By Maureen Sojka
At a conference, there are lots of opportunities for distraction from the tasks at hand of learning and professional development. There are old colleagues to catch up with, new contacts to meet and adventures to be had in a new city.
Keeping attendees engaged is key to keeping them focused on the goals and objectives of your conference. There are many ways to prevent their attention from wandering, such as online interaction, providing audio visual that stimulates the senses and offering food that satisfies even the most discerning palette. Implementing these top tips for engagement will ensure a memorable event that immerses attendees in an experience—not just a conference.
1. Leverage your event to the destination. Remember the location of your conference is not just a hotel, it is a destination. Reach out to the local Convention and Visitors Bureau or tourism agency to help you sell the conference as a destination.
Locations that are also tourist destinations offer opportunities for group outings where attendees can bond outside the ballroom. This allows them to get to know each other on personal levels and share an experience, which is often memorable and leaves a more lasting impression that makes attendees eager for the next event.
2. Encourage social media interaction or gamification. Running a social media contest keeps attendees engaged and interacting on a different level. The Event Service Professionals Association (ESPA) runs a trivia contest and virtual scavenger hunt prior to and during its annual conference. Pre-event questions encourage attendees to learn about the location, such as historical trivia, famous people or movies made at the location. The pre-event questions get attendees excited about sights to see while they are at the destination. Interacting before the event helps the attendees get to know each other and anticipate meeting each other in-person.
On site, the virtual fun continues as ESPA members are encouraged to share a photo of someone they just met, find an award winner and share favorite moments online using a special hashtag (#ESPAConference). All of the questions are designed to get attendees interacting and talking to each other while they are there. There is a prize for the first person who completes the hunt, which encourages more participation.
3. Provide scheduled breaks with refreshments. Giving attendees specified breaks allows time for information absorption, networking and mental recharging, especially if a lot of information is presented, just like a break at the office. Scheduled breaks let attendees know there will be time to use their phone, check emails and use the facilities without missing a key part of the presentation.
4. Offer creative breaks and networking events. Instead of awkwardly standing around the coffee urn, give attendees creative ways to get involved with each other and break the ice. Ideas include yoga, coloring stations and cooking classes. Community service projects are a fantastic way to accomplish this goal. An example of this is the North American Association of Commencement Officers (NAACO). During one of its community projects, attendees learned what it was like to rely on a service animal, participating in an activity like going to the ATM and letting the dog get the card out or having the dog take the person’s socks off. NAACO raised $10,000 in three days to procure service animals for those who need them based on the attendee’s experiences with the animals.
5. Leverage audio-visual support. Keeping the environment dynamic with interesting lighting and good sound is critical to keeping attendees engaged. There is nothing worse than going to an event where you cannot hear the speaker or see the presentation. Dynamic, vibrant lighting helps set the tone for your event and enhances your theme. Lighting can also highlight a certain point in a room or hide a surprise. Color themes also engage people in different ways and help shift the mood of an event. Good audio is key, because if people can’t hear the presentation, they will tune out and become engaged with their mobile devices. Audio that is too loud is also a big turn-off for attendees. If you need help finding an AV partner in your area who is experienced with large-scale events, visit www.rentalandstaging.net
Working with an audio-visual team to dress the room with drapery allows attendees to enter a custom space that is designed exclusively for their event. A stage allows everyone to see the speaker and presentation.
One way to engage attendees is to use video walls instead of a projector and a screen. Video walls can have different content on each tile, so there is always something different for attendees to look at. Video walls take up less space, while offering maximum visual content.
6. Keep it short and sweet. Presenters should keep their presentations concise. This will allow plenty of time for meaningful interaction with the presenter during the question and discussion portion. Often the question-and-answer period of a presentation is the most interesting part of the program because it gets to what attendees really want to know.
7. Keep the presentation interactive. One in three meeting attendees will fall asleep or be very drowsy during a meeting, according to Hilton. Engage attendees with those frequent, scheduled breaks where they can escape, recharge and think about what the presenter has said or discuss it with another attendee. Chances are, a question will come up when the session reconvenes. During the actual presentation, encourage social media tweets, take questions via social media or poll as a presentation is going on.
Another idea for keeping the presentation interactive is for speakers to ask questions of the audience.
8. Tell a story to illustrate a point. Telling people about a point often is not as effective as showing them. Telling them something provides a pre-conceived conclusion without allowing them to draw their own theory. Showing creates a better interactive experience for attendees.
Keeping attendees engaged will improve event satisfaction and make them feel like they really learned something. This leads to them wanting to come back next year to learn more.
Maureen Sojka is an events manager at CMA Association Management. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you would like to leverage CMA Association Management’s experience, we would love to chat. Please contact us at 800.852.4269 or email us at email@example.com.