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Make Your Event a Feast for the Senses

By M+E Staff

The International Live Events Association Denver Chapter embarked on a series that had members exploring the five senses of sight, smell, touch, taste and sound, along with the sense of style (ILEA’s Designer Showcase) and a “sixth sense” Halloween gathering, from July 2018 to June 2019. The series wrapped up with a Feast for the Senses gala and sparked an idea for Colorado Meetings + Events to examine if and how meeting and event planners are intentionally integrating the five senses into their gatherings and how it’s working. Here’s what we found out.

Connecting Thread for Association Meetings

ILEA Denver was onto something when fashioning a year’s worth of meetings and events focused on the senses, giving members and their guests something to look forward to and speakers and sponsors something tangible to latch onto. While sometimes the talks morphed into something more industry related versus the actual sense or the theme had to be stretched when a speaker cancelled the morning of a meeting, three gatherings dialed directly into the theme.

The kickoff event was Dinner in the Dark, a sensory depravation experience at Quebec Place at Fairmont. The event description promised an enticing evening: dining without sight on food prepared by Fresh Tracks Catering. “What will you notice? Will your sense of smell or hearing shift? Does the food taste differently? This type of experiential event is something many clients are interested in.”

For the September meeting, Tiffany Rose Goodyear, who owns and operates The Sentologist and Yours Truly Cupcake in Denver, worked closely with Greens Point Catering to create four unique spaces at Grant-Humphreys Mansion that featured décor, scent and cuisine that complemented one another. For example, in the spring room, notes of white tea, green leaf and jasmine harmonized with ricotta toast topped with peas, walnut and pesto. The fall room featured an Amish harvest scent featuring cloves, cinnamon and dried fruit paired with a fall salad and cotechino with polenta.

As a fun add-on for the Halloween season, ILEA played off people’s sixth sense by hosting an evening of fun at Denver Botanic Gardens Chatfield Farms with creepy cocktails, spooky snacks, a corn maze and mental illusionist Peter Donello. Also, a sense of style gathering in January looped in ILEA’s popular Designer Showcase and a Feast for the Senses gala took guests on a memorable journey throughout the night. “The incredible food, entertainment and decor kept guests engaged throughout the event. The texture of the linens, menu, bright colors on the stage, touching history boards and sparks from the entertainers all played to the different senses,” says ILEA Denver President Sabina Fechisin.

Weaving the Senses Together

“I integrate the five senses for meetings and events by thinking of the event as an immersive experience that tells a story. Once I know the goal and target audience of any given occasion, I work within the decisions that have been made regarding theme and décor, weaving together the choices with the lighting, music and food. Finally, I incorporate scent as the pièce de résistance,” shares Goodyear, who founded her second business The Sentologist in 2018. “By incorporating all five senses in a cohesive way, planners can reach their audience on the most intimate of levels to create lasting memories.”

Goodyear was hired by Dovie Lopez of ACCESS Colorado to create a unique scent experience to complement one of her largest events. “I used a scent called Winter Tree to enhance the Into the Forest theme. Coupled with over-the- top décor and bespoke catering, the scent was the keystone to transporting the more than 700 guests from a hotel into a forest,” she says.

While sight, sound and sometimes catering fit into the overall theme of an event, Goodyear suggests that touch and smell are the two elements most often forgotten. “Social and themed events generally do a good job of at least activating the senses cohesively; corporate meetings and trainings is where there is the most room for improvement. … For example, I’ve used fragrances with lots of citrus and top notes for early morning meetings because they are bright and invigorating. When creating a more relaxing atmosphere and borrowing from the principles of aromatherapy, I use calming notes of lavender and jasmine.” 

Plus, scent can be a fairly inexpensive way to enhance the experience and influence the mood and vibe of a space.

While all events—from a one-year-old’s first birthday party to the Olympics—engage all five senses, Goodyear suggests there is a lack of strategic thought behind integrating the senses in a way that better engages the guest. “In my experience and research, scent activation is rarely considered during the planning phase. Arguably, our sense of smell is what makes us human, and it is the sense most closely tied to memories.”

She recommends considering how a venue smells, as newer venues can smell of recent building materials while older venues gather scents of their own over the years. Next, when choosing florals and food, give credence to the aromas they produce.  

Yours Truly Cupcake, Goodyear’s other business, was founded on the idea that they don’t sell cupcakes but an experience beyond just taste. “With a background in marketing, I was always interested in telling a story through touch, taste and smell using our signature bite-size desserts and display design using our clients as inspiration,” she explains.

“We like to create unexpected ways to retrieve our treats sparking the sense of touch, whether that’s pulling a dessert off of a display, unhooking the treat or pulling a string to retrieve a hanging snowflake cookie. We use sugar to stimulate taste and smell by creating confectionary surprises, such as the melt-in-your mouth quality of freshly spun cotton candy with an adult twist of alcohol-infused sugar.” Goodyear adds, “Creating these immersive sensory experiences enliven a brand and allow guests’ imaginations to expand into lasting memories.”

Demonstrating the Senses at Work

With offices in Denver and Salt Lake City, Utah, Eclectic Hive sponsored design and décor for a Wedding International Professionals Association (WIPA) Utah Chapter event in July 2019. “We went in the direction of sensory experiences to showcase how you can be creative at an event and get guests talking more,” explains Jillian Burnham, a designer working from the firm’s Utah office.

The three sensory experiences Eclectic Hive incorporated included a wine-themed hand scrub station, blind wine tasting/smell test and wine stomp. “We chose to incorporate wine-themed sensory experiences because this event was held at La Caille in Salt Lake City, a high-end French restaurant and winery. It also helped create excitement around the new harvest they were promoting that evening,” Burnham says.

Chapter members were greeted with a cocktail hour that incorporated the blind smell test and hand scrub station. “The purpose of the hand scrub was not only to get their hands feeling clean and beautiful before sitting down for dinner,” she says, “but to also get the guests talking to each other and getting to know each other on a better level beyond your typical ‘How is business going?’ conversations at your average cocktail hour.

Eclectic Hive provided various essential oils, spices, fruits, salts, sugars and more for guests to create their own concoction in individual bowls meant for mixing and scrubbing. They then went to the rinsing station, where an assistant poured fresh water over their hands and provided a fresh towel. 

For the blind smell test, guests were provided blindfolds and a glass of La Caille wine, while the winemaker conducted a smell test using a kit that contained approximately 100 vials of essences to help detect “notes” in the wine.  

After dinner and the educational portion of the program, La Caille served dessert while Eclectic Have put out half barrels of grapes. “By now, the guests are loosened up, having fun conversation, and get to remove their shoes and stomp the grapes together,” Burnham explain. “It provided a good laugh to end the night on, not to mention the foot-rinsing station so they left with exfoliated and clean hands and freshly rinsed feet.” 

Well-Rounded Guest Experiences

Eclectic Hive and Goodyear also joined forces with Denver-based Imprint Events Group on a DMC Network client happy hour event in July 2019. Nicole Marsh, CMP, DCMP, a partner at Imprint, says they “stumbled on the idea [of utilizing the senses] as we were pushing ourselves to include a variety of unique elements, and then somehow tie them back together.”  

Heather Basch, CMP, director of accounts—destination services for Imprint Events Group, adds: “Creating an event with the theme of the five senses forced us to look at the event from the perspective of engaging the whole person with each event element … For example, catering is not just about how good food can taste, but how the food looks on the plate you’ve chosen, how it smells paired with the floral centerpiece or room fragrance, the sound of it being cooked and the feel of the passed appetizers. Lounge vignettes not only complement the theme with their color and style, but considering how the texture of the fabric plays into the experience guest interactions.”

Held at Skylight, a 4,000-square-foot event space with an urban industrial feel in Denver’s Santa Fe District, the Celebrate the Senses event was a sensory extravaganza with a sixth sense of intuition and perception mixed in.

For sight, Marsh suggests “visually intriguing décor or surprise elements that make someone pause to look longer.” For instance, instead of a ho-hum range of culinary treats, The Inventing Room provided a color appetizer station and dessert station with floating truffles, Willy Wonka’s edible wallpaper, and white chocolate caviar and edible flowers.

Hearing was ironically in the form of silent disco headphones so music and content could run simultaneously. The three channels on the headphones, each displaying their own color, provided attendees a way to find other participants who were on the same channel. The entertainment, DJ Jordan & Troika, offered a cellist’s take on hip-hop beats backed up by a professional DJ. For touch, Eclectic Hive presented its popular build-your-own scrub station with a variety of organic ingredients, and Goodyear discussed scenting events at an educational sessions.

One of Imprint Events Group’s newest entertainment options, The Shades, examined the sixth sense of intuition and perception. The Shades are Imprint’s twist on The Bumbys, which don’t have the ability to speak but they are always watching and observing. 

The key to presenting a sensory gathering means taking an intentional approach regarding “how you are going to engage and stimulate the attendees with each sense throughout their experience,” says Basch. “I don’t think clients are actively thinking about it, but attendees can certainly feel it when they are at an event, as it becomes a more well-rounded experience.” 

From a Planner’s Perspective

Devon Binder, CMM, CMP, who owns Denver-based Red Door Alliances, attended the DMC Network client event, notes the clients in her portfolio typically are not thinking about tapping all the senses. “We are more trying to figure out how to deal with the increasing cost of A/V and food and beverage while still providing a good experience without increasing the cost of the conference.”

However, she believes that hotels could carve out a niche by assisting with integration of the senses. “I am not saying that it should all be on them, but if they had some ways to assist I think they would shine and could stand out some … something like a sense menu.”    

Angela Coleman, a corporate manager of events and meetings based in the Denver office of KPMG LLP, notes that as her attendees continue to become more savvy, there is a desire for more experiential events. “Every fall, I plan an event for my partners and their spouses, and they love it when I push them a little out of their comfort zone. They don’t want to just attend an event (insert boring, rinse and repeat dinner, drinks and networking), they want an interactive evening.”

This past fall, Coleman went all out with an event held at 23rd Avenue Sculpture Studio, a metal working art space in the city’s Sloan’s Lake neighborhood. The studio is willing to do private buyouts and clear out the metal working equipment and torches. Guests pre-registered by selecting one interactive activity, such as plasma cutting, metal working, stained glass, terrarium creations, chocolate truffle rolling, etc.

“They loved it! It was a perfect September evening that included a beautifully set table and amazing food, with the backdrop of a gritty studio (complete with toolboxes and equipment hanging on the walls). We were so grateful to partner with Catering by Design for our creative ‘torched’ menu, tablescapes and a couple of the interactive stations,” Coleman says. “I think one of the reasons that our guests enjoyed the evening so much was due to incorporating all five senses.”

Renaming the Senses for Events

“E5 Events’ philosophy is to ignite the senses with every event and program. Just as we all have the five senses, we believe that each event should also have its own five senses that relate to the client’s brand and also the guest demographic,” explains Wesley Guzman, vice president of E5 Events, a destination management company that is part of Centennial- based Epicurean Group.

E5 Events has renamed the five senses to better fit an event setting, and Guzman provided several examples to illustrate.

Visibility (Sight): At Empower Field at Mile High, E5 had the Thunderstorm Skydiving Team land at the stadium in front of 5,000 guests. Immediately following a spirited performance from the Denver Broncos Cheerleaders, the “voice of God” suggested that guests look up and witness three skydivers beginning to descend at 12,000 feet and carrying company-branded flags.

Resonance (Hearing): Just as hearing a song can take people back to a certain place and time, a certain sound can be a reminder of a specific event experience. “One example of how we love creating resonance is by crossing musical styles for entertainment. A hip-hop cellist is definitely memorable. A group of stylish classical musicians playing a mash up of Bach & AC/DC or Beethoven and Britney Spears is creating a memory that will resonate for a very long time,” Guzman says.

Sapidity (Taste): His favorite example of sapidity is a Star Wars-themed event that involved food stations that intertwined the intergalactic theme. Guzman says, “All stations were on point, but my favorite part was the dessert buffet that was inspired by Cloud City in ‘The Empire Strikes Back.’ The wide array of desserts was all white and fluffy; mini-milkshakes topped with white cotton candy and house-made Snowballs also were right on theme. And as for the house-made Italian sodas, we created the Boba Fizz, Jawa Juice and, of course, Vader-Aid.” 

Tangibility (Touch): At an event held at Lynn Britt Cabin in Snowmass, E5 Events brought in a wolf expert to educate guests about wolves and conservation. “The best part was the visit from Spirit, an actual wolf that guests could interact with, pet and even hug. Throughout the evening, guests could not believe they were touching an actual wolf and were able to take photos for proof!”

Essence (Smell): Guzman notes that an essence that “highlights the event without overpowering it is a fine line but with the right focus, it takes the event to another level.” For example cinnamon sticks and apple cider exude winter, pumpkin spice hints at fall, a campfire conjures up summer and rain’s clean smell is calming in spring.

How is the meetings and events industry doing in regard to integrating the senses? Guzman observes that gatherings tend to focus mostly on the visual aspect and are more indifferent to the menu, entertainment, etc., which is a missed opportunity. “If we are not igniting all five senses, then there is an element of the event that your guests may miss and not have the full experience all hosts and sponsors want attendees to walk away with.”