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.