Strictly Not Ballroom: The Reimagined Event Space

In his 2008, best-selling, pop-philosophy book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell introduced his readers to the “10,000 hour rule”. According to Gladwell – and the researchers on whose work he relied – 10,000 hours is the magic number when it comes to success. Put simply, the rule states that a person has to meaningfully practice something for at least 10,000 hours in order to become an expert at that thing.

From August 1960 to December 1962, The Beatles embarked on five extended tours to Hamburg, Germany, where they performed an estimated 1200 late night shows to mostly sailors, strippers, and gangsters at dank and dangerous clubs. It is widely held that during this time, they went from being a talented, but inexperienced band, to the ground-breaking, pop-music pioneers we know them as today, mainly because of the many thousands of hours of meaningful practice they were able to put in. Gladwell calculates it to be about 15,000 hours in total.

Whilst the exact calculation of 10,000 hours means little beyond being a nice, round number decided upon by researchers, the notion that expertise comes from experience and experience is borne of many dedicated hours of meaningful practice is one that is difficult to argue with, and indeed one that is very meaningful.

I have spent an inordinate amount of time in ballrooms and event venues throughout my life.

My first foray into events was in 1989 when I worked at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre (then called the World Congress Centre, Melbourne). After this, in 1992 , I became an assistant banquet manager at The Hilton. In 1995, I started my own business, EMG events.

For nearly 30 years, I have spent so much time carefully and strategically designing all sorts of event spaces – styling them, working with their individual characteristics, covering ugly carpets, negotiating a lack of power points – to make the best of what I have to work with. From a design and strategic perspective, this experience helps me to understand what needs to take place to truly reimagine a space and to bring it to life in a way that connects guests emotionally to the experience.

With the Open Space brief, I sat in that empty venue for three hours no infrastructure in place, just imagining what it could really be. One of the challenges that our client faced at the time was how do you see it as an inviting event space? When MCEC is empty, it is basically a transit hall in an airport terminal with no reason for people to mindfully stop and notice things like the view from the 18 metre high floor to ceiling windows – people are busy and navigating their way to a lift, an exit or a conference room.

This is where we knew there was an opportunity to create something that catered to a welcoming environment – as humans we are tactile, we like texture, colour, light – it is in our nature that if we see something that we like, our bodies and minds are drawn to it.

An example of this, EMG designed four vertical gardens that were attached to the existing 18 metre concrete pillars creating a vivid living element. 2000 specific plants were grown especially for the event, so they would hang naturally off the custom made pots and super lightweight water well system. For more information around what we created, please have a look at the full event case study here

I always ask what is the effect that we must cause? The aim of Open Space was to engage the events and business community to come into an event at the centre and totally expand their minds about how they thought about the MCEC. We needed to create the installation in such a way that it made them stop and think about it, and say ‘wow’ I wouldn’t have considered doing an event in here, and this space is not just for the 5000 person conferences, it can be an intimate, zoned, humanised space as well – all in two and a half hours!

It took about a year from concept to delivery for Open Space. That seems like a long time in comparison to the hypersonic nature of delivery of event management and experiential in this current market. The first three months was really about ensuring that what we were proposing was actually going to work. Most of our ideas on this scale hadn’t been done before.  Most people think you just go into a space and make it happen. But the key is that you must work in harmony with existing infrastructure rather than force a space to be something that it can’t – the space will work against you financially and logistically and you will get a diminished experience for the people attending.

The team for me is key, we have an event expert for rigging and trussing, an expert in greenery and build, an expert in design – all of whom must work together, and be able to deliver on a project of a massive scale. Convention centres these days are monolithic in size, and with that comes such a layer of complexity.

We work in such a risk adverse and litigious society, which has created a level of fear. That fear puts a blanket over the fire of creativity. Everyone working on an event must understand and mitigate risks. We have to be incredibly mindful of what we are doing, but not at the cost of experience and engagement.

During the event, I am so in the moment, one of my favourite things to do these days is to position myself near the entrance when doors first open - to hear the response from guests when they first enter the event space. I am taking the time to look at the audience to see their expression when they first try the menu, their faces as their eyes scan the space. Early on in my career I never took the time to stop and really observe how guests were interacting – I was too consumed looking for risks and watching the schedule to mindfully capture these moments.

I always allow the client to talk first during debrief. What I might deem as a detail that could have been done better, might have been a highlight for the client. Allow the client to give their evaluation and then allow yourself to be really honest about what you could have done better. If you have done everything within your power to be prepared, and some things don’t work out, and there will be things that go wrong – that is ok.

That is the nature of events, and that is the only way we learn.

The Open Space event has seen a significant shift in delegate engagement for the client on how they view the space and its potential. Visitor registrations for the event saw 1600 attendees in 2014 an increase of 1000 registrations from its first year of operation.

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