As a teenager in Roanoke, VA, I would hang out with my friends in Crossroads Mall.
We would visit our friends who were working in various stores. We’d visit Robby in the Hallmark Card and Candy Store located in the mall’s main courtyard. We’d visit Sherry in the Hobby Shop. Tom in JCPenny. Mark in the photography store. Ken and Jill in Levis. And many others.
We would frequent Hickory Farms to snack on free samples. We’d listen to new songs in Sam Goody Music. We’d play video games in the arcade. We’d sit around the fountains and talk. We’d watch summer movies in the theater. And we’d partake in the seasonal events and competitions.
It was our gathering place.
Our Love-Hate Relationship With Malls
Malls: Americans have a love-hate relationship with them.
Those who love to shop adore them. Those who don’t abhor them.
Americans love to consume. And malls offer us a wide variety of options to do that.
Interestingly enough, people don’t usually hang out in large department stores. Walmart, Target and Macy’s don’t attract the general public in ways malls do.
Why Americans Love Malls
Why do Americans love malls?
They are safe, interesting public spaces for socializing. They protect us from the elements. They are open to everyone. They are free to enter. There have a lot seating in bright, open spaces.
Malls provide a doorway into a self-customized, personalized experience. It’s completely user-generated: you choose which store to enter, how long to stay and what you do there. In many cases, you can “try” the content (try on clothes, listen to music, sample food) before making a purchase. The mall experience is deeply personal.
And malls usually have the “cool factor.” They change with the seasons. They provide celebrations, concerts, cooking classes, actor meet-in-greets and book signings. They are event driven.
Malls are places with repeat loyal customers. Visitors feel ownership over their experience there.
Conference Lessons From The Mall
Successful malls have cracked the code to becoming hubs of communities. Here’s what conference organizers can learn from the mall.
1. Malls provide a variety of experiences.
Malls support browsing, eating, laughter and fun. They have few boundaries except condoning violence and offensiveness.
Few conferences offer an experience that as soon as you enter the venue, you are encouraged to explore and create your own unique experience. Few offer a main courtyard space where you can gather with your colleagues with plenty of seating, eat, browse, laugh, talk and have fun. Few allow you to sample the upcoming sessions with bite size talks before you commit yourself to a 60- or 90-minute session.
2. Malls put the customer first.
Consumers ask, “What does this mall have to offer me?” If the answer is nothing, there’s no hope for a connection or sale.
Do conference organizers put the registrant first? Meeting professionals would do well to let their participants’ me needs drive the planning process. What does each square foot of your venue have to entice participants to explore? Does your floor plan and marketing entice paying customers to wander around each corner, visit each session and congregate with others?
3. Malls provide content that connects personally to people.
The mall provides stuff to help you be hip, current, attractive and to get ahead. The entire mall structure is to provide something for your needs. Staff goes out of their way to help you find something to fit your needs and desires instead of announcing the daily deals and a standardized demonstration of an exhibit.
Malls are about pulling in customers offering enticing experiences. Conferences are about pushing content and communication.
4. Malls offer current, changing contemporary experiences.
Want to experience in a physical space what is in fashion, what book is top of people’s reading list or what movies are showing? Go to the mall. It’s a branded experience that is constantly changing and updating. Consumers go back to see the latest, greatest trends. It’s not a one-size fits all experience.
Many conference experiences don’t offer that same connection to our professional lives. Many conferences are not the place to go to find what is in fashion, what’s on the reading list or how to get ahead.
5. Mall architecture supports users.
Malls provide open central spaces with a variety of seating. Food courts with options. Private dressing rooms. And big glass store windows so you can see out of the store into the central spaces.
Conferences usually don’t. Conferences stick sessions in classrooms without windows down long, boring hallways. Signs with small fonts are placed on easels in front of rooms. Nothing entices the participant into these spaces.
6. Malls provide competing content.
Every store in a mall provides a window display showcasing their wares to pull people into them. Stores compete for your attention and time.
Conference sessions are not designed to compete. They are hidden behind fabric-covered walls, so visitors don’t get a lot of eye-candy enticing them to visit. They have to buy first, and then play “Let’s Make A Deal” trying to decide what’s behind each curtain or box! Conferences should showcase their sessions beyond the 50-word description in marketing materials.
Mall Science Applied To Conferences
Conferences can learn a lot from malls. The biggest is, “What does this conference have for me, the participant?”
Conference organizers should focus on finding ways to pull in participants and provide solutions to their problems.
What are some other tips conferences can learn from malls? What’s your favorite mall experience that can be translated into a conference experience?