When I tell people that I am leaving to attend a conference in an amazing city or country, they usually say things like: “wow, you are so lucky that you get to go there,” and “take lots of pictures!” They don’t realize that I will only see the airport, the conference hotel or facility and whatever else I can glimpse outside the taxi cab’s window as I make my way to and from the airport. The taxi ride is normally at night, and I am exhausted from the trip which normally involves a 1.5 hour drive at 5 a.m., a flight on a small aircraft to an international airport, another flight with at least one more connection and arrival to my final destination after midnight. Glamorous!
Why do we do that? Why do we (I am also guilty of doing this) choose amazing destinations for our conferences but never provide an opportunity for our participants to see or experience any of the history and culture? Instead, we schedule each and every waking moment so that everyone returns home exhausted and under-whelmed.
Thank goodness that times are changing. Planners are increasingly coming up with ways to work with host communities to provide a more personalized conference experience. Planners are also rethinking their conference agenda and considering unique ways to liven up learning, networking and socializing.
Looking to liven up your events? Here are some things to consider:
- Become a “Night Owl”: There is no rule that a conference needs to be scheduled between the hours of 8:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. If you are working on a multi-day event, schedule one day to begin at 4:30 p.m. giving attendees an opportunity or “permission” to sightsee during daylight hours. For some, this will be their only opportunity to take a tour, enjoy a local meal, or shop. The host community can provide maps, assist with arrangements and create individualized tours for your group.
- Food for thought: Food plays a very important role at our events. Take a break from the typical doughnut and coffee and work with the caterer to come up with a creative, locally sourced and interactive menu. Think differently about how you can serve or display your food: cake served on a stick, s’mores, create your own “trail mix” stations, “design a smoothie” blender stations – the list is endless.
- Talking the talk: You need a great emcee or host for your conference. Impress upon your clients the impact that a professional host can have on your event and that they are worth a line in the budget.
- Just jump! Trampoline in your general session area? Perhaps that is too big (and probably a liability issue). Small, mini “rebounder” style trampolines placed strategically throughout the venue, hula hoops leaning against a wall begging to be twirled… Why not? Encourage attendees to move differently: dance, jump, skip.
- That’s a wrap… brown paper wrap! I have been to restaurants that replace the table coverings with large pieces of brown butcher paper and a jar filled with crayons. You can do the same on the tables of your general session area and encourage folks to colour, draw, and doodle. Turn them into instant artwork by pinning them onto the walls at the end of each day.
- Short and sweet: Conference organizers are beginning to experiment with weaving many different presentation styles throughout their events: Pecha Kucha, Bl!nk and Flash Point are being used to change the tone of conference sessions. They provide short bursts of information and a glimpse of the subject matter. Think of your conference agenda as a musical score and create moments within the score that affect mood and emotion.
- Greatest Hits! Create a one-of-a-kind playlist for your next annual conference that supports the event theme. Ask attendees to submit a song choice when they register and then use those submissions to create a Conference XYZ Greatest Hits playlist. Play the music during introductions, coffee breaks and social events.
- Get up to speed (networking): I love this idea that a colleague shared with me recently. She explained her experience with a “Speed Networking” session that she participated in during a PCMA event. Seated participants introduce themselves to someone and speak for five minutes before they have to move on and repeat the process with someone new. Fast paced, fun and reminiscent of musical chairs!
- Games: The opening reception is an opportunity to encourage guests to network, and it sets the tone for the conference. At the Travel Alberta conference last month, organizers modified the well-known Family Feud game to become “Alberta Feud”. Everyone who participated had fun and it was a great way to encourage engagement! Technology is growing to support game playing during events. Budget tight? Charades or Pictionary are inexpensive games to play and can involve a large group at one time.
I hope that I have provided some interesting ways to inject some new life into your next conference! Feel free to share additional ideas with us in the comment section.