit that she’s not the type to grab a microphone and show off her singing voice in front of a room full of strangers. Which begs the question: Why has she regularly found herself inside a South Jersey karaoke bar over the past year?

The answer lies within the creative ways that business organizations and event planners are responding to the demands of their audiences for more immersive, experiential gatherings as opposed to the traditional meetings of the past. While it used to be standard, and perfectly acceptable, to include some kind of buffet spread and a guest speaker for an informational event, or to head to a local bar/restaurant for a networking happy hour, today’s business community expects more, whether it’s a chance to build meaningful connections, to engage in a multisensory experience steeped in technology or to participate in fun, relationship-building activities.

As the president and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce Southern New Jersey (CCSNJ), Renna is responsible for hosting a wide range of events throughout the year, and she is well aware of a trend she believes has been influenced by several factors.

“We were in a normal networking space pre-COVID where general get-togethers and business card exchanges were still generally acceptable,” she says. “Then obviously the pandemic happened and it changed how we network totally. When we got back to in-person networking, people were definitely more tentative to gather and spend time in close quarters. The business card exchange kind of went away—there was a desire to do it but a fearfulness.

“Now that the fearfulness has pretty much subsided, you’re seeing almost the other extreme happen where people want not just networking, but they want to build relationships in fun and creative ways. So they want their networking to be substantive and bring out good connections, but also be like an experience for them.”

The CCSNJ has responded to that need thanks to the wealth of unique opportunities right in its own backyard.

“What we are seeing is a desire for events to be interactive, for folks to be hands on, for folks not just to be talked at or talked to, but for conversations to occur,” Renna says. “And if conversations can occur in creative locations or in creative ways or with fun activities or experiences, then even better.

“For example, at our chamber we do a happy hour at Songbird Karaoke in Collingswood. … That is something that a decade ago we would have never done at the chamber, but people love it because they want to have fun and find ways to have a more human personal connection with people. … It’s up to the business organization to think creatively about what their members’ needs are and how to fulfill those needs, whether it be going to a sporting event, whether it be identifying unique venues like a karaoke bar or Topgolf or the fossil park at Rowan and doing a networking dig. These are all kinds of experiences that people are really gravitating toward.”

Kristi Howell, the president/CEO of the Burlington County Regional Chamber of Commerce, has witnessed the same developments. She believes in part it’s because people became more accustomed to being home during the pandemic and need to be motivated to leave the house, and also because organizations like hers are facing competition from multiple businesses partnering up to host their own memorable events.

“Without a doubt, people want experiential and they also want social,” she says. “We’re seeing both—they don’t just want to go to a conference room anymore and have hors d’oeuvres or have a light breakfast and kind of grip and grin. They want more.

“People want to have fun if they’re going to be out after hours. They want to go axe throwing, or they want to go to some of those things that were reserved for young professionals in the past, like a wine tasting. Our women’s group is talking about putting together a hands-on self-defense class that will be followed by networking. We want to do something that’s fun and interesting that we maybe wouldn’t do on our own. We get to network and do everything else in the meantime.”

Of course, these types of experiences come with an added cost, and even hosting an event at a restaurant or hotel has become more expensive because, as Renna and Howell both note, the hospitality industry was severely impacted by COVID and is now dealing with the effects of inflation and labor shortages. Hosting on a weeknight when the establishment may not have its event spaces booked anyway can help, and Howell also points out that utilizing her organization’s own membership is mutually beneficial.

For example, the BCRCC’s upcoming Emerging Leaders Trivia Night will be held at Trenton Thunder Ballpark, home of a minor-league baseball organization, on an off-day for the team.

“It gives the Thunder, who’s a member, a chance to tell people about the affordability of coming to games, renting suites and how you can entertain clients there,” Howell says. “I think sometimes if people don’t see it, they think it’s out of their reach or something they don’t want to get involved in. But if organizations like ours can provide that exposure, then people will see how easy and affordable it is, and people will think differently about it.”

MPI—Meeting Professionals International—is a global organization that strives to advance the meeting and event industry through education, support and bringing leaders together. The New Jersey chapter is in an interesting position because it includes people from both sides of the aisle, such as Lindsay Plath, CMP, an education and events manager at AMR Management Services who acts as its director of education, and Michael Hochman, who is the property sales manager at Caesar’s Entertainment in Atlantic City and serves as MPI New Jersey’s vice president of education.

Both Plath and Hochman were heavily involved in the chapter’s 2024 MEETS Conference, its signature education event held recently in Atlantic City. It was attended by 150 people, with about half coming from the events industry and the other being those who serve that population.

Plath finds that adults don’t learn by being lectured to, which is why they wanted to think outside the box when bringing in speakers. Take the man who opened the conference, who calls himself “The Party Scientist” and got things started with music and a giant conga line, setting the tone for what turned out to be an energetic two days.

“Everyone I’ve spoken to really enjoyed it,” Plath says. “Most people I talked to signed up to attend because of the speaker lineup. I think folks were blown away by the format and the level of education, and the innovation that we presented. … I’m used to being at conferences and looking out at the audience and seeing a lot of people looking down at their phones or catching up on emails. It gives me chills thinking about it, because the majority of people were actively engaged, looking at the stage and talking with one another. I think that’s a testament to the level of content we brought in.”

The MPI team set up a wellness room where people could decompress when needed in a spa-like atmosphere with healthy snacks and drinks. Guests were also invited to come down a day early and enjoy tickets to a Cirque du Soleil-type show called The Hook, followed by dinner at Gordon Ramsay Hell’s Kitchen, both at Caesar’s, the host hotel, in order to break the ice before the conference.

As Hochman explains, the idea was to give attendees an experience that would leave a lasting impression, not just from MPI’s perspective but from the hotel’s as well.

“We’re always going to have hotel rooms and meeting space and restaurants to have these events, but … we are getting more and more requests to have different ways to do meetings, and we’re adapting to that,” he says. “We’re in Atlantic City, so it could be something outside on the beach or on the boardwalk, or just getting out of that traditional four-walled box that we’ve seen meetings happen in.”

Whether it’s at a major conference like this or just a local gathering, the point is to foster genuine connections to certain brands and, more importantly, to other attendees. The virtual meetings that came to the forefront out of necessity during the pandemic will still have their place going forward, especially for educational seminars, but it is clear that experiential events are here to stay, and can have a big impact.

“I have a longstanding member and she always says that she met her best client with chocolate on her face,” Howell shares. “We were doing a hands-on event with our women’s group for Valentine’s Day, and we were making cake pops and dipping chocolate-covered strawberries. She realized after the fact that she had chocolate on her face the whole time, but it was such a relaxing, casual environment and nobody was selling. Everybody was just being themselves and it allowed them to bond with each other on a different level, and then business came next. I think these experiential events give people the ability to really get to know someone.”

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Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Biz, Volume 14, Issue 3 (February 2024).

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