Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Conferences Deserve New Ideas - 6 Ways To Put A Spark Into Your Next Event

Conferences matter.  Since the beginning of time man has congregated to celebrate, learn, share ideas and socialize.  The advent of social media does not replace the human desire to be part of a community.  Even the recent years of recession could not stop the most desirable conferences from growing (SXSW exploded from 2009 to 2012).  People want to come together, and when a meeting has impact.... they come back year after year (and bring their friends!).

Some have argued that traditional live meetings are "old school" and have outlived their usefulness, but I disagree.  Boring live meetings that are not challenging the experience of attendees are the problem.  In a recent conversation with an association executive in charge of a large convention, she said "While our numbers are dropping, our board is not ready to try anything new this year".  If not now, when?

We do not need to fully re-invent the structure of meetings.  Venue space, hotel rooms, and other human needs dictate some of the formatting of conferences.  But that does not mean the agenda must look the same every year (fill in the blank conferences) or need to be the same as every other event (cookie-cutter conferences).

Mini-societies are created when people attend an event.  The people in these societies deserve a fresh approach. In fact, many are demanding a new experience, and if they are not getting it they are not returning.  Those who organize conferences and make the final decisions must be willing to try new things in order to discover the opportunity to make people say "wow".

Here are six ideas to consider when looking to create a fresh experience at a conference:

1.  Try new formats.  Do not make every keynote and breakout the same length or even the same format as the others.  In this I suggest more than some with a speaker, and others with a panel.  The2011 and 2012 PCMA Annual Conferences had an entire ball room dedicated to alternative learning styles, small round-table conversations, and hands on learning.  Their "Learning Lounge" was unique, and is being immolated (not copied) by several other associations.

2.  Have shorter speeches (with more discussion time).  The popularity of TED has made the 18 minute presentation very popular.  But that alone does not guarantee a good talk.  Be sure that the speakers are experienced with this format and give people time to talk with each other about the topics they heard about.

3.  Have longer speeches (that are interactive).  Not everything can be communicated in 18 minutes.  Sometimes you need to have master-class sessions that are several hours long.  Be sure the speakers are energetic and interactive, as nobody wants three hours of "blah".  But the right topic and teacher can make time fly in a long format breakout.

4.  Hire speakers with unexpected topics.  Too often planners are nervous about topics that do not match directly with what the audience might expect at a conference.  However, some of the best attended breakouts at technical conferences can be the "soft-skills" topics.  Do not be shy about keynotes that do not seem to be a fit, as a variety of information is what challenges the mind to find the connections.

5.  Host unique meal gatherings.  Look for ways to make the happy hours and meals different.  The 2012 TEDx Austin event had five different restaurants cater lunch and had 5 unique "restaurants" set up in the dining area.  Attendees were pre-assigned an area, and it was a the most unique dining experience I have ever witnessed at a conference.

6.  Host unique off-sites.  Get the attendees away from the meeting venue for an educational or social adventure.  This is more than just hosting a party at another venue, but instead taking everyone on a hike to a picnic or some other un-expected but engaging activity.  Remember to take into consideration people with special needs, so that they are not excluded from participation!

7.  Give people something extra.  If you tell them there will be six ideas, make it seven.  People love a bonus, and when your event delivers more than they expected they will feel great about it!

Trying something new involves a risk.  It might not work out the way you had hoped, or could not be well received by your attendees.  But no risk means no reward.  If you do not make an attempt, then you are promising people a routine experience.  Those who are scared to take action are telling their attendees they do not deserve "wow", but instead are destine for "blah".  Everyone deserves WOW!.

Have A Great Day.

thom singer

Thom Singer is known as "The Conference Catalyst". He works with meeting planners and conference organizers to set the tone for a meeting. His presentations educate, inspire and motivate attendees to engage deeper in the event and make meaningful connections.  http://www.conferencecatalyst.com 



Anonymous said...

Thank you for your point in #6: "Remember to take into consideration people with special needs, so that they are not excluded from participation!" --- this is often overlooked and it very important.

Calum Maclean said...

Good posting. I strongly support #4. Have a speaker that is off topic to the conference but has an interesting viewpoint on current events. Downtime may not be a good idea at a conference as everyone is usually running pretty hot and can be distracted. Giving them an hour off is not enough to check in with the office or reply to e-mail and may very well increase the distraction. So reel them back in with a great speaker that will give them an escape, help them switch gears and blow off some steam.
I wrote a posting on how a meeting can connect on a humanitarian level here http://plannerwire.net/2012/05/21/your-conference-or-event-can-change-the-world/

Thanks for the posting Thom, will keep an eye out for more of your work.