Breaking Down the Walls at Your Next Event

Written by Megan Denhardt on September 21, 2017

We all have been there.

We have registered for that conference, rearranged our work and personal schedules, stood in airport lines and managed flight delays – all with eager anticipation for a great two or three days of learning and networking. But something happens. The conference falls flat.

We sit in stodgy windowless conference rooms with four walls and dim lighting while passively listening from a sage on the stage touting their knowledge. We begin calculating the dollars spent and time lost away from home and work.

As a conference and event planner, don’t let this not-so-uncommon experience happen to your attendees!

People don’t come to conferences just for content. They come to connect. For meaningful conversations and memorable experiences. People want to share stories, to learn from one another, to feel connected and be part of the community. This is an essential part of the human condition.

Creating exceptional experiences continues to be the main currency in our economies. We are a culture thirsty for experiences. These real-life experiences are gold, which is why people take time away from work and family – and often money out of their own pocket – to travel to and participate at a conference.

It’s important to consider the attendee’s reason for coming to an event, and to be purposeful in how you design it as a result. You are creating a service they can’t find anywhere else. How can you offer this to your members?

What can you do at your events to delight and awe? What elements of play can you implement to inspire and stimulate the senses? How do you keep your members coming back for more? These tasks are challenging – and events are not one-size-fits all. We are tasked with proving the value of a face-to-face experience amidst the sea of online, digital and mobile competition where there is easily accessible – and often free – content/videos/resources available at the click of a button.

Don Neal, founder of 360 Live Media, an award-winning experience design agency, urges organizations to move beyond better-sameness at their events. He challenges us to think about “what will surprise, delight, provoke, stimulate, tickle, crackle, sparkle, bring the heat, light the fuse, inspire and magnetize your audience at your next event?”

So what is the solution? Variety! Give your attendees choices and let them create their own journey. Here are some ideas:

Get Outside

Get folks connecting with Wisdom While You Walk activities that pair two or three people together. Feed them a topic to discuss and send them off for 30 minutes.

Hold an early-riser outdoor gathering before the first conference activity, so that lungs can be filled with air while minds are filling with ideas.

Trending Now

Offer a track of “Just in Time” sessions through the entire conference, which is saved for something that is trending in real-time in the week or two leading into the event. Too often we have to plan our events so many months in advance that we don’t allow space for a trending topic to get slotted in. Are there policies recently enforced, global issues, or new mergers and acquisitions affecting your industry? Save space for these hot-off-the-press conversations.

Say it Again

Ever been to a conference where you had several compelling sessions to choose from in the same time-block but clearly couldn’t be in two places at once? Save space in the last time block on the last day to repeat the most popular sessions that have already occurred. Have attendees vote in real time to gather this information.

Delight and Awe

The conference schedule is set and folks know where to be and when – but what about the in-between times? Offer some levity with a local musician entertaining folks while they wait in that conference registration line to pick up their badge. Bring an unscheduled person of interest to the stage during your opening general session. All work and no play will break the conference experience. Surprise your attendees. Keep them curious about what will happen next – and compel them to come back year after year.

Short and Sweet

Did you know that TED Talks are being viewed at the rate of 1.5 million times a day - which means that a new viewing commences 17 times per second? While the content is indeed compelling, another key component of TED’s success is the concept of sound-bite learning. We are constantly bombarded with information, and often driven away by the idea of education-overload. Introduce shorter learning opportunities such as Ignite, speed networking, or micro-coaching.

Ask the Experts

If you have an onsite bookstore, how about offering an Author Series where attendees can ask the writer(s) questions? Do you give out awards to leaders in your community? What about holding an Award winners’ debrief? Provide a space for these innovators to share their story, provide an overview of their award-winning campaign and answer questions.

You Decide…

These are just a small handful of unique learning formats to break out of the traditional conference mold and create an exceptional attendee experience. Go deeper and take note from some of the most innovative conferences of 2016.

Implementing these great formats and approaches may not be enough to make the compelling case for bosses to fork over the cash. Model something ASAE has done for their Annual Conference by creating an ROI Toolkit to help get approval.

Remember, we are more than our business cards – and so are your attendees – so support the need for human connection, encourage it, and purposefully design for it.

Happy designing!

Megan spoke at the “Virtual Conferences: The New Frontier” session during SURGE Spring, an interactive virtual summit hosted by on May 2nd-4th. Click here to register and watch on demand!