Does the economy have you worried about your upcoming conference, trade show, seminar, training program, or convention? Now more than ever, you need to make your dollars count, whether you’re the event organizer or the attendee.
Who wants to attend a boring conference? Take the advice of Thom Singer, the Conference Catalyst, and make your next conference more exciting and memorable for everyone involved.
People say they attend conferences for the networking opportunities, but once they arrive, Singer says, people “fail to instigate the types of conversations and interactions that lead to long-term and mutually-beneficial relationships.”
From Singer’s free article, “How to Create an Atmosphere for Better Networking,” here are eight things you can do to make sure your conference is valuable for everyone. When people experience the human factor in a way that benefits them, they’re far more likely to return next year, and they’ll bring their friends.
1. Recognize the Value of Human Contact
We live much of our lives online now, and while there are definite benefits to being able to communicate easily with people from around the world while sitting in our homes, we still need and crave the intimacy of human contact. Don’t underestimate the value of this when planning or attending your next conference. People want to be together, to talk in person, to attend parties, to be engaged. “Contacts are made and deals born in the hallways at the best conferences,” Singer says.
2. Know that You Can’t Track the Value of the Intangible
While human contact is an extremely valuable aspect of your conference, it’s an intangible you can’t measure. “You cannot track the power of the culture created at a conference,” Singer says, “and the atmosphere that encourages better networking will never be quantified on a spreadsheet. But the most successful events never ignore the intangible.”
Singer once shared a taxi with a couple on his way to a conference. Although the couple was not attending the conference, he knows the contact might be one of his most valuable “serendipitous encounters” from the trip if it turns into future business. That’s something you can’t measure. Don’t overlook the value of the intangible.
3. Choose the Right Speakers
We all know that speakers can make or break a conference. Singer cautions planners to avoid the content vs. style debate and arrange for speakers who can deliver both. Speakers should be topic experts and motivational, and they should have experience presenting at conferences, even if they are celebrities. Celebrities help sell tickets, but if the message is not on target or public speaking is not one of their strengths, the session can fall flat.
I once attended a conference where a famous motivational celebrity spoke. I won’t mention his name out of kindness. His mental capacities were diminished in such a significant way that I was embarrassed he was allowed on the stage. It was a shame. Don’t let that happen at your conference.
4. Require Your Speakers to Participate
When conference attendees have the opportunity to meet and mingle with your speakers, including the celebrities, the overall impact on the conference is tremendously positive. Whenever possible, require your speakers to participate in the entire conference, at least on the day they are speaking. “Their presence at meals, breaks, and happy hours helps bring excitement to the event,” Singer says.
5. Crush Cliques
We’ve all seen the cliques that form when people who have attended the same conference for years gather in clusters that are uninviting to outsiders. It’s easy to allow these “power-brokers” to influence your conference agenda. Their input as regulars is definitely valuable, but don’t let their annual reunion turn off your newcomers.
Singer suggests crushing these cliques by “engaging long-timers as ambassadors for the future.” Give them welcome packets to hand out to newcomers, and challenge them to invite anyone standing alone to join a conversation.
6. Allow External Social Parties
Many conference organizers frown on parties that aren’t sanctioned by them, but the impressive success of external social parties at events like South by Southwest Interactive and TEDx is proving the value of allowing these gatherings.
“Allowing vendors who are part of the conference society to host events that are not sanctioned or regulated often has a positive effect on the culture of the event,” Singer says. “…people like the idea of being invited to VIP events that are not part of the main program. … It is often at these informal events where the most meaningful networking connections are created.”
7. Get Your Vendors Involved
How many conferences have you been to where the vendors are segregated in a ballroom, ready to pounce on every attendee who strolls by? It scares people away. Singer suggests eliminating this scenario by removing the artificial barriers between vendors and attendees, and inviting vendors to participate in the full conference. When they have heard the keynote address and mingled with people during breaks, they’re able to ask meaningful questions when someone stops by their booth.
It’s also important, Singer says, to make it clear to vendors what behavior you expect of them on the trade show floor.
8. Continue the Conference Online
Singer cites The National Speakers Association as a model for using online tools to bridge the gap between its winter conference and summer convention. Attendees and association members have the opportunity to participate in free webinars every month between the two events. “Presentation topics are a combination of stand-alone and follow-up discussions designed to help the membership continue to learn, and extend the brand of the conference,” Singer says.
He suggests making full use of social networking to build your audience.