Smart Planning for Destination Events (Webinar Recap).

Get your passports and pencils ready, planners, because today, we’re diving into the globe-trotting world of destination event planning! 

Our recent webinar, Smart Planning for Destination Events, was hosted by our spectacular team and featured two experts in destination events. Valerie Bihet, the founder of VIBE Agency, has produced over 1,350 events around the world for clients such as Cartier, Barclays, and Dior. Heather Pilcher, the CEO and Executive Producer of Blue Spark Event Design has planned everything from corporate conferences to brand activations, designing a planning model that advances the customer service experience. 

Whether you’re a seasoned pro or a beginning planner, Heather and Valerie will set you up to become masters of destination events! 

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What are the first steps when organizing a destination event?

“Nowadays, it’s very important to know your audience, and to know, what are they attracted by?” — Valerie Bihet 

As Valerie so aptly put it, knowing your audience is the secret sauce to creating an unforgettable destination event. What type of location would interest them? While one group might enjoy a nature-based location with opportunities to hike, another may prefer staying in the city center surrounded by cafes, museums, and landmarks. 

Considering your audience’s interests will help you choose a destination that aligns with your event goals. Also, keep event trends in mind. Valerie gave the example of the show Yellowstone, which inspired many to host country-style events in the filming locations to offer attendees a unique experience. 

The flip side of this is how well you know the destination. Educate yourself to ensure it has everything you need, including public transport, restaurants, and other amenities. Compare your city’s resources to those you’d need to bring. For international events, you’ll need to ensure attendees have passports and visas. 

“You can’t tell what it smells like by looking at the pretty pictures.” — Heather Pilcher

This is why it’s essential to do a site visit before locking down your event destination. Walk the space, experiment with the layout possibilities, learn what AV resources are available, and, as Heather said, make sure it smells nice! 

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How do you create a comprehensive planning timeline?

“I would start with the major milestones and then fill in other detailed tasks.” — Heather Pilcher 

Assuming you have a year in advance to plan (which you won’t always), our guests recommend you start with big-ticket items like hotel contracts, catering, event registration due dates, etc. Once you have these set, backfill the rest of your calendar with other important tasks like event marketing milestones, team check-in meetings, etc. 

We loved their suggestion of using the previous year’s calendar as a starting point for your current destination event. Factor what you learned from that event and attendee feedback into your new schedule to refine planning efficiency and better meet attendee goals. 

Internal project lists are helpful tools for managing the complexities of event planning. Heather suggested Trello and Microsoft 365 as two apps she uses for project and team management. They have communication features that ensure everyone has what they need to complete their tasks effectively.

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What factors should you consider when selecting a venue?

“You need to adjust yourself to what they (clients) want, what is important for them, and this will help you choose your destination.” — Valerie Bihet 

Valerie provided a wonderful metaphor! Look at your event budget like an apple pie and consider what is most important for you to invest it in. If a hotel is critical for participants, you may have less money left over for activities; however, if a luxury hotel experience is more important for attendees, investing more of the “apple pie” into that makes sense. 

It’s about basing venue selection on attendee interests. While blue-collar event attendees may prefer a more casual experience, a high-profile event with luxury brands will have higher expectations for amenities placed on it. 

Venue selection factors 

  • Attendee interests 
  • Budget
  • Public transport (is it nearby?) 
  • Surrounding amenities 
  • A/V & WiFi resources 
  • Attendee numbers (is there enough space?) 

One strategy we discussed was choosing unique venues with strong brand recognition, such as Universal Studios or the House or Blues. These venues offer attendees a unique experience, allowing them free reign over a locale that is usually more restricted to public access. If you have the budget, this approach creates instant memorability. 

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What are the best cities to invest in? 

“We are looking for what’s new, what’s going on in the market?” — Valerie Bihet 

Every city has a unique flavor that infuses your destination event, creating the framework through which your attendees will experience it. Heather is an expert in planning destination events across the US and shared her top cities for event planning. 

Given her events’ high guest counts, she looks for locations with big-box hotels like Chicago, Orlando, Phoenix, and New York. She emphasized these cities’ numerous attractions, hotels, landmarks, and flight accommodations. 

However, New York does have travel complications—As Heather said, “It wasn’t built for massive buses.”—and Chicago has higher union fees than some second-tier cities. Orlando was built for conferences. Its large bus lanes make transporting attendees to the main venue and throughout the city easy. 

Portland, Oregon, is an excellent place for sustainable events. It has several green initiatives that align with your goals and spectacular natural areas that attendees can explore just outside the city. 

Denver and Nashville have become popular cities for destination events. Denver has a thriving art scene where you can find unique artists to do live paintings and other demonstrations. Nashville is known for its music scene. These second-tier cities have a unique charm and history that delight attendees but may not have the infrastructure. 

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How do you manage travel logistics for large groups?

“Communication is key for travel logistics, but nobody reads their emails, so be prepared to explain it anyway.” — Heather Pilcher

As prices increase and our budgets remain the same (with some exceptions), some clients choose not to organize and cover transportation. Uber and other apps allow attendees to manage their on-location travel easily and affordably. 

Managing flights for hundreds of attendees doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Valerie uses the app AllFly to book and manage multiple flights. She recommends working with a travel agency to alleviate some of the stress and ensure a seamless experience. Transportation apps offer driver scheduling with set pick-up times. Don’t forget to consider the Time Zone if you’re visiting a city outside your region. 

Travel app recommendations 

  • FlightAware 
  • AllFly 
  • Whatsapp (international communication) 
  • BusBank 

Add a travel coordinator to your event planning team whose focus is ensuring smooth, timely travel for large groups. Travel is the beginning of the event experience for attendees. When it’s stress-free and easy, your attendees begin the event happy. 

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How do you deal with unexpected travel delays? 

 “Stay calm. There is nothing you can do.” — Valerie Bihet 

Well, not nothing. No matter how hard you try, delays are an inevitable part of travel, but having contingency plans in place will minimize their impact. 

If guests are going to be late, provide an avenue through which they can communicate this. Knowing when they’re expected to arrive will allow you to devise plans to delight them upon arrival. They’re likely to feel frazzled, and a welcome committee—even if it’s just you—can replace that stress with charm. 

Even if guests arrive at 2 AM, meeting them at the hotel entrance with a drink and a welcoming smile will go a long way. This human-centric approach alleviates stress and creates a positive impression on attendees. 

This personal attention is doubly important with VIPs. Communicate ahead of time with their assistants so you can have cars ready. Organize transport early to book the best driver, then track their travel so you can greet them at the venue. Precheck them at the hotel so they don’t have to deal with long lines. Prep the room with a welcome basket and ensure it is spotless.

Assign a VIP producer to take care of them throughout the duration of the conference. Detailed attention makes an impression. 

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How do you create a compelling agenda for attendees? 

“You need to put yourself in their shoes. They will say, ‘What’s in it for me?’ this is how you build your agenda.” — Valerie Bihet 

Once you’ve found the perfect location, you must organize an agenda that leverages its unique elements to deliver a memorable experience. You’re removing people from their work lives for a day, sometimes more, so making that time valuable is essential. 

You may think this means packing your event agenda with activities. However, people’s attention spans don’t change when they visit a new location, so more activities doesn’t translate to more value. Think in blocks when building your schedule: information blocks, networking blocks, and relaxation blocks. 

“If your conference is annual, and you change cities every year, it can be a miss to not include at least one local attraction.” — Heather Pilcher 

Use your location to deliver unique, unforgettable experiences. Heather attended an event that brought guests down to the field at the AT&T stadium, with former and current players providing celebrity meet-ups. They hosted a “million-dollar kick” that invited one guest to kick a field goal for a million dollars (he missed it, but it was still fun!). 

Showcase the local culture and history with local-based entertainment, catering, tours and maybe even trinket-making activities. Design give-back opportunities that attendees can participate in, bonding over the shared pride of helping the local community

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We love our curious attendees! They delivered some wonderful questions that supercharged the conversation around destination event planning. Here are a few of those from the live event.

How do you successfully incorporate wifi/live-streamed elements?

Valerie and Heather emphasized the importance of landlines. While we’re all used to wireless internet connections, having a reliable landline connection at your venue will ensure a seamless, interruption-free experience for attendees. Ensure an experienced AV team is on hand to address any issues that may come up. 

When negotiating your venue contracts, try to get free WiFi or, if not free, negotiate a more manageable price. Carefully read the contracts, as some places offer free WiFi in hotel rooms but not in conference spaces. 

Is it better to host at a convention center or hotel? 

Your decision depends on your attendees. Certain clients will want the services a hotel provides that convention centers don’t. However, the guest count will also dictate your choice. Large events need the space offered by convention centers. 

How far in advance should you complete a site visit? 

Narrow down your options to one before conducting a site visit. These tours can cost between $3,000 and $5,000, so don’t visit a location unless you’re confident in its potential. You don’t have to complete the visit yourself, either choosing to delegate the task or achieving a site visit on your phone with help from the venue owner will give you a good sense of the space.

Additional Q&A.

The conversation continues! Our speakers address unanswered questions.

How do you effectively collaborate with local vendors and service providers?

Heather: Effective collaboration with local vendors and service providers is crucial. Since we frequently visit larger convention cities, we have established relationships with vendors in each location. However, when we need a service we haven’t contracted in a while, we conduct thorough research and reach out to industry colleagues for referrals. 

Utilizing Convention and Visitors Bureaus (CVBs), local chapters of ILEA or MPI, and contacting trusted local industry professionals or vendors are all excellent starting points. Sometimes the best vendors may not have the most polished websites, making them harder to find. By leveraging your resources and experience, you can ensure you provide the best services for your conference.

Valerie: You need to research the vendor and check their reputation. Ask colleagues for referrals, but then also see their online reviews and what people are saying about them. Reputation is everything in this industry so even after the referral, do your due diligence. 

Then when your contract is in place, you want to set up a regular call with the vendor for updates throughout the planning process the same way you would with any other stakeholders. This is how you start to build that relationship over time so the planning process and quality control is smooth. 

After the event, stay in touch with them every month or so to keep that relationship going until the next event. It takes time, but this is how relationships are made for long-term success in various destinations. 

How has the travel industry been changing in recent years?

Valerie: Technological Advancements: We use apps vs. physical items for plane tickets, mobile room keys at the hotel. It is all now in our phones, which leads into the additional benefit of advancement: sustainability. There is less waste from the paper boarding passes and key cards for hotels. We encourage our team and attendees to do this as well and reduce the carbon footprint of the event overall. 

By using an event app we can also push out notifications to our attendees to take polls and ask questions so we can personalize the experience more. This gets a much better response than emails to them have in the past because they don’t have to be directed to another page to vote or reply. It’s faster for them to do it in the app and we still get the info we need. 

International travel is still clawing its way back from the hold that COVID put on everything. Are we going international again? Yes. But it’s not like it was before and people are not coming from Europe to the US at the same rate they had been. 

More groups are sourcing tier 2 destinations like New Orleans, Austin, Palm Springs, Scottsdale. They are big cities but haven’t gotten as much traction as the top tier like Los Angeles, Chicago and New York. 

What are your must-haves for packing efficiently when traveling for an event? 

Heather: Packing efficiently for travel is essential. Recently, I’ve found that using packing cubes has significantly improved my packing process. These cubes help me organize my outfits for the week and condense my items to fit everything into a carry-on, which is a more efficient way to travel. Additionally, I always bring several pairs of shoes. When working onsite, it’s not uncommon to walk up to 15 miles a day while ensuring everything is running smoothly. Having different styles and levels of comfort provides much-needed relief for my feet throughout the week.

Lastly, it might sound trivial, but I always pack a dirty laundry bag. This simple addition keeps my used clothes separate, making it easy to toss the laundry bag back into my suitcase at the end of the event. These strategies help me stay organized and comfortable while on the go.

Valerie: First up is documents: Passport and identification are the basics, but when you travel for an event, you need to make sure you have your event itinerary and important business documents with you and accessible without internet access – whether that is printed or in a document on your phone. 

Tech: USB drive, laptop, phone, and chargers for each of them, plus an adaptor for multiple international destinations. As long as I have my tech, I can find a place anywhere to connect and run the business and communicate with my team and vendors. 

What are some of your favorite evening events to have at conferences?

Heather: Some of my favorite evening events to organize at conferences are the offsite events and the awards or final night celebration. Both of these events offer distinct experiences for the guests and can be incredibly exhilarating.

For the offsite event, we love to offer exclusive experiences that guests might not have access to on their own. These can include private theme park parties or unique food and wine experiences in culturally significant locations near the conference venue. There are countless options, but our goal is to incorporate the nuances of the local area into the event. If we can give guests something exciting to talk about when they return home, we know we’ve succeeded.

The onsite awards or final night celebration is an excellent way to wrap up the week. Often, this is the moment when the CEO hones in on the purpose of the meeting, thanks attendees for their time and attention, shares videos and photos highlighting the week’s activities, and celebrates how the company will move forward. We often include celebrity entertainment, which is always a hit, along with a delicious meal. By this point, guests have made new friends, networked extensively, and enjoyed their week, making them eager to end it on a high note. Creating a lasting impression during this final night is always the most rewarding part.

Valerie: There is always the standard gala dinner or cocktail party that is sure to be both expected and enjoyed. However, I like to try and add something more unique when I can. For instance, you can do a small dinner series where you group people by their interest or industry and break them to different restaurants for dinner. The shared interest/industry helps foster their communication.

Another way is to take advantage of the cultural elements to whatever city you are in like sending them to a Broadway show in New York, a venue with live country music in Nashville, a Cubs baseball game in Chicago, or hockey game in Denver, etc. If you are near water, dinner on a boat or yacht is always a big hit. 

How many sessions per hour is suitable to have at an event?

Heather: The number of sessions per hour at an event largely depends on the goals of the conference. It’s essential to consider whether there are specific topics your guests must learn or if there are mandatory sessions for departmental updates for the year. 

Various factors influence this decision, and understanding the conference’s objectives is key to determining the appropriate number of sessions per hour. By aligning the session schedule with the conference goals, you can ensure a productive and engaging experience for all attendees.

Valerie: If it’s virtual or hybrid event, just 1-2 sessions per hour of 30-45 for either of them. Then you need a break to let people digest the information you just provided. In person events you can have 45-60 minutes plus 15 min of Q&A for each one planned as part of the session. Then again you need a break. 

Is 10-15 minutes enough time to have for a break between sessions?

Heather: I find that ten to fifteen minutes between sessions can be quite short. However, if the sessions are located close to each other and the number of attendees is small, it is feasible. It’s crucial to consider the distance between sessions and the proximity of restrooms when making this decision. 

Additionally, if you plan to offer food and beverage, such as coffee and cookies, you’ll need to allocate extra time for guests to enjoy these refreshments, use the restroom, and navigate to the next session. By accounting for these factors, you can ensure a smoother transition between sessions and a more comfortable experience for your attendees.

Valerie: In person, a 30 minutes break is what I would recommend. They need to go to the restroom, check their phone and that also requires walking around, waiting in a line, finding a seat etc. In a virtual environment, there is no line for a coffee, water or bathroom and they have their own seat at home so a lot of those in-person factors don’t need to be considered and 10-15 minutes virtual is fine. 

If they are just going from one room to another for two sessions then a shorter break is fine, but if it’s a lot of people (250+) or refreshment are involved, then you need 30 minutes at least.  

What would you do with lost luggage for VIP/Keynotes?

Valerie: Immediately contact the airline for them to try and track the luggage. Then you check with the hotel and provide some essentials for basic care items. If the luggage is going to be delayed further and your event continues, you may need to do some local shopping for that speaker. There should be a special assistant or team member dedicated to this so the VIP always knows they are a priority. Communication is key and giving your speaker/VIP regular updates about what you are doing to help. 

If it’s totally gone and cannot be tracked down, then your insurance plan may need to be used to cover reimbursing them for what’s in the lost luggage so they can replace.

July 2, 2024

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July 2, 2024

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