Event Design: How Do You Surprise Attendees Who Have Seen It All?

ITA Group
ITA Group
aerial acrobat serving drinks at an experiential event

Courtesy of Event Photography of North America Corporation

The WOW-factor. The magic. That special something.

Call it what you want, designing an incredibly engaging event experience is the result of careful planning plus that x-factor we can’t often explain.

So let’s try to explain it.

Exceed Event Expectations Through Careful Design

The difference between a great event and something that endures year-round, something that takes the industry by storm, something the Twittersphere gobbles up faster than a new meme comes down to the planning.

According to Martijn Timmermans, “Events that incorporate event design into their planning process can create deeper, long-lasting relationships with their attendees.”

Make it a priority to get to know your attendees. Pre- and post-event surveys can provide valuable insight, and attendee data from years past is paramount.  

When you make your event attendee-focused and understand what they want or need from the event, you can design an experience that exceeds their expectations.

Look Where It’s Been to Know Where to Take It Next

Event design starts with learning more about the event as well as the audience an event strives to engage. For example, PCMA Convening Leaders is a conference for event industry professionals. This year’s host city was San Francisco. Convening Leaders draws approximately 5,000 attendees—a demographic that is 80% women with an average age of 30–55—with a nearly even split between event planners and industry suppliers.

These folks have seen and done it all. So how do you still excite them?

(Challenge accepted.)

Check & Recheck—Details Are Everything

When designing an event like this, you have to pay attention to every detail. PCMA Convening Leaders is an event for event people—so you can bet they’re looking at anything and everything the typical attendee may look past. Around every corner needed to be another element this group would be focusing on such as interactive activations, compelling graphics and entertainment, and other creative elements that help transform attendees into active participants. Every aspect of an event space needs something interesting to draw attendees in.

Eye-catching visuals are a great way to disrupt their preconceived event plans. Opt for varying shapes, sizes and heights that instinctively lead your eyes around the space. Attendees will feel as though they might miss out on something if they don’t stop and slow down to survey the room. Or, at the very least, make them pause a moment and think, ”Woah—let me get something to drink, then I’m going to figure this place out.”

Leave Room for Spontaneous Moments of Magic

Pop-up experiences are a must for events to truly leave a lasting impression. Knowing the folks at PCMA Convening Leaders are all in the event industry, it was important to add moments of planned spontaneity.

What if you were able to add in a seemingly random experience no one knew about? If you’re in that space at the right time you get to experience it—if not, better luck next time. Like a drumline that storms through a neighborhood. Or a dancing 40-foot LED dragon. Attendees in other neighborhoods don’t get to experience it, so these moments become an instant impromptu VIP moment. Those who experienced it can’t stop talking about it. As a word-of-mouth subject throughout the night, you’d hear people asking, “Did you see …?” “OMG no! 😭 I missed it!”

san francisco lesbian/gay freedom band at PCMA event

Courtesy of Event Photography of North America Corporation

You also can facilitate attendees becoming part of the experience. Rather than have a show or performance on a stage in the distance, bring the entertainment amongst the people. Instead of just watching something, the attendees become part of the experience.

event staff carrying Chinese dragon

Courtesy of Event Photography of North America Corporation

Align Your Entire Event Team (Staff, Contractors, Entertainment and Everyone In Between)

Kindness and enthusiasm go a long way. Anything less can leave a sour taste with your attendees. That’s why it’s so important to make sure everyone is aligned with your event goal. All the service, all the acts, all the talent, all the entertainment should be aligned behind the event’s goals and attendees’ needs. Like anything that requires teamwork, communication (and over communication) is needed to ensure that every offering and activation is planned and executed efficiently by your team members. It may seem like a small thing but a polite and passionate team has a huge impact on the attendee experience.

Utilize Locality in Immersive Ways

Knowing San Francisco is an incredible hub of diversity, culture, food and lifestyles, it was important to amplify everything that makes the city unique and wonderful. The goal was to give an authentic taste of what it’s like to live here versus just coming and doing touristy things. Cable cars, the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz—attendees are likely going to make time for these experiences when they come to this city anyway. Instead, what if you show the city the way an old friend from college who lives there might when you come to stay with them?

Urban hiking is one of the best ways to explore San Francisco, which is why our friends at Hartmann Studios designed the "SF Urban Hike" for this year’s welcome reception. No matter where you set out from, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to find amazing eateries, spontaneous street performers, large art sculptures, loud pops of color and breathtaking views of the Bay.

Finally, Create an Event Space You Have to See to Believe

Are San Francisco’s diverse neighborhoods that visitors to the city don’t often get to experience being showcased? That was the question Nicholas Hixon, environmental designer at Hartmann Studios, set out to address when recreating The Waterfront, SOMA (South of Market), The Castro, Chinatown, Wine Country, The Mission and The Haight neighborhoods on Pier 48 in the Bay.

Each neighborhood had its own look and feel with its own decor, florals, greenery specific to that part of the city, local food, lighting and talent. The whole atmosphere changed as you walked into each neighborhood. Keep reading to learn more about each neighborhood.

The Waterfront

aerial acrobat pouring champagne

Courtesy of Event Photography of North America Corporation

In the Waterfront, the idea was to have attendees relax and have one of the best pairings of champagne and locally sourced oysters—a staple of San Francisco.

“We designed the space as a three-sided champagne bar, plus a raw oyster bar,” Hixon said. “To make it more intriguing, we had a champagne aerialist performing who attendees could walk under and she’d pour you champagne. The juxtaposition between the ethereal performances against the industrial warehouse backdrop was very eye-catching and turned out to be a big draw for attendees.”

SOMA (South of Market)

event attendees enjoying SOMA-themed area

Courtesy of Event Photography of North America Corporation

The idea was to create a space that incorporated more masculine aesthetics but was still welcoming to everyone. Since the pier being used is actually owned by the San Francisco Giants this was a natural space where their name could have recognition.

“We had a huge sports bar serving elevated bar food (e.g., tater tots bar) and filled with tons of different lounges featuring tufted leather furniture with cowhide rugs. Everything was wood with metal industrial elements to bring out that masculine edge,” Hixon said. “Instead of draping, we leaned in to all the industrialism that was already in the space and kept it very raw.”

The Castro

event attendees enjoying castro-themed area at PCMA

Courtesy of Event Photography of North America Corporation

“A space fit for a queen. A real queen. A Drag Queen. From where it was located on the pier, it would have the highest foot traffic. With this in mind, we created an eight-sided bar surrounded by queen-style throne lounges. Everything was over the top; glitz and glam; white, chrome, modern; the San Francisco LGBTQ Freedom Band had an impromptu parade. In a word, fabulous,” said Hixon.

Glowing marquee letters that spelled out PRIDE were placed in front of the stage, which featured performances from DJ Zita and Lady Valentine. The PRIDE letters were in the order of the rainbow, with each color’s specific meaning explained. At first, people saw them as fun themed decor. But as the night went on you’d see more and more people on their phones actually looking into the history behind the display.


lanterns lining the ceiling at Chinatown-themed area at PCMA experiential event

Courtesy of Event Photography of North America Corporation

“Something you notice when walking in Chinatown are the lanterns that hang above the streets,” Hixon said. “To capture that feeling we put red lanterns around the perimeter of the neighborhood, rather than just above different lounge areas, so when attendees walked underneath them it was like walking in Chinatown on Grant Avenue.”

Featuring oversized ottomans, the idea was to keep the furniture low to the ground as an homage to traditional Chinese tea ceremonies. The space also allowed attendees to sit in many different configurations as they networked. Numerology readings as well as VR and photo experiences on hand in the neighborhood; plus, all the dim sum you could eat.

The Valley

event attendees experience experiential event design elements

Courtesy of Event Photography of North America Corporation

The Valley was a connection space between the two areas where the neighborhoods were housed.

“Set up like a small-scale Golden Gate Park—including 20-foot tall baby sequoia trees—we utilized a huge tent with a clear roof so you could still see the city and the stars above you and feel the wind and the elements around you as you walked through,” Hixon said.

“This area was designed to just be a pass-through; a walk amongst nature with the high-contrast industrialism that surrounds the Bay. We were excited for you to feel that moment then run back to the party, because you go to the real Golden Gate Park to relax. You go there to be one with nature and connect. But it’s a brief moment—just like this space.”

The Mission

event attendees participating in an interactive event activation

Courtesy of Event Photography of North America Corporation

When you think about The Mission, high culture and sprawling artistic neighborhoods come to mind. There’s so much Spanish heritage and an almost endless stream of giant storytelling murals. It’s also home of some of the most amazing food, most notably pupusas and nachos.

event attendee signing graffiti wall

Courtesy of Event Photography of North America Corporation

When guests first walked in they were greeted by one of our sponsors, Palette, a local restaurant that had a custom fabricated mural done in graffiti style showcasing San Francisco Bay’s three bridges. There were also paint pens, which attendees could use to add to the mural: draw, sign their name, write a note. At the end of the event, the mural actually went into a gallery within the restaurant.

Wine Country

floor set up of wine country event theme

Courtesy of Event Photography of North America Corporation

“When you go to a winery and you do a wine tasting, they ask you, what do you smell? What do you taste? What are the aromatics? How do you feel when you drink this? How do the flavors dance on your tongue? We made sure that as guests went through the neighborhood experience, even the florals were aromatic with the same notes you would have in the wine you were drinking like figs, olives and rosemary. So it gave attendees a Napa Valley experience,” Hixon said.

“We did our own version of Wine Country with sponsors Napa, Monterrey and Sonoma. Each bar had four different wineries; there were a couple distilleries and one brewery—all local vintners from those specific areas. We definitely wanted to highlight local talent and sources. The stage in that space was designed to be calmer—though still pretty lively with live music from Jazz Mafia.”

The Haight

Event design example at PCMA Convening Leaders 2020

Courtesy of Event Photography of North America Corporation

The Haight was an homage to the original San Francisco hippie. Think of the type of person who might go up to a random downtrodden-looking person on the street and ask, ”Do you need a hug?“

Designed to be very intimate, the colors and tones were warm, with Marrakesh-style lantern accents. The lounge surrounding utilized shades of yellow, with a Disc Tree centerpiece (almost like an upside down martini glass), that you could sit underneath.

Attendees would sit on the chartreuse ottoman, 15 inches off the ground, with the tree’s giant discs coming down—it was hard pressed not to feel really warm and comfortable. True to form, the space was designed like it was hugging or embracing you.

Strategic Event Design Leaves Lasting Memories With Attendees

Understanding your audience and objectives, strategic planning, team alignment and the spontaneous all contribute to a successful event design that will exceed expectations. Highly successful events create memories that last for attendees. And by designing your event to keep attendees engaged, they’re more likely to retain knowledge and recall the experience positively. Need more ideas for your event design? Download our white paper and learn how hyper-personalized experiences drive results.

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