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Give the People what They Want - Keeping your Conference Sucessful

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Have you ever attended a conference?  What did you notice?  The innovative menu cards?  The fun, interesting name badges?  How about all that totally exciting signage?   The simple truth of the matter is that most people just don’t notice these parts of the event…and yet, they tend to be the very details that many conference staffers fret most about. 

It certainly is not my intention to diminish the important logistical/organizational features of an event, nor is it to say that there is no value in putting the “finishing touches” on a conference.  I understand that every organization has its own methods and processes for throwing an event, and that the organization knows its attendees better than I could presume to.  However, I do think that as conference staffers we sometimes have difficulty seeing the forest for the trees.  We bog ourselves down in paperwork, minutia, and process when those are the very elements that attendees care the least about. 

The truth of the matter is that people attend conferences to learn, to network, and to have a good time.  Their time is valuable to them.  They are likely either away from the office or missing time with their families to be at your event.  Knowing this, events should be planned to maximize the attendee experience, and while this sounds like common sense, it certainly seems like attendee experience can sometimes wind up on the backburner. 

Years ago, conferences were the only game in town.  If you were a professional who needed continuing education, networking, or information on the future of your industry, you were going to have to attend some kind of off-site training.  Well, times have changed and your attendees have a host of other options.  Online learning brings the very best speakers right into an individual’s office.  Sites like LinkedIn allow users to meet, write recommendations, and connect like never before.  Those looking to meet a continuing education requirement or learn more about the future of an industry can take online classes directly from universities or join a discussion board focusing on their area of interest.  Add to that the fact that those entering the workforce are increasingly comfortable with non-traditional learning methods.  All of this does not spell the end of the in-person conference/event.  It simply requires a reimagining of what conferences have to offer and how they deliver that product.  It’s not enough to just do what you have always done.  It’s not enough to simply change your theme and hotel once a year.  It’s not enough to print off some name badges and expect people to come.  We as event staffers need to understand what potential attendees want and figure out how we can give that to them better than anyone else.

So, what do attendees want?  What gets people to show up?  Well, I could be wrong on this, but I believe people want to be inspired.  They want to be passionate.  They want to learn.  And, when conferences focus on that instead of what is easiest or “what they have always done,” they can be successful.  Have you heard of the TED Conference?  It began in 1984 as a one-off event focused on technology, entertainment, and design.  The initial event was financially unsuccessful and it would take six years before the second conference was organized.  But the event grew…and grew.  Presenters included President Bill Clinton, Bill Gates, Jane Goodall, and a plethora of Noble Prize winners.  And, as the event grew, it evolved.  In June 2006, the sessions were made available for free online.  By January 2009, they had been viewed 50 million times.  By November 2012, they had been viewed one billion times.  TED didn’t stand still.  It evolved.  It provided exceptional content – content that excited and inspired participants.  It brought in the best of the best speakers…and then it made that content available for free.  In doing so, it created even more demand for its product.

 Nicole Palmisano

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