Walk a Mile in Your Attendees' Shoes

By: Thomas M. Bohn, CAE

Your conference attendees are deeply affected by the finer points of a meeting, such as registration lines, room sizes, signage, and refreshments. Take the time to see your meeting from your attendees' perspective, and you'll get all the details right.

The other day I was suffering through a movie that was built up in its marketing campaign as a must-see event. It had stars, it had action, and it had great commercials—funniest 30 seconds ever! Surely this had to be something worth seeing. Sadly, though, the highlight of the movie was, in fact, the trailer I had seen over the months leading up to its release. The film didn't come close to meeting the expectations set for it. It had a great theme, but it was woefully lacking in the core elements that make movies worth watching: character development, attention to details, and a credible plot.

In the end, I walked away thinking the film's producers had come up with a great concept and then relied on the concept alone to carry the movie. They'd even decided the small things didn't matter because the viewer would be so enraptured by the stars and the premise that no one would notice a lack of attention to detail. In one scene, the lead actor's shirt was covered in mud, only to be seen from a different angle where the mud had magically disappeared.

How many conferences have you attended that felt the same way? The brochure was magnificent, the locale perfect, and the keynote speakers riveting. It's too bad the registration process was a nightmare, and the name badge broke into 30 pieces after you wore it longer than an hour.

We actually walked the entire site ourselves, and as a result we added places to rest, more directional info, and more break stations. You may not be able to shrink the facility, but you can certainly improve the experience.

Unfortunately, like some of today's filmmakers, associations get caught up in the glitz of the event at the expense of the show's overall production. It's time we get back to basics and focus less on glitz and more on execution of a conference's many details.

The Member Experience

I once attended a large conference that, on paper, should have been a huge hit. It had some of the top speakers available, a hit 1980s band, and loads of breakout sessions. But what should have been a great experience instead became a lesson learned for the two associations I lead:

  • When I registered online, I looped through screen after screen without ever being sure whether I had completed the process correctly.
  • At the meeting, attendees had to stand on their feet in session after session because no one anticipated the popularity of various events and planned seating accordingly.
  • Our name badges broke apart too easily because the organizers opted to save 15 cents on each one.
  • Food lines at events were oppressively long, forcing people to give up and leave.

I must confess, I wasn't sure we at International Accounts Payable Professionals (IAPP) and International Accounts Receivable Professionals (IARP) had it all together, either. It was time to do something different. It was time to flip our planning upside down.

Invert the Pyramid: A Micro-Planning Approach

The typical approach to planning a large conference is to start at the top or the peak of the pyramid. Inevitably, this includes the fun and "sexy" components of any event: location, theme, keynotes, and so forth. We spend more time than necessary on these items at the expense of the base of the pyramid, the hundreds of customer-touching details that can make a good experience great or a bad one woefully disappointing. These factors, taken together, affect your members' experience more than the $75,000 keynote speaker you selected after endless hours of discussion about which speakers would most resonate. Like a movie that expects an A-list star alone to carry the day, you are doomed to failure.

By inverting the pyramid, you can look at the show through a new lens: your member's perspective. Ultimately, an attendee of your show has more regular exposure to the small details than the larger ones, so it's imperative to start there—or, at the very least, spend more time and resources on these items.

When we began this effort to invert the pyramid, we started by looking at the previous year's conference and asked a series of questions that would put us in a customer-centric frame of mind:

  1. Is the message about the conference found where our members are looking? Beyond email blasts, is it on Twitter, LinkedIn, articles, partner sites, or vendor sites?
  2. The first time potential attendees are exposed to the message, does it give clear directions on where to find more info?
  3. Does the message quickly convey the value proposition and ROI, or is it too heavy on theme?
  4. Is the online and brochure information easy to navigate and intuitive? Can we tell the story in five quick bullets?
  5. Is the online registration simple or cumbersome? Have we actually gone through the entire process personally to see how well it works?
  6. Onsite, is there enough signage, and is our support staff well trained and able to answer questions? Does the show "flow" make sense?
  7. If a class is highly popular and full, are people standing in the back with no place to sit, or are we able to correct the situation on the fly?

By framing the event from this perspective, we were better able to develop a plan that started with the customer-facing details. Our new approach to the show included significant changes to how we planned it, including detailed checklists, a staffer dedicated solely to the micro-activities, and direct involvement at each step by three different types of volunteers: highly connected, barely connected, and not connected at all. We offered all three groups passes to help us in our planning and testing.

REO Speedwagon was great; too bad the appetizer line wrapped around the block.

The result was a tighter show that scored better with attendees on all core survey questions. More important, two key questions we regularly ask—"Would you recommend this event to others?" and "What was your overall perception of the show?"—went through the roof. Even more remarkable is that our overall investment in speakers and entertainment—the "sexy" side of the conference—went down quite a bit.

How to Make Micro-Planning Work

If you decide to invert the pyramid when planning your next large event or conference, here are some of the ways we chose to look at the show from a micro perspective:

Marketing. Despite the hype, we've found that complicated, expensive campaigns rarely work. Instead, the most important component is first testing the message with a core group of members. Get input from this subset of your audience and adjust accordingly. These volunteers will tell you quickly whether your marketing resonates with them, is clear, and calls them to action. But be aware: If you ask for feedback, you and your marketing department must be prepared for the answers and to act accordingly. Also, make sure your mini focus group of members isn't just those who are heavily involved. Offer incentives for others to participate.

Registration before the event. Often, online registration is the most frustrating process for conference attendees. Make sure your volunteers take it for a test drive. Is it easy to navigate? Do registrants get a clear confirmation of what they have signed up for or, more importantly, what they could be missing? Do you allow for selection of classes so you can determine popularity and final room size in advance? We have implemented a five-step approach. If registrants can't complete the registration in five steps, we've made it too complicated and onerous.

Online Extra: The Story Behind "The Walk"
What do Harry Truman and walking a conference floor have to do with each other? Hear Thomas M. Bohn, CAE, explain in this audio clip (MP3, 2:08), or read the transcript.

The walk. For our last conference, we actually walked the entire site and measured the time it took to get from exhibits to classrooms or sleeping rooms. We checked into the hotel and gauged the issues related to getting there from the self-serve parking lots. As a result, we added more places to sit and rest, more areas to find directional information, additional break stations, and so on. You may not be able to shrink the facility, but you can certainly improve the experience.

More tips for the walk:

  • Signage. Look at the signage from the attendees' perspective. Have someone who is not familiar with the layout walk it.
  • More signage. Rule of thumb: When you think you have enough signage, double it.
  • Attention. If you are in a convention center, will your show get lost, or is it big enough to stand out?
  • Transportation. If lodging is separate from the facility, determine how easy the flow is back and forth. You may know it like the back of your hand, but this will be many attendees' first time there.
  • Check-in. Is registration check-in clearly marked? Are there signs or volunteers to help get the attendee there?

Onsite registration. How many times have you attended a show and been not quite sure where to go or what line to be in? We assume these things will take care of themselves, but often they result in frustration for our members. Disney is a master of making check-in seamless. Not only are all lines clearly marked and ample signage available, but the staff is trained to scan the audience to look for people who seem lost or in need of some clarification.

The onsite registration process should not be a burdensome formality. Help make it part of the experience by adding some fun, such as including music, entertainment, or light hors d'oeuvres. This is the gateway to the show, and more time should be put into it than determining the number and color of registration booths. And remember, the more signage the better.

Getting to class. On paper, that 10 minutes between sessions seems perfect, but come meeting time everyone is rushed and frantic trying to make the mile-long hike between different floors where the classes are being held. Make sure you give enough time between show elements, assign numerous people to point the way or be available for questions, and even strategically place resting stations along the way. You may be in perfect health and ready for the mad dash, but are all of your members?

Class itself. This, by far, may be one of the easiest ways to gain the respect and loyalty of your members. Yet it often fails to be well organized because we're reluctant to tell our instructors what to do. If you make the case these are ways to improve both the experience and the instructor's image, most instructors will help you out and follow the rules. A few simple guidelines we've implemented include:

  • Assign a staff member or volunteer to introduce each instructor at the beginning of the session.
  • Provide instructors with an overview of guidelines for classroom etiquette—no politics or religion, unless that's what your association does.
  • Ask instructors to give clear instructions on where to get the PowerPoint presentation if it's not already supplied for each attendee.
  • Emphasize the importance               
  • of the evaluations attendees fill out after the session.

Also, we have a backup plan if the class happens to be over capacity (something that is preventable if you encourage attendees to preselect the courses). We have staff on hand ready to announce a second offering in a series of classrooms designed just for this purpose. Each classroom experience should be unique in terms of content but conform to the overall brand and expectations of the conference.

Social events. We always have great ambitions when it comes to our social and networking events—great bands, cool themes, restaurant hopping, and more. But the number-one frustration we've seen and heard from attendees is the difficulty they have doing the simple things they want, like getting a drink or something to eat. Often, in order to pay for the great theme, conference planners reduce the amount of food or the number of stations available, creating frustrating lines and unhappy customers. REO Speedwagon was great; too bad the appetizer line wrapped around the block.

Pulling It All Together

These are just some of the ways we've decided to reengineer our conferences and other events. One big lesson we've learned from the management perspective is that planning out to this level of detail takes more than one or two people. If possible, include your entire team. Get feedback on what worked and didn't work at previous events, not only those your organization has hosted but also those your staff have attended elsewhere.

Can you prevent every negative experience? No, but there's always room for improvement. Do what you can to make your convention the best experience ever for your attendees and then enjoy the rave reviews. 

Thomas M. Bohn, CAE, is CEO and executive director of International Accounts Payable Professionals and International Accounts Receivable Professionals in Orlando, Florida, and is publisher of both associations' bimonthly magazines, AP Matters and AR Matters. Email: [email protected]

Thomas M. Bohn, CAE