Field notes from an incentive-like conference


Event organizers have continued to court success, especially post-pandemic, by blurring the lines between the M, I, C, and E that make up the wider MICE industry.

Likely of special interest to SITE members in particular is a trend that continues to surface in Incentive Travel Index findings, in the 2023 IBTM Trends Report, as part of destinations’ targeted meetings & event sales strategies, and even in anecdotal examples shared by SITE members (including programs that have gone on to win SITE Crystal awards): programming an “incentive-like conference” — or an incentive program that includes a mini or full-fledged conference baked into it.

Everyone’s interpretation of what this means and looks like varies, of course — and is dictated by very real constraints like client budgets. Still, a recent event I attended in Sintra, Portugal, left me with several thoughts on how planners can best deliver on these kinds of requests, as our industry continues to shape-shift. 

Commit to taking over a standout venue, with jaw-dropping views

It was obvious from the moment we stepped foot onto the grounds of where the event was held: having full run of a venue creates an instant VIP feel, especially if it’s a less traditional space.

A buyout also translates to more flexibility with how you shape a program. Organizers of this particular case study event changed the agenda literally two days before attendees arrived, and shuffled other sessions throughout to seamlessly better accommodate the delegate flow.

Most importantly though, taking over a venue in its totality lets you create an entire journey through a space. This makes you feel instantly at home as a guest versus feeling like generic attendee the way you sometimes do in convention center halls or hotel ballrooms.

Creating bespoke, flexible pathways throughout a venue definitely adds a luxe, incentivizing touch.

Make “tough” catering decisions that enhance the overall experience

This particular event made the (what some might label) bold decision to serve an all-vegetarian menu for breakfast, lunch, and dinner across all three conference days.

The resulting menus were amazingly fresh and super tasty, with a good mix of soups, pastas, curries, salads, pastries, and other dishes that were plenty filling.

This also gave the organizer an added advantage of simplifying the overall food & beverage experience by keeping menus straightforward and requiring fewer special meals and on-the-spot substitutions. The catering team could focus on creating a bespoke mealtime experience that worked for virtually everyone, keeping buffet lines quick and simple.

It was also a great way to highlight the destination’s gastronomical strengths by serving plenty of fresh, in-season eats, which then added to the event’s overall exclusivity factor. You knew you were eating what was most in-demand, giving you the freshest experience at that that moment in time.  

It has to be said, too, that alcohol was kept to a minimum throughout the event. Guests could enjoy a glass of wine or beer during dinner service, but it certainly wasn’t the focal point of any evening’s program, nor did anyone really seem to over-indulge…

Add in the positive sustainability impact of this decision, too, and you get a truly A+ experience.

Source speakers who mix info and entertainment well…

One of the things these “grey area” events do best is mix formats: breakout content isn’t “just” educational, and “entertainment” isn’t left only to evening time slots.

On the opening night of this event, organizers brought in the leader of a global tarot community to talk about infusing tarot and other spiritualistic practices into the world of business. She also did a mass reading for the conference.

This injected fun and playful elements into what was still very much an educational breakout. It also set a shared, focused intention for the conference, and created an open space for all of us to share our intentions and purpose for attending.

…and mix your speakers in amongst the crowd

This conference made an intentional decision to eschew name badges, meaning you had to jump into a conversation with whoever you were around to learn details as simple as their name, or as complex as what brought them there and what they were seeking to gain by attending.

This also, of course, meant that nearly 100 speakers were integrated along with everyone else. Your chances of bumping up against someone you’d see onstage in the next few hours were high. It made you feel like an impromptu, instant VIP without any extra planning or lift needed on the part of the organizers.

Unconventional earworms

Of course, the best planners know that attendees experience an event with all five senses. It’s part of what makes in-person events so special — and irreplaceable.

The design team purposely integrated different soundscapes at different moments, something many of us experienced at this year’s IMEX Frankfurt show, too. Both instances had the effect of transporting you to another moment, another time, another place: adding a unique dimension to the event.

Another thing this particular exemplar event did was play with ambient sounds. Their sound design didn’t include just live music or hot playlists — though they were certainly used aplenty. From nature tracks, to live background music composed on the spot to accompany a mainstage talk, sounds surrounded you throughout.

And as a final note, nothing was ever overwhelmingly loud either. I think we’re all collectively over (or at least, I hope we are!) making every single event resemble a full-fledged nightclub.

Simply going loud does not equal boutique or special; keeping it quiet and ambient, I found, actually makes the sound experience you craft feel more luxurious, customized, and special.

Have you attended — or designed — an event that fits into this “grey” or “blurry” mix of MICE categories? We’d love to hear about your experience, too!

Written by

Sydney Nolan

Sydney Nolan


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