Please don’t keep me in the dark. And other hints to create a genuinely valuable experience.
It’s that time of year that many of us look out at the vast array of conferences (have these quadrupled in the last 5 years or is it just me?), and decide where to spend our time, energy and budget connecting with our peers.
While some people dread them, I love conferences – interesting conversations with great people doing cool things. Or sharing crazy client stories.
Connecting with people is the reason I go. But sometimes I feel the conference organizer loses sight of that. So, I thought I’d share some insights from the perspective of a veteran, and sometimes weary attendee.
I’ve roughly grouped them by time and space (the two things I have granted you in good faith for the next 3 days):
The most precious of commodities for all of us. Conferences cost big blocks of time away from the office and family. Make people glad they chose to spend it on your event:
Build it in. This is the primary reason for most people to physically go to a conference. Even for many speakers devoting their time. If we cannot interact, we may as well be watching a livestream of the event. 15-minute breaks typically allow for 1- 2 of these: a bathroom visit, grabbing a bite to maintain your energy, responding to something time-sensitive from the office or checking in at home. They typically don’t accommodate a conversation. Event organizers are ‘conveners’ – purposefully schedule generous time specifically aimed at fostering spontaneous conversations.
And protect it. You’ve created an agenda. Stick to it. Ensure your emcees, moderators and speakers stick to it. Put together a guide and reinforce with all of them that you will stay on schedule, if that involves cutting a microphone, you’ll do it.
I’ve observed drama among ‘stage-managers’ when timing runs over but the concern seems more for how their boss will bark at them than for the actual impact, namely disrupts dozens to hundreds of attendees’ schedules, steamrollering over much-need breaks and pushing the end of the day beyond human limits. Again, likely causing folks to bail out on end of day networking receptions because they are just spent.
Content is not always king. More is not always better.
Even with sufficient networking time & breaks scheduled, it’s still possible to over-do the content of your conference. Conferences that used to be 1.5 – 2 days have now stretched to 4 (“We just have SO much to cover!” one organizer recently exclaimed.) Yes, but how much do you think we can take in? Have you ever had a hard time figuring out the difference between Track 1 – session A and Track 4 – Session F? You’re not alone. They are the same topic. Different sponsors, though. Those extra 2 days are to cover promises made. Yet you seem to be the one paying for it.
I recently attended an event that had a 4-hour stretch with no scheduled break. 4 hours. Think about how you are stressing an audience with this kind of marathon programming block. Especially if they are sitting mid-row (see Breathing Room below). You’re also forcing me to walk out on a speaker to take a break – and once I’m up I don’t want to climb back in and make a ruckus, so I’ll just hang outside until they’re done. Were they a big sponsor of the event? Oops, I may have given the impression they weren’t that interesting. Really, I just had a leg cramp.
Programming sins create attendee burnout. If I’m spending 4 days with you now, I may only come every second or third year.
(feel free to take a break here….I understand)
This deserves its own post – but briefly: Coach…no, INSTRUCT, your moderators to take a journalist mentality. And I mean a real, old-school journalist who understands they are not the story. They should research, prepare questions and pre-interview each panelist. They should hold a group call to prepare the full panel for the flow of the conversation. Part 1 of the job is to bring out candid insights and relatable learnings from the panel for the audience. Part 2 is to facilitate the audience’s interaction with the panel. NOT to co-opt the audience’s opportunity to ask questions. The audience has their own questions. And they outnumber you. So statistically speaking, they’re probably more interesting than the moderator’s. They are also more likely to call attention to a point that wasn’t made clearly or a question that wasn’t satisfactorily answered earlier. Have a quiver of questions ready if the audience doesn’t bring them, and of course get the ball rolling with an opening Q for the Q & A, but don’t dominate the Q&A time with your own questions. That was part 1.
Also, give your moderators some tips and tools (possibly including a cattle prod) to reel in the wayward, rambling panelist. I certainly wish I’d had one recently for a guest who if I didn’t know better began to recite the company’s annual report from memory when asked to briefly introduce himself. I apologized profusely to the other panelists who suffered that graciously. Lesson learned. Passing it along.
Okay, that wasn’t all that brief. Feel free to take another break. I will not be offended at all.
Facilitate Pre- / Post-Conference Networking
The best conferences have a killer app. One was so killer, it’s still on my phone 2 years later. I even transferred it from an old phone to a new one. Talk about staying relevant. There are great support apps out there, they don’t cost that much and it’s an infinitely sponsorable asset with staying power (2 years! 2 phones!). What to look for/include?
- All attendees are pre-loaded, preferably with their LinkedIn profile and optimally with an in-app messaging option.
- Conference schedule is detailed (full conference description, speaker bios) and users can build their own schedule within it. (some allow attendees to rate the session right after they end)
- Embed the social media stream for the conference in the app and allow users to directly link their accounts to encourage interaction and user-generated content.
- Include links to local info and utilitarian apps (Yelp, Uber, etc.)
Other pre- and post-bonuses? If you’re a conference organizer, I know you have a killer email list. Use it. Find out why I’m coming – what do I hope to achieve, and then suggest how I can best accomplish that at your conference. Too many attendees you say? Well, there are probably about 4-5 key reasons, so you can group them. And really? I’m going to spend $1500-2000 and 3-4 days of my time on you and you can’t spend 5 – 10 minutes on me. Well, I know where we stand then, I guess.
Prompt attendees post-conference on ways to capitalize on conversations they had at the event. This can be a mass email (but with any skill it will not be addressed ‘Dear Attendee’ – that just hurts).
The best organizers make me feel that they are truly interested in my business success all year, not just my annual registration fee.
Heart of Darkness
Typically, the plenary room is pitch black. ‘All the better to see the slides, my dear’, you say. Yes…..well…. Two things I can’t see? My notebook to take notes on your session, and my fellow attendees. The plenaries are my only opportunity to see who else is in attendance. (Unless you created that killer app). Notice how often speakers also joke about not being able to see anyone in the audience? Yeah. Lighten up.
Conferences come in 2 forms – icebox and oven. And despite this being the number one topic in every on-site washroom, are almost never adjusted. I really don’t need to elaborate here. Just work on it. Preferably during the conference. Ideally on Day 1.
We all know sitting is the new smoking. I appreciate that space is at a premium (we’ve all seen hotels’ conference rates- harrowing), but you are in the interactive learning business, not the institutional torture business. People will hang at the back because they arrive late, need to leave early or simply can’t do long stretches of sitting. Try to set up the space to plan for that, rather than forcing dozens of folks to hug the wall and feel awkward doing it. This also helps avoid 3 days of tension between your AV people and attendees.
Avoid setting 60-seat wide rows in the plenary sessions (excuse me, pardon me, whoops, sorry!) with knee-space for the vertically-challenged. Especially if you plan to pin folks there for up to 4 hours in a row. Yikes. Set the seats up a few inches apart from one another – not linked together like business-clad chain gang. Since you’ve endowed us with attendee bags, we have our own stuff and we’ve got our winter coats on to survive (see Temperature above), we need a little elbow room.
If you want to get extra jiggy, curve the rows set-up so I might see the faces of others in my row. When I’m forced to sit face-front, rod-straight it takes me back to the days of awaiting my turn in the principal’s office.
OK, getting down to the nitty-gritty here, but remember you are holding me captive for several days. Snack breaks, like Temperature, also seem to come in 2 extreme forms: sugar-bombings and vegan, gluten-free, bunker-ready breakfast bars. (I go to a lot of environmental conferences). But just one or the other. <sigh>
Again, try to consider the attendee’s plight. Sleepy. Out of synch with their normal time zone. Sequestered.
Don’t skimp here (again, I revisit the $1500-2K price tag) and put some thoughtful choices out. May I suggest, a mix of fresh fruit and packaged snacks – both of which can be recovered and donated if not eaten, as well as a few more indulgent doses of sucrose. It is difficult to meet everyone’s expectations, but try and at least make the attempt. Sometimes I see that sad platter of cookies and can almost hear the words ‘What else can we cut from the budget?’. When that question comes up, I suggest you take another look at the Agenda, Day 4.
A SIDENOTE ON COST
Back in the day (circa 2006) only 1 conference I attended that had a price tag north of $1K. And it was in New York, had quite a high profile and no doubt much higher per-attendee costs. Back then there were only about a half-dozen conferences I’d consider each year. Budgeting time and money was much easier then and I typically managed to make 4-5 of them.
Now I’m lucky to see offerings where ‘early-bird’ registration is under $2K. Before airfare and hotel. And I’m bombarded with promos for at least 25-30 options per year. I haven’t yet increased my hours on the planet (or my budget) five-fold. So hard choices need to be made.
Cost is never my primary issue. If I feel it’s worth it, I’ll be there. But I’m not too keen to pay you the big bucks to torture me for 3-4 days.
Conclusion (Thank God, right? You’ve spent half a conference reading this now)
Think hard about your attendees needs.
I’m looking for equal parts personal conversations and learning. If your event isn’t interactive I can just catch a webinar. Much lower carbon footprint and my family will be happy I’m home.
Everyone’s Time is Valuable
Use the time attendees’ have granted you respectfully – from agenda to event management. ROI on their time investment should be top of mind in your planning and execution. It’s far more important than ROI on the registration fee.
Create a Special Place
Curate the conference space as carefully as the content, to allow the latter to truly shine, foster the best possible outcomes and realize many happy returns.
So, dear conference organizer, I look forward to seeing you this year. And maybe even the next year, too.
Fellow travelers, I’d love to hear what you love, hate and would change about the conferences you attend.
Organizers, if you know I’ve attended your conference and wonder what I thought about it, get in touch.
Three is a magic number. Yes it is. It’s a magic number. All you Schoolhouse Rock grads can hum along.
For those not in the know, sports have always embraced threes on the field/court/rink/track. The Triple Crown in horseracing, triple-double in basketball, hat tricks in hockey and the epically elusive triple that has kept hundreds from hitting for the cycle in baseball. It turns out, the front office is becoming as enamored of the three as the lockeroom, as countless franchises and leagues have embraced a triple-bottom-line approach to managing the business, that is putting equal emphasis on profits, planet and people, in their pursuit of success.
The State of Green
Next week marks the 5th installment of the Green Sports Summit, the annual conference of the teams, leagues, facilities and universities who are forging a smarter, more resilient path to maintaining a competitive advantage in their operations – gameday and beyond. What began as a like-minded group of clubs and venues in the ever-tree-loving Pacific Northwest has now blossomed to over 200 members, committed to sharing numbers, experiments and pushing one another to greater efforts in driving costs and carbon footprints downward while remaining committed to providing exceptional fan experiences.
So it seems like as good a time as any to reflect on each of the major North American leagues’ ‘State of Green’.
The graphic above gives you a quick visual rundown of where each of the leagues currently stand in terms of team awareness/engagement in responsible operations, but it doesn’t really tell the whole story. At the league level, we have had early innovators who have plateaued in their commitment and laggards who have leaped ahead with great gusto.
The percentages associated with each of the leagues refer to the number of clubs in the league who also maintain an individual membership in the Green Sports Alliance. Nice to see MLB batting .750. Hockey and basketball teams are also posting up playoff-worthy stats, and hopefully moving toward conference champ levels. The NFL seems to be in a position that describes the league itself – a bit lagging on the social leadership front (despite a few shining stars – more below). And perhaps most surprising of all, the MLS. With an outdoor summer season, a veneration of natural grass surfaces and a disproportionate fan base of 18-34 year olds who are arguably more environmentally aware, it’s a bit of an eye-opener to see them with a relegation-level number of engaged clubs.
The great news is that all of the major U.S.-based leagues are members of the Green Sports Alliance, an organization dedicated to “Leveraging the cultural & market influence of sports to promote healthy, sustainable communities where we live & play.” The pretty good news is that many of their individual teams are as well. But as you can see, there is still room for improvement.
But a parent can only do so much with its adult children – so to gain some insight into these participation numbers, we feel its best to start with a look at their most fundamental relationship’s influence and guidance to date. In this post, we characterize each league’s approach and most notable efforts to date.
The critical thing to remember is that we are making candid observations about what has been undertaken to date and not ‘grading’ each of them – every action undertaken by these leagues is noteworthy and commendable. We hope our exploration will ignite their innate competitiveness to move the ball down the field even more.
Strategy synopsis: League Leadership, Continuous Improvement, Strong Acknowledgement of Individual Clubs’ Efforts
The league was the absolute forerunner and a early champion of leading all its clubs by providing practical resources for greening operations. They established the first ‘Greening Advisor’ in 2006 in collaboration with the NRDC to guide clubs toward resources, and Commissioner Bud Selig was recognized for his active advocacy in providing league office resources to all member clubs. MLB has certainly played a role in encouraging its franchises to adopt and share best practices, though the 81-game schedule and lower ticket prices are likely also a factor in incentivizing clubs’ efforts to root out efficiencies in operations. It didn’t hurt that Green Sports Alliance chairman, Scott Jenkins, was coming from MLB, but other early leaders including Joe Abernathy of the St Louis Caridnals, Brad Mohr of the Cleveland Indians (now working his mojo for the Cleveland Browns), and the Phillies and Twins organizations were equally instrumental in leading the way with novel energy, water and waste management solutions.
Strategy synopsis: Unified Voice, Fan-Facing Communications, Community Connections
A league with a similar, aggressive early move on greening, the NBA Green Week remains one of the most visible with fan-facing efforts, starting in earnest in 2007. Whatever the NBA does, it does with the entertainment and celebrity factor in mind. While individual club efforts are less celebrated than the league-branded and promoted Green Week, the Portland Trailblazers early, aggressive stewardship of their facility and their community is notable. This could well be that Blazers owner Paul Allen who also owns the NFL Seahawks, was an instigator of getting the original clubs together to discuss energy savings options. The league’s began by doing environmental assessments of its offices and the NBA Store. One small, but remarkable outcome was eliminating BPA from its licensed products – 4 years before the US FDA required this. NBA Green Week was started in 2009 with a heavy and very public focus on community service projects involving health & greenspace, specialty apparel and PSAs featuring players. The NBA has done the most effective job of harnessing star power in its community-directed messaging. Additionally innovative, they have taken their sustainability values with them overseas, incorporating responsible event practices and associated fan-messaging into the NBA EuropeLive Tour.
Strategy synopsis: Clinical, strategic and unrelenting. Taking it to the boards.
While arriving a bit later than its peers, the NHL has taken no small measures since beginning its NHL Green program in January 2010. Moving as fast and forcefully as its game, just shy of 2 years later the league’s stewardship of investment and commitment to greening all of its events, its own operations and those of ALL 30 member franchises led to the 2011 Beyond Sport ‘Sport for Environment’ Award. This recognized the greening of its Draft, Winter Classic, All-Star Game and Stanley Cup Championship, the establishment of a Greening Advisor, but more importantly a dedicated team to put all 30 clubs through en environmental audit, and experimentation with new technologies on behalf of all its venues to guide their investments and upgrades responsibly. It also acknowledged the adoption by all 30 teams of the ‘Rock and Wrap It Up’ food recovery program. Again, to emphasize – all 30 clubs. Astonishing, really, for a league that has had two significant work stoppages, including the loss of an entire season. Other firsts include the first League Sustainability Report, issued in 2014 and the first league level Official Energy Provider with Constellation Energy. It doesn’t hurt that they have a passionate spokesman in Andrew Ference and another in former New York Ranger great, Mike Richter, who now runs a venture capital firm investing in clean technologies.
The next step will see how these very significant and substantive actions are translated to fans – and beyond.
Strategy synopsis: First mover with strong influence potential, several superstars, must lead strongly to keep pace
As with many things, the NFL has been a pioneer, and this is true on the sustainability front to some extent as well, with greening of the SuperBowl going back to 2000. Improving the environmental aspects of championships and all-star games is no mean feat, as they are moving feasts, with multiple venues, stakeholders and local regulations changing every time it comes around. Their focus has been in five key areas: solid waste management, material reuse, food recovery, sports equipment and book donations and greenhouse gas reduction. The man at the head of the parade is Jack Groh, Director of Environmental Sustainability for the NFL, who begins speaking with the host city and organizing committee up to three years ahead of the event to move the needle as much as possible with the various moving parts. And measure and report it each time. As of 2011, the league has also been addressing responsible management of its three primary offices in Manhattan, Culver City and Mount Laurel, New Jersey. The league also benefits from having one of the earliest pioneering teams in all of sports ‘greening’ in the Philadelphia Eagles. Their efforts date back to 2003 when building Lincoln Financial Field (where a guy by the name of Scott Jenkins was in charge). The Eagles are committed to becoming the first net positive sports facility, by generating more energy than they use. SuperBowl 49 was the first played under LED field lighting reducing the electricity demand there by 75% (and eliminating that tricky blackout problem). SuperBowl 50 has an even more broad-ranging plan with its dual commitment to sustainability and social impact, but these need to be showcased more prominently. In fact, the last 4 SuperBowls have made it a point to proclaim themselves loudly the ‘Greenest Super Bowl Ever’, bringing the topic front and center while millions are watching, fan and non-fan alike. The annual one-upmanship of this claim is a laudable practice under Mr. Groh’s leadership.
While the NFL may have been the earliest league onside, it has not been as aggressive as other leagues in pushing the ball down the field or in field coverage through stewardship of its franchises. Then again, they may well have the most difficult owners to wrangle.
Strategy synopsis: Read and react. Looking to the yeoman to report back.
The new kid on the block, and with many items to manage as the league continues to grow and develop, but to our minds the one with the most to gain, and the fan base most likely to reward their efforts and fully engage and amplify both team and sponsor messaging (18-34 year olds). While the league has a ‘Greener Goals’ designated initiative under its broader MLS Works community relations program, at present this is in transition while a number of new MLS partners settle in to their chosen activations.
In truth the league has learned it may be best to take its cues from the best practices that emerge from its teams and fortunately there are a fair few doing some terrific community-based work. The Portland Timbers #StandTogether Week is a terrific example of combining social and environmental measures with a week full of projects that has fans and non-fans alike working with players, front office and mascot on community improvement projects. Portland was also the site of the 2014 All-Star Game where a strong recycling initiative was on tap. The rival Sounders play in the very responsibly managed CenturyLink Field and have emulated their Cascadia rivals with their ImpactSeattle program, also focused on a series of community projects centered on a single week and partnered with existing non-profit organizations. These are smart in several ways – the single week enables the club to get player participation up and simplifies this for the players. It also provides the media with several options to provide profile. It helps the club manage the partner relationships & requests, and finally it provides a solid focal point for the supporter groups and the community-at-large to direct their energy and time. It’s easily incorporated into the clubs’ existing media buys as an ad ‘snipe’ or tag in radio and TV. Naturally the social media on the lead-up and in the activity capture is also easier to manage and more impactful.
The LA Galaxy are celebrating their 20th anniversary with the 20 for Twenty campaign, consisting of 20 community service projects focusing on human and environmental health over the course of the 2015 season.
The MLS would do well to take note of the simple, yet effective framework of these team initiatives: they leverage their more ‘accessible’ players’ willingness to go out into the community and the mobilization capacity and fanatical civic pride of their supporters groups to reach into the community providing both tangible service outcomes and connection to the casual and non-fans of the club. This is what we’d call a triple bottom line impact effort (social good, environmental gain and club ROI on marketing and likely sales).
We are the champions, my friends
So who’s winning? We all are for now, but you know you’re only as good as your last outing, so we look forward to reporting significant ball movement by all of these leagues heading into the 2016 Summit.
Over the course of the next few weeks, we’ll be going into greater detail on the actions of each of these leagues’ franchises in a framework that provides both an assessment and decently fair context for comparison. Hopefully, we’ll give you enough stats and insight to draft your fantasy green team.
Our own Aileen McManamon provided her industry insight to Small Business BC by contributing an article featured in their ‘Growing A Business” section. Small Business BC is British Columbia’s premiere resource centre for knowledge-based business products and services. Aileen’s article “The Business of Major Events: Exploring and Pursuing High Profile Contracts” focuses on ways to properly leverage the opportunities around sports events to help grow your business profile. The article is highlighted by her “Four Reasons to Pursue Major Events Business”. Please visit Small Business BC for the full article here
Originally posted as guest blog to SponsorPitch‘s weekly Ahead of the Curve feature:
Broken Networks, Blurred Corporate Budgets and Automated Submissions’ Impact on Creativity in Sponsorship Development
Once upon a time, I managed the national marketing for an international automaker. We sponsored sport and the arts and found our partners either by seeking them out or them contacting us, often with detailed proposals specific to our brand. Seriously old school, we used the phone. Or actually met. In any case, we definitely conversed.
For Sports franchises, going green is a moral success story and an operations life saver when it comes to driving down costs, but it can also be a valuable incremental revenue generator by creating new and freshening up existing assets for sports sponsors. Great opportunities abound for sports venues, organizations and events to further capitalize on their environmental initiatives by pulling all the pieces together into a package and program that adds value, attracts new sponsors and earns some serious kudos from customers and stakeholders.
Now, I’ve had my moments in the past with RBC (Royal Bank of Canada) but I have to absolutely say, that without a doubt, they have done so many things right with their sponsorship it has actually changed my opinion of the company from borderline satisfaction to an actual fan. If you’d have told me I’d be blogging this the last time we were renewing a mortgage, I’d have laughed.
Nonetheless — here’s the rundown:
“May those who love us, love us. And those who don’t love us, may God turn their hearts. And if he can’t turn their hearts, may he turn their ankles so we’ll know them by their limping” Irish proverb
As someone who deals in sport sponsorship, I often wonder how the sponsorships that companies undertake are handled in internal communications. I’m sure it makes the company newsletter. There’s probably a few posters hung up. And whatever advertising is done that’s apparent enough, too. There may even be some good lip service about why they’re doing this (common ideals, philosophies) — and in many cases I’m sure there is a wholesale embrace of the ideals of the associated organizations / people — especially when they are grass roots or amateur sport initiatives (let’s just leave Tiger out of this for today).
Inexpensive, effective and real-time options drive marketability of small properties — and that news couldn’t come at a better time.
Last week’s SBJ cover article “Running on Empty” laid out the state of high school athletics in the US. Cuts and cuts and more cuts mean that schools are hard-pressed to provide athletic programs. Increasingly coaches are taking on a second job — not to feed their own families — but to save the programs for the kids they coach. Former semi-pro athletes are becoming semi-pro fundraisers.