A Deep Dive Into Attendee Behavior

Author: David McMillin       

Attendees at Convening Leaders 2019 in Pittsburgh take advantage of the Braindate Lounge. Designing highly engaging, innovative and memorable face-to-face, open space environments at business events requires a delicate balance of six primary elements, according to a research case study released by PCMA Foundation and Steelcase Event Experiences. (Jacob Slaton Photography)

Every organizer anxiously awaits the chance to review comments from post-event evaluations to gauge what attendees loved and what they were less than thrilled about during their time on site. While those responses are critical to informing what should be a part of — and what should be removed from — your next event, the feedback does not always accurately capture what people actually felt in real-time. At Convening Leaders 2019 in Pittsburgh, the PCMA Foundation partnered with Steelcase Event Experiences to capture candid, in-the-moment anecdotes and observations about attendee attitudes and behaviors. Steelcase conducted hundreds of on-site interviews during the event and took notes about the ways that attendees navigated the environment. The report, titled “5,000 People, 5,000 Personal Journeys” was released at the PCMA Education Conference in Los Angeles. While some of the findings are specific to Convening Leaders, many of the insights can be applied more broadly to other face-to-face gatherings.

Timing Is Everything

The Convening Leaders program did not operate with a TV Guide–like schedule with standard 30- and 60-minute chunks of content. Steelcase’s interviews revealed that the staggered schedule, with different start times, proved to be confusing to some attendees. However, Tonya Almond, CMP, vice president of knowledge and experience design at PCMA, said that the decision was in response to the reality of attendees’ lives: No matter what kind of work they do, they’re doing a lot of it.

“Attendees are busy, so you have some members of the audience that are not going to sit through an entire session,” Almond said. “They may choose to walk out of the room. So we staggered scheduling based on what we believed was the best fit for the session. Depending on whether it was more informational or experiential, it might not require the same amount of time.”

For Almond, the confusion over start times served as an important reminder for all event organizers. “Communicate, communicate, communicate,” she said. “People are busy. They don’t see all the information. We have to be diligent about sharing those details.”

Taking an Experiential Approach to Sponsorship

At any event, sponsors arrive with one main objective: to eventually sell something. After all, if they’re spending money on a sponsorship package, they need to see a return on that investment. But Almond pointed out that Convening Leaders is “not a selling environment.” Instead, she sees it as an opportunity to “put thought leadership side-by-side with their customers.”

The Steelcase interviews and observational research proved that those activations resonated with the audience in Pittsburgh. However, it wasn’t as simple as handing over a space to each sponsor. Almond said there was quite a bit of hand-holding and back-and-forth communication required in order to help understand each sponsor’s branding goals and identify creative ways of bringing them to life. For other event organizers who are working to create a winning formula for sponsors and attendees, Almond said there is one key ingredient necessary: time.

“Have those thoughtful conversations,” she said. “Listen to them, and then align their goals and objectives with an opportunity that makes sense. And be willing to take even more time and energy to create something new that will create a meaningful connection between sponsors and attendees.”

Introductions Are Essential

Connections with sponsors weren’t the only aspect of the event that Steelcase observed: Networking also came under the microscope. The notion that networking should only be an informal, bump-into-each-other activity was disproven and showed that offering assistance to make these connections can go far. One of the biggest ways to make more room for connections is to declutter the program. “We all talk about the need for white space,” Almond said. “But a lot of events don’t offer it.”

At many events, the lack of white space can be attributed to an organizer’s aim to pack the agenda with hundreds of speakers, sessions, and opportunities for insights. It’s a good goal, but the Steelcase research highlights that attendees don’t always want to learn from speakers. They also learn from each other. To make room for more of that learning-by-networking, Almond added white space to the lunch hours and added discussion cards to the tables to steer conversations. “Some questions were thought-provoking about event design,” Almond said, “and others were casual topics about sports or movies. It was a reminder that everyone was there to also have some fun.”

Download the complimentary report to see how the insights might apply to your own audience, and look for how the events team will be making adjustments at Convening Leaders 2020 in San Francisco. PCMA plans to partner with Steelcase and give extra attention to event design that will ensure engaging experiences and accommodate connection strategies for networking-hungry attendees.

David McMillin is a Convene associate editor.