Five Tips for Developing an Unforgettable Program

Producing a Conference They Will Never Forget


Andy McNeill, CEO, American Meetings, Inc.

There I am sitting in a meeting with a new client brainstorming their 2016 conference. The first item on the agenda is “Theme”. While not the most important item, it is one we most certainly need to cover. I cringe while reviewing the list of the past three conference themes. “Unlimited Opportunity,” “Growing in Paradise,” and finally “The Economics of Our Region”….SNNOOZZZZZZZE! What do they mean…unlimited opportunity? Are there actually associations that want to LIMIT opportunity for their members? Aren’t they stating the obvious? And they are wondering why attendance is down at their annual conference? That got me thinking, why people come to conferences. Let’s be honest and realistic with this exercise. Here are five fantastic secrets to improve your conference, summit, convention or symposia. They are not so much secrets, as tried and true elements that will make your conference standout.

Listen, your members are busy people. They are a member of your organization and probably five others, and all of those associations have meetings and events. Oh, and these busy people also have to travel for their business, and let’s not forget…they have families too! You need to make your conference stand-out.  Make it engaging. Make it easy. Make it fun! So tear print this blog post, pin it on your bulletin board and bring some of these steps to your committee planning meeting. Here are five secrets to remember:

1) Location. Location. Location. – A very common cliché, but it is true. Would you rather have an event at a location on the beach or at an airport hotel? People will pay for quality. Don’t insult your members by thinking otherwise. Keeping it cheap can also keep your numbers low. Also, if you have not moved your program from the same location or your headquartered city, consider it. People enjoy variety, even if it is only a different hotel across town.

2) People Remember The Food. – If there is one place not to skimp, it’s the food. Think back to the last time, you saw a picked through cheese tray. Not very appetizing is it? People remember food. They remember good coffee in the morning, plentiful snack breaks and good dinners. They also remember food running out, no breaks, and the rubber chicken thing. Most hotel chefs welcome the opportunity to create something special. Any chef that is worth his salt will jump at the chance to come up with something creative. It usually just takes the asking.

3) Offer & Communicate Impactful Networking Opportunities– Don’t kid yourself…people don’t come to your conference to listen to your annual report or go to a break-out session; they come to NETWORK! Networking is about interaction. People are social animals. They want to meet other people who will benefit their needs. Create networking opportunities inside your conference. If I go to a program where I meet someone that is going to benefit me, you can bet I will be back next year. Here are three quick ideas:

-Name Tents at Meals: Add name tents to some of your meal functions. Make people sit by folks they don’t know. You will be creating interaction, and a ½ hour sitting next to a potential client or partner is priceless.

-Ice Breakers at Cocktail Receptions: Create an ice breaker during a cocktail reception. Ice breakers should be simple. Here is a great one:  When people are checking-in, hand them a sheet of paper with the name of a famous person on it. As people socialize, they can ask for three clues of others about the famous person.  This is a simple and easy way to start a conversation.

-Speed Meetings: This is a GREAT One! Add to your registration form if attendees want to be a part of a speed meeting session. Just like the speed dating scenarios, conference organizers set up chairs across from each other, and attendees have three minutes to introduce themselves. Create a simple score card where people can take brief notes if there is a connection. Help your attendees out by making copies of everyone’s business cards ahead of time.

4) Don’t Overload Your Attendees with Too Much Content:  One of the biggest misnomers about conferences is that since your attendees are all together, you need to get everything done. If this is your case, it may take some rethinking to plan your other interactions with your attendee base. Use your conference as a platform to grow ideas and planning. Hit on key elements and use chairs, committees and sub-committees for more in-depth planning. For education, use your newsletters, your website and technology (i.e. podcasts) to offer education at their leisure. Finally, implement a program committee with members who have attended the conference in the past to help develop the format. This will go a long way to provide the type of program your attendees need.

5) The Pre-Event Packet:  I left this one for the last, as it is so critically important. With the advent of technology, sometimes we have lost the personal touch. Though e-mail and websites are critical tools for attendee’s communication, a packet of information arriving to the client’s door, 5 business days before his/her arrival, provides a level of service people do not soon forget. Schedule of events, directions, last minute reminders, gifts and name tags are just a few of the things that can go into this packet ( unpaid invoices too!). If a mailing is not in your budget a pre-event e-mail can also suffice, but you lose some of the personal touch. This packet will communicate organization, professionalism and customer service, and give you a firm foundation to a fantastic conference.

There are so many areas to consider when developing a successful program. Every group is unique. What isn’t different is prior planning. Having a well thought out plan that meets your attendee’s needs is critical to your success. Don’t be afraid to have open and candid discussions about your conference and give yourself plenty of time to have those conversations. Oh yes, and remember that client I was telling you about… is there new Theme we pitched…. “The Super Summit – Network with Key Decision-makers and Gain Valuable Industry Insights at the Ritz Carlton, Palm Beach” ….Now, I am going to that one!

**Andy McNeill is President and CEO of American Meetings, Inc. – AMI, a global leader in event marketing and meeting management. Andy and his team have developed programs, conferences and symposia for over three million attendees around the globe. The American Meetings team works with firms, associations and Fortune 500 companies world-wide to help them develop successful event strategies.

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Happy Planning!!!!

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