Conference 101: Give the People What They Want

You’re producing an upcoming conference, and you have a thousand items on the to-do list. Layer on top of that a budget and needs assessment to go along with the thousand tasks. 

Reality check: You need to sacrifice a few darlings on your list. Prioritize based on the wants and desires of people attending the event. Your main concern should be the owners of the butts that occupy all those folding chairs. They even supersede your the wants and desires of sponsors. This little detail often seems to escape the novice event producer.

“Yes, Justice - but my sponsors make all this possible. Without them, I wouldn’t be able to rent the Regency Ballroom at the Marriott!” – Sigh.

I get it, but you must understand that if your audience does not have a good time, your sponsors do not get positive feedback and your event fails. So always make your guest’s needs No. 1.

Fresh off a mind-expanding tour of three very effective seminars and conferences, I have some advice for event planners, producers and businesses that are ready to kick off a seminar or conference.

The Price is Right

Create a registration price that is cost-effective against other events within the same space. If you have a higher price point, then outline the benefits. Your price should be based on the individual being completely taken care of. That includes food, transportation, any and all external social events, printed materials and event-based swag.

Let's talk about swag. Your audience might not come right out and say, “This cheap poop is just a dirty bag of promotional tricks that no one wants to touch, let alone take home and pawn off on their kids” – but they might think it.

Not only do you need excellent swag, tchotchkes, and giveaways, but you should demand the same from your sponsors. Tell them to leave the pens, rack brochures and squeezy balls at home. I know it may seem trite, but good swag will live well beyond your event. And the less “branded” it is, the longer it will be used by your participants.

"But my giant logo and paragraph long tag-line is precious!" Stop. Seriously, stop.

<tangent> If you see one of your sponsors displaying a bunch of cool swag they're unwilling to part with unless someone registers for something, then run up to their booth, flip it over, push the rep to the ground and drag him out by the hair like a drunk sorority girl.</tangent>

Make it Easy

Just as you set goals and objectives for business and life, you need to set them for your seminar as well. The overriding goals should be to make the experience simple and fulfilling.

Speakers should be from the proper vertical and have “actionable content.” Meaning that after I watch a breakout session, I should have learned something I can take home and use to the success of my business without paying any additional money.

It drives me crazy to sit through a breakout session only to find out I can’t apply what I learned without purchasing the presenter’s product, service or education. Should you see a presenter doing this – please see “tangent” above.

It chaps my ass so much when I see this, that I need to reiterate: For the price of admission, people should leave your seminar or convention with something very proactive and beneficial. Not only will your audience appreciate this and respect you, but it will increase participation in future events. 

Lightning Round

  • Schedule adequate time between breakout sessions for networking and relocation from room to room.
  • Create a proper media kit for people to understand the nature of the event, its participants and sponsors. Any additional metrics showing its growth or potential uniqueness against the crowded expanse of other conferences will be to your benefit.
  • Make sure food is of the highest quality and prepared in a manner that exceeds guest expectations. In your registration profile, allow options for vegetarians, food allergies, or other specific requirements.
  • Wi-Fi should be reliable, strong and easy to connect with. It’s also helpful to provide access to a printer and charging stations.
  • Create and assign “concierge” contacts for your three primary guest verticals: VIP bloggers, speakers and celebrity constituents; attendees; and sponsor representatives. They should be available through social media, by cell phone and on the floor.
  • Comfort and ambiance are uber important. Make sure the event has proper seating, maintain an agreeable room temperature, assure that the audio and video is high quality, and bring in screens that are large enough for people sitting in the back row.
  • Include adequate contact information on guest badges. Use QR codes to help when guests are out of business cards. This also allows you to aggregate data passed from user to user.
  • Remember it's incredibly important to give progressive information up until the point of the event. Establish ongoing communication throughout the conference by utilizing event-based hash tags (make sure each one is specific to the year – #eventname2012). And within that, invite all participants to communicate using systems such as Once your event is over, be sure to follow up with a survey. Pull in progressively distributed user-generated content from the event to expand the life expectancy and its retention value.
  • Any and all external parties or gatherings should be treated with the highest level of detail and attention. You think it goes without saying that your event should have an insurance bond for potential accidents, but these events often go “commando." Needless to say, anything that involves alcohol should also involve adequate transportation so no one is drinking and driving.
  • Most event planners understand the vast majority of money comes from sponsors. I'm not going to get long-winded about their importance other than to say that you should set up a proper amount of time for event-based materials to help the sponsors understand your goals. Remember: You have one opportunity to establish an “enculturation” doctrine with your sponsors. The more they understand your needs, the better they can craft their own messaging so everyone wins.
  • Lastly, it's an absolute must to create an event social graph. This should include, but not be limited to: a website, Facebook page, Facebook group, Twitter channel, event-based hash tag system, foursquare (or like-minded, location-based application) check-in, YouTube channel, and a social photography channel such as Flickr or Instagram. Allocate budget to progressively maintain these channels until the next event. This often goes overlooked, and the audience engagement created during the event dies a short time later. And along with it dies the retention ability of said channels.

Now it's your turn. I want to hear what you think should be added to this list. You've all been punished at conventions enough to know what you want. Tell me!