Finding Workarounds for Attendee Quirks

Author: Corin Hirsch       

For four years, Caitlin Arnold, manager of meetings and expositions for association-management company Kellen, has been in charge of planning the Annual Meeting of the National Association of EMS Physicians (NAEMSP). And each year, she has had to contend with a quirk specific to the emergency-room physicians who are her attendees: They tend to cluster in the back of the session room, sometimes blocking doors. “It drives me nuts, from a meeting-planner perspective. Sometimes people can’t get in the back door because people are standing back there,” said Arnold, who also manages conferences for a handful of other clients. “It’s not because there aren’t seats available, and it’s not because they can’t get to [the seats] — it’s because [NAEMSP] attendees] prefer to stand. But it is their nature, because they are always on the go. They don’t like to sit very long.”

NAEMSP attendees clustering in the back row during a session at their Annual Meeting in New Orleans this January.

NAEMSP attendees clustering in the back row during a general session at their 2017 Annual Meeting in New Orleans last month.

A photo from NAEMSP’s 2017 Annual Meeting in New Orleans last month (above) shows the phenomenon in action. “I literally laughed out loud when I saw it,” Arnold said. Her ongoing challenge, from year to year, is to figure out how to set the general-session room so that she can nudge people toward the front, and get them seated — and also accommodate the fact that her attendees come in and out of the room constantly. Part of that is partnering with the venue. “I have to warn the hotel. It’s a conversation I have with them at our pre-con — ‘Don’t be alarmed when everyone’s standing in the back. It’s not because there’s not somewhere for them to sit, it’s just that they refuse to sit.'”

EMS physicians aren’t the only attendees with a penchant for behavior that drives planners slightly batty. Although federal-utility commissioners might seem to be a follow-the-rules kind of lot, they also have their challenging habits. For instance, during each year’s National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC) Annual Meeting, new officers are installed during a formal luncheon — a meal that usually has a sizable share of no-shows, according to Michelle A. Malloy, CMP, CAE, NARUC’s director of meetings. So during NARUC 2016 in Palm Springs, Malloy introduced a nominal fee of $45 — not enough to cover the cost of the luncheon, but enough to discourage no-shows and (she hoped) cut down on costs and food waste. It worked. “There was a lot less waste, and a lot less stress,” Malloy said, in part because her guarantees more closely aligned with the number of attendees who actually showed up for the meal.

Like Arnold, Malloy has noticed that people fill seats towards the back of the room. Her solution? “For the whole back row, I pull all of the chairs away from the tables,” Malloy said. “I literally make all of seats fill [in toward the front] until we open new tables.”

While that strategy might not work for NAEMSP attendees — those always-ready-to-move EMS physicians — Arnold might try some new tactics at NAEMSP 2018 in San Diego. “It’s one of those things you have to accept is their nature, and not try and fix it,” Arnold said. “But I’m not giving up.”

Do your attendees have habits that drive you crazy, or have forced you to devise creative workarounds? Do you have any tips for Arnold? Please leave them in the comments below.