Ok, first I'll start with a slight confession. I lied to you. In honesty, I actually spent a week in Munich working on a client's program. But, we were so far out in the boonies that we may as well have been staying in a completely different city. So, for the sake of this post, I basically only spent about 24 hours in the city. I know you're not supposed to start off a relationship with a lie and I did. I'm sorry and hope you can forgive me.
Ok, let's move on.
For my last night in Munich, I decided to spend some time experiencing the city as a local and to eschew, at all costs, those touristy things that people do when they're in a new place. I'm sure Munich has amazing museums, and the tour on top of some bus is a lot of fun...but I didn't do them so I can't say with any sort of surety. If you've been to or are going to Munich and do those things- hit me up and let me know your thoughts. Maybe I'll do them next time- probably not though. I set out in Munich determined to have a day full of adventure and beer (always beer). Surprisingly, I instead found lessons about event tech and engagement in one of the oldest cities in the world.
I got to my Air BNB and immediately dropped my bags and asked my host where I should go. She pointed me in the direction of Marienplatz, about a 15-minute walk from where I was. Armed with comfortable shoes, a Google Maps enabled phone, and the ubiquitous presence of my portable backup battery, I set out having no idea where I was really going and even less of an idea of where I'd end up. I decided there was no agenda, I had no timeframe to work within, I was simply going to go and see where I ended up. It was the best decision I could have made.
About 20 minutes in, I found myself randomly meandering down a side street and stumbled into an antique store. After looking around, I asked and found out that the owner had been in the exact same location for over 20 years. Beyond that, he was a wealth of knowledge about every piece that I picked up or showed interest in. He knew where it came from, the relative age of the piece, and how he acquired it. In short, he was able to tell me the story of the pieces in a way that drew me in and made me have to buy them.
Lesson One- Story Matters
Many times when I have an initial meeting with the client and they start launching into the specific piece of tech or solution that they want, I'll stop them and have them back up. I ask them to describe their event in detail. What's going to happen from the moment people walk in the door? Who's coming? What are the goals of the event and what is considered a "win" by the client or key players? These questions may seem as if they have nothing to do with the actual event, but they absolutely do. The better we can understand the story of the event, the better we are able to create an experience that wows guests and delivers to the client the experience they're wanting as opposed to the one they describe to you because they're not always the same thing. Learning the story of the experience is one of the first and most important tools we have in our arsenal (mixed metaphors FTW).
After spending far too much money on gifts for just about everyone I could think of, I set out in a completely different direction (because, why not). As I strolled, I passed no shortage of cafes teeming with people. There were friends enjoying liters of beer, couples on brunch double dates, kids weaving their ways in and out of chairs and old men smoking pipes and oglingly remembering their misspent youth with wry smiles. No one had anywhere to be and they were simply enjoying their time.
Lesson two- Work Until You're Not
Here's what I'm advocating- ditch the tech. Now I know that seems a little odd for a guy who makes his living in event technology to say and, I'm by no means advocating we get rid of it all or go backward to some pre-stone-age era before fax machines existed. That would be crazy and my family would go hungry. I'm instead advocating we make space for tech freeness (don't say that too fast). Amidst the hustle of our events, what if we created moments or zones where people could be free of the clutter of technology? What if we had wifi free zen zones where the only rule was that there could be no screens of any kind? Place some charging lockers outside of the room so people's devices recharge while their bodies do as well and let re-connection happen. I have no idea how this would play out or if people would take to it at conferences, but imagine if, for a moment, your guests didn't feel like they had to be on and could allow themselves to be disconnected. How much more focused on your message would they be once they turned back on?
Around the corner from one of these cafes was a building I almost completely missed. In fact, had it not been for the plaintive sounds of Miles Davis' trumpet, I absolutely would have. Inside was a small gallery owned by a guy named (name redacted because I can't remember). Now, I'm pretty sure someone called ahead and told him I was coming because the show they had was perfect for me in just about every way. A collection of artists who used light as a medium for their creation, the show consisted of pieces that messed with your definition of perspective by incorporating digital screens into 3-dimensional objects, or embedded iPhones playing looping video into sculptural pieces, or pieces designed using modeling software and then created using 3-d printing. This show was pretty much my spirit animal.
One of my favorite exhibitions by far was by two younger artists- BJORN AND SOMETHING. Their work sought to answer the question "do I have to be there," and was a direct response to people who feel that art can be experienced on phones and screens with pictures of pictures somehow doing justice to the original work. I know I took pictures of the work to show you the pieces, but we'll ignore the glaring irony there.
Lesson 3- Physical Trumps Digital
So many times, I see experience designers focusing so much on the medium that they forget the message. People come to events for the other people- bottom line. I'm a huge advocate for online experiences, but the power of events is in their power to create shared moments and that has to extend to the online moments as well. If you're looking at incorporating some sort of online experience into your event, think through ways to make it more physical. Maybe everyone who goes online can receive some sort of physical totem that connects them to each other and to the live event. The power of physical interaction is why we are in this business, so let's be sure we don't lose sight of that because something shiny crosses our path.
Though short, the time I spent in Munich was rewarding for a number of reasons. The food was rich, the people friendly, and everyone was quickly willing to lend a hand to the lost and occasionally bumbling American. In fact, several times I stopped someone on the street to ask them for help with directions and inwardly grimaced for fear there would be some massive language barrier or they'd be annoyed by my ignorance. I couldn't have been more wrong. In every instance, people quickly switched their conversation from German to English, helped me out and offered their opinion on whatever and wherever I was thinking about. It made me love the city all the more.
Lesson 4- Ambassadorize
Everyone connected with your event has to represent your event and represent it well. If you have technology integrated into the event or some unique experiential component, please (for the love of all that's holy and right) make sure that anyone connected with, or in any way interacting with the public, has at least a passing understanding of what's going on. Don't assume that the experiential or techy stuff should only be focused on or cared about by the techy people. As far as the guest is concerned, anyone wearing a black/staff/branded shirt is in the know and they'll quickly tire of having to go from one person to another to get the answers they need. If you don't understand what's being integrated into the event enough to train your staff- that's fine, just make some time for those that do to connect with the entire team so they can at least tell them where to send people with questions they might have. I always tell everyone we work with that we operate under a "one team" mentality because that's how the guests see us- as one.
Henry Miller once said, “One's destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things." That was never truer than during the time I spent in Munich. Though I wasn't intending to go and find inspiration for how I produce and engage with events, that's definitely what happened. I encourage you to do the same. Don't go to Germany (I mean, you can if you want I guess) to find inspiration- realize that there's likely inspiration waiting for you at the mall, or at the farm, or on the train/bus. Somewhere that's not where you are right now there is inspiration and perspective waiting to be found.