I've mentioned before how much conference attendees love their phones. They love checking-in, posting photos, looking up places to eat...they love everything about their phones. So, it isn't a surprise that the opposite is also true. Attendees hate when they can't use their phones. I once attended an event that was held in the basement level of a very large Chicago hotel. The event organizers had thought of everything – excellent speakers, delicious food, even some really world class entertainment. By all accounts, the event was a huge success. However, since the event was held in the lower level and the organization hadn’t sprung for wifi, you could generally find 1/5 of the conference attendees standing at the top of the stairs searching for reception/coverage. Conference attendees are generally busy professionals who expect and are expected to remain in constant communication. No access to a network can leave your attendees high and dry.
Now, I understand why hosts are reluctant to provide wifi at their events...it's expensive. Expensive enough to leave an appreciable dent in their budget. When making important budget choices, it can be easy to cross out wifi in order to save some cash. However, these costs can be minimized with careful planning and consideration. First, consider a facility that offers free wifi. I know this is becoming virtually unheard of (especially in big cities), but there are a few places where free wifi is a reality. Harpole’s Heartland Lodge is one of them! When I visited the lodge a few weeks ago (for our fantastic Girls Weekend), I was thrilled to rediscover that the lodge had free wifi. This meant that I could Google image search what a morel mushroom looked like without eating up any data! For professionals attending a board meeting or retreat, free wifi can be quite the luxury. You can get work done before a meeting, check your e-mail on the fly, and if you are spending the night, fall asleep by the warm glow of your iphone (like I do). I was recently asked to speak at a social media workshop. I was hoping to be able to do my presentation in Prezi, but was aware that many venues don’t provide internet access. So, I showed up with a more tradition Power Point presentation. Much to my surprise, the event did feature free wifi, not just for speakers but for all attendees. Not only was I able to do the far more interesting Prezi, but attendees were able to visit the website I recommended in real time, access handouts on their devices and even put my contact information directly into their phones!
So, what do you do if you can’t find a facility with free wifi to meet your needs? Well, for one thing, make sure there is at least cell phone reception in your event space! Where free wifi may be a luxury, phone reception is close to a necessity. There is nothing worse than having to stand in a crowded, noisy lobby to be able to take a call from work! Once you have established that there is cell phone reception, work with your venue to see if you can provide wifi in specific areas. They may offer it free in common areas or perhaps you can get a more reasonable rate by only getting wifi in certain rooms.
Wifi is especially important to consider if you are intending social media to play a role in your event. When we ask our attendees to use our conference app, tweet, tag or blog about an event, an expectation is created. After all, if social media is important to your event, shouldn’t the event support it? Two years ago I attended a conference with an entire track dedicated to social networking. As far as social media went, they did everything right. They had an event hashtag, gave prizes for checking in, had live polling in sessions, and gamification in the exhibit hall. They even had monitors around with a constant feed from people who were blogging, tweeting, or posting about the event. What they didn’t have was wifi. Not in the session rooms. Not in the common areas. Nothing. Conference organizers and diehard fans were happy to participate using their own data plans, but I couldn’t help but notice what a turn off this was to others.
Whatever your wifi/coverage situation is, be sure to share the info with others. When you send confirmation e-mails to registrants, be sure to let them know what they can expect. This will allow attendees to plan and prepare accordingly.