5 Tips for Launching a First-Time Event

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Launching a first-time event comes with challenges even when there’s careful planning ahead of time. Take the inaugural Thin Air Innovation Festival, a three-day event in April in Park City, Utah, designed to facilitate a conversation around peak human performance. It was a fitting theme for a destination that hosted the 2002 Winter Olympics and is still a thriving training ground for Olympic athletes around the country today. I was fortunate to join 18 meeting professionals there as part of a meetings-focused FAM hosted by Visit Park City. The concept of tying in a local event with a FAM is smart, and it’s a trend I’ve seen other cities try this year too. The timing of Thin Air was strategic for Park City, as it was held the first week of April—the last week of ski season—that’s typically a slow time for business. From an attendee standpoint, I picked up a few lessons from Thin Air that could apply to all first-time events. 1. Kick things off with a bang. Enthusiasm and expectations were high on opening night in the Eccles Center auditorium. After all, we were at an innovation festival. Props to the audiovisual team for creating entrancing light and video effects, but some technological hiccups interrupted speakers with brilliant ideas but who were unfortunately reliant on PowerPoint presentations. When Bibop Gresta, COO of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (Google it!), was unable to play a few videos from his presentation, he made the best of it by cueing up the band to go along with an impromptu rap he did onstage. The takeaway? If things don’t go perfectly, give your speakers freedom to roll with it. 2. Involve media. I’ll admit it: We journalists like to be made to feel special. Give us access to the event speakers beforehand in a private reception and we’ll be happy. Slap a “VIP” badge on our nametags and we’ll be thrilled. I was excited to hear Kevin Plank, CEO of Under Armour, was the keynote for Thin Air; however, I was disappointed he didn’t come to the reception. If you want to get the word out about your new event, get the media on your side. Make us happy; we’ll write great things about you and people will come (if only it was that simple, right?). 3. Create "unprogrammed" time. A key component of Thin Air, announced during the opening session, was having “unprogrammed” time on the agenda for people to connect. This was done by setting up the Thin Air Lounge at a downtown restaurant, Butcher’s Chop House, which was open each afternoon of the festival and featured live music acts, a few presentations on product innovation, wine tastings, snacks and more. More importantly, it created a casual space for conference attendees to have conversations and get to know each other outside of the formal sessions. Planners, steal this idea. 4. Make sessions interactive, but let them flow as they may. On the first full day of the conference, I attended a breakfast session called “The Impact of Human Performance on Global Populations.” I knew it was going to be good when I walked in to find containers of Play-Doh, pipe cleaners, foam sheets, markers and other creative props in the middle of each table. Desi Matel-Anderson, CEO of a disaster solutions company called The Field Innovation Team, led us through a new-to-me brainstorming style centered on design thinking. She challenged us to create physical models of ideas we had for solving problems in the world. I may not have met all the objectives Matel-Anderson had planned when I ended up with a blue-and-pink Play-Doh model of a cheeseburger; yet the session sparked my creative juices in a whole new way and got everyone at my table interacting with each other. 5. Close things with a bang. There’s nothing quite like downtown Park City, which is just as magical in person as it looks in photos (think little twinkly lights, cute restaurants and local boutiques dotting each block). Thin Air organizers took full advantage of the area by holding a free outdoor concert from the band Thievery Corporation on Main Street on the last evening. You can do the same for your event by maximizing your destination’s best assets—and it doesn’t hurt to have some great music too.