Attendees are all you really need to have a meeting, right? This is something you obviously know, but you may keep it a little too far in the back of your mind. If you surveyed 1,000 planning kick-off meetings where the meeting planner and leadership convene to discuss the annual meeting strategy, I’d bet less than 1 percent of those meetings focus on the attendee and the desired outcomes (increase in association pride, motivation, conversion to volunteer, etc.). Instead, the majority of those meetings focus on who will be on stage for the opening general session, budget concerns and other issues rather than what elements will make a conference worthwhile for attendees. Meeting professionals have a big responsibility to attendees to make events worth their time and money, and help them come away with a sense they were valued personally. Here are three ways to keep attendees top of mind and add dimension to their experiences at your events: 1. Design the consumption of content. Is your conference’s learning style comparative to a buffet, passed hors d’oeuvres or a five-star dinner? It’s important to remember that many people at your conference haven’t been in a formal learning environment in years. Do you want them to consume the conference education all at once, really fast and not focus on the flavors (buffet-style)? Do you want interaction during learning to reinforce retention and socialization (hors d’oeuvres)? Or do you want to create longer, formal opportunities with manicured themes and moments (a 10-course meal)? Often we present attendees with an agenda where they are set up to eat way too much, get full fast, have no recollection of what was on their plates and leave feeling bloated.
“Meeting professionals have a big responsibility to attendees to make events worth their time and money, and help them come away with a sense they were valued personally.”2. Incorporate all five senses. You love your technical friends and their talents, but don’t let audiovisual be the only senses you excite during an opening session or breakouts. Also think about ways to incorporate taste, touch and smell. Taste is the easiest to leverage by focusing on food experiences. It can be as simple as changing your vernacular from “coffee break” to “flavor break.” Complement those experiences with food journeys that make people interact with food presentations in a different way and say to each other, “Wow, this is just what I need.” The sense of touch may seem more daunting. Think about how to create a meaningful opportunity for interaction outside the meeting room walls, taking the dynamics of your group and your meeting location into consideration. What would be powerful? What would have people laughing and putting arms around each other (in a non-HR-violating way)? If you were in Boston, for example, I would suggest chartering Duck Tours boats to transfer your group across the city, while giving them a brief tour. You might break groups into teams and create a game, providing clues about Boston landmarks and asking groups to take photos at each one. The final clue could direct all groups to run back to one of Boston’s Irish bars to relax and see everyone’s photos. Smell is the most reactive and emotional of the senses. Using a scent machine with an attractive bouquet in a breakout session after lunch may be just the thing to keep attendees awake. You typically have a minimum of three food service opportunities per day to engage attendees with smell. Have a conversation with your catering team or chef and pose an offer: “I know we’ve been frugal in our menu planning, but I’m willing to pay $7 to $10 more per person if you could add a dynamic smell experience to the menu.” 3. Adopt an empathetic view. A planner has one of the best perspectives of attendees in the organization—their motivations, behaviors, struggles and more. That knowledge is the X factor. Attendees are real people. They have kids, travel way too much, may be finding community elsewhere outside your association, have more pressure from their bosses to justify annual dues and love what the organization used to be 10 years ago. When designing your agenda, layouts, dinners and other activities, be thoughtful of those variables. One attendee might come into your meeting having just had their professional development budget cut, and beyond the demotivation of that news, this is their last education for the entire year. What can you do to help make this a little better for that attendee? You could provide in-room amenities, massage chairs in concurrent sessions, a 4:00 p.m. end time with two hours of free time, or a private reception for a limited audience with your association’s leadership. The right combination of those things may help the attendee and your organization move forward. The responsibility lies with the meeting planner to organize and execute an event that’s valuable. Chris Gasbarro is chief creative officer and a founder at C3, where he leads creative strategy for many association, retail, corporate and insurance clients.