Ask five people what makes a good association event and you’ll get six different answers. Events are a highly subjective and personal experience and what makes one “good” comes down to individual wants, needs, and values.
We attempt to rate our events by asking our attendees to look backwards into the past, not asking them what they want to see in the future. We ask multiple questions that only scratch the surface of their experience and neglect to ask the questions that can provide true direction for change.
In addition, many participants don’t complete surveys, so we end up basing our ratings and future actions on what a small percentage of the audience thinks and miss the mark for the majority of the audience.
How to counter this? At 360 Live Media, we are conference spies. We attend and assess events based on 167 different data points. We may walk through the event looking like regular attendees, but we are also keenly observing audience behaviors and patterns, picking up on conversations in the halls, and watching how people interact with the event.
Today I’m opening our dossier to share with you some of the insights we’ve gleaned over the past 12 months of returning to in-person events, and how to put them into practice at your own events.
It’s all about Maslow’s Pyramid of Needs. Before we can expect people to learn, buy, or even just enjoy an event, we must ensure their base needs are met. Once they’re outside of their daily routines and normal environments, people can’t focus until they are fed, caffeinated, and comfortable. Tell them what to expect and where to find things, rather than just leaving it to them to figure things out on their own. If there’s one Starbucks in the hotel, is there another nearby place for coffee? If attendees’ evenings are open, can you recommend places for dinner? If the hotel has limited services, is DoorDash an option? Share all of this in the app and event messaging. Looking after their base needs will automatically elevate attendees’ experience.
It’s not enough to put people in the same room together. The No. 1 thing that people missed over the past two years is networking. We can’t just throw a happy hour in the program and figure we’ve checked that box. People network in different ways, for different reasons, and they need varying levels of support. A bar on the trade-show floor doesn’t mean that attendees and exhibitors are connecting around potential solutions. A coffee break in the hallway doesn’t guarantee serendipitous moments will happen. Making meaningful connections is the primary value proposition for people traveling to an in-person event. Problem-solving sessions, speed-dating formats, icebreaker activities, and something as simple as easy-to-read name badges — offering these things makes it easy for people to find the value they are craving.
There is only one feedback question that matters. If you want to know if your event was successful, one data point rises to the top: How many of your attendees say that the event made them better at their jobs? Did they learn something that will advance their careers? Did they discover a useful product? Did they hit their metrics to move them closer to their sales goals? Did they leave their mark on a policy or regulation? Did they meet someone who will help them solve a problem? If the audience can point to your event as helping them advance their careers, then it becomes indispensable.
These three small ways to put quantifiable criteria in place for evaluating your event will have a big impact on your attendees’ experience.
Beth Surmont, CMP, FASAE, CAE, is vice president of event strategy and design for marketing, strategy, and experience agency 360 Live Media.