Building The Guest Experience

2015 Book Lover's Ball - Guest-Build-The-Experience Hala Bissada

Hala Bissada,  President & CEO, Hala Events & Communications Inc

Okay maybe using the phrase “The Devil is in the Details” is a bit extreme in the literal sense, however, creating a truly memorable guest experience is about the well thought-out, minute details and elements associated with every guest touch point. From the moment they learn about your event to their experience as they walk through the doors; to how you end the evening and the post event follow up, it is about taking your guests on a sensory journey that connects them to your cause, persuades them to support it and drives them to tell their friends, colleagues and family about it.

Organizers expend a lot of time and energy looking at ways to improve, refresh and enhance their existing events. Whether it is as simple as changing the venue or using new technology it can still be a daunting challenge. So where to start?

Start with the basics and conduct a comprehensive SWOT analysis. Compile your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, allowing you to obtain a full-circle perspective of where your event stands. This analysis will enable to you to establish your goals and objectives.

It is important to do a periodic assessment by conducting an audit of your organization’s capacity and unique assets. This includes listing your potential celebrity and sponsor connections, key volunteers, expertise, internal assets like talent and how you present them in innovative ways e.g. musicians (TSO), designers (Design Exchange), singers (Canadian Opera Company) etc. Understanding your assets can provide you with creative ideas in terms of building your guest experience.

Next, conduct some research. Inspiration can come from anywhere…industry magazines, books, movies, blogs, music videos, award shows, concerts, competitors, conversations etc.

After completing your SWOT analysis, your capacity audit and conducting some preliminary research, you can brainstorm elements for the guest experience. Assemble what I call your “Imagineers” –people who are creative, knowledgeable, clear thinkers, self-confident, respect others and have the ability to think BIG. They could be members of your event team, committee/ board members, creative thinkers from ad agencies, design firms, décor companies etc. Share the information you have compiled ahead of time and put together a loose agenda.

Create a spirited, enthusiastic and positive atmosphere, devoid of distracting elements. At the outset of the session, discuss the objectives of the exercise and set the guidelines for success. Circulate a brainstorm worksheet that they can use to jot down ideas under appropriate headings.

Begin the session by reviewing the organization’s mission and event objectives and reinforcing that the event and its elements be on brand and support the organization’s mission. You want to find ways through-out the evening to connect the guests to the cause.

Break-down the previous year’s event and discuss what worked and what didn’t. Look at the event in two critical ways. First, from the perspective of the guest’s journey, step by step beginning with ideas around engaging the guest before they even arrive at the event, and then look at every guest touch point from the moment they walk in the door to the moment they leave and what happens once the event is over. Secondly, develop ideas by event element ensuring it will appeal to the audience e.g. wow moments, décor, entertainment, on-site fundraising, sponsor opportunities/ activations, celebrity involvement, technology, storytelling, ways to genuinely show appreciation for the guest’s contributions etc.

At the end of your brainstorming, consolidate all the ideas and refine your list. Prepare a presentation that summarizes the guest experience to share with key stakeholders and obtain feedback. Ensure you include vision boards to help tell the story.

Below are a few examples of organizations with great events and/or elements that have hit the nail on the head in terms of being on brand and creating a fabulous guest experience.

The Design Exchange

The Design Exchange is Canada’s only museum dedicated exclusively to the pursuit of design excellence and preservation of design heritage. Each year they host three distinct events. What we love about them is not only are they on brand, but they utilize their resources and connections creatively and wisely to create wonderful guest experiences.

The first one is Dinner by Design. This exclusive affair limited to just 150 attendees takes place at the museum. The event features 11 original dining experiences, created by top Canadian designers with styles ranging from contemporary, cutting-edge and modern to classic opulence. This event not only showcases the talents of Toronto’s vibrant design community, but also involves a celebrated chef who prepares the dinner. They also have a cocktail preview the night before, where other guests can sip cocktails and enjoy delectable delights amidst the dining installations.

The DX Design Auction has 300 to 400 people in attendance who have the rare opportunity to purchase vintage pieces, donated objects from the personal collections of local and international design stars and personalities, and limited edition items from world-renowned interior design brands. The event is paired with talks from acclaimed designers, food and drink.

Lastly, DX Intersection which was rebranded in 2012 (formerly called the Black and White Ball), is a special celebration to pay tribute to a Canadian individual or partnership that exemplifies creativity, outstanding talent and innovative vision. The guest experience is curated by a creative committee made up of members of the local design community. Last year, they honored George Yabu and Glenn Pushelberg of Yabu Pushelberg studios who oversee one of the most recognized design firms in the world. Guests had the opportunity to explore various rooms in the museum each with a different vibe and featuring a DJ, while they ate, drank and danced the night away. What I thought was very clever and made a lot of sense was involving the staff of Yabu Pushelberg in planning the tribute to George and Glenn.

The Children’s Aid Foundation

The Children’s Aid Foundation is dedicated to improving the lives of children and youth involved with the child welfare system. Their programs and services serve vulnerable children and youth across Canada. Their annual gala fundraiser, the Teddy Bear Affair, is widely recognized as one of Toronto’s most highly anticipated black-tie galas.

In 2015, Andrea Weissman-Daniels was Honorary Co-Chair of the Teddy Bear Affair, along with her husband Mark Daniels. Andrea not only contributed generously by lending her name and providing financial support, she also shared
her creative talents to design a beautiful entertainment segment that connected the guests back to the cause and its mission.

The Mantra of the Day was, “It’s all about the children.” And that was the litmus test for all creative decisions. They auditioned several former “youths in care” to see how comfortable they would be appearing before 1000 people and ultimately
invited four of them to share their personal stories of their challenging and unique lives with their patrons . Without their voice, the theatrical elements would only be entertaining. They were determined to have the guests leave the event feeling moved beyond any expectations. The trick was to find a way to theatricalize their brave young people’s stories in a way that would honour them but at the same time, meet the entertainment factor expected by their guests. They decided to create a performance piece that would include a local, large youth choir as a way of offering not only visual support, but also, powerful uplifting energy to their “non-actors.” They positioned their four youths in the middle of the room on an elevated boxing ring style stage and had them rotate in a choreographed pattern throughout their lines so that they each were able to be seen by all the patrons. With the addition of large video screens, strategically placed for prime viewing, a small band for musical accompaniment, and lighting to spotlight the youth speaking, their guests could not help but be drawn into their message.

This was a big departure from previous years where the main entertainment was a hired act. The change paid off as the powerful and carefully crafted story telling segment resonated with the attendees and brought down the house.

Toronto Public Library Foundation

The vision of the Toronto Public Library Foundation is to build a city of life-long readers, learners and creators for a successful Toronto. The Book Lover’s Ball is the Foundation’s signature gala and the tenth anniversary in 2015 had several key objectives. These included: to raise significant unrestricted funds; to showcase the Toronto Reference Library and demonstrate the impact of donor support; to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Ball and the Library’s milestone of 100 branches; and to connect guests with the cause, celebrity authors and shine the spotlight on books.

The organizers achieved these objectives by hosting the Ball for the first time ever in the revitalized Toronto Reference Library, allowing guests to dine in the stacks with one of 60 celebrated authors. Each dining area was themed by genre (fantasy, romance and mystery) and decorated accordingly. In addition, each dining area was hosted by a relevant literary character i.e. Peter Pan & Captain Hook, Romeo & Juliet and Sherlock Holmes & Dr. Watson.

The reception was hosted by renowned chef and cookbook author Jamie Kennedy. Following the dinner, at the After Dark party, the guests were encouraged to explore the library spaces which had on-brand activations i.e. Celebrity Author Scrabble in the Meet-Up, Library Mystery Tour in the Special Collections Centre on the 5th floor, Prose Store in the Idea Garden where guests could commission a custom piece of poetry or sit for a literary portrait, and the Library Lounge where guests could enjoy a signature cocktail. Naughty Librarians pushed book carts throughout the library carrying mouth-watering desserts and late night bites. 100 Reasons to Give to the Foundation celebrated the 100 branches and were cleverly posted over the library’s usual stack signage for guests to browse. The evening’s main entertainment featured Broken Social Scene’s Jason Collett and surprise literary guests including some of the authors in attendance.

Building a memorable guest experience is a series of well thought-out elements beginning with engaging the guest before they even arrive at the event. The sum of the parts is greater than the whole! The devil is in the details.

2015 Book Lover's Ball Fantasy Dining Room

Special thanks to:
Linton Carter, Chief Development Officer, Children’s Aid Foundation
Andrea Weissman-Daniels, Honorary Co-Chair, 2015 Teddy Bear Affair
Julie Flynn, Director, Development & Strategic Partnerships, Toronto Public Library Foundation
Shauna Levy, President & CEO, Design Exchange

About The Contributer

Hala Bissada is an international award-winning event-producer, one of Canada’s foremost event fundraisers and an industry Thought-Leader.  Prior to establishing Hala Events, she spent 5 years with SickKids Foundation and 8 years with Children’s Aid Foundation managing their high-profile event portfolios. In 2013, she earned the coveted Best Industry Contribution Award at the ISES Esprit awards for establishing the Ryerson University Special Event Certificate Program where she currently teaches the curriculum.   Hala was also recognized as Event Professional of the Year at the 2012 Canadian Event Industry Star Awards and in 2010, received the Alumni Award of Distinction from her alma mater, Ryerson University. On a personal note, Hala completed an Ironman in 2004 and loves to ride her motorcycle.