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There are times when all of us deserve a much needed break from work. Now, this may have you thinking of vacation (which is understandable), but what if you started thinking about conferences in this way? They are a way to break up the monotony of your everyday work schedule while providing new insights. Conferences offer an opportunity to get off-site, engage with new people and ideas, and return to work ready to apply, incorporate, or share what you’ve learned.

Even if conferences can build excitement in attendees, one of the biggest challenges in conference planning is creating value for attendees. If we’re honest, we’ve all skipped a conference session, whether it’s due to conference fatigue or a time slot that doesn't offer a session of value. Due to this fact, increasing value for your attendees must be considered when conducting proper conference planning.

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How Is a Conference Different from Other Corporate Events

Not to be confused with a convention, a conference is essentially a meeting, though typically larger in scope and audience. Typically, a conference is called to gather individuals with similar goals or objectives, so that they may both brainstorm and share ideas. While meetings can range from formal to informal, conferences tend to be a bit more on the formal side with keynote speakers. That said, not all conferences are alike. In fact, there are multiple formats for a conference, including:

Round Tables - These types of events are typically less formal with a limited guest list (though sometimes others are invited to listen in or participate in a Q&A session). Round tables are designed to foster communication and collaboration (thus the term round table, which implies everyone is seated and facing one another with no one seat “more important” than any other) among colleagues or peers within an industry, business, or role.

Seminars - Seminars are typically more educational than a round table and usually involve experts or guests who have been invited to speak. The end goal is typically education with attendees learning new skills or information, which can be applied to their industry, role, or business.

Workshops - Workshops are a bit like seminars except they typically include practical application or the practice of a new skill while attending the conference. Workshop leaders may discuss and demonstrate a particular activity. Then attendees (with guidance and constructive feedback from the leader or other participants) try their hand at the skill. While most workshops are related to a specific aspect of a field or industry, having workshops that offer activities outside of that realm is a great way to stoke creativity in your team.

Symposiums - Symposiums are, essentially, informal meetings. There may be no agenda other than a set topic, and conversation may have a facilitator but is often allowed to explore a variety of avenues within the same topic. As it is more casual, there are typically refreshments involved, and indulging tangents is accepted and expected.

Important Things to Consider When Planning

As with any meeting, there are a variety of factors you’ll want to consider as you prepare to host your conference. The more meticulous and detailed you are during the planning process, the easier things will be later and the more prepared you’ll be to adapt on the fly, if needed.

First, there are the higher-level considerations you’ll want to make, including your goals for the conference, the subject and associated theme, guests (number and needs), budget, location/venue, date and time, and additional items you’ll need to accommodate your guests.

Next, you’ll want to consider some venue-specific items that are related to programming, as well as the needs of both attendees and speakers. These factors include Wi-Fi and connectivity for any technology anyone might need. You should also consider what audiovisual equipment you may need and what the facility can offer. Further, for the comfort of your attendees, you’ll want to inquire about parking, temperature/environmental controls, seating arrangements and options, security, catering options, and COVID safety factors, such as the ventilation system being utilized and the amount of space available for social distancing.

Finally, you’ll want to consider what additional items to offer your guests. Will you do swag bags? Will they need name tags? What kind of “program” do you want to offer to lay out the schedule or provide additional information about keynote speakers or other attendees? Will there be entertainment?

Of course, that final note brings up the most essential aspect of your planning, and that’s the program itself. How do you want to allot time for informal conversations and networking? When will you schedule breaks? What’s the best structure for your speakers or other activities? How can you keep an organic flow to your sessions and provide the right breaks and timing for your attendees to feel engaged but not overwhelmed?

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Top Reasons Conference Attendees Skip Sessions

A quick Google search will reveal that looking for reasons to skip a meeting or a conference session is a pretty common search. As conference planners, it’s our job to do the opposite: give attendees a reason to stick around. Imagine the buzz and word of mouth around a conference where attendees didn’t miss one session!

Before we can create that event, we need to understand why attendees skip. The most common reason is that they just didn’t think a session or meeting would be valuable to them. So, one of the first goals for a conference planner is to know and understand both the goals of the conference and the attendees.

Another reason attendees skip sessions is exhaustion. After back-to-back sessions, especially if they’re information heavy or focused on retaining new skills, physical and mental exhaustion is real. Simply put, your attendees need a break. Of course, you can and should build in breaks, but what about all those amazing sessions you have planned? What if no one goes? We revert back to knowing your audience. If you host meetings of value, guests will want to attend.

The final reason attendees may skip a session has to do with other opportunities. While the opportunity might be off-site (the beach is calling!), some opportunities may be organic conversations that happen while grabbing a bottle of water or cup of coffee when moving from session to session. Attendees may run into people they know or even people they’ve always wanted to meet. As a result, they’ll choose the opportunity. Some of those opportunities will be too great to pass up; however, as a planner, you can and should build chances for casual conversations and networking into the schedule to reduce this reason for skipping. 

Again, a lot of how you address attendees’ needs, from physical comfort to personal goals for attending a conference, goes into the planning phase. It’s one of the reasons hiring an event planner may be one of the best decisions you make.

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Conference Planning: Keep It Captivating Conference Checklist

Preparation for an event pays off in the end. For that reason, here’s a quick checklist of the things you’ll want to do to ensure your event runs smoothly.

  • Determine your goals/objectives and theme
  • Put together a conference team and hire an event planner
  • Prepare a budget with all facets considered and accounted for
  • Determine the best time and date
  • Choose a location/venue
  • Determine your speakers/guests
  • Construct a conference program, including sessions, breaks, activities, meals, and more
  • Contact and contract with speakers, venue, entertainment, and caterers 
  • Determine your technological needs and coordinate with necessary parties
  • Advertise and market your event (if necessary)
  • Begin registration
  • Get ready to host an amazing event!

It’s important to note that research will be a crucial part of the planning process. As we’ve mentioned before, knowing your audience will inform many decisions, such as:

Speakers - Who is relevant? Timely? Knowledgeable? Engaging? Entertaining? Energizing?

Menu - Will you have guests with special dietary needs? Will the menu match or enhance the theme?

Scheduling - What kinds of sessions would your guests want? Need? 

Off-Site Activities - If you’re in an exciting location, what can you plan off site to allow attendees to enjoy the area? What will be most interesting to your specific audience?

Venue - Does it suit your audience? Will it accommodate them?

Obviously, event and conference planning is serious business, but Bishop-McCann is in the business of creating JOY throughout the process. We handle the logistics before, during, and after the event, so your team can focus on your guests and goals.

If you’re looking to get started on event planning for the next year, now’s the time to get in touch with our team, so we can help ensure you create a captivating conference!
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