Conference Call

Last week Emily attended (and spoke at) another Internet conference, this one focused on e-healthcare. The location was Las Vegas. Since attending conferences can be a full-time job, we’re finicky about which ones we’ll attend.

Each year, millions of dollars are spent on conferences — from the vendors who pay premium prices for sponsorships and strategic positions on the showroom floor to the attendance fees to the lost work hours due to sitting in freezing cold hotel conference centers listening to speakers who know barely more than we do about any given subject.

Conference planning is an art and a science, as well as a cottage industry unto itself. If you’ve been to a well-planned conference, you don’t even notice. But if you attend a poorly planned conference, you definitely feel it.

Since conferences are a big part of the dot-com, or e-commerce, lifestyle, we thought we’d focus on a few things to consider when planning your next conference.

Location is everything. This is a no-brainer, but it requires a mention anyway. The most popular cities for conferences are the ones that offer things to do at night, which encourages attendance. After all, some people — we don’t know any, of course — like to have some fun when not watching PowerPoint presentations.

Boston, San Francisco, and Las Vegas are popular spots because they already have infrastructures to support such business events: public transportation, a nearby international airport, large hotels and conference centers, and tourist attractions.

Pay attention to amenities. Not all hotels are created alike. Go for the hotels that cater to a business clientele. Fly out there, and look in the rooms. Are there data ports on the phones? Most have them by now, but many hotels still haven’t figured out that people prefer to work at a desk.

Last week at the conference, Emily logged on while balancing a laptop on the bed. Not very ergonomic.

Are there amenities in the room, such as ironing boards, message centers on the phones, coffee pots, and fridges? Does the hotel have a gym, a business center, and a newspaper stand?

And for the conference, do your speakers have broadband access to the Internet for any online demos? This is critical, and you can’t assume the hotel will have it.

Feed the masses. We can’t overemphasize the importance of having a steady flow of snacks, sodas, and other refreshments — particularly in the afternoon. Your presenters will appreciate a crowd that has had its postlunch caffeine and sugar pick-me-up.

One conference center in Atlanta had strategically placed popcorn carts with freshly popped popcorn, as well as ice cream refrigerators and refrigerated bottled water. Tables were lined with baskets full of candy, peanuts, crackers, jars of jellybeans, and coffee machines.

Allow enough downtime. Also important is a place for attendees to just relax — without having to return to their hotel room. Many vendors will be happy to sponsor a lounge of some kind, especially one with a bank of computers with Internet access, tables for people to have hushed, impromptu job interviews, and comfortable chairs.

Some thoughtful conference planners have even offered Internet-connected desktop computers for web surfing or checking email.

Train the trainers. Many conference planners can’t afford to pay popular speakers who work the circuit and charge thousands of dollars for an engagement. But for those who take time out of their day jobs to come and speak, the least you can do is offer them presentation training. The speakers obviously know their material, but that doesn’t automatically make them decent speakers.

We’ve been to too many conferences where attendees could barely stifle their yawns during a session where the topic should have been riveting.

Also, on the subject of speakers…

Put vendors in their place. Nothing annoys attendees who’ve paid a lot of money to attend a conference more than to attend sessions that are little more than thinly veiled sales pitches.

CNET’s first Builder.com conference had a brilliant solution: At the beginning of the conference, attendees received in their registration packet a small plastic box with a hard metal strip on one side. When you pressed on the metal strip, it made a clicking sound.

The attendees were instructed that if a speaker veered too much toward marketing hyperbole, attendees were to click their clickers to alert the speaker to get back to the education portion of the session. This proved immensely popular and created a sense of camaraderie among the attendees.

This leads to our most important point…

Create a community. Many of the attendees who come to your conference probably have a common thread among them. They’re all healthcare marketers. Or they’re all automotive engineers. This is a perfect opportunity to create a community. Encourage participation. Consider hosting an interactive roundtable on a controversial topic. Have contests.

Additionally, if your conference is largely a marketing opportunity, you want the attendees to come away with a positive experience to encourage their participation the next time.

Obviously, people who plan and manage conferences will have lots more to say about this topic. But as an attendee, Emily found these to be some of the more important issues for the success of a conference.

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