Success in the Digital Revolution: Lessons from PCMA Convening Leaders

February 16, 2017

Wendi Sabo

As VP, AV Brand Marketing, Wendi Sabo is responsible for providing the oversight, vision, and direction for the Freeman audio visual brands. For more brand experience insights, visit


Continuing the digital education, virtual reality officially arrived at the event industry at Convening Leaders. At the already bustling TechCentral, crowds eagerly awaited their turn to wear virtual reality headsets.

A picture may say a thousand words, but the looks on participants’ faces after a virtual reality demo told a thousand experiences. When applied to brand experiences, virtual reality will allow planners to take simulated tours of a site or explore how various design approaches look in a specific space. Marketers can employ the technology to show how their product or service works in the home or workplace, as well as create memorable experiences on an expo floor. 

Other cool tech on display included interactive holograms and the next generation of LED walls, touch screens, and signage, as well as leading-edge tracking and measuring tech like beacons. And let’s not forget the exhibition of the latest event apps, software, and niche social media. 

Experience before brand is the new normal

Another prevailing theme at Convening Leaders? People are more interested in an experience than an event. The age of the experience has begun.

At the “Predictions Event Professionals Need to Know” panel, Freeman CEO Joe Popolo talked about the reality that marketers are defunding everything but digital and live events. Successful event professionals will meet their audiences in that happy and customized middle of digital and live events. Popolo called this new paradigm “face-to-face marketing 2.0.”

That concept was illustrated by Freeman speaker and AV guru Mike Wohlitz during a session on budgeting, highlighting the 30 percent higher retention of information when mobile devices are part of a presentation. Gone are the days when participants are asked to turn off their mobile devices; now, marketers should encourage the use of mobile devices for social broadcasting, recording, interacting, or anything they want.

Beyond the innovative ideas and technologies on display, Convening Leaders was brimming with useful sessions on all topics in the brand experience category — from rebranding to maximizing ROI, show floor strategy to attracting talent, and everything in between. This comprised several dozens of labs, workshops, and even wellness sessions and a walking competition. In fact, corridors were often filled with meditating and stretching attendees, a Zen counterpoint to the digital integration people experience daily.

Highlighting the importance of extending the experience after hours, the event offered a number of entertaining special events for attendees outside the informative and educational sessions. Many social gatherings were held throughout the Austin Convention Center and beyond. And without a doubt, the closing party at the nearby Austin American-Statesman, an old newspaper warehouse-turned-venue, was unforgettable — complete with an outdoor performance by the timeless Texan Willie Nelson. 

Creating spaces for maximum engagement

It’s well known that PCMA truly understands the power of experience design and how spaces best suit audiences in brand experiences of all sizes and scopes. Therefore, Convening Leaders was a living case study of tapping into space for best attendee engagement, a supercharged event feng hui if you will.

A prime example was at the opening sessions, where the staging and seating were diagonal to the auditorium, creating more access points and a unique feel to the event. This effect was accentuated by lighted trusses that arched from the stage and ended at the back rows; and also drew attention to the speakers while generating a sense of intimacy. Add to this design three large, mobile LED screens and four projection screens behind the stage, always populated with content, and the crowds were captivated and relaxed at the same time during sessions.

Convening Leaders would continue to play with space throughout the conference, taking advantage of the immense Austin Convention Center. At locations like the Design Lab, Experience Insights Lab, or TechCentral, sessions started alongside product displays or casual seating areas. But this didn’t disrupt presentations at all since wireless headphones were available for audiences. In other sessions, a variety of tables, chairs, and couches were set in between stages and seat rows, allowing attendees a personalized choice of how they would interact with a speaker.

What's more, the convention center was teeming with casual lounges of different décor and atmosphere, including the always-packed Braindates lounge where like-minded attendees could meet up. The Overflow Lounge streamed content for any overcapacity sessions, while live streaming was available to remote audiences as far away as Asia. No one interested would be left out at Convening Leaders.

The key to good content

Content fuels the internet as much as it fuels experiences. Using the right content for the right audiences was another prevalent theme at many sessions. One of the most engrossing sessions on content came from Sourabh Kothari, founder and CEO of He explained that content is defined as the heart of what a brand experience is trying to convey. The event is just the packaging. Thus, experiences need to be designed for content, and not vice versa.

How do you create good content? Per Kothari, it’s simple: imagine the audience owns the content. Marketers are just there to package and deliver the content. Content stops working when the audience stops owning it.

Several thought leaders emphasized that all event professionals should consider themselves as content producers, not just at events but throughout the year.

Embracing the future with the tools of today

This year's Convening Leaders ended with a touching presentation by former child actor, Supreme Court clerk, and entrepreneur Isaac Lidsky. He shared his story of overcoming blindness as a teen and becoming a unique success story in business and community. One of his main points was that we must never replace the unknown with fear, or we will live in an inner darkness. Instead of worrying about the future, we must do what we can today with the tools available to us to move forward.

As highlighted at Convening Leaders, the tools to do what’s best for attendees — and the brand experience category — are within reach today. You could almost hear the voice of Matthew McConaughey throughout the conference saying, “Alright, alright, alright.”

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Partner Voices
Less than six months ago, Lisa Messina joined the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA) as the first-ever chief sales officer after leading the sales team at Caesars Entertainment. A 12-year Las Vegas resident, Messina is a graduate of Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration and serves on MPI International’s board of directors. TSNN had a chance to catch up with this dynamic leader and talk to her about her vision for the new role, current shifts in the trade show industry, creating more diversity and equity within the organization, and advice to future female leaders. Lisa Messina, Chief Sales Officer, LVCVA With Las Vegas becoming The Greatest Arena on EarthTM, what are some of the things you’re most excited about in your role? Our team was at The Big Game’s handoff ceremony earlier this month, and I couldn’t help but think, “We’re going to crush it next year!”  These high-profile events and venues not only drive excitement, but also provide unmatched opportunities for event planners. Allegiant Stadium hosts events from 10 to 65,000 people and offers on-field experiences. Formula 1 Grand Prix will take place in Las Vegas in November, after the year-one F1 race, the four-story paddock building will be available for buyouts and will also offer daily ride-along experiences that will be available for groups. And, of course, the MSG Sphere officially announced that it will open in September, ahead of schedule, with a U2 residency. It’s going to be the most technologically advanced venue as far as lighting, sound, feel, and even scent, and it will be available for buyouts and next-level sponsorships inside and outside. There’s no ceiling to what you can do when you’re doing events in Las Vegas.  Allegiant Stadium As the trade show and convention business returns to the pre-pandemic levels, what shifts are you noticing and how do you think they will impact the industry going forward? Our trade show organizers are very focused on driving customer experience. Most of our organizers are reporting stronger exhibitor numbers and increased numbers of new exhibitors, with trade shows proving to be almost or above 2019 levels. Now our organizers are really doubling down on driving attendance and focusing on the data to provide that individualized, customized experience to help attendees meet their goals and get the best value. Some companies continue to be cautiously optimistic with their organizational spend when it comes to sending attendees, but I think it will continue to improve. As the U.S. Travel Association makes more progress on the U.S. visa situation, we also expect a growing influx of international attendees. What are some innovative ways the LVCVA helps trade show and convention organizers deliver the most value for their events? We focus on customer experience in the same way that trade show organizers are thinking about it. We got rave reviews with the West Hall Expansion of the Las Vegas Convention Center (LVCC), so over the next two years, we will be renovating the North and the Central halls, which will include not just the same look and feel, but also the digital experiences that can be leveraged for branding and sponsorship opportunities.  Vegas Loop, the underground transportation system designed by The Boring Company, is also a way we have enhanced the customer experience. Vegas Loop at the LVCC has transported more than 900,000 convention attendees across the campus since its 2021 launch. Last summer, Resorts World and The Boring Company opened the first resort stop at the Resorts World Las Vegas , with plans to expand throughout the resort corridor, including downtown Las Vegas, Allegiant Stadium and Harry Reid International Airport. The LVCVA also purchased the Las Vegas Monorail in 2020, the 3.9-mile-long elevated transportation system that connects eight resorts directly to the convention center campus. This is the only rail system in the world that integrates fares directly into show badges and registration. For trade show organizers, these transportation options mean saving time, money and effort when it comes to moving groups from the hotels to LVCC and around the city. Also, the more we can focus on building the infrastructure around the convention center, the more it supports the customer experience and ultimately supports our trade show organizers. Scheduled to debut in Q4, Fontainebleau Las Vegas will offer 3,700 hotel rooms and 550,000 square feet of meeting and convention space next to LVCC.  What are some of the plans for advancing DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) within your organization? We’re currently partnering with instead of working with a leading consulting firm, to lay the foundation and create a solid DEI plan and be the leader when it comes to DEI initiatives. The heart of that journey with the consulting firm is also talking to our customers about their strategic approaches to DEI and driving innovation in this space.  What are your favorite ways to recharge? My husband and I have an RV and we’re outdoorsy people. So, while we have over 150,000 world-class hotel rooms and renowned restaurants right outside our doorstep, one of my favorite things to do is get out to Red Rock Canyon, the Valley of Fire, and Lake Mead. Five of the top national parks are within a three-hour drive from Las Vegas, so there’s a lot you can do. We love balancing the energy of Las Vegas with nature, and we’re noticing that a lot of attendees add activities off the Strip when they come here.  Valley of Fire What advice would you give to women following leadership paths in destination marketing? I think it’s about being laser-focused on what you want to accomplish; building a team around you that lifts you and helps you achieve your goals; and being humble and realizing that you do it as a group. No one gets this done alone. Thankfully, there are a lot of women in leadership in this organization, in our customers’ organizations, and in this city that we can be really proud of. We’re a formidable force that is making things happen.   This interview has been edited and condensed. This article is exclusively sponsored by the Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Authority. For more information, visit HERE.