The leaders of big companies will tell you they need to connect with others like themselves, through casual conversations that lead to personal and business growth. That’s why they attend business dinner after business dinner.
But they’ll also tell you they don’t actually want to go, says Dan Kraemer, Founder and Chief Design Officer of IA Collaborative, whose design and innovation consultancy helps the world’s leading brands uncover new opportunities and design disruptive products, services and business models. Through extensive design research in the executive travel and hospitality space, IA has learned that traditional “VIP” executive dinner events – which are often set in bland ballrooms or cramped restaurants – rarely lead to the valuable and meaningful conversations executives are hoping to have. That’s why he and his colleagues decided to plan something different: a “thought leadership” dinner at a unique house they booked on Airbnb for their stay during a conference.
The result was an event that felt personal and familiar, rather than forced and business-like.
“This prototype event represents the future of how people will use Airbnb for Work. We wanted a setting that would help us create a tailored and memorable experience” Kraemer says. “Had this been held at a hotel ballroom or a restaurant, I’m confident we would not have had the same outcome.”
For the 2019 Design Thinking Conference in Austin, IA Collaborative booked a home through Airbnb to have a comfortable place to stay and a great work space for their team to sync after a day at the conference. They decided to also take advantage of their beautiful home to host a dinner for 15 leaders from Fortune 500 companies. The home had an open living plan, big loft, screened-in porch, and fire pit just outside that made for a great relaxing space and created a new and exciting environment for the leaders to take part in what Kraemer fondly describes as a “live business prototype” – a behind-the-scenes look at how IA Collaborative prototypes new offerings, such as this event experience, for its clients.
Research led to a carefully curated event
Executives are known to be cynical about these types of events, Kraemer says. They expect a kind of necessary slog through a boring experience that wastes precious time one could be spending with family. To turn that around, you have to build a positive experience—let them know, all along, the ways in which it will be different.
Kraemer’s team reached out to attendees 3 weeks before the dinner to ask the leaders what they wanted and what challenges they were facing. The team used that info to create a “pursuit panel” on a 4’x8’ piece of plywood, complete with removable “pursuit” cards that revealed individual goals and the actions people were taking. The idea was to stimulate conversations that could lead to new connections between attendees.
When people arrived, they were invited up to the loft where the prototype was created. They talked about it throughout the evening. “They were just as interested in the making of the event as they were in the insights that came out of it,” Kraemer says.
But the real value was in natural conversations that arose from the sense of intimacy and belonging that this new type of event created. As the evening rolled along, the environment primed the conversation. People flowed outside to the patio, where they shared their experiences.
An event like this can be an inflection point in creating connections, Kraemer notes. It’s not the only thing, but it’s one of the important points along the way. Booking a room at a restaurant and expecting people to let their guard down simply won’t do that.
Something more than another corporate dinner
The IA team broke out tables into three separate seating areas: the dining room, living area, and screened porch. Smaller tables would lead to more casual conversations, they believed. A pin handed out to each leader matched the color of a succulent or flower placed on the tables. It let people know who they’d be sitting with.
“We made sure those connections between people who share the same challenge happened in a way that felt natural,” Kraemer says, “not forced.”
Something else the IA team learned is that people want to help shape the experience. They were invited into the kitchen, and to explore the house. They weren’t just spectators—they were participants, Kraemer says. “We created a dinner party rather than a corporate dinner. It was an inviting space, in which guests actually wanted to linger until the late hours.”
They even helped in keeping the fire pit going outside. As humans with shared goals in a comfortable and familiar setting, barriers went down, vulnerabilities were revealed, and sharing became more meaningful.
“Because people were in a space that’s comfortable and familiar—because it’s a home—they went from business-speak to something that is more personal,” Kraemer recalls. “Even though it was deliberate, it made a very fluid evening of both business as well as personal connections.”