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Turn your First Time Attendees into Repeat Attendees

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Do you remember the first time you attended a conference or major professional event?  I do.  I was 16 and was nominated to attend a conference in the State Capital.  Only four kids from each high school were selected.  We would get to stay in a hotel, wear professional clothes, and even go to a fancy dinner and reception at the conclusion of the event.  The whole thing felt very official.  And, I was pretty nervous about it.  I remember getting lost on the way to the conference rooms.  I remember standing off to the side not knowing how to break into conversations.  I remember the feeling of knowing most everyone knew each other already…and I was new.

Ten years later, I have been to a lot of conferences and I generally feel pretty prepared for events – even if I’m still pretty bad at breaking into a conversation.  And, even though I have gone to a lot of professional events, I still appreciate those that make a conscious effort to welcome and include first time attendees.  All too often as conference organizers, when we plan an event we think of our regulars.  Those who attend year after year – the award winners, the volunteers, the people who turn in their registration forms on the very first day – they are so often the bread and butter of a group that we focus all of our attention on them.  While this is great for keeping people happy and is absolutely necessary, it can sometimes mean we forget to plan for newcomers.

So, how does one bring a new attendee into the fold?  How does a group assure that they are included without feeling uncomfortable?  Well, I have seen it done well a few times.  Here are some ideas you might want to try for your next event.

1)  Acknowledge them immediately - If someone new signs up for your event, give them a call.  Tell them a little about what to expect and answer any questions they might have.  If they want to talk, find out what their interests are and offer them opportunities to pursue those interests at your event or through your organization. 

2)  Have “New Member” or “First Time Attendee” name badge ribbons – Having special ribbons for new members serves a variety of functions.  Not only does it signal to other attendees to welcome and include new members, it also helps staff quickly identify newbies.  So, if you see someone new milling around a reception, you know to perhaps introduce them to others or help them break into a conversation.

3)  Appoint a few Ambassadors – Every group has a few people who can be counted on to be the life of the party.  They are fun, outgoing, and perfect for reaching out to new people.  Give these people a call a few days before your event and ask if they’d be interested in serving as ambassadors.  Give them the names of first time attendees and ask them to keep a look out for those wearing the ribbons. 

4)  Try topic tables or directed discussion – Topic tables are great for facilitating learning in a more social setting.  The idea is simple.  Each table has a different topic.  Perhaps some of the topics are entirely related to the organization/event/industry and a few are more lighthearted areas of general interest.  Attendees sit down at the table that they are most interested in and discuss that topic.  This breaks the ice because everyone already knows what will be discussed and can contribute. 

5)  Remember to say goodbye – Make sure first time attendees leave knowing more about your organization and what other opportunities/events you have to offer.  If they had a good time, perhaps they will consider becoming more involved.

I went to a professional association’s conference last year that featured a meet and greet type reception one evening.  It was perfectly pleasant but I couldn’t help but notice a twenty-something standing off to the side, nursing a drink and deviled egg…not interacting with the party.  I spoke to him for a while and quickly learned that he was new to the conference.  He had just gotten his degree and a new job.  His company sent him to the conference to get his foot in the door and network with others.  He was a perfectly nice guy, but obviously intimidated by the seasoned professionals all engaged in conversation.  Had the evening gone differently, the new attendee would have had a great time, learned a lot, and met a bunch of new people.  He would have returned to work and told his coworkers what a fantastic time he had and maybe even connected to a few other attendees on LinkedIn.  From that point, he’d be a regular at the event.  But, that’s not the way it went at all.  Aside from me, I don’t think the young man spoke to anyone.  And, if I had to guess…he won’t be back.  I have to wonder if this situation could have been avoided if the event organizers had a strategy concerning first time attendees.

Nicole Palmisano

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