By Roxanne Rukowicz Ladd, Principal
Behind the Scenes Events
Tell people you are about to head to a week-long “conference,” and you’ll likely get compassionate condolences.
We have all put in our time in dark, dated ballrooms listening to speakers and panelists talk at us — or worse, read verbatim from PowerPoint slides.
While being lifelong learners is critical to our growth as business owners, a lust for learning simply isn’t enough to keep the attention of most guests for extended periods of time.
That’s why event planners and C-level execs are getting creative and adding fun into their conference. Increasingly, the customer experience is driving events, and that’s a win-win situation for everyone.
To add some spice to your next conference, here are a few suggestions to consider:
1. Location. Location. Location. Availability and affordability are always stumbling blocks, but if you want to go that extra mile on behalf of your guests, host the affair in a notable city or area that is pedestrian-friendly with attractions nearby. You’ll not only be giving guests the opportunity to view a new area and take in the sights, but you are almost guaranteed to increase attendance.
2. Educate and train — without boring the crowd to tears. The goal of any conference is to deliver information, educate, train, and inform. To keep attendees on their toes, consider also offering sessions or keynotes that allow for professional development (business or life skills), or a session that motivates and inspires. Energetic speakers are ideal, but so are audience participation, unexpected guests, and hip music that will help people relax between sessions.
3. Dress up the stage. There’s nothing easier, or more effective, than adding some panache to the stage where your attendees will be focusing their attention. Create a vibrant and engaging atmosphere by designing a stage set that allows for great lighting, good visibility of speakers and panelists, and some big screens. Color and graphics are also important to keep both the visuals, and the mood, light and fun.
4. Keep one breakout session dedicated entirely to nothing. Open a room to those who seek to network, share, or respond to what they’ve learned. Ask featured speakers and panelists to spend time here should attendees have specific questions that can be addressed in an informal setting.
5. Remember the all-important icebreakers: name badges and networking. Create opportunities for guests to meet and share best practices. Attendees want to get to know one another, catch up with old colleagues, and meet potential new business partners, not to mention find like-minded individuals to share a seat next to during the conference or dinner.
6. Give stuff away. In addition to the requisite conference bags full of logo pens and water bottles, offer giveaways and raffle prizes throughout the conference. Make a contest of attending the most sessions or play buzzword bingo throughout the plenary. Solicit local vendors and offer gift certificates to nearby restaurants or hotel stays for a return trip. You’ll thrill the lucky winners and help engage the local business community.
7. Take advantage of those themed catering options. Host a Mexican taco bar for the lunch buffet and include virgin margaritas instead of standard sandwich platters. And don’t underestimate your guests’ thirst for caffeine. Keep coffee available all day but if it’s not in the budget to host a barista, invite an espresso shop in to cater to your guests on a cash basis.
8. Organize external activities. It’s always a great touch to connect attendees with local merchants, whether you arrange a trip to local restaurants for dinner or popular nearby attractions. Offer guests a guide to the area as they check in to the conference. Help make their stay even more comfortable by offering insider tips on local running trails, 24-hour gyms, coffee shops, pharmacies, and urgent care centers.
9. Embrace technology. Social media is every conference planner’s friend. Connect with attendees through Twitter, blogging, live streaming, instant surveys, and more. Your tech-savvy guests will love the opportunity to tweet and blog about lessons learned and live streaming will keep those unable to travel engaged. Networking apps like Bump and EventMobi allow guests to connect in an instant through Smartphones and iPads.
10. Remember the basics. Comfy lounge chairs, temperature control, and ready access to Wi-Fi are simply standard these days. Though content comes first, conferences need not be snooze-fests. Discuss early and often how to keep your guests engaged throughout the event. Your attendees will depart with smiles on their faces looking forward to next year.
About Roxanne Rukowicz Ladd
Ranked one of the top meeting and event planners in Washington, DC, for 2009 and 2010 by the Washington Business Journal, Roxanne Rukowicz Ladd’s Behind the Scenes Events, opened its doors in July 2008. Her goal is to offer organizations and individual access to affordable, full-service meeting and event-planning solutions.
Ladd has worked in the DC meeting and event industry for more than a decade, starting her career in 1999 at the Greater Washington Board of Trade.
Her extensive association and nonprofit planning skills are accented by experience working in the social and entertainment markets. Positions with the Walt Disney Companies and as a freelance wedding and special-event coordinator have provided opportunities with A-list celebrity clients and top-ranking government officials.
For more information, visit Behind the Scenes Events.