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Transform Meeting Design by Focusing on Wellness

By Melissa Sersland

When guests arrived for the opening night of the 2018 Health and Wellness Forum (HWF) in Chicago, they didn’t come dressed in business casual for a typical cocktail event. Instead, they came ready to “sweatwork.”

During this wellness-centered reception, attendees completed a 90-minute workout, including a cardio dance class, a stretch and core power session and a cool down with meditation. They were then treated to healthconscious bites and drinks.

Chicago-based Kristina Tarantino, CMP, designed the inaugural HWF to model wellness-driven event design. Last year, she offered an afternoon yoga and guided meditation session between educational sessions; had an essential oil diffuser running in the event space and treated attendees to blowouts at a styling bar (“because when you look good, you feel good,” Tarantino says). In addition to founding the HWF, now in its second year, Tarantino also co-founded her own company, MeetingHealthy, which provides resources for all things healthy including a network to help planners book wellness providers and hotels specializing in wellness design.

The demand for wellness-focused events is on the rise, with many industry professionals calling for a change to the heavy meals and sedentary days that are typical of meetings. As planners rethink menu options and group activities, Tarantino says the industry is challenging a norm that has been bad for attendees’ health—and for business.

“Corporations spend all this money to send people to events, but they’re getting less than 50 percent productivity because of the way the event is set up,” she says.

Getting attendees, and planners, to rethink meeting design can be challenging. But as awareness of “sweatworking” (so named for the combination of exercise and networking) increases, so does demand.

“There is some resistance to change, because we’re so used to doing things the way they’ve been done,” Tarantino says. “People resist it, but then they try it and never want to go back to the way it was done before because it was a great experience.”

The key, she says, is incorporating wellness in ways that make sense for the group.

“We’re not telling attendees, ‘You can’t drink, and you have to go to bed early,’” Tarantino says. “That’s not realistic. We’re just trying to change the way meetings are designed to weave in health and wellness.”

Glowga and Meditation

Incorporating yoga into events can be particularly in vogue. For groups wanting to infuse some extra energy into their yoga exercise, glowga, or glow-in-the-dark yoga, is a perfect fit.

“It’s like a neon yoga party,” says Livi Ritter, manager of event services for CTC Destination Management. “It’s almost like a yoga rave. It’s something out of the box that’s cool and gets everyone’s energy up.”

Customized guided meditation sessions are also gaining traction, especially for attendees who are newcomers to the yoga mat. Ritter recently assisted a client with organizing a guided meditation that included a beginner’s overview of the benefits of essential oils. Following the session, attendees received an essential oil gift bag to take home.

“The client wanted this to be something not just done at the event, but that attendees could take home and continue doing,” Ritter says.

Other planners have directly tied mindfulness to the attendee experience. Dina Fenili, director of sales and marketing at Kimpton Gray Hotel in Chicago, has helped coordinate thoughtfulness trainings for groups. “It’s so easy to get distracted and pulled away by email,” Fenili says. “Having a vendor come in for thoughtfulness training can help people think about how to show up in a meeting, pay attention to people, make eye contact and put down their cell phones.”

Planners can also foster reflection outside of meeting sessions. Tarantino has helped clients create wellness suites where guests can savor a quiet moment between meetings. The suites include charging stations, calming music and essential oil diffusers.

Substituting Healthier Dining Options

There’s a lot of opportunity to improve options for breaks, which tend to offer calorie-packed sweets and snacks, Tarantino says. The solution? Ditch the cookie and coffee breaks, she says, and swap in smoothies and fruit or a yogurt parfait.

Heidi Smith, CMP, founder and CEO of Integrative Wellness Studio and a certified corporate wellness specialist and certified integrative nutrition health coach, recommends replacing traditional favorites with healthier alternatives. Planners should keep the rainbow in mind when planning a menu, she says, since more colorful foods include more antioxidants to boost energy throughout the day. Swap processed grains for whole grains and incorporate lean proteins that are grilled, sautéed or baked and egg whites when possible, Tarantino says.

Several hotels already have standard healthy meeting break food and beverage options.

The Kimpton Gray’s executive chef Brian Millman has several popular healthy event break menus. The “Revive” package includes quinoa oatmeal, cold brew coffee, fruit, green tea Sencha shots and assorted Kind bars. Or, groups can nosh on the “Fresh + Clean” package of vegetable crudité, pressed juices, edible flowers and Zico coconut water.

Infused water is also a popular trend, Ritter says. Planners can give attendees water bottles with diffusers in them, or offer infused water bars throughout the event.

Gaining Buy-In

A common frustration in incorporating wellness is that when fitness activities are offered, sessions may be poorly attended.

Getting attendees excited about wellness can be a challenge, and wellness-focused sessions may not garner high participation the first time around, Tarantino says. However, once attendees and planners experience a healthier way to plan events, they tend to get hooked, she says.

“People don’t want to try [something new], but then they try it and love it,” Tarantino says. “That’s what’s so fun about the [HWF]. People tell me, ‘I never would have thought about this until you forced me to try it.’”

Many companies may assume incorporating wellness may be a costly endeavor, Smith says. However, partnering with local fitness coaches and vendors to design programming can keep costs down, she says.

Also, some wellness-centered changes come at no cost at all. For instance, an easy change to promote good sleep habits is to start sessions an hour later, Smith says. “It’s a challenge that so many people have—you’re on the road or out entertaining, you’re out late into the evening, and then you need to be ready by 7:30 or 8 in the morning for a session,” Smith says.

Knowing your audience is important to finding which fitness activities will be a hit, Tarantino says. Some groups will love a cardio dance class; others would prefer a workshop on mindfulness or a fun run. Adding walking to an event is an accessible way to promote activity, Smith says. A walking meeting, for instance, is a great way for smaller groups to stretch their legs and make their discussion mobile.

Finally, Smith recommends directly tying the event theme to wellness-centered sessions. “You’re never going to have 100-percent attendance at every session or event you do,” she says. “If you make it exciting, and if you have a direct tie-in with a theme or mission of the event, that will increase buy-in from attendees.”

These three local hotels promote healthy living for groups and business travelers.

Kimpton Gray Hotel
The hotel has a go-to yoga instructor and meditation leader planners can hire to lead group sessions. Forget your workout clothes? No problem. The hotel has a complimentary workout apparel lending program through a partnership with Lululemon. Guests can also do yoga in their hotel rooms thanks to complimentary yoga mats and wellness TV channels.

Radisson Blu Aqua Hotel, Chicago
Attendees can enjoy the hotel’s 8,000-square-foot fitness center, complete with a spinning facility, basketball court, weights and cardio machines, between breaks. The hotel also offers indoor and outdoor pools and maps for walking, biking and jogging in the area. Healthy meeting break food options include a build-your-own trail mix with coffee and tea service, and the “Fitness Break,” which includes fruit, energy bars and Greek yogurt with Vitamin Water.

Swissôtel Chicago
Executive chef Dan McGee and his team have designed meeting break menu options to optimize the mind and body throughout the day. This includes options like fruit crudité and hearty Bircher muesli for breakfast, salted nuts and a modified Caprese salad (cottage cheese, baby tomatoes and microbasil) for midday and chocolate-stuffed raspberries and glutenfree chocolate coconut macaroons for the afternoon. Swissôtel Chicago also swaps out soda for fruit-infused water. To get groups moving, a variety of classes and activities cater to a range of interests. These include low-impact exercises (no change of clothes needed), yoga, group personal training, a bootcamp class and an organized walk or run around Chicago.