Anyone who has organized a conference understands the challenge of attracting and engaging attendees. And anyone who's attended one can relate to the recent “Conference Manifesto” published in the New York Times. The author, after experiencing presentation and panel overload, asks importantly, "What is the purpose of the conference? What has caused us to organize these things year after year without questioning their basis? Is there another way to reformat the conference or do away with it altogether…?"
It's in our power and our duty as business leaders to reimagine the conference.
With the opportunity to host our company's first global user summit four years ago, I wanted to reinvent the entire event format. Attendees have ample opportunities to read slides and digest lectures at home, but the most valuable things about a physical event are the connections you can make with other people, planned and unplanned. The relationships you develop with peers can significantly impact your perspective and decisions going forward.
We've since produced three successful global events called Aspire, and I've learned many lessons along the way in what works, what doesn't, and, most importantly, what attendees value most.
1) Space is the most important silent participant.
Ditch the hotel ballroom. The windowless rectangles stuffed with chairs and podium is the harbinger of a day full of PowerPoint-based torture. Companies like Google and even our own have transformed offices to an open and light-filled format to breed collaboration and creativity. The same principles should be applied to your event space. Explore places that are not known for hosting conferences like museums, warehouses, and lofts. Avoid stadium-style seating. At Aspire, we have attendees take part in creating the space: They start their day in an empty room over breakfast, and, when it's session time, we ask them to grab a chair and form small circles making it easier to connect.
2) Steer the connections.
Conferences exist so people can engage with others in their industry. At the start of each day, pose thoughtful questions that encourage people to open up and connect on a personal level. You'll be surprised to see how the energy and nature of conversations start to shift and open up. (See our meaningful meeting guide for suggestions on questions and formats). Be mindful of the layout so people aren't just staring at the backs of heads or the front of the room–create seating that allows for eye contact and spontaneous conversation with other attendees. Not only does this create a more friendly and relaxed environment, but attendees will be more engaged, too. Don't save Q&A till the end of a session; bake in discussion questions during main-stage talks to allow for dynamic learning and interaction.
3) Get physical.
Numerous studies have shown that physical movement and activity boosts learning and memory absorption. You're much more likely to remember the conversation you had with someone while learning how to roll sushi, for example, than during, perhaps, the fourth lecture of the day. Whatever the activity is, try to incorporate ways to get your attendees out of their chairs and interacting with others in a creative way. At Aspire, we've had everything from jewelry-making stations to classes taught by whiskey experts to help bond attendees. Every year, our customers eagerly ask us what we have in store for the "activities" portion of the event.
4) Less is more when it comes to presenters.
Surprisingly, Aspire attendees were more satisfied and got more out of our conferences when there were fewer main-stage speakers in the agenda. They found interactive discussion sessions to be more valuable than a barrage of 30-minute back-to-back presentations. Instead of inviting big industry names to speak on stage, consider having them play the role of discussion leader. This sparks more personalized, relevant conversations while allowing an influencer to share their wealth of knowledge more intimately. The adage "quality over quantity" holds especially true in this case.
5) Embrace the conference chaos.
Everyone comes to an event with their own set of goals, and you can't control whether attendees will be in the "right" session at the "right" time. Instead of funneling attendees into a rigid schedule, give them another way to structure the day that allows for flexibility according to individual needs. In our conference agenda, we schedule a healthy block of "free time" where attendees can have 1:1 meetings with our team of experts in our own version of a Genius Bar and ask very specific and personal questions.
Don't be afraid to experiment during your next event. Challenge your event team to rethink how things are done. Share your ideas on how to flip customer conferences on their heads to give attendees a reason to come back.