October 27, 2011 by Jeff Hurt
Your conference planning process needs a dynamic strategy that relies on insight, not call for proposals and scheduling of speakers.
Most meeting professionals who devote their time to the development of detailed conference schedules are destined to eventual disappointment.
Because the focus is entirely on the structural framework for the meeting. Until the focus shifts to the effectiveness of the experience and moves away from the construction of the schedule, the conference will have little impact on people’s lives.
Think I’m nuts? How many people announce they are returning to your annual meeting because your registration process was so smooth? Or your room sets were organized perfectly? Or the schedule flowed nicely from session to session?
Guess what. No one returns to your meeting because your meeting logistics were organized! They return because the experience mattered to them. It gave them something of value.
Conference organizers spend six to 18 months scheduling speakers for their annual meeting. Once they have everything created, agreed upon, signed off on and funded, they discover that the world around them has moved. Much of the content is now out of context.
The current process of surveying customers for their topical likes, distributing a call for proposals to potential speakers eight to 12 months in advance of the conference, having committees select speakers, then scheduling speakers, is broken! This process is like trying to stop time. It’s no longer possible to freeze the moment long enough to get the right topics on schedule six to 18 months in advance.
This process focuses on alignment with members’ requests, required certification courses and offering something to everyone. This demand planning leads to inaccuracy.
Once the conference is announced, the reaction is usually a muted “So what?” There is nothing in the education track so compelling that it causes us to say, “Wow! I can’t miss this conference!”
To be a successful conference in the 21st Century, organizers need to use customer insights, trends, data and their own expertise to know:
Insight is the act or outcome of grasping the inward or hidden nature of things or perceiving in an intuitive manner. Insight can only be achieved through profound engagement and deep knowledge of the organization and its customers.
Imagine your grocery store writing you and asking you which meat you need for your July 4th holiday. You have no idea if you’ll barbecue because it’s too far out and there are too many variables.
Your job as a conference organizer is to anticipate what your conference attendees will want and need, and then cater to it.
Meeting professionals need to move from logistical glorified schedulers to become business-critical strategic consultants. It’s time for conference organizers to tell their attendees what they need not respond to last year’s requests.
What are some typical attendee data that conference organizers already have that they can mine to tell them more about their customers? Where do you go to track trends and patterns?
Filed Under: Event Planning
This is an excellent post and I couldn’t agree more with the points you made about being timely with conference topics. One of the more interesting trends I’ve noticed, especially at tech events, is the advent of un-conference tracks. At the beginning of the meeting conference attendees announce/submit topics they want to talk about and then rely on the expertise of the group to further the discussion at an alloted time. All that’s required for an un-conference track is an open room with some chairs and maybe a whiteboard.
The great thing about un-conference tracks is that they fulfill actual desires of attendees in a timely manner and not just hypothetical needs based on stale data. They are also a low cost alternative to sometimes expensive speakers and encourage networking among attendees.
Thanks for reading and commenting. You’re right that one way to do it is to allow attendees to submit topics for discussion at the conference. This works really well when the audience is experienced veterans too.
Jeff, I’ve written about this topic extensively (see, for example, the recent post http://www.conferencesthatwork.com/index.php/event-design/2011/10/do-conference-attendees-know-what-they-want/).
I agree with you that conferences should supply “What attendees want” and “What attendees do not know that they want but will want when they see it”. Where I disagree is when you imply that conference organizers—even when they are well intentioned, informed, and capable—are able to predict the answers to these requirements accurately.
I base this statement on comparing twenty years of what conference organizers and/or attendees predicted would be popular topics against what attendees actually chose at the event when they were given the option and structure to do so. I found that the best program committees predict half or less of the sessions that participants actually choose.
Yes, doing the best possible job you can, as you describe, is obviously likely to produce a better program than a slipshod approach. But if half or more of the resulting sessions are not what attendees would have chosen, do you really think that’s OK?
Thanks for sharing your perspective.
I think we would both agree that all conferences are not alike, especially depending upon their goals and objectives. For me, whether the content should be curated, crowdsourced or decided by the group onsite totally depends on the original goal of the conference. For the conferences that I am primarily writing about, the goal is a business and revenue decision. They need the right content to attract the right economic buyers. That requires using data and insights to chose the content, not a conference committee selecting topics.
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