What Makes A Good [Conference] Ending?

“And they lived happily ever after.”

It’s the classic ending of many children’s fairy tales. It wraps up the story nicely, alluding to the fact that all the character’s problems have been solved as they ride off on white horses into the sunset.

Some people prefer a happy ending. Sitcoms wrap up problems in less than thirty-minutes and all is well with the world. Yet, we’ve all seen a great movie that was ruined by a poor ending.

When telling stories, a good beginning pulls people in and a great ending leaves a favorable impression.

Most authors agree that a good ending to a story is one that is satisfying to the audience. Those satisfying endings typically reflect upon and connect to something that is present at the beginning of the story.

Do you remember the infamous “Who Shot J.R.?” Dallas season cliffhanger? Or maybe the 1985 Dynasty “Moldavian Massacre?” Or when Pixar’s The Incredibles spoofed the cliffhanger when a new villain, The Underminer, burst into view from underground at the very end of the movie?

So how do you provide a great ending to a full- or multiple-day conference? How do you get people to attend the last session and not leave early? Many of us attendees often leave early because the last session or party is not compelling enough to keep us there.

Do you provide a cliffhanger moment that gets everyone talking? Do you wrap it up nicely with “And they lived happily ever after…is only the beginning?” Do you provide a final night party with big name entertainers and drop the next morning general session? Do you provide a closing general session with a marquee name?

Most conference organizers have faced this dilemma and continue to wrestle with it today.

That’s exactly what Dave Lutz (my boss), Stephen Nold and RD Whitney faced when designing the last session of the March 24-25, Chicago MTO (Meetings Technology Online) Summit at the Hyatt Regency O’Hare. After one and half days of networking and education on social media and technology for events and tradeshows, the presenters were stuck with the typical conference dilemma, “How do we end this conference and get people to the last session?”

Here’s what they (with my help) are trying to keep people around and deliver value.

The Ultimate Not-To-Be Missed All Things To All Attendees Wrap-Up

This is not your Grandmother’s final closing session. Taking a cue from GenX and Millennials digital, horizontal peer-to-peer learning preferences, we’ve designed an unsession, with untraditional, unconventional elements and under-utilized experts: YOU. Bring your open mind to this session and be prepared to do some unlearning in this unconference-styled session.

You’ve sat for several hours today hearing and learning about new things, new ideas, and new ways to do your business. So what? Really, what are you going to do with all of that information now? Forget about it? NOT!

This is the opportunity for you to rehash, recap, revise old thoughts and revolutionize the way you do things in the future. Come prepared to discuss with your peers the most valuable parts of the conference. You’ll be given the opportunity to explore how to apply the concepts you’ve heard and get a deeper understanding into the important take-aways.

And if you act now, by attending this wrap-up, you’ll receive extra, at no charge, this amazing cherry on top addition: a discussion on the Data Standards For Tradeshows and how it will further the industry.

So don’t miss this once-in-a-conference-lifetime opportunity as it will never be replicated again. Seriously!

What do you think? Is this ending conference session compelling enough to keep you until the end of the day? Would you stick it out and take a later flight or sit in traffic for 30 more minutes? What can conference organizers do to keep people until the very end? What have you tried? What was successful for your audience?

Oh, and by the way, please join Dave, RD, Chris Brogan and Stephen at the MTO Summit, March 24-25, 2010 at the Hyatt Regency O’Hare. Check out the full schedule, speaker lineup and the great registration rate of $125.

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  1. Adrian Segar says:

    Jeff, I like how you describe this session! I wish I could be a fly on the wall, as I’d love to see how you run it and the processes you use!

    I’ve been using these kinds of closings for my small conferences for a long time. I normally have two closing sessions.

    The first is a personal introspective, a structured exercise that 1) allows each participant to privately reflect on what they’ve learned and the changes they want to make in their life/work based on their event experience and then 2) provides an opportunity for optionally sharing answers with the entire group. This is a powerful session because it not only elucidates and reinforces personal event learning but also makes explicit the commonality of peoples’ conference experience.

    The final closing session I call a group spective (as it’s both a retrospective and prospective). Over the years I’ve learned that every event has its own set of unique needs, so there’s no single approach for this session that fits any set of participants. People may be focused on their individual learning, they may have ideas for group initiatives that they want to explore, and they may want to discuss what worked and didn’t work with an eye to improving future events.

    As a result I’ve slowly built up a collection of effective methods for facilitating group process during this closing session. I might use plus/delta to share a quick read of participants’ experience, and then some form of facilitated discussion or affinity grouping. For me, facilitating this session is the most challenging period at an event.

    I’ll also admit, like you, to offering a takeaway or raffle to add that extra little incentive for folks to stay until the end!

    What do you do for a closing session in this format when there are a few hundred attendees? I don’t have experience with larger conferences, and would be interested to know if you have suggestions for effective small group work with numbers in this range.

    Thanks for bringing up an important aspect of event design that is often overlooked or given short shrift!

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      As always, thanks for the thoughtful comment and for the tips too. It’s been my experience that when you have a large audience the sharing happens at small tables of 10 or less. You can still have each person participating and sharing their takeaway. Add a notekeeper to catch everyone’s ideas and you have a nice collection of high points to share online after the conference.

      Yes, I agree that the closing of the conference is often overlooked yet can be one of the most beneficial parts of the event.

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  3. GMIC’s Sustainable Meetings Conference ended well: we broke up into small groups, discussed one goal we’d each set for the future — then the speaker Roger Rickard pressed us all to find a way to define and measure success. And finally the goals were collected and are on their way online. The close combined each level: small group dynamics so everyone could participate, summarizing the conference down to an action step as individuals, and leaving with a sense of a cohesive dynamic community looking at the huge list of next steps.

    1. Dave Lutz says:

      Stephen, thanks for sharing how Roger Rickard crafted an ending session that “had legs” for GMIC. It sounds very similar to what we want to accomplish at MTO Summit in a couple weeks. Let us know when the action steps are posted online.

  4. eric norlin says:

    I actually don’t think an unconference session is enough to “get people to stay” and provide the kind of ending you want for a conference. I run unconference sessions in the middle of my shows – but they tend to work best smack dab in on morning one (they’re great ice-breakers).

    What I’ve found to work best for getting people to stay is to put 1 of your top 2 keynote sessions dead last. (the only real trick is convincing the keynote speaker). So, for instance, at Defrag last year, we had a panel of the Cluetrain Manifesto Authors — and it was the first time they’d be on stage together in 10 yrs (plus it was the 10yr anniversary of the book’s release). They were the closers. And people stayed. In fact, the room was packed.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:


      You bring up a good point and I think it really depends upon the audience. For one of the association’s that I worked for, we tried to put our top marquee names as keynotes on the last day of the conference or at the end of an education day. It worked for a couple years and then attendees got bored with it. It makes perferct sense for Defrag for sure. And something interesting to note is that your closing speakers had two things in common-marquee names known by your attendees and relevant content for your audience.

  5. Adrian Segar says:


    As Jeff says, no question, if you have well-known speakers and dynamite content attendees are going to stick around. (Although they won’t have much, if any, time to discuss amongst themselves what they’ve heard at the last session.)

    If your goal is to get people to stay to the end, this is a good strategy.

    But if your goal is to give attendees the best possible conference, I’d argue that giving them good closure by offering a well-facilitated opportunity to reflect on what has happened at the event and to explore how to apply what’s been learned is the right way to go.

    Maybe some attendees who would have stayed for a big finale won’t “get” the idea of this kind of closure and will leave early. (Though if the session is described as well as Jeff’s, there may not be that many!) But, based on many years of event evaluations, those who attend a well-crafted retrospective/prospective closing session are most appreciative.

  6. eric norlin says:

    hey adrian-

    agree re: the best possible conference — the closing panel i’m referring to was actually structured as a very open (participatory) discussion w/ the audience, so i guess it had the qualities of a “retrospective” even though it had the “superstars” on stage.

  7. Howard Keele says:

    For a large audience attendance, a carrot such as further education would be a strong motivator. For in house meetings and conferences the wrap up would be more exciting in that we would review our agreements and establish a what next charter. Great article!

  8. I got what i was hoping for at the end of this article i.e rehashing,recapping,revising,etc etc.The end portion of conference is mainly to reiterate what you have covered in all the sessions and how you want to link with your future activities and also save sometime for feedback.You are spot on Jeff as usual!!!

    (Tim Nielson)

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