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Episode 65 / July 31, 2023

Creating Memorable Events Through Attendee Obsession and Unconventional Experiences

Join Liz King Caruso as she shares how she took a creative, attendee-first approach for a recent client event.

In this episode of Event Experience by Bizzabo, host Rachel Moore sits down with Liz King Caruso, CEO and Chief Event Strategist of Liz King Events, to explore the power of attendee obsession in event planning. 

With more than 13 years of experience in the industry, Liz shares her insights on designing events that allow participants to be themselves and connect authentically. The discussion centers on a recent event Liz organized for a foundation client with the goal of bringing their employees back together in person, fostering face-to-face interactions and sharing the organization’s vision for the coming year. 

Through a well-crafted balance of content and experience, the event featured interactive activities, a healthy and delicious family-style lunch, and a unique silent disco that allowed participants to mingle and engage in a relaxing, comfortable setting. 

Here’s what you’ll learn about in this conversation:

  • The importance of striking a balance between delivering valuable content and creating meaningful experiences for event attendees
  • Why event planners should step outside of their comfort zones and be open to trying new things and considering unconventional ideas that align with attendees’ interests and desires
  • The value in gathering attendee feedback and creating opportunities for participants to express their thoughts and opinions openly 

Mentioned in This Episode

Transcript

[00:00:10] Rachel Moore: Welcome to Event Experience by Bizzabo, the podcast where we bring the best and brightest Event Experience Leaders together to share stories, tips, and lessons learned from creating some of the world’s biggest events.

I’m Rachel Moore, your podcast host. 

This week on Event Experience, we tap into attendee obsession with Liz King Caruso, CEO and Chief Event Strategist of Liz King Events and CEO of the techsytalk community. Join us as Liz breaks us away from a room full of rounds and takes one event’s attendees out into streets and venues of New York City between the content sessions for their non-profit client. If you design events that give everyone room to be themselves, you’ll love getting ideas from Liz in this week’s interview.

[00:01:00] Rachel Moore: Today we are talking to a chief event strategist. She is the chief of events, and she has been involved with events and designing experiences for at least 13 years. She’s the CEO of Liz King Events. She’s also the CEO of techsytalk, an event planners community, and she’s the cofounder of Smart Women, Smart Hustle. She’s also an adjunct faculty for New York University teaching courses for their event management program.

I believe we’ve really tapped into a perfect guest guest for the podcast titled Event Experience by Bizzabo. I’m happy to introduce Liz King Caruso to the podcast. Liz, thank you for joining us. 

[00:01:43] Liz Caruso: Thank you so much for having me. It’s so much so nice to catch up with you.

[00:01:46] Rachel Moore: I know I just gave the essential rundown, like anyone can go look at your LinkedIn but can you expand a bit for our audience, what does it mean to be the CEO, the chief event strategist for Liz King Events? 

[00:02:00] Liz Caruso: Essentially we plan conferences for various clients, mostly in what I call the thought leader space. So they’re corporate looking events, but they might be an influencer who has a big audience of their own or a community.

We do a lot of conference planning, full A to Z planning. And then techsytalk, as you mentioned, is kind of my playground where I get to test a lot of ideas that I bring to clients and they say, that sounds interesting, but we’re not gonna do that. And then I come back to them the next year and I’m like, well, I tried it and it was really good, so you should really do that.

So it’s a great opportunity for me to learn from other colleagues. I actually work with a lot of the people in our community that we’ve met over the years who then support our event planning and which has really helped me to scale up in a great way. So it’s a lot of synergistic stuff in the event space, mostly around technology, attendee obsession experience, all of that kind of fun stuff, which I know is very hot topic these days. 

[00:02:58] Rachel Moore: This is a perfect alignment I would say between what you do in the events industry and what this podcast is intended to do.

So, let’s zero in on one particular event.

Can you tell us what we’re going to focus on today? 

[00:03:12] Liz Caruso: This is actually fresh off the presses. We just finished an event about three days ago, and it was for a foundation client and they did what I think a lot of foundations are doing where they’re bringing all of their employees kind of back together for connecting a lot of organizations around the world, not just foundations obviously, have moved to remote work and hybrid work. And one of the challenges that they face is that their employees are not necessarily interfacing with each other face-to-face and that has all kinds of consequences for the kinds of work that they do. As big of a proponent as I am of remote work, there are obviously benefits of people being face to face.

So we did this one day conference for them and it was a really fun experience. So I think it’d be fun to talk about. 

How To Create Meaningful Event Goals

[00:03:58] Rachel Moore: So one thing we like to dig into, and this is likely where most event planners start, right, is you probably had some goals for this particular event.

Can you kind of take us through what those goals were for the client that you wanted to accomplish with this event? 

[00:04:11] Liz Caruso: There was part of it that was bringing everyone together, getting them in the same space. And I should say that this was a one day program of a week long activities that they planned.

So there were things like departmental meetings on one day. There was one day of just picnic and fun. But the primary goal was to get their people together, get them talking, get them meeting each other in person sometimes for the first time, even if they’re on the same team. And so that was one main goal. 

And another goal was to share some of their vision for the coming year. Although they have virtual meetings and opportunities to share this content, I think every organization has content that they wanna put out that’s a little sensitive, you’re not exactly sure how people are gonna react.

And the best time to do that, of course, is when everyone is in person and has some time to process it together and to realize how good this is for the organization and every team. 

We wanted to make sure that it felt like something that was fun, something that people wanted to be a part of.

And a little bit different than what you do in a standard, you know, conference day. Because it was content that they need to get across. This wasn’t their fun picnic day. 

So it was really nice to take a day, share information with everyone, and then be able to have time to let it mean something to them before they move on to the next thing. 

The Importance of Understanding Your Event Target Audience

[00:05:35] Rachel Moore: Let’s talk about the target audience. Can you describe for us the general demographics? Like what type of people were you you know, bringing together and creating this experience for? 

[00:05:45] Liz Caruso: So it was all of their employees. There were about 300 people across the event. And it was every kind of age level because we had everything from summer interns there to, you know, their C level executives. We had a really good mix of demographics, I would say, in terms of race and age and gender.

It’s very hard and mixing the teams is also really hard. People who don’t necessarily ever have to work with each other are now sitting in a room. We did this one thing for lunch where we took them out of the venue and brought them into a restaurant and they got a really beautiful, proper lunch.

Every table had table numbers, and as they came in, we had sorted table placement cards by number, but mixed them all up. So as they came in, we would tell a group of three friends, you’re at table one, nine and 72.

We literally had people who said, well, I don’t want to do that. I’m sure you don’t. But it’s intentionally designed to mix you up a little bit. And sure enough, within five minutes of everyone sitting down, there were lively conversations and we didn’t get any major complaints after that.

It’s hard to get people to break out of what they are used to doing and the people they’re used to sitting with and that was a really fun challenge. And, you know, we even brought it up to the client as it was happening. We’re like, just double checking. People are not happy, so we’ll keep doing it.

And they said, that’s fine. This is exactly what we want, is to break people up. And we’re like, good. So this client in particular really embraced that idea of open community. Interconnectivity. All of that stuff was really embraced, which was really nice to see. A lot of organizations shy away from that just because they don’t wanna piss people off.

I’m always a believer in just kind of pushing the boundaries, but I’m not the one who has to sit in that office with them every day for the next year. So, you know, an idea can sound good, but we wanna make sure that we’re doing that gut check with our clients at all times as well. 

For example, they had these big boards printed where people could write their thoughts on different topics. And there was one comment posted really early in the morning that was not negative, but it wasn’t that positive. And I knew that the client was very open. They wanted people to express how they feel.

However I noticed that as people were walking by, everyone was kind of pointing to it and being like, did you have the guts to write that? You know? Right. Laughing about it a little bit. And so we checked in with the client, we’re like, just so you know, this is what it says. Nothing bad, but it is drawing attention, not in the most positive way.

And they really believed that that is the point of the exercise and that is completely fine. And I was really happy to see that because I know a lot of clients who would’ve made us moderate it and take it down and put something else up. But they were very much like, well, that’s how people feel.

And part of what we need to know as the leadership is how people feel. So we need to let them write it out and not moderate it. And I thought, this is what more organizations need to be doing, is really listening to what their employees think. 

[00:08:42] Rachel Moore: And one last thing before we move on to kind of more of the unique aspects of this event, there’s also an advantage too, to have that objective external party. There’s not that, that same stake in the game where you’re like, not only am I making this event happen, I’m gonna show up and have to work with these same individuals day in, day out.

When you’re having an internal events team with the brand and the stakes there versus if you’re like, I’m an organization, I’m gonna outsource this and bring someone external in to do this for us.

Whatever outcomes you want, having that good balance of objectivity versus the day-to-day long-term stake that these, you know, these organizations have with their employees. It seems like this really worked well in that situation.

[00:09:22] Liz Caruso: I think that it’s such a good point. Sometimes we can get away with more because we’re not internal. And I don’t mean that in a bad way. Like, oh, we don’t have to deal with the repercussions. But really just because people know that it’s someone from the outside trying something and to your point, everyone has an opinion about how things are being done.

What is being done. And so they sometimes give a little more slack if it’s not from someone inside the organization and it’s given us the opportunity many times to then say to the client, Hey, this thing you’ve been doing for 10 years, we don’t think that’s a great idea. And we’ve had people who said, we’ve been trying to say that for 10 years and no one listens.

But because we come from the outside, we see it quick. And we can acknowledge it quickly. And then I think it comes across as like, oh, okay, this is definitely something to think about because even Liz thinks this is something, she doesn’t know our organization. So that’s interesting. It’s come in handy for us many times to have that role.

Prioritizing the Most Unique Aspects of Event Planning

[00:10:16] Rachel Moore: Let’s segue into any special or unique aspects to this event. You brought everybody out of the event to go have a lovely lunch.

What were the other aspects of this that kind of made it a little bit different than a traditional, Hey, we’re gonna cram everybody into a space for the entire day. 

[00:10:32] Liz Caruso: Yeah, so I think the lunch was great. It was very tied to the theme. It was very healthy foods. It was really delicious. Three course family style menu, and I thought the family style made a lot of sense for what they wanted to do in terms of getting people to connect with each other and obviously from a logistical standpoint, it’s a little bit easier to accommodate a lot of food preferences.

So that worked very well to transition people out of a conference setup. We were at rounds in a ballroom with a screen and multiple screens and a stage and all that kind of stuff. So to get people out of that worked really well. After the lunch, the lunch was no content, no speakers, nothing like that.

What we did was we gave them an interactive activity to do, just discussion points essentially, and then there was a QR code that they could scan and put some ideas into a word cloud based on their discussion, which we then showed that word cloud later in the day. So it was very like, this is your time, you know, you’re here to talk about these topics. It was a mix of every level so you could definitely have someone from senior leadership sitting at your team, at your table, which I also really liked, that they weren’t all at their own table. They were mixed in with everybody listening to the conversations and being able to participate.

And then after that lunch, we just told people to spend some time. This event was in New York City. We told them to grab a friend and go for a walk, and it was really nice to have that opportunity too. People just kind of literally grabbed a cup of coffee, or it happened to be a ridiculously hot, but nice day in New York.

So people went for a walk, they went to the park. And all of this was in two blocks, you know? So there was the venue, the lunch was one block away and one block away was a huge park. So people were able to just kind of do their thing and then meet us back at the venue for a closing program.

And you know, I’ve heard a lot of clients in the past be very afraid to do something like that because no one will come back. Well, sure enough, everyone came back. It was a really good vibe. I think they got their air, they got to enjoy the event, and it gave them time to talk about whatever they wanted to talk about.

Maybe they wanted to talk about gossipy stuff like, can you believe they’re saying this? I think it’s important they get that out. Yeah. But maybe they also were like, that was a really interesting thing. What do you think we could do with X, Y, Z? I think when you give your employees some breathing room, especially after Covid, people are just, it’s hard to get back into a massive room filled with hundreds of people and just sit there all day in the dark. Yeah. So, It worked really well. And then we brought them together for a very short one hour closing program with a little more content and kind of wrapping it up for people.

And then had a cocktail reception. We did a silent disco, which to your point, everyone likes something different. So there were people who were like way into the silent disco and others who were like, that’s so weird. 

[00:13:13] Rachel Moore: Wait, describe the silent disco. What, what is that? 

[00:13:16] Liz Caruso: We had it. There was the reception and then in a separate room next to it, we had a full disco bowl lighting.

We had three DJs and each of them were doing different style of music. So one had pop, one had country, R&B or something. And then people got their headphones on the way in and you could tune to the channel you want, but the actual room was silent, which is the weirdest thing to look at — 

[00:13:38] Rachel Moore: Yes!

[00:13:40] Liz Caruso: But it was actually, again, very good for getting people to interact with each other because you can see the color on the headphones. So there was a time when like the blue folks were just really getting into it and they were screaming out loud, so you know what song they’re listening to.

And then you could see the red and the yellow. Everyone started changing their channel to the blue, because they wanted in on whatever was happening over there. And then they eventually swapped back and then they would go to the red. You know, you could kind of see the room shifting towards each other.

[00:14:06] Rachel Moore: Oh, interesting. 

[00:14:07] Liz Caruso: I am not at all a dancer. Like I could not even bop my head the way I would want anyone to see in public. But it was really well received. Again, not everyone did it, but even the people who were standing on the outside or chose to go into that room and look, it was a fun experience to watch how it was happening.

And ended up being a really good way to kind of end the day. 

[00:14:27] Rachel Moore: This all sounds amazing because you really did, you know, knowing you had to balance content, but you also really made sure and made space for people to decide what was going to happen with them next, so it seems like a really good balance with knowing they had to ingest content from the company. But then, okay, and then we’re gonna give you space to decide what happens. 

[00:14:48] Liz Caruso: It was a very good balance. So it was a three hour program in the morning, then lunch, then their walk, and then an hour in the afternoon.

So it was really only four hours of content. Within that time we fit about 20 speakers. And it was a mix of a long presentation from leadership, one or two leadership members, where they got to really show slides and get into the depth of the mission and vision that they wanted to share.

And we did a lot of these little five minute capturing what the different departments are doing in relation to this bigger mission already, or what they planned to do. And it gave everyone a peek into the organization. We did a few panels, I think we had two panels and there were actually two sessions that were one for 30 minutes and one that was about 15 minutes for Q&A for attendees to just ask whatever they wanted to ask about this topic that we were covering in the day. So it was a really good mix of the content itself. And if you think about it, we fit in a lot in only four hours of content.

And that gave us all this other time to be able to do all these other things. So it was a really good event, people left very happy. And I just think that flow more organizations really need to think about, how you could do that instead of our session, our session snack, blah, blah, blah, for the rest of the day until people’s minds explode.

[00:16:05] Rachel Moore: That’s right. We don’t want the exploding minds. They have to come back and do work. 

[00:16:09] Liz Caruso: Yes, exactly. And that was their heavy day of the week, which I thought was great, you know? Even the heaviest day had plenty of thought and design and intention into it, which I think the employees really appreciate.

[00:16:21] Rachel Moore: Were there key individuals or teams, whether for your own organization or your client, that made this event possible that you wanna say thank you to? 

[00:16:29] Liz Caruso: Of course our team is always amazing and people say never to work with your family and friends, but I completely disagree. My right hand on this event was my sister Rachel Desgoli. She has worked on several events with us. And my brother John was also at the event with us and I got a lot of feedback, “I’ve never seen a guy actually work so well in the events industry just pick up and know what to do.” And then we had Alina Powell and Annette Nafe and Andrea Decente with us on our team, which of course that is what makes it happen is the people who are running the production of it.

You could do all the planning in advance, but if your people on site suck, then you’re up a creek. We worked with Sound Off, which was the silent DJ company. The venue was Prince George Ballroom in New York City, which a lot of people have not heard of. It’s a beautiful venue and they donate their profits to an organization that builds affordable housing in New York City. And then we did our lunch at Black Barn, which is a block away. It’s a beautiful restaurant. They have three levels and they also have a component of their business. The executive chef has learned how to make food shelf stable for like, I don’t know, a hundred years or something. And so he’s been doing this and then every time there’s a disaster or something, they donate those meals to people who need food immediately. And it’s a much more kind of sustainable way to get really good, healthy food to people in disaster zones or in emergency areas. And it’s a really cool project that he’s working on. 

So it was nice to have these organizations that are beautiful venues and delicious food, but then also have all this social good component to them. And I think we printed, you know, cards for each of the venues to let attendees know why these spaces were chosen.

I think that we’re all very stuck in doing things the way we’ve always done them. And I think for event planners, speaking as one myself, we tend to be very kind of control focused. We like when everything is the way we want it and in our control. And we felt very out of control the last several years as Covid has kind of ruined our industry and turned things upside down.

And I am seeing more and more planners who, as they get back to in-person or as they consider hybrid, they’re going to what feels comfortable to them. They’re very excited to just get back to what they were doing. But the problem is that the world has changed dramatically in the last few years.

So I think we have to become comfortable with being uncomfortable. We have to try new things. But instead of being obsessed with this idea that like you have to innovate, you have to do something different. I think really it’s just about, again, being kind of obsessed with what your attendees are obsessed with and thinking through the intentionality of how could you deliver an experience to them that’s something that they want to go to and that will be transformative for them. That will create a lasting impact. 

That doesn’t mean you know that they become new people, but you know, it’s like they remember something. There’s something that they can grab onto. There’s a new person they met that becomes their work bestie at the next event.

I mean, nothing I talked about is really super innovative. It’s just like thinking about it a little bit more. And I think that we all could benefit from a little more of that strategy and also our mental health could really use a nice boost by not always feeling stressed to just do a billion things. 

[00:19:48] Rachel Moore: I’m gonna wrap up with our last few personal questions.

Can you name an item that you forgot for a work event that caused you some panic? 

[00:19:58] Liz Caruso: Oh goodness. Well, so I’m a light carrier, I never carry stuff with me. So I am probably the only person you’ll ever interview who does not take an emergency event planner kit to any event. So there’ve been all kinds of times where I’m like, oh shoot, I gotta print something or I should have brought a printer or like, darn, I should have brought however, I always find a way to easily work it out with the venue or, you know, I mean these are not like impossible resources to find. But yeah, pretty much every event I’m like, ah, I probably should have brought that. Oh, well we’ll do it this other way.

[00:20:32] Rachel Moore: Is there anything you’re listening to, watching or reading these days that you can’t put down? 

[00:20:39] Liz Caruso: I would say well ChatGPT, I’m sure everyone is talking about, but AI in general is something that I’m just super interested in.

I just keep going back to these tools and saying like, Draw a picture that looks like this style and is blah, blah, blah, to see what it comes out with. But actually I have been very inspired by some things specifically on ChatGPT, where I’m like, what if there was an event for this audience? What would it look like? And there’s some really good ideas that it pops out. So I think that’s very interesting. 

We have a podcast ourselves called Cut the Shit, Cue the Genius, which is about being real with the events industry and Dahlia and Michelle, who are the other two voices on the podcast are, I mean, there’s really interesting things that we talk about on that show that they always have some really good ideas.

And so we have these conversations at the end. I sometimes feel like, I’m not sure I’m part of this. Like they’re so much smarter than me and then I’m the one going back and being like, okay, so how can we use that in an event? What can we do? And so a lot of my ideas are coming from either what comes from them or our guests or the people who are listening, because that’s a live show.

And it’s really I, it’s like bingeable. I keep going back thinking about how could I use these nuggets at something. 

[00:21:50] Rachel Moore: That actually answers my other question. I was gonna ask if there’s a particular piece of media that you’re finding interesting, but it sounds like it’s your own podcast, which that is the best podcast to have ever.

So that’s amazing and our listeners will have to check that out. And finally we do want our listeners to be able to check you out online. Where can they find and follow you? 

[00:22:09] Liz Caruso: The techsytalk community on Facebook is probably the best place to connect with our community. LinkedIn is the best place to connect with me, so linkedin.com/in/lizkingevents.

Otherwise I’m on all social media, including even Threads although you can hear in my voice how excited I’m about that. So I’m on all social and would love to connect with people wherever they are, would be great. 

[00:22:40] Rachel Moore: Liz lets us Skill Up this week with a heartfelt and very relatable reminder that less really can be more when it comes to event planning:

[00:22:48] Liz Caruso: I’m trying really hard to talk to event planners about this idea of slowing down and scaling back, because I think our nature is just do more and more and more. We have to do more events, we have to do bigger, we have to do better. And I think really where we’re gonna be better for our clients is if we can calm down a little bit and take the time to think things through and take the time to create space to do something new. 

[00:23:13] Rachel Moore: Thanks again to Liz King Caruso for joining us on Event Experience, and thank YOU for listening. 

If you’re enjoying this show, we’d love to hear it!

Connect with us on social and subscribe, rate, and review us wherever you’re listening. Also, don’t forget to share the show with your colleagues and friends. 

You can find transcripts of each episode and key takeaways on bizzabo.com/podcasts.

On behalf of the team, thank you. We’ll gather again soon for a new episode of Event Experience.

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