Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Lessons learned at my annual conference

Our association's annual conference ended about a month ago. As we go through our debrief process, I've been reflecting on what went well and what could have gone better.

We actually had one of the best years yet in terms of almost no issues onsite. Of course, there was the fire across the street that closed the HQ hotel for a few hours... but we've been putting an emergency communications plan in place for a couple of years now and we were able to execute it again. Each time we use it, we come up with ways to make it better. I highly recommend "practicing" your plan to see if you find any leaks in your process.

So, everything logistically ran smoothly and the attendees were able to find their way around a very confusing convention center. I put a lot of time and effort into all of the various navigation touch points this year because I knew that way-finding would be challenging.

  • I placed beacons at a few confusing spots so that the conference mobile app would deliver a message when they passed an area telling them to go up for X or down for Y or explain what was happening in that area.
  • We beefed up our existing volunteer champion program (volunteers at "Ask Me" stations with extra training, working longer shifts in exchange for a refund) so that we'd have knowledgeable attendees at any point where you might get lost or just want to ask someone how to find something. I need to continue to refine the ways I can give them more specific training on the building itself before they arrive. 
  • I shared a recording of my volunteer champion virtual training with staff and program volunteers and we hadn't done that before. My take-away is that more communication is better! Look for areas where you're sharing FAQ's with one group that other groups can use.
  • Onsite, our volunteers and staff in the Main Lobby needed a cheat sheet of which direction to go for which rooms but I was able to put that together quickly. 
  • For the third year in a row, I produced an orientation video for attendees to watch before/when they arrived that pointed out a few of the confusing spots and gave them short-cut tips.

In addition to having so many volunteers throughout the building, I wanted ways for attendees to get their questions answered or reach us (staff) without needing to physically find the info booth.

  • For feedback, we combined the paper-based process we used to have for workshop feedback/refund requests with a general digital feedback form. Why wait for the post-conference survey to find out what your attendees are thinking/feeling? I used a Google form and linked to it from our conference website and mobile app. I monitored the feedback throughout the event to see if there were any items we could resolve or simply respond to the attendee so they knew their feedback was received. 
  • We've had live support chat on our website for awhile and I added a link to that from our mobile app as well. I am very interested in the idea of chatbots to answer attendee questions, but for now, I have actual humans to answer their questions. When the technology gets to a place where it can predict/recommend using AI, then I'll be looking at how to incorporate chatbots.
  • Last year, I added social media volunteer champions who, instead of being stationed at a physical "Ask Me" station, answer attendee questions on twitter as themselves. We let the attendees know that they are working in that capacity during their "shift".

In addition to managing the volunteer program, I also project manage the mobile app and other digital engagement tools we may choose to use.

  • We switched mobile app vendors, which took a good chunk of my year to go through the RFP and contracting process. There are a few companies that can handle our type of event with all of the complexity and design standards my stakeholders demand. Sherpa turned out to not only be a great product but the CEO and project manager I worked with were friendly, flexible, and fun.
  • In the past, we had a game attached to our mobile app. I really wanted to change it up because I was seeing some of the same attendees playing and winning the past few years. I also wanted to do something with AR because it is something our attendees were going to be learning about in sessions and I wanted to provide an experiential learning scenario. I broke my own rule of asking them to download a separate app because I was able to use an app that they might use on their own after the conference. I had several bumps in the road designing the triggers (images to be scanned) and the signs they'd be placed on, as well as the attendees' learning curve with using the particular app I had chosen. Once I realized many attendees were having trouble with it, I had to investigate and then send them a message through the app about why they might be having problems. I wanted to reinforce that the activity was meant as a learning experience. I see it as a partial success because many people were using AR for the first time and learned a few things to look out for if they were going to try to create an AR experience themselves. We didn't have as many participants as we used to have with an app based game, but that is to be expected because the barrier to entry was much higher. One of our goals is to be perceived as staying ahead of the curve when it comes to technology so I hope that was the case.
  • I was able to help our social media team by moderating Q&A via twitter after two of our keynotes again. The process I created last year was cutting and pasting questions from twitter onto a Google doc for the person asking the questions. We thought we were stepping up our game by sending the Google doc to the down-stage monitor, but when I wasn't able to do that for the second one, I had an epiphany. Even if you want to have the questions in a larger format for both the asker and the askee to see, having the asker use their own device they hold in their hand makes it look like they are reading the questions directly from twitter instead of a moderated version. I also upped my game by looking up the twitter user's location in addition to their real name and adding that to the Google doc with the question.
In my role as attendee experience manager, I'm always looking for ways to consider our attendees as real people and not just attendees. They don't "put on their attendee hat" when they walk in the door.
  • Last year, I was focused on engaging all five senses. Most of that was retained this year. I decided the scenting machines weren't adding enough value. 
  • In addition, I wanted to help attendees create mental white space because our conference is overwhelming for folks. We will often "theme" our lounges where attendees can mingle or relax and I chose to theme one as the Wellness Lounge. I purchased wellness videos to lead them through chair yoga, relaxation tips and wellness reminders. Because it was passive messaging, our attendees didn't pay attention to it and simply used the lounge as another place to sit and get organized. 
  • Between that and observing attendees after going through registration reinforced for me that half of your/our attendees are not looking at anything we send them or anything we post online, until they literally arrive at the venue. We put as much furniture in our public spaces as we can so they have a place to go, but it never seems to be enough! I wonder if you have any suggestions for helping attendees get themselves organized after they arrive.
That's enough for one post! Reach out if you want to know more about any of this or if you have gone through any of the same challenges.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Event Marketer 2017 B-to-B Dream Team

There were so many nuggets of wisdom from this article, I decided to put them in one place! From the Event Marketer 2017 B-to-B Dream Team, for your consideration:

Helen Stoddard, Head of Global Events, Twitter
"...really strong communicator, and that is above you, below you and side-to-side," along with being patient, calm and filled with a desire to never stop learning, to never stop pushing to improve programs, especially with those that happen year-over-year with audiences you talk to again and again.

Devin Cleary, Director, Corporate Events, PTC
An event "Bible" Cleary devised called the MSPOT, which stands for Mission Strategy Playbook Omissions and Targets, a one-page summary of what the event stands for and its goals.

Garett Carr, Global Auto Show and Events Manager, Ford
The brand deployed augmented reality to peel back the layers of [their vehicles] and reveal the high-tech features under the hood.

This made me ask myself how we could use augmented reality to "peel back the layers" of our events because attendees love seeing the behind-the-scenes stuff.

Charlie Eder, Director-Global Events and Client Experiences, AOL
"Nothing that's going to be thrown at me professionally is going to kill me. Don't stress over it. At the end of the day we're just producing an event."

Sean Zielinski, Communications Director, Harley-Davidson
...knowing your customers, what inspires them, how they learn, what they like and what they don't... "...use that knowledge to build purpose and value into every experience you create"

I hope to one day be on this list. For now, I'm honored to be included in Connect Association’s 2017 40 Under 40 class.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Hack your conference

"People who do not break things first will never learn to create anything." -Filipino Proverb via +Paul Andersen Imagine attending a conference with the same audience you are planning your conference for. Now, imagine a session on the agenda where they're going to hack your conference. They are not conference planners, they are the people for whom you plan your conference. When this happened to me at SXSWedu, I was thrilled! I help design a massive professional development experience for educators from all over the world and I was in a room with educators talking about how they would plan the perfect conference.
Harvard Business Review

You may be thinking, "I plan a conference for doctors or dog trainers. What does this have to do with me?" Well, educators have a lot to teach us about how to deliver professional development. They are delivering education every day and are challenged with concepts like personalizing learning, using students' mobile devices, and flipping their classrooms, to name a few. The brave ones are trying to disrupt the entire model to find a better way. I am most inspired by the ones who talk about unlearning.

Are you spending enough time unlearning? Probably not. Most of us don't even know how to do it! Have you ever been annoyed to hear about someone with no conference planning experience pull off a large, high profile, or otherwise complicated event? Did you consider that it might have been because they hadn't learned the way you're supposed to do it, they did it in a way that was much more useful for attendees? Mind you, I've been to plenty of events that were disappointing and I could tell there wasn't a professional involved. However, I've also been to plenty of events where professionals were involved and I was more disappointed that they didn't take more risks to create more value.

Back to the SXSWedu session: HackPDXXL. The educators who ran this session are clearly the best of the best when it comes to today's teaching methods. It was so well facilitated, we accomplished an amazing amount of work in two hours. This was the goal:
Teacher professional development has come a long way - we've incorporated social media, started grassroots un-conferences and found success in responsive, intimate workshops. But nothing can replace the large-scale, international conference as a venue for connection and inspiration. Yet these massive conferences present a critical unsolved problem of how to provide deep and complex learning opportunities of the type that we strive to offer our students. What constraints and assumptions can we challenge about what a conference looks, feels and sounds like? How might we disrupt the massive conference model, keeping the scale and broad connection while deepening participant learning?
Has your audience been connecting with each other online without your assistance? Have some of them created their own events without you? If you want to dive deep into what was created during this session, you can view the Google site. If you consume it without your professional conference organizer lenses, you may start to make connections to what your attendees really want and need. This would be like asking your attendees the questions you should really be asking them instead of asking them questions you already know the answers to. Let me know what connections you make!


Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Hygge for events

I read about hygge (pronounced 'hoo-ga') in December's issue of The Meeting Professional and was immediately intrigued. From what I've read since, I describe it as cuddling by the fireplace while drinking wine or hot cocoa. What in the world does this have to do with events? Well, that is exactly what I thought I'd try to figure out.

In my role as the Attendee Experience Manager for an association with a large conference, I'm always looking for ways to make my attendees more comfortable. Hence, why I made the connection to hygge. Events can be overstimulating and lonely (and cold!) - the exact opposite of hygge.

Challenge accepted!

Let's think about creating a cozy feeling for four of your attendees' five senses throughout your event.

The first sense your attendee uses when engaging with you is probably sight because they are most likely reading about your event online. Does your website give them a calming, comforting feeling that they belong at your event or are you too focused on making it sound super exciting?

Sight is also one of the first senses to be engaged upon arrival. Event professionals have very little control over our attendees' travel experience to our events. However, when I read about CES and PCMA Convening Leaders setting up badge pickup in an event-specific airport lounge, I was very excited by the opportunity for attendees to relax a bit while they were waiting for their luggage. I heard that PCMA had music (engaging their sense of hearing) and drinks (engaging their sense of taste). I wasn't there, but I would describe what I heard about as cozy!

Another way to engage with your attendees' sense of hearing is to have human greeters. Again, I wonder if our inclination would be to make sure the people welcoming our attendees are over-the-top excited when we say "friendly", when in fact, our attendees need a more calming welcoming into an environment that is overstimulating with excessive signage.

They may have had comfy couches for resting in this airport arrival lounge as well. Have you thought about extra comfy furniture for your arrival experience at the venue? I think our inclination often times is to look clean and modern and we lose the sense of coziness. This may also be a result of efficiency. A hard chair, stool, ottoman, etc will take up less space than something more plush. I will have two very different experiences using my sense of touch (even if I'm not using my hands to touch something!).

I attended an event in a small venue that used couches where you would normally have classroom or theater style seating. I felt very comfortable! It was also a little too dark at times so clearly we have to create the perfect balance of making our attendees cozy but not so comfortable that they fall asleep. Go back to what the purpose of the space is. Hopefully, your session rooms are designed for engagement.

Okay, so we want some stimulation, especially the learning/contributing variety and that isn't exactly hygge. I can think of a way to make audience participation a little more comfortable for some. Use technology like social media, event apps, crowd mics and other audience engagement apps to give a voice to those who aren't as comfortable using their actual voice.


I could probably keep rambling, but I'd love to hear your ideas as well!


Thursday, January 5, 2017

15 Non-Obvious Trends for Events

From the Influential Marketing Blog and Rohit Bhargava's latest edition of the Non-Obvious Book published one month ago: 15 Non-Obvious trends for 2017. I've been consuming Rohit's insights for awhile now and I always find myself thinking that I had noticed most of these things but hadn't taken the time to crystallize them in my brain. His book outlines how to become a trend-spotter in addition to going in-depth on each of the trends every year. Here are the 2017 trends and how to apply them to your work as an event/conference/meeting planner. I'm using Rohit's trends and descriptions of each trend and adding my own example.

Fierce Femininity – As gender continues to become more fluid, fiercely independent women are increasingly portrayed as heroines, seen as role models and changing the world. (Example – There is an expectation to see women as prominent speakers at your event, even if your industry has fewer women than men.)

Side Quirks – The global shift toward individualism leads more people of all ages to embrace what makes them unique, follow their passion, and celebrate the quirky differences in one another. (Example – Include a quirky question on your registration form that appears on attendee profiles or ask them to share something unique about themselves during networking periods.)

Desperate Detox – Addictive technology, media clutter and excess physical things add complexity of our daily lives, leading more people to desperately seek out more simplicity anywhere they can. (Example – Create white space in your agenda and physical environment. Everyone is overwhelmed in their daily lives and they bring all of that to your event where they receive additional stimulation. The simpler your design, the easier it will be for them to receive what they need.)

Passive Loyalty –  The ease of switching from brand to brand continues to empower consumers –forcing brands to get smarter about earning true loyalty of belief versus loyalty of convenience. (Example – Pride in belonging to an organization does not exist like it used to. Your audience will go to the event that best suits their needs. Corporate sponsored user-conferences are offering a very similar experience as association annual conferences so your competition may not be who you think it is.)

Authentic Fameseekers – A new generation of creators skillfully earn attention from vast audiences online by being willing share real, unfiltered and true versions of themselves. (Example – Attendees will use your event to promote their personal brand and you can leverage their content to share more authentic experiences from the event.)

Loveable Unperfection – More brands and creators intentionally focus on imperfections, flaws and personality to make their products and experiences more human, believable and desirable. (Example – Like the Swedish Tourist Association did with their twitter handle @Sweden, turn your Instagram account over to an attendee every day/week/month to document how they're using what they learned at your event or a problem they're trying to solve or have solved.)

Preserved Past – Technology offers new ways for us to preserve history, changing the way that we learn from, experience and preserve the past for future generations.(Rohit's Example – A holographic projection of holocaust survivor Pinchas Gutter brings the past to life.)

Deep Diving – While our shrinking attention span leads to more media skimming vs reading, people continue to spend time with experiences and content that truly capture their interest. (Example – Ever since TED Talks came to the events industry, we've focused on shorter content. Given the right topic and presenter, your attendees may crave a workshop or longer formatted session, as long as it is interactive.)

Precious Print – Thanks to our digital-everything culture, the few objects and moments we choose to interact with in print or physically become more emotionally valuable and deeply personal. (Example – Interacting with a physical object without a screen between your attendee and the object will help them retain the experience. Stop using the phrase "hands-on session" unless your attendees will literally have their hands on something. By the way, this does not mean that we need to bring back printed programs. Those are not personal, unless you are personalizing them to your attendees.)

Invisible Technology – The more sophisticated technology gets, the more it is able to anticipate needs, protect us and provide utility while increasingly blending unnoticeably into our daily lives. (Example – Give attendees badges that alert them when they are near someone with common interests.)

Robot Renaissance – As the utility of robots moves beyond manufacturing and into the home and workplace, they adopt better human-like interfaces and even may have micro-personalities built in. (Rohit's Example – Engage chatbots for customer service interactions.)

Self Aware Data – The combination of artificial intelligence and better sensors allows data to predictively organize, identify insights and often take action with little or no human intervention. (Example – While I don't have any examples of self aware data in our industry, you should definitely start to think about the type of data you are collecting on attendees and how it could be used to improve their experience, like recommending sessions they should attend or people they should meet.)

Moonshot Entrepreneurship – Inspired by visionary entrepreneurs, more organizations think beyond profit and focus on using business to make a positive social impact and even save the world. (Example – Host awards, competitions or other celebrations for innovation in your industry. Create a social mission for your organization that your attendees can participate in. The loftier the goal, the better.)

Outrageous Outsiders – Countries and corporations see mixed benefits from the rise of outsiders and their willingness to say or do outrageous things to capture attention and change the status quo. (Example – Invite speakers from outside your industry to give your attendees a different perspective on a subject or help them learn about a new subject.)

Mainstream Mindfulness – Meditation, yoga and quiet contemplation overcome their incense burning reputations to become powerful tools to improve performance, wellness and motivation. (Example – Wellness lounges and programming are great ways to support your attendees’ needs to stay mindful during your event.)

Let me know if you have examples or suggestions that support these trends. Make 2017 a great year!