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Wikipedia is about to host their annual event. They made a very brave and unconventional choice with their hosting city. Can you do the same for your event?
There are two types of planners. Those that talk about doing innovative things and those who actually do them.
When it comes to destination selection for large events things get complicated. There are complex bidding processes, cities that battle against each other to get a piece of the pie. We've all seen what happens when Olympic Games are assigned to a city. Joy, screams, government representatives crying, holding each other, losing their ties.
With 1,000 to 10,000 person events the joy is probably not as loud but the dynamics are very similar. Items such as how connected a city is, the infrastructure, the technology offering, the accommodation capability are on the agenda of every event planner. That's why we hear that meetings mean a lot of business.
Sometimes things go awry. Event representatives go to jail for accepting bribes (see allegations regarding FIFA) or, on a smaller scale, they engage in questionable trips, drinks, goodies, aperitifs, shows, tours, dinners, more shows, more drinks to 'learn' about the city who is bidding for the event.
But hey, this is how things work! Promoting a country or a city is most of the time a very healthy process for the local economy and for the event industry.
So What is The Problem?
The problem is that the final choice is always the same, with the usual suspects winning or being among the top 10 of this or that association ranking. We end up always making the same city or country choices because we feel safe. And boy, do we like a bit of safety these days?
But then again talking to a lot of you I often feel the frustration of being always in the same city or hotel. You tell me that attendees are bored of the usual choices. You tell me that you don't always want to offer clients the same options. You tell me that you want to explore innovative ways of holding events.
Yet the final choice is often times the most obvious, the most convenient, the most popular. I feel sometimes our industry is very similar to Mean Girls (excuse the 90's citation, but I think we can all relate).
And What Did Wikipedia do?
They did something so simple yet quite revolutionary. They went out of their comfort zone. They made their attendees go out of their comfort zone. They felt that the most abused word in our industry, experience, had to win over the desire to feel safe.
For their annual event, Wikimania, Wikipedia picked Esinio Lario. This is a small town of 772 inhabitants lost in the northern Italian mountains.
The choice may seem quite exotic and exclusive, which it kind of is, but not entirely. The thing is that there are no notable hotels (other than some B&Bs with up to 250 beds) in Esinio Lario. Actually very few of the residents can speak English. The closest city is 10 miles of mountain hairpins away.
Yet they took on the challenge.
The selection made national newspaper headlines in Italy and according to reports, the villagers will open their houses to accommodate the thousands who will flock to Esinio.
Some of the residents took English courses to be able to communicate with attendees.
Wikipedia's representative form Esinio, Iolanda Pensa, speaking to Corriere.it explained the thinking behind this innovative choice:
We wanted to show that in the open knowledge era, an event can happen either in a megacity or in a small town. A small town, as opposed to a larger city, makes attendees live the event close to each other, hanging out at the local bar on in the city square and the atmosphere will be more friendly.
What Can We Learn From It?
We have been talking about immersive experiences for a while in the industry. We cannot achieve immersive experiences by just choosing nice centerpieces or a unified color scheme. The role the destination and venue play is immensely more important these days.
Ask yourself when did the people of a city where you hosted an event, actually learn English to welcome your guests? Modern event professionals favour flexibility and value over how popular a destination is.
One important learning of our Venue of the Future report is that #eventprofs want partners rather than good invoice writers. Unconventional choices can deliver more inclusive experiences, they can help local communities and gather support from individuals that are willing to work with you and go a step further to guarantee a memorable event.
Don't get me wrong, I love Vegas, Orlando, London, Kuala Lumpur, Tokyo, Sydney and the likes, but most of the times your event will be business as usual. And so will be the perception of your attendees. We all want stories to tell when we attend events. But what is interesting about yet another average venue with the usual layout and the usual entertainment choices?
One thing is for sure, the organizers of Wikimania will face many issues. Connectivity, logistics, accommodation, security. Of course it would have been much easier to rely on the usual. But will a usual event be remembered? Will it secure more business from your clients or make attendees happy?
Ask yourself that question again and again and think about the options you have.
Unconventional choices are hard to make and mean more work. Yet no great things were achieved with less work or economies of scale.
Real innovation has to be somewhat painful and outside of our comfort zone. Sometimes outside of our attendees comfort zone.
Wikipedia and the Wikimedia foundation are telling us that in our socially connected world, the where is not as important as the why and this should be the mantra of every event professional, whether it is venue, technology, accommodation or catering decisions.
Are we asking you to disrupt the way you do things? Never. Are we asking you to challenge traditions in favour of innovation? Always!