How can food enhance a conference experience?
Veronica Fossa, founder of WE Factory, shares her points of view on how food can dramatically impact an experience, how it can be a medium and how to design with it.
Participants talking around the table at MELT Foorum 2016, in Tallinn, Estonia | ph. Marko Mumm
All of your peers are going to that conference. You think, why not going? You’ve never been to Prague. Plus, this is a chance to learn about the latest innovations in the industry. You decide to purchase that ticket - 1,500€ for a three-day conference. The only investment that you can afford to make this year.
The week before the conference you get in touch with your colleagues and mark down all the speeches you plan to attend. You know already that your plan sounds unrealistic but you want to get the most out of the event. Then, the first day of the conference arrives. Upon checking in with everybody you know, you look around to see who you should meet. But during the breaks you are faced with a dilemma: queue to the restroom, grab another sandwich stuffed with cheap cheese, or attempt to introduce yourself to some of the other participants?
This goes on for three days in the same fashion.
Back home, exhausted and overwhelmed, you wonder whether it was worth to invest your momeny and fly 1,000 km.
Then one week goes by and you moved on from the disappointing experience. The event organizers share a “thank you” note and all the pictures of the event, and remark how “successful” it was! By now you decided that your ROI didn’t meet your initial investment and decide not to attend next year.
According to the mandates of service design, what I’ve just described is a conference user’s journey. Also, it is how most people experience conferences nowadays.
This story clearly informs about a certain degree of dissatisfaction by the participant. In fact, her initial expectations didn’t meet the conference offering. What has happened? And why is our participant out of sync with the traditional conference blueprint?
With the Internet and the availability of information 24/7, people have started to approach live experiences in a different manner. Given that anything can be found online, they’ve increased their expectations towards events where they are physically present, like conferences and seminars, which cannot exist anymore for the mere educational and networking purposes. Conference and business event organizers are urged to revise the offering they’ve been proposing for decades if the want to stay relevant for a critical consumer with increasing cognitive and emotional needs - a comsumer with reduced attention and the aspiration to become the acting protagonist of their experiences.
To such societal changes, that encompass all aspects of our lives, culinary culture is not immune. It should be enough to mention the global dissemination of TV programs like Masterchef, the worldwide trend of mobile food photography, and Instagram food snaps. Everybody is cooking and experimenting with both traditional and exotic ingredients, whilst food affirms its role as a social glue.
“I believe that merging the food experience into the conference model can propose a different and refreshing framework.”
What can event organizers learn from the recent developments of culinary culture, then?
I believe that merging the food experience into the conference model can propose a different and refreshing framework. Expressed through play, which builds our confidence and reconnects us to our real selves, and co-creation, which brings different parties together to jointly produce a mutually valued outcome, most food experiences - whether in the shape of coffee breaks, conference dinners or lunches - can create apted contexts for learning and feeling engaged.
Here are two examples to illustrate my point.
1- Co-creation to turn guests from spectators to actors
WE Factory partnered up with a business incubator in Estonia to design a VIP dinner at a conference. The event aimed at bridging design and business, shedding light on the added value the design process can bring to the traditional business model. Aligned with the conference goals, we proposed an innovative dining experience. To the highly entertaining format of show-cooking, we added an extra layer of experience. On each table we placed herbs such as coriander, dill and basil, and attached some scissors on a string. Upon suggestions by the chefs, participants were encouraged to chop the herbs and season their own food to their liking. Such activity placed the interest towards the herbs, which some participants weren’t familiar with, as well as offered a common ground to start a conversation.
Employing a co-creation approach, either in the whole course of the experience or in a short part empower the participants to take an active role, while keeping their attention threshold high.
Edible herbs setup on the tables | Marko Mumm, MELT Foorum 2016.
2 - Play to build meaningful relationships
One of the reasons why the conference goer from the initial story returned home disappointed was because s/he didn’t manage to make any meaningful connection. Of course, building relationships takes time. It might happen over months, sometimes years of interaction and exchanges. Hence, the main role of the conference environment is to kickstart a real conversation and build it on to the next level. Doing it through playing is a clever approach.
A few years ago, I attended a conference in Denmark where participants were asked to cook their your own lunch. Arbitrarily divided into teams, we teamed up to prepare the meal with the ingredients that were placed on the table. A sense of competition between teams and the leadership nature of some participants naturally emerged, while team members felt at ease to share how they learned and practiced such cooking skills, all while temporarily dismissing job titles and roles. Cooking our own lunch proved effective - as a matter of fact, it was through such activity that I met some business contacts I still work with today.
That is the mission we set with the company I founded three years ago, WE Factory.
To conclude, as event attendees’ participative habits are changing, so must the role of conferences. This means that organizers and producers of business events are urged to elaborate new models based on a set of values such as play and co-creation, which in turn can better respond to the evolving needs of the participants.