Best of 2012: 22 Ideas, Trends, Mistakes, and Stories That Got the Industry Talking

December 12, 2012, 8:00 AM EST

Among the big stories of 2012 were (clockwise from top left) Ford's trade show booth, homeless people serving as South by Southwest hotspots, the Diamond Jubilee, Charlie Trotter's farewell meal, Hurricane Sandy, and Samsung's product launches.

Photos: Courtesy of Imagination, Courtesy of Bartle Bogle Hegarty, Barry LewisKipling Swehla Photography, Jika González, Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for Samsung

Social media stunts, 100th anniversaries, and D.I.Y. drink setups. A hurricane on the East Coast, a political firestorm across the country, and international attention on London. These are the trends, ideas, and news stories that had the event industry (and guests) talking.

Longest Product Rollout
Considered its largest marketing campaign, Samsung’s Galaxy SIII launch reached far and wide, touching cities from San Francisco to Philadelphia, Dallas to Boston. The effort started with pop-ups placed in high-traffic areas every weekend from June until September. Other promotions included a party at Comic-Con, 50 kiosks and 40,000 interactive posters allowing Galaxy SIII owners to download free content, screenings co-hosted with the Hollywood Reporter, concerts at the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, a booth at Lollapalooza, and two high-profile gatherings in New York and Los Angeles. An October concert with M83 in New York capped the festivities. The result? The Galaxy SIII was the best-selling phone worldwide in the third quarter of 2012, with 18 million handsets sold.

Greenest Industry Evolution

Early in the year, the Green Meetings Industry Council announced new industry sustainability standards. The guidelines, meant to give event planners more measurable specifications for planning and producing greener events, encompass nine sectors: audiovisual, accommodations, communications, destinations, exhibits, food and beverage, meeting venues, on-site office, and transportation. Because the standards are meant to apply to all events, from small gatherings to city-wide conferences, they are organized in a modular nature, allowing planners and vendors to focus only on categories that will directly affect their own work and carbon footprint.

Biggest Industry Black Eye
The news that the General Services Administration had spent $823,000 of taxpayer money on a lavish Las Vegas conference brought increased scrutiny to the event and meeting industry. The G.S.A. scandal, as it was later known, saw the head of the agency resign, two senior officials dismissed, and four managers put on leave. In reaction to the public fiasco, the government has cut meetings and travel spending. In one example, the Air Force canceled its annual information-technology conference this summer in Montgomery, Alabama, which was expected to draw 6,000 attendees. The G.S.A. itself announced an agency-wide review of conferences and events. Several amendments and bills were introduced to cut meetings and travel spending by 20 percent, cap agency spending for conferences at $500,000, and require regular reporting on event money allocation and spending.

Biggest Fund-raising PR Fiasco
The Susan G. Komen for the Cure-Planned Parenthood controversy, which saw Komen opt to cut funding for breast cancer screenings performed at Planned Parenthood, resulted in a flurry of top-level resignations and a slew of canceled (or postponed) fund-raisers. In the fallout, local affiliates are still struggling to repair the nonprofit’s image—and distance themselves from the decisions made by the national office—as attendance and donations have dropped more than 25 percent at recent events.

Most Visible Venue Renaming

After Eastman Kodak filed for bankruptcy, the Hollywood & Highland Center theater named for the company—home of the Oscars—became the Dolby Theatre.

Biggest Natural Disaster
The floods, power outages, and transportation shutdowns brought by Hurricane Sandy on October 29 forced planners in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Washington, and Boston to cancel or postpone major conferences, fund-raisers, and other gatherings in the week that followed. As venues and vendors scrambled to resume operations, a major concern was the long-term impact on the industry from lost business.

Most Controversial Guerrilla Marketing Stunt
The “Homeless Hotspots” at this year’s South by Southwest Interactive conference in Austin, Texas, backfired in a big way, prompting a wave of outrage and social chatter. Bartle Bogle Hegarty’s “charitable experiment,” which paid homeless people to act as wireless hotspots, was criticized for being “exploitive,” “dystopian,” and “degrading.”

Most Impactful Legal Change
At the start of 2012 the Obama administration began requiring the disclosure of payments made to doctors for research, speaking engagements, consulting, travel, and entertainment. Drug companies are now obligated to reveal any payments worth more than $10, which include treating medical professionals to a meal. According to Convene magazine’s Meetings Industry Forecast, medical events make up all but two of the top 25 largest meetings and 18.1 percent of the top 10 subject matters for international meetings. Medical event planners had to rethink plans on how to fill time with a reduced pool of doctoral speakers from which to choose.

Most-Watched Host Country
Just a year after an estimated two billion people across the world watched Prince William marry Catherine Middleton, England reclaimed a place in the global spotlight with two big, multi-day celebrations. In June, London saw dozens of events—including a pageant on the River Thames and a 10,000-person picnic and concert in the palace gardens—surrounding Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee. In July and August, the city played host to the 2012 Summer Olympics, which, aside from the sports competitions, drew attention with splashy opening and closing ceremonies, music and cultural festivals, and a slew of brand activations.

Most Ubiquitous Display
As more marketers and planners moved to incorporate social media at their events, live Twitter feeds started popping up at everything, from fund-raisers and galas, to conferences, expos, launch parties, and public promotions. Hosts like Hewlett-Packard used the projections and video screens to pool pictures as well as mentions of the brand or a designated hashtag.

Most-Watched Last-Minute Scramble
Just 24 hours after her death, producers included a Whitney Houston tribute at the Grammy Awards, with references to the singer throughout and a dramatic but spare homage performed by Jennifer Hudson. The shuffle to the February show required a series of tweaks to the script and additions that wouldn’t seem rushed or disrespectful.

Most-Watched Tour

Before its initial public offering, Facebook’s I.P.O. roadshow generated so much buzz that there were lines of investors pouring out of venues, including New York’s Sheraton Hotel. The events came before the social media site made shares available on Nasdaq, which at the time valued the company at more than $100 billion.

Riskiest Expansion Gamble
Taking the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival from a single weekend to two, nominally to reduce overcrowding, left some die-hards wondering if the festival had jumped the shark. But the formula translated to a financial success, with three-day passes selling out in record time. In July, the music festival announced another expansion: The S.S. Coachella will set sail in December for two Caribbean-bound trips.

Most Fashionable Web Component
It’s not just conferences going hybrid these days—events are introducing Webcasts too. This year, the Met’s Costume Institute gala, one of New York’s buzziest fund-raisers, introduced live-streaming of its red carpet arrivals and included live interviews with the gala co-chairs as well as celebrity guests. Online broadcasts of the Super Bowl, the kick-off press conference for the Sundance Film Festival, the Academy Awards, the 2012 London Olympics, and the Republican National Convention were also available this year. Even smaller efforts, like Pepsi and Billboard’s Summer Beats concert series, broadcast their festivities on the Web.

Biggest Online Whine Fest
The Great GoogaMooga, a sold-out food and music festival hosted by Superfly Presents and held in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park in May, generated major buzz. But V.I.P. attendees, who paid $250 for exclusive access, left irritated about long lines and inadequate amounts of food. Massive post-event grumblings led Superfly to provide full refunds to V.I.P. ticket buyers.

Most Tricked-Out Trade Show Display
For the 2012 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Ford’s digitally interactive booth let attendees gather and share information using R.F.I.D-enabled Ford Blue Oval Cards, which they preregistered online. The cards allowed attendees to save content to download later via a personal Web page. Attendees could also tap the cards on displays to answer multiple-choice questions like  “What impresses you more about EcoBoost?” Results were then projected onto a smart wall. The booth also featured a 20-foot-tall elevator that brought guests up into “The Cloud,” a 360-degree cinema experience that looked at the future of in-vehicle cloud computing.

Most Necessary Integration
Brands realized the increasing importance of incorporating social media into their event strategies as a means to develop their online presence and interact with their audiences. A few examples: At the Sundance Film Festival in January, Microsoft’s social media concierge, the “Bing Brigade,” admitted attendees who mentioned the brand on social media to the exclusive Bing Bar. For its teen-targeted “Pop-Tarts Crazy Good Summer” program, Kellogg’s announced details on the whereabouts of free concerts in Chicago and Los Angeles featuring Boys Like Girls, Austin Mahone, and Carly Rae Jepsen through a set of clues on the brand’s Facebook page. And in January at a party celebrating the release of  Time Out Chicago’s “100 Best Things We Ate and Drank This Year” issue, the magazine promoted a yearlong partnership with Foursquare that entitled users who followed Time Out Chicago and who checked into two venues mentioned in the issue to unlock a custom badge for a year of perks.

Most Obvious Event Venue
Fox took the premiere of its new (now cancelled) show Alcatraz to the San Francisco Bay, hosting the screening and party inside the infamous prison on Alcatraz Island. At the prison, guards wearing costumes from Alcatraz’s operating era spoke to guests as if they were prisoners. The show’s premiere screened in cellblock D, where the worst-offending prisoners were housed and solitary confinement took place.

Least Likely to be Repeated Activity
In July, firefighters treated 21 people who burned their feet walking on hot coals at a Tony Robbins motivational event in Southern California. Robbins’s organization—which has been providing the experience for more than three decades—released a statement that said it would look into ways to make the activity safer, if possible.

Worst Way to Implement a Good Idea

Microsoft’s Bing got 55,000 Facebook stream views and 55 million Twitter impressions during its five-day presence at the Sundance Film Festival thanks to its invitation-only lounge area, the Bing Bar. But Microsoft fired two marketing executives for spending violations stemming from Bing Bar drink purchases, an unauthorized first-class flight, and a $1 million fee to a non-approved vendor.

Most Lavish Last Meal

Before shuttering his hallowed Chicago restaurant to pursue a graduate degree in philosophy, chef Charlie Trotter’s 25th anniversary gala on August 19 drew 90 guests for a dinner that cost $2,500 a head. The evening’s opulent offerings included everything from hand-picked roses to vacuum-infused fruits and vegetables, cyro-shucked oysters, and steamed spanner crab.

Biggest Social Media Focus
The first-ever Super Bowl social media command center took over 2,800 square feet and had a team of about 20 strategists, analysts, and techies monitoring fan conversation on platforms like Facebook and Twitter from January 30 to February 5. Team members answered fans’ questions about directions, parking, Indianapolis attractions, and more.

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