Re-engineering the Event Experience
Many people hesitate to make changes. When things have been successful in the past, it is easy to fall under the false impression that everything will continue to be successful in the future.
Likewise, some associations are reluctant to re-work an event strategy that has previously shown positive results. But fundamental shifts in attendees’ expectations are now affecting event outcomes. Therefore, re-engineering crucial parts of events is exactly what is needed, and boards need to provide essential guidance to staff in order to engage attendees and keep their events relevant.
“Board members need to look at the event as a platform for the organization and the brand,” said Dave Weil, vice president, Event Services at SmithBucklin. “What is the event telling your attendees? They may not visit your association headquarters office, but they will come to your event, which makes it crucial to utilize the appropriate resources and shed what doesn’t make sense anymore. You also have to understand your competitors, your future attendees and who your aspirational attendees are.”
Once organizations fully identify their attendees’ needs, they should create memorable, unique event experiences, ensuring that events are appropriate, timely and worthwhile for the attendees. “If associations can attract and retain the right attendees who feel like the event is relevant, then the sponsorships come, the exhibitors come, the speakers come,” Weil said. “Your attendees will walk away with an experience they’ll always remember, and they’ll come back.”
Understanding Attendees’ Needs
According to Weil, the process of re-engineering your event starts with determining what is most important to the attendees. Are they seeking to further their education, or are they looking for opportunities to collaborate and network? “As board members, you have to wrap your heads around the attendees’ needs and what they value most. It all starts there.”
The following are important questions boards should ask about their attendees.
- Are people only attending the event because they have before?
- If this event had never existed in the first place, would people want to come to it?
- If we were doing this for the first time, what would it look like and what would we need to do differently?
Asking these questions allows boards to look at their events from fresh perspectives.
To get the answers, associations can use a variety of technology tools and metrics to track and analyze data about attendees and their habits. For example, through geo-fencing technology, a trade show exhibit sales team can identify which booths people are visiting. Other tools, such as apps and social media, allow attendees to rate sessions or give real-time feedback, providing organizers with immediate input on content and other aspects of the event. By providing actionable data, these technologies can help associations make more meaningful, one-on-one connections with attendees.
Of course, it is also standard procedure for associations to measure revenue and attendance. However, tracking the type of attendee is just as important and often overlooked. Weil suggests that if boards are struggling to get new faces to their show floor, then they should ask why their events are not connecting with particular demographics that the organizations find attractive.
“For example, if you aren’t seeing the younger generation, you need to re-evaluate your association’s value proposition for young professionals at your event,” Weil said. “Remember, your competitors are watching, too. And if — at your expense — they secure the loyalty of the up-and-coming generation, your long-term viability could become an issue.”
Creating an Event Experience
Once organizations understand their attendees’ wants and needs, boards should turn their attention to the importance of creating a fantastic experience. According to Weil, people want to have memorable experiences to share with their coworkers, family and friends, which is why associations now involve more networking opportunities, innovation and thought leadership at their events.
“Attendees have a short amount of time at the event, so they want to accomplish and experience as much as possible,” Weil said. “There often isn’t enough emphasis on creating a fun and energetic atmosphere, but those are the experiences people want. When an engaging, exciting and unpredictable atmosphere is created, that is what becomes sharable and memorable. And that, of course, is how word-of-mouth and social media can help drive an event to even greater successes.”
So how can a board make those changes without drastically altering the event or the association’s culture? The key, according to Weil, is to make incremental and manageable changes to strategies.
“Start with keeping the core 80 percent of your event consistent and make the other 20 percent the area you reinvent,” he said. “It is important to be willing to take risks. Some things will work and some things will not, but failure is not necessarily a bad thing. If you’re not changing or investing in something new, you will have an audience that will sleep walk through the event.”
Personalizing the Experience with ‘ROCKs’
Some of the most memorable experiences are those that are personal, and Weil suggests making attendees feel like special guests. Organizers can tailor small gifts, food options or session content to each attendee’s specification, resulting in highly valued, personal connections.
For example, SHARE, an enterprise IT user group, enhanced its annual conference by using Random Occurrences of Conference Kindness (ROCK). Board members jokingly warned attendees to “be on their toes” throughout the conference, saying they might receive ROCKs. The surprises included gift cards, additional hotel amenities, SHARE-branded gifts and more. The gifts were awarded when attendees least expected it. By employing ROCKs at its conference, SHARE created fun, lasting memories.
“The whole community was talking about it,” Weil explained. “Creating anticipation and excitement at the event resulted in a memorable experience for all the attendees. This is the kind of small, meaningful change that any association can adopt and implement.”
Instead of looking at change as a daunting task, or one that is only necessary when challenges arise, boards should embrace it as a positive opportunity. Their enthusiasm to try new things and take calculated risks will translate to better, more relevant and more memorable events.
NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2015 EDITION
| Board Forward is published 10 times a year by SmithBucklin, the association management and services company more organizations turn to than any other. SmithBucklin has served volunteer board members for almost 70 years.