Is Steampunk the Next Big Event Theme?

Earlier this year Time magazine predicted that steampunk would be the next big trend to take hold of the retail industry. If this conference’s closing party is any indicator, the Victorian sci-fi concept may be headed for the event industry, too.

By Lauren Matthews September 18, 2013, 7:30 AM EDT

Photo: Courtesy of Experient

e4 2013 Closing Party
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At the closing party for its summer conference, Experient, the association and trade show division of Maritz Travel, proved that an unexpected theme is an effective way to get attendees talking.

Held August 11 to 14 at the Sheraton Phoenix Downtown Hotel, the E4 (Escape, Experience, Encounter, and Engage) 2013 conference was planned by the Experient team for both Experient and Maritz clients. For the closing reception, the company decided on an offbeat theme: steampunk, a retro-futuristic genre of science fiction that mashes up 19th-century steam-powered machinery and Victorian-inspired fashions. The event was supported by the Sheraton’s internal team along with its on-site destination management company AlliedPRA Arizona, as well as audiovisual production company PSAV.

“We wanted something fresh and new because our overall conference theme was ‘Cool Wave,’ and we realized that we had to deliver even more amazing content and events in order to draw people to attend an event in Phoenix in August because of the heat,” said Karen Watson, Experient’s director of strategic events. “Given that our attendees plan their own conferences and attend amazing industry events as well, we pushed the hotel and AlliedPRA [to come up with] something people hadn’t seen before.”

The conference’s 385 guests—including clients, staff, and industry participants—attended the event, which was decorated with oversize steel artwork, working clocks, mechanical gears, and iron chains. Around 7:45 p.m., fog was pumped into the cocktail hour space to create the illusion of steam, as character actors in steampunk costumes pulled back red velvet drapes to reveal the dining room area and an 80-foot LED screen showing the stylized steampunk music video for the song “Eye of the Storm” by Lovett. For dinner, the planning team worked closely with the hotel’s chefs to design a menu that would reflect the evening’s theme. The dessert bar, for example, included a working conveyor belt that served treats such as top-hat-shaped petit fours topped with edible chocolate feathers. 

“AlliedPRA worked very hard on how the theme was executed,” Watson said. “If you Google steampunk, you can see that it can go very extreme—overly suggestive or dangerous-looking, which wouldn’t be right for a corporate event.” But Watson said her team was pleased with the edgy-but-elegant results, as were the guests—even if they weren’t totally familiar with the concept of steampunk. “One of my favorite comments was ‘I don’t know what it is, but I love it!’” she said.

When the event ended at 9:30 p.m., guests could choose to head to one of three after-party options set up on the grounds of the hotel: a DJ-driven dance party in the original cocktail reception space; a jam session where music-minded attendees could play instruments rented from a local music store; or a “dive-in” theater screening of Casino Royale (a movie chosen by guests via text) outside on the pool deck.

Throughout the conference, event organizers also encouraged social networking, asking attendees to post photos on Instagram using the conference’s #E4Cool hashtag. They were also asked to used a second hashtag, #E4Chat, on Twitter during meetings to share helpful tips from speakers. A third hashtag, #E4CoolPhotoHunt, was used as part of a virtual scavenger hunt on Instagram. “We wanted to encourage our guests to participate in social media more,” Watson said. “Twitter has not taken off hugely in the past with our audience, so we thought we’d try Instagram. It was a big hit with just over 10 percent of the audience completing the full scavenger hunt, and others still posting photos without completing the whole process.”

For the scavenger hunt, attendees were given a list of 10 items to capture during the four-day conference, including “the letter E,” “element of an evening reception,” “someone wearing a hat,” and “a new industry friend.” Of those that completed the full list by the last day of the conference, three participants were randomly chosen to win a Microsoft Surface tablet; additionally, one photo was chosen in each category as the most creative, with each winner receiving a $50 gift card to the iTunes App Store or Google Play.

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