MPI’s European Meetings and Events Conference asked delegates to push their boundaries in the home of flamenco.
Amilio, the old flamenco master, is sitting on stage in a loose suit jacket, his weather-beaten face almost concealed behind a straggly, grey beard.
We’ve come to meet him at the headquarters of the Alala Foundation, an NGO based in the Poligono Sur district of Seville, Spain. He is teaching us the rhythms of flamenco hand-clapping, and explaining how the Alala Foundation uses the power of music to bring communities together in this underprivileged neighbourhood.
Flamenco, Emilio explains, has 73 different styles of clapping. He runs us through three of the most simple, but our group still manages to lose the rhythm as it increases in complexity. Emilio remains tolerant, and gives us an impressive performance as a reward for our efforts.
Our music lesson with the Alala Foundation is one of several learning journeys offered across the three days of Meeting Professionals International (MPI)’s European Meetings and Events Conference (EMEC) 2020. It is an example of the hands-on approach to event design which has come to define EMEC: after our lesson, we have a go at designing our own social impact experience with the Alala Foundation and travel company Authenticitys.
Other learning journeys at EMEC 2020 saw delegates testing their communication and management skills in a virtual reality flight simulation, and visiting an Andalusian horse ranch to learn leadership skills. They are all part of a drive to get outside of the conference centre as much as possible, and immersed in the culture of the host destination.
A cryptic scavenger hunt
This year’s EMEC host was Seville, the capital of the autonomous community of Andalucia in the South of Spain. Our introduction to EMEC 2020 saw us gathering in the sun-drenched courtyard of the Plaza de España, where we received a series of cryptic clues from MPI employees dressed in mysterious hooded outfits.
These clues set us on a scavenger hunt through the park, collecting keys and chests in groups of five. Our clues encouraged us, subtly but effectively, to get to know our teammates with a series of networking prompts. Our final destination was a ship, which took us onwards to the opening ceremony.
This scavenger hunt was put together by Amsterdam-based company Sherlocked, which provides ‘escape the room’ and other immersive experiences. Jesse Kroon, Project Lead for Sherlocked at EMEC 2020, says: “Our design goal for the opening experience of EMEC was to set the tone of the conference and engage participants with its theme – ‘Push Your Boundaries’. Additionally, like all of Sherlocked’s productions, this experience was designed to blur the line between reality and fiction.
“The city of Seville became the setting for an epic story in which they played the central role. We wanted participants to have fun, get to know each other, and also reflect on what it means to have boundaries and to push them.”
Brain tattoos and Star Wars
EMEC 2020’s ‘Push Your Boundaries’ theme was also expressed in the opening ceremony, where MPI partnered with Dear World – a company which provides personal storytelling keynotes.
Dear World founder Robert X. Fogarty explained the premise: each delegate is given a pen and a booklet, which asks them to reflect on some key moments and experiences in their life. These are turned into a “brain tattoo” – a short phrase written somewhere on their body with an easy-wipe marker, hinting towards a story. A team of professional photographers then capture these stories in dramatic portraits, which delegates receive after the event via email.
It is a wonderfully simple idea, and one that led to much more meaningful conversations than can be overheard at most networking events. As we walked around the opening drinks reception, people were sharing stories of overcoming cancer, or recounting their wedding day, while making new friends and business connections.
The next morning, these new connections were carried into the conference sessions. CMW sat in on one delivered by Ask Agger, CEO of Danish agency Workz. He spoke about how the concept of the ‘hero’s journey’, integral to many big-budget movies such as Star Wars, can be applied to event design.
“Good storytelling is about what you don’t tell,” said Agger. “Great movies and books know that they can engage the audience more if they allow them to fill in the blanks with their imagination. The same can be true in events. Instead of bombarding your delegates with facts, get across your core message and then give them some time to reflect. Let them have their epiphany later that evening in bed, or in the bar.”
Building a community
Drew Holmgreen, Vice-President of Brand Engagement at MPI, says: “My highlight from EMEC 2020 has been watching the engagement between attendees. It’s such a great community and happy family. I love seeing people come together for the first time or 50th time and share experiences that MPI is able to facilitate. It’s great to watch and be a part of that.”
Holmgreen says that MPI’s partnerships with third parties like Dear World and Sherlocked have added a lot of value to EMEC: “Their involvement is a biproduct of the event design – we involve partners who can deliver and then tailor programming to ensure it aligns with the macro experience being created for our community.”
It seems fitting that MPI’s willingness to embrace its partners should be a big part of EMEC’s success. The conference asked its attendees to let their guard down, and in doing so provided ample opportunity for delegates to connect – with some surprises along the way.