5 visions of the future of corporate events at SXSW

Joshua Mason-Browne

10 days and nights. Over 400,000 people. Endless stories of the future of technology, music and film.

SXSW is one of the most well-known and ambitious international events, representing the intersection of today's - and tomorrow's - creative industries. Creative director Joshua Mason Browne attended SXSW 2019 last month, on behalf of cievents. After days of fast-paced and boundary-pushing sessions, he walked away with a vision of what we as corporate event professionals should be doing to shape the future of corporate events.

We sat down with Joshua to discuss five key lessons he took away from SXSW 2019.

1. Convergence is the future of corporate events

When we bring together music, filmmaking, art, design, artificial intelligence other technologies in our events, that's a convergence of disciplines. To some extent, we pursue and celebrate this every day in the corporate events industry.

One incredible example of this notion of convergence is the work of Mortiz Simon Geist, who performed at SXSW 2019. Both a composer and a programmer, Geist has produced a new model for EDM, where the music isn't created by a few taps on his laptop or synth but with a tiny robotic band. With the flick of his fingertips, the 3D-printed robots play live music like you'd have never heard nor seen before. At the intersection of innovation in robotics and musical composition, Geist's creations spell the future for electronic music in a way few would expect.

Moving forward, we should looking at the intersection of all of the disciplines we draw from to design corporate events that broaden peoples' experience. Our delegates see and engage with basic examples of convergence every single day, whether in their work or via interactions on their phone, so the notions of surprise and delight, and "wow factor", just aren't enough anymore. We need to find ways to intersect multiple disciplines and every human sense to make a lasting impression.


2. Radical welcome is about emotional authenticity and immersion

When presenting any kind of cultural experience in our corporate events, the audience has to be at its centre. We need to remember that their expectations have been democratised. With the way the world has opened up, delegates have access to just about every experience you can dream. As a result, there's no high and low culture anymore and the desire to see has become the need to touch, feel and DO.

Fully immersive narrative events, such as the Westworld recreation of SXSW 2018, or the "Bleed for the Throne" Game of Thrones experience at this year's event, enable delegates to do just that. The kind of immersion - radical welcome - unlocked by these experiences leads to total delegate buy-in that encourages them to discover, learn and connect in different ways. In turn, this can create new neural pathways for enhanced memory and recognition

Fantastical installations allow us to incorporate radical welcome into corporate events.

HBO's Bleed for the Throne installation invited Game of Thrones fans to give blood in an experiential fantasy environment.

Even without the budget of these full-fantasy experiences, there are ways we can embrace radical welcome. We need to be fighting against the status quo of corporate events and designing for experience - not just function. New, creative venues are one means for this, or even just thinking about the way people are seated. Meetings in the round, with the stage at the centre like a campfire, reframe the corporate event experience - delegates are not just watching the speaker, but seeing and connecting with their fellow attendees.


3. We are all cognitive misers

One session I attended, "Advertising Detox: How to Reduce Cognitive Load", had an encore session due to popular demand. Presented by the team from HeyHuman, this session reminded me that our brains - and our delegates' brains - are, frankly, lazy.

Thrilled to say that, due to high demand, @SXSW have asked us to do our talk twice! We'll run a live #neuroscience test & talk all things advertising and reducing cognitive load at 9:30 & again at 17:00 on 9 March #advertisingdetox https://t.co/VZvQ7mTsvP https://t.co/dt7CQZJHmD pic.twitter.com/il1O3JusWP

— HeyHuman (@HeyHumanAgency) March 4, 2019

To conserve energy, we use shortcuts to meet logical leaps that are based on what we know and understand already. This session explained that due to the phenomenon of cognitive load, we can be fully engaged in something but if it doesn't necessarily appeal to the shortcuts our brain can take, it can overwhelm it and inhibit our recall. Basically, high engagement doesn't immediately mean an event is memorable.

What we as corporate event designers need to do then, is understand the cognitive impact of what we produce. We have to find the sweet spot with our content where it stimulates the brain with divergent thinking but doesn't overload it if we want delegates to recall the experience.

Biometric technologies represent an opportunity to test and develop experiences that directly appeal to our brains. If we can view data of exactly how the brain responds to a piece of content, we can fine-tune that content to create an impact like never before.


4. Privacy is dead

Or at least, that's what leading futurist Amy Webb of the Future Today Institute told us at the 2019 Emerging Tech Trends Report session.

As we look at more corporate event technologies that collect personal data, we have to consider the impact that has on peoples' privacy. If we're using tech to measure brain waves or engagement through facial recognition, we have to ask if we're crossing boundaries. Are we invading the delegates' privacy? Who really owns that data?

If we want to design experiences based on the brain's response to content, we'll need data that has never before been "owned". Who owns this data is therefore not known at this stage. So, many of us will look to government to determine ownership of personal data and regulate its collection. Webb predicts this regulation will come thick and fast, and it may not make any sense when it does.

Moving forward, we need to be critical about how we store and use our delegates' data to maintain trust.


5. Websites are dead, too

And apps, while we're at it. Alex Spinelli of LivePerson presented "RIP Websites, the End is Nigh" where he claimed that by 2021, most of the interactions we'll be having with our devices will be by voice. Think Siri and Alexa. Commercial interactions will lean towards chatbots, AI and livechat customer service representatives.

As they stand today, many websites are functioning more as digital fortresses. Rather than inviting customers in, they're pushing them further away when they're unable to provide the right answers. The idea of conversational commerce is therefore to reject the digital fortress and open a personalised, organic dialogue with customers - or in the case of corporate events, delegates. We're seeing this already with chatbot event concierges, but should expect this area of corporate event design to grow.

Our first corporate event touch point may soon be through a chatbot rather than content. Registration may be done through basic conversation, to keep the delegate engaged rather than scaring them away with a longwinded form. We'll start to see convergence here, as content creators weave narrative abilities into technology to design chatbot voices that support an event's brand.

Many of these ideas are already here and it's only a matter of when they will become the norm. It's our remit to push these ideas further, go beyond what we know is possible and create experiences that change lives. We have to embrace the convergence of our disciplines to design tomorrow's event now, because tomorrow may be sooner than we think.

To find out how cievents can bring your corporate event into the future, get in touch with our corporate event management professionals today.