Food, venue and audience engagement may trump content for a successful business meeting.
Who among us has not dreaded the moment when an email arrives heralding another “important” annual convention or professional conference that takes time away from keeping up with daily tasks? The question, it seems, is whether investing time in attending such an event is worth it.
That's perhaps the biggest challenge facing those charged with making their events work for all involved, such as Jarrod Clabaugh, executive director of Ohio Society of Association Executives. The Columbus-based group hosts a leadership summit and state conference each year as well as workshops and quarterly luncheons for the trade and professional association managers it serves—many of whom must also plan events for their members.
“It's extremely important that when meeting planners look at the goals for an event, they don't just look at their organization's needs,” Clabaugh says. “They should place the attendees' needs first.”
He recommends planners make their events as unique as possible when it comes to selecting a venue, lining up speakers, and developing food and beverage options.
“People don't remember they sat through a bad meeting,” he says, “but they do remember a wonderful presenter who interacted with attendees, that the food was great, and they did something eclectic at a local venue.”
One of the first make-or-break decisions facing planners could be selecting a meeting site served by an easily accessible airport and lining up a reliable shuttle system to take attendees to hotels or the conference center.
“Nothing is worse than traveling to a conference and having a bad transportation experience,” Clabaugh says.
He is also adamant about incorporating local food options into menus, saying “people travel on their stomachs.”
“If the conference is in Kansas City and there is no barbecue, then there's a problem,” Clabaugh says. “If you're on a lake, you better have interesting fish on the menu. If it's a rural community, you should highlight your relationship with local farmers and produce growers.”
It is also critical to know your audience and what they expect from you. “That should guide every planning decision,” says Mikalene Guiser, an event planner in central Ohio since 2004 who now manages events for the Columbus Metropolitan Library.
She adds that lining up program content, catering, a venue, music and even a speaker's energy level that's appropriate for the audience are keys for a positive outcome.
Guiser also is a big believer in the value of rehearsing speakers, saying planners shouldn't automatically assume everyone stepping up to a podium knows how to effectively talk into a microphone. Planners should also make sure speakers know their cues, have a readable script and know the time limit for their presentation.
As for technology trends, Guiser is finding that events are going back to the basics with less use of PowerPoint and instead using a short-but-poignant video, leaving much more time for interaction and hands-on experiences for attendees.
One of the keys to successful events for Thirty-One Gifts is the development of a quality agenda that is “actionable and engaging,” says Michelle Harris, director of events for the Columbus-based direct sales company that offers totes, purses and accessories. She and her team work on more than 50 events a year, including the company's national conference that draws 10,000 sales consultants and managers to the Arena District.
Harris says a good example of a successful agenda was the “Everybody Has a Story” theme for the 2017 national conference. It centered around Thirty-One Founder and CEO Cindy Monroe asking consultants “What is your why?” for being with the company.
“That made our conference,” Harris says. “It was so easy to thread because (the theme) meant something to everybody.”
Thirty-One also goes to great lengths to pamper conference attendees, recognizing that many of their consultants are stay-at-home moms and attending the conference may be the one time of the year when they make a big trip.
“It's a sisterhood experience and about personal development,” Harris says, noting Thirty-One gives attendees plenty of time to network with their peers and share ideas on improving their businesses.
The company has also seen the value of using video rather than just “talking heads on a stage.” Additionally, it has deployed interactive lighting in which programmable bracelets worn by audience members send signals that match colors—pink, yellow, orange and green—with the moods of the event program.
Amy Rohling McGee likes to get people up and moving around at events hosted by the Health Policy Institute of Ohio, which holds five to seven educational forums a year. That includes stretching and marching in place during breaks, letting people know it's OK to get up and walk around during a presentation and bursting into what she calls “active applause” to give a standing ovation to every speaker.
“Sitting in a room for several hours really saps your energy and makes it difficult to concentrate,” says McGee, the institute's president. She is also convinced that holding events in venues with good natural lighting helps people stay alert so they can focus on the message at hand.
Her organization spends a lot of time rehearsing its presentations and simplifying slides that amplify what a speaker says rather than duplicating it. McGee and her staff are also zealous when it comes to using attendee surveys to figure out what worked and what didn't.
“We take that data, compile it and do continuous improvement after every forum,” she says. “We look for trends—was there a fairly high number of people who had these concerns?”
Other event planners echoed her comments about the value of post-event surveys, although Guiser feels they can be misleading unless there is a good response rate.
“Guests who have had a really great or really horrible experience are the ones who tend to respond,” she says. “A bad comment can lead planners to focus on an area that may not need to be changed, and a good comment can lead planners to smooth over something that actually does need tweaked.”
Anna Nash, director of sales at the Greater Columbus Convention Center, believes a sure-fire way to have a great event is for planners to prepare well in advance to promote the destination's amenities to attendees.
“Event planners are realizing that although the corporate event is the reason for attending,” she says, “guests now have greater expectations from the venue and surrounding area for dining, shopping and entertainment.”
That means it is important to provide blocks of free time so attendees can see the host city and gather with friends and colleagues. Back at the venue, event planners are providing attendees with what Nash described as “step-and-repeat banners” and giant letters in front of which they can pose for photos.
Taking that idea to the next level at the convention center is the “As We Are” sculpture, a 14-foot-tall interactive attraction shaped like a human head that projects visitors' 3-D faces onto its form after they step into an adjacent photo booth.
Color themes, live streaming of events and on-screen polls of attendees are also being used at events held at the center, says Jennifer Davis, the venue's senior marketing and communications manager.
“Dramatic staging is also becoming more popular,” she says. Event planners use specialLED ceiling lights available in three of the convention center's ballrooms for on-stage effects, she adds.
Those involved in the event planning and staging business also say that the days of telling attendees to put away their cell phones during presentations are long gone. Tweeting and posts on Facebook, Instagram and other social media are part of the process now.
“When multiple people in a room are excited enough about what they're experiencing (to mention it on social media),” Davis says, “it creates a sense of community and added validation for the event planner.”
Jeff Bell is a freelance writer.