by Shawna Suckow, CMP
Have you ever stepped back and asked yourself the simple question, “Why do people go to conferences?” It’s been on my mind lately so I’ve posed this question to audiences all over North America and the answers always fall into four key categories, which I now call “The Four C’s.” Stick with me to the end, though, because although you may nod your head in agreement, I’d like to take the discussion a step further and challenge all planners out there.
Community. Without it, we might as well stay home and watch webinars or read books to educate ourselves.
Celebration. Recognizing the accomplishments of ourselves, our peers and our industry is one of the main reasons we congregate. It’s no fun celebrating alone.
Collaboration. Some have argued that content should be one of the C’s, but I don’t believe content is as meaningful without collaboration. If it were just about the content, we, again, would just watch webinars or read books. It’s coming together for the shared learning experience that makes a conference meaningful. Have you ever heard a great speaker that doesn’t truly resonate until you’ve had a chance to have a dialog on the session with others? We’ve all experienced great sessions where collaboration plays a key role and aren’t those almost always better than a straight lecture?
Changing lives. In big ways and small, ALL meetings change their participants. Whether it’s meeting someone new, learning something that can ease frustration at work or coming across a new idea that sparks change for mankind, meetings change lives - there’s no denying it.
When we’re asked to plan a new or recurring conference, the CMPs out there know that we always start with goals and objectives. This is pounded into the heads of CMP hopefuls on day one - you can’t plan a meeting without knowing your goals and objectives. If you move forward without this key information - the ‘why’ of the meeting, as just an order-taker who plays no real part in the overall strategy of the meeting - you’re just handling what I call “the buses and bagels.”
Here’s the Four C’s Challenge: once you’ve identified your conference’s goals and objectives, I put forth that you then focus on the four C’s.
How will you foster a sense of Community? For many conference participants, networking is the number one stated reason for attending conferences. Some planners believe that having a cocktail reception should suffice but I believe that we need to do better these days. With the convergence of four generations, the lure of our devices and diversity of participants that always include newcomers and introverts, it’s harder than ever to meet new people. Planners can be strategic in providing ways for participants to connect with others throughout the conference by creating what industry icon Jeff Hurt calls ‘Watering Holes,’ for example. These are places where participants congregate and connect naturally, like the water cooler at the office. Provide time in the agenda, don’t over-schedule everything, avoid speakers at every meal and have half-hour or longer breaks. Sometimes the best outcomes for participants happen outside the classroom, so give them time and space to connect organically. Alternately, organize structured networking exercises, which are always appreciated by the first-time attendees and introverts. This was done beautifully at a recent annual conference for a Minnesota government agency. They recognized their diverse attendee base needed a little help connecting, so they built three 30-minute segments into the conference where participants congregated in the general session room for different networking exercises by generation, by topic of interest and by biggest challenges. It was an overwhelming success.
How will you build Celebration into your event? If you don’t have award winners, lifetime achievers or rookies to recognize find another reason to celebrate. We’re finally emerging from the recession, which gives us all reason - and need - to make merry. If you encourage people to meet strangers during daytime networking exercises then the social functions and celebrations are where they can reconnect with old friends, which is just as important.
How will you foster engagement and Collaboration at your conference? This is a biggie, but it’s also one of the easiest to
accomplish in the session rooms. Ask each speaker how they will engage the audience and what percentage of their session is collaborative - I mean truly collaborative. Don’t settle for anything less than one third. Every session, unless it’s a strict download of information, can be collaborative. The speaker just needs to relinquish the power to the audience for table discussions, small group analysis, Q&A, facilitated audience response or other formats. Be very wary of lectures because even the strongest keynote speaker can struggle to hold everyone’s attention these days. Our devices, and sometimes skipping sessions to catch up on work, can be just too darn alluring. Secondly, I wonder if people truly want lectures and traditional keynotes these days or if they prefer a strong message wrapped in an opportunity to really connect with one another. Where there’s collaboration in sessions, participants truly can create their own outcome. Would you rather leave success in the hands of just one speaker or share the responsibility with every single participant at the conference? When they are invested in their own outcome, everyone is more engaged.
Of course, there are all sorts of ways to Change lives through our conferences via Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) activities. I always encourage a CSR aspect at every conference. What I’m talking about, though, is changing the lives of our own attendees. If we can provide the opportunities for Community, Celebration and Collaboration, we virtually guarantee that every single participant will walk away a changed person.
Not every conference is solving world hunger or addressing the debt crisis, but if we can serve up the simple elements that every conference participant seeks, we change every person’s life who walks through our doors. I’d have to say that’s a worthy outcome.