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.


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