The Corporate Event Marketing Association (CEMA) provides a community for senior-level strategic event marketers and industry professionals to share their knowledge and best-practices. The organization’s annual CEMA Summit event was held July 21-23, 2019 at the MGM Grand Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada.
The conference promised a lineup focused on knowledge-sharing, learning and relationship-building. This, paired with the opportunity to catch up with industry friends and participate in a host of fun activities, is something that puts the Summit on my personal “must attend” list.
The event experience began even before the conference kicked off. Upon arrival at the hotel, Summit attendees were greeted in the crowded hotel lobby and whisked away into the quiet sanctuary of the Stay Well Check-in lounge. Staff offered custom-labeled infused water as a welcome refreshment (temperatures outside were already well over 100 degrees, even at noon), and took care of check-in right there.
The welcome reception at Top Golf was a fun, albeit loud event, with a live band, bar, fun stations like an alcohol-infused cotton candy stand and of course the ability to hit a few balls. Proxfinity sponsored special “affinity” badges for the reception, with a detachable plastic part that lit up when two attendees had pre-selected the same pick-list answer to an ice-breaker question (such as “what is your spirit animal” – mine was bald eagle).
MGM also hosted an all-day pool party before the evening welcome reception for early arrivers who wanted a central gathering place to see friends or just hang out.
The Agenda: Innovation, Storytelling and Creative Thinking
The conference opened with Kim Gishler, CEMA president and CEO, sharing some hard-hitting statistics about the conference and its participants. Now in its 29th year, CEMA has seen an influx of new members resulting in significant growth in Summit attendance. The 2019 event was 17% larger than 2018, which had sold out (registration was capped based on available space).
CEMA Summit 2019 statistics:
- 450 attendees
- 190 first-timers
- Attendees are responsible for an estimated annual total of $1.36 billion event budget
- Attendees manage in the vicinity of 7,600 trade show exhibits each year
The event’s agenda focused on innovation, storytelling and creative thinking. Keynote speakers including Contently founder Shane Show, Marketing Showrunners founder Jay Acunzo, and professional storyteller Dawn Herscher put their own spin on ways to think, connect and build better relationships.
Opening presenter Snow talked about the power of combining perspectives to create cognitive friction — lateral thinking born of the friction between different ways of thinking. He said people often lean away from the disruption and tension that helps us grow because it’s uncomfortable. And much of that is because people tend to take any kind of challenge personally. He advocated for intellectual humility, or the ability to transcend one’s current way of thinking.
Herscher told some of her own stories in the context of explaining how storytelling and shared experiences forge connections. One such moment was immediately forthcoming after her presentation — as a special surprise, the Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau brought Patti LaBelle out on stage to sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” It was a memorable experience, and the Philadelphia native’s performance merited a standing ovation.
Between sessions there were breaks and prize drawings courtesy of a number of generous event sponsors, and “Innovation Unveiled” segments. These brief presentations gave sponsors a chance to give a short, creative services pitch in the otherwise non-selling environment. And to help keep energy up, Choose Chicago provided a plethora of snacks during every break, including the highly addictive Garrett’s popcorn.
Attendees were also able to pre-register for an afternoon team-building breakout activity on Day One. Options included stuffing backpacks for Nevada’s homeless youth for the Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth (NPHY); mixology; boat building; salsa making; song creation; beer tasting, or just free time. I opted for the salsa making, and my team of four won the challenge (the secret to our success was just enough canned chipotle pepper to provide a smoky flavor, when combined with all our other chosen ingredients). As winners, we each got to take home a copy of the L.A. Cook Book courtesy of the Los Angeles Tourism & Convention Board.
On Day Two, Acunzo helped get people energized and inspired. Acunzo, a well-known expert in the content marketing field, talked about practical ways to innovate and think differently. One of the tips he gave attendees, building on the message delivered by Shane Snow the previous day, was to be open to new ways of thinking.
“Stop acting like experts and start acting like investigators,” Acunzo exhorted. “Conventional wisdom is whatever is most common, and all a best practice is, is a possibility that has previously been vetted. Find the best approach for your own business.”
Sessions on eSports, event intelligence, technology trends and more rounded out the agenda.
The two breakouts that stood out for me the most were Google’s Erika Brunke and Josh Jeffrey talking about building The Grove, Google’s experience center (which would in most companies be referred to as an executive briefing center), and Vivastream’s Nick Fugaro and client Amy Walter presenting a case study on how Atlassian realized a 1100% increase in content engagement from using Vivastream’s personalized trip reports. The common theme in both presentations, although approached and achieved in different ways, was the importance of the customer experience and how it drives loyalty and growth.
To wrap up the session portion of the event, Michael Dominguez, new president of ALHI (and former senior vice president and chief sales officer for MGM Resorts International) took the stage. He rattled off figures and statistics about the economy, hotel and convention capacities, tax laws, new technology and more, stressing how all of these come into play when forecasting for the future of the meetings and events industry. The good news? No big crashes are predicted in the near future.
Monday Evening — Las Vegas Hotel Dining Experiences
On Monday night, attendees could choose from evening events showcasing some of the premier hotels and experiences within Las Vegas. The descriptions were deliberately a bit vague to keep some of the activities a surprise, but after talking with a number of attendees the following day, it sounded like nobody was disappointed.
I attended the “Crystals and Bubbly” evening at The Cosmopolitan. Our evening began with the famous Verbena cocktail in the Chandelier lounge. The verbena is, at heart, a margarita — but one with a few surprises. Yuzu and ginger give it a refreshing Asian flair, but what really makes this drink so memorable is the Szechuan button flower garnish. Different people describe the sensation one gets after chewing on the flower as numbing, tingling, electric or just plain crazy. For me, it presented as a slight numbness followed by a short-lived feeling of added icy refreshment upon each sip of the drink — interesting but far from crazy, and gone before I had finished the drink.
After a short stop at another restaurant bar, we dined at Estiatoro Milos, known for its Mediterranean seafood. I opted for the grilled vegetable option over the lamb and steak served family-style, which everyone who tried them raved about. The side of asparagus was possibly my favorite thing on the table though — cooked perfectly.
From Milos, we were escorted upstairs to a penthouse suite on the 70th floor for Veuve Cliquot, District doughnuts, gluten-free cookies and what was gleefully referred to by some members of our group as “Crack Pie.” I later learned that the pie and cookies were made famous by New York-based Milk Bar, which also has a location in The Cosmopolitan — but that as of a few months back, the name had been changed to Milk Bar Pie. It was too sweet for my taste (all I could think of was condensed milk, or maybe a pecan pie without the pecans in it) but it was a big hit overall.
Other attendee experiences included helicopter flights over Las Vegas; dining in the dark at Aria; being serenaded while eating dinner on the stage area for “O” at the Bellagio; riding the LINQ Observation Wheel and ziplining over the promenade; a milkshake-making competition at The Venetian; bowling at The Palms, and dining around with Lip Smacking Foodie Tours.
Around the Conference
The Summit Marketplace demo station area was in the hallway within the general meeting and registration area, making it easy to stop and learn more. Caesars Entertainment was demonstrating its new Event Design Certification program in action, mapping out the journey to the opening of the new CAESARS FORUM (of which I had a hard hat tour after the conference ended – stay tuned for details on that!) and also sponsored a Heka Health walking challenge, incentivizing the long walks to, from and around the conference center by providing prizes to those who walked the furthest.
The Marketplace also had an area reserved for attendees to set up “Braindates” around specific topics, a barista making Express Kafeh coffee beverages to order and the option for a complimentary headshot provided by Two Dudes Photos. And Cupanion offered free water bottles with an innovative twist — every time you refill (tracked with a mobile app called Fill it Forward), the company gives clean water to someone in need.
Giving back is important to CEMA. Each year, the organization partners with local charities to help the Summit’s host community. This year, during the walk to the conference center space each morning, attendees were given a bag and could stop at three stations to fill them with food supplies for Three Square food back.
Getting Our Rock ‘n’ Roll On
For the closing reception, the group headed to an evening at The House of Blues at Mandalay Bay. Remember how I mentioned the song competition option as one of the fun breakout activities on Day One? Well, “The Tellers” (derived from storyteller) hit the stage along with pros from SongDivision to perform the brand new CEMA theme song.
After they finished to rousing applause, SongDivision and PSAV hosted a Rock ‘n’ Roll game show challenge. When we first entered, each attendee was given a wristband. When the game show was announced, everyone’s bracelet began to flash, indicating the color of the team to which you were assigned. The games included name that tune, name that artist and performance challenges — a great way to get people involved and interacting.
There was an afterparty back in the conference center following the song competition, but by that time I was exhausted. Maybe next year…
The Stay Well rooms at the MGM Grand combine wellness technologies from Delos, the Cleveland Clinic and Dr. Deepak Chopra with the aim of providing “an unprecedented health impact,” according to the hotel’s website.
Each room features an air purifier; aromatherapy; special lighting that is designed to help adjust travelers’ circadian rhythms; a shower infuser that reduces chlorine; a memory-foam mattress and a mobile app with wellness tips and tools. While due to a dearth of available electrical outlets I didn’t avail myself of the aromatherapy or lighting, the shower did seem to help combat desert-induced dry skin.
Having attended events at the MGM Grand in past, I knew to pack my walking shoes. The MGM Grand is a very large hotel, and its Conference Center is located close to a mile from the sleeping rooms, ensuring that event attendees get their daily steps in.
An expansion to the MGM Conference Center was completed in January 2018, adding 250,000 square feet to the existing space. The CEMA Summit program took place on the third floor, in the new space, which offers nice, large pre-function areas and hallways with plenty of room for coffee breaks.
The dates and location of CEMA Summit 2020 were unveiled at the close of the conference: July 26-28, 2020 at the new J.W. Marriott in Nashville.