Secret Shoppers Spot Conference Experiences You’ll Likely Miss

The Secret

Secret shopping conferences and trade shows is something we do regularly.

We don’t call it secret shopping. At the end of the day, it’s an apt description, as we’re immersing ourselves in the attendee (buyer’s) experience. We’re evaluating every component through the attendee’s lens to assess what’s working, what needs to be tweaked, and what needs to be 86’ed.

One week, we’ll be at a medical conference, surrounded by doctors as we watch live stream of surgery being performed halfway across the world. The next, it’s a conference designed for engineers or teachers. While it might sound daunting to move in and out of sessions where the subject matter is sometimes beyond our grasp, it actually frees us up to focus solely on the experiential elements.

Conference Secret Shopping Checklist

Among the many items on our secret shopping checklist (sorted by category):

1. Education Experiences

  • Does the session design and delivery align with adult learning best practices?
  • Are sessions primarily one-way lectures or are they designed to be more collaborative, more participatory, with lots of opportunities for attendees to weigh in with their thoughts?
  • How are attendees responding at key points during the session? (non-verbals speak volumes)
  • Are the learning objectives clear? Does the session being delivered match the description in the program guide?
  • Which sessions are well attended? Which ones are ghost towns? Which ones have a steady stream of people exiting mid-way through?
  • How strong are the speakers? Are they prepared, confident, articulate, friendly, and fully invested in helping to enhance the attendee learning experience?
  • Did the keynotes deliver extraordinary learning experiences? New breakthrough discoveries? Are attendees leaning forward and paying attention or are they sitting back, checking email?
  • Does the environment (e.g., room set, seating, screen, lighting, etc.) accelerate or impede learning and engaging in conversations with peers?
  • What were big crescendo moments during these sessions? How are attendees capturing insight and key takeaways?

2. Networking Experiences

  • Are attendees diving into networking receptions? Standing on the sidelines? Taking a pass altogether and heading to their hotel room?
  • Are staff and volunteers going the extra mile, helping to introduce attendees to others they’d like to meet? Is Hostmanship embraced by staff and volunteers? Do attendees feel welcomed, appreciated and understood? Or are they left to fend for themselves?
  • How’s the Event EQ (Emotional Quotient)? Are most people smiling, engaged in conversations, enthused, grimacing, overwhelmed, exhausted?
  • Are onboarding activities for first-time attendees abundant and helpful? Any efforts made to help solo attendees connect with others? How quickly can attendees find their “tribe” and engage in conversations with like-minded people?
  • Can attendees quickly access a “Who’s Here?” list via the mobile app or event microsite so they can be purposeful in their networking? Are there ample clusters of open seating scattered throughout the venue to accommodate impromptu meet ups?
  • Does the name badge help accelerate networking? Color coded by attendee type? Icebreaker info on the badge to help spark conversations with attendees they don’t know but would like to meet?

3. Leveraging Technology & Digital Channels

  • How tech-enabled is this conference? Fast check-in, badge printing, etc.? Shifting more content from print to digital? How well are staff using digital channels to improve efficiency, address snags early and quickly, and generally communicate faster/better with everyone they need to?
  • Are most attendees making good use of the mobile app? Why or why not? What feature in the mobile app do they value most? Smart use of app alerts to enhance the attendee experience? Can they quickly access maps to better navigate the venue and city? Access session handouts? Take notes? Swap contact info with new people they meet?
  • Is Wi-Fi fast, uninterrupted and fully capable of handling peak needs for this crowd? Charging stations readily available to support attendees who may be toting two or more devices?
  • Steady sharing of helpful insight among attendees on social channels? Hashtags to help attendees find/bookmark/share big takeaways?
  • Are portions of this conference live streamed to a remote audience? If so, is there someone serving as moderator for the remote audience?
  • Are any sessions recorded? If so, how is this content later served up to attendees? Is it a one-camera feed from start to finish? Or are video recordings edited down into smaller segments? Any scheduled replays after the conference? How is this being handled? Is this post-conference content available for free or do participants have to pay an additional fee? Do attendees value this option?

4. Trade Show Experience

  • Are attendees flocking to the expo floor at every opportunity? Or are they only there for the food and/or when there’s absolutely nothing else to do?
  • Are attendees engaging in conversations with exhibitors? Do they view exhibitors and/or sponsors as helpful, as they explore potential solutions to problems? Or do attendees feel like they have a target on their back?
  • Are there any education or networking elements on the show floor (e.g., workshops, short talks, facilitated round-table discussions, networking lounges)? If so, do attendees value these things? Are any getting ignored? Are these elements strategically placed throughout the trade show floor to encourage better traffic and flow?
  • Is food & beverage right-sized for the needs of this crowd? How is this enhancing the attendee experience? Are things running smoothly? Any long lines? Adequate and comfortable seating? Or are people juggling plates, cups and smartphones?
  • Does the expo floor remain the same from start to finish? Or are new elements introduced each day to give attendees more reasons to return?

There are dozens more questions to ponder, depending on the size and scope of the event.

It’s interesting but some of the best insight comes through spontaneous chats with attendees, often before sessions start, on shuttle rides and at meals. Sometimes simply asking “What was your best experience so far?” opens up the feedback floodgates. “What was your worst experience?” is another question that sometimes reveals surprising observations from attendees.

While some conference organizers might elect to have a staff member secret shop their event, that’s not advised. Staff are too familiar with the planning process, too invested in the end result, and they’ll likely miss things an outsider will spot. A secret shopper will step into the attendee’s shoes to document the highs, the lows, and everything in between. With the right secret shopper, you’ll glean a wealth of actionable insight.

Have you ever engaged someone to secret shop your event? If so, were there any surprising revelations? Did this insight prove to be helpful in guiding future improvement initiatives?

Adapted from Donna’s Meeting Innovation post on Cvent’s Event Planning blog. ©2014.

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  1. Tricia says:

    This is the BEST checklist EVER. I have posted it to LinkedIn already, suggesting that anyone who is involved with a group that learns needs to check this out. Thanks again for being the BEST at what you do!!!

    1. Donna Kastner says:

      ‘@Tricia: Your comment made our day – because helpfulness is what we’re about. Thanks so much!

  2. Gary says:

    Do you network? If so, do you tell the truth, or do you have to dream up a backstory beforehand?

    1. Donna Kastner says:


      I definitely mingle… As for how transparent or undercover I am, that’s dictated by the client.

      While I never lead with why I’m there, when asked, I’ll often share that I’m there to help guide continuous improvements. Then I’ll ask permission to pose a question or two. No one has ever said no — and in fact, sometimes these people scout me out later to share something more. Many appreciate that the conference organizer is doing this.

      Great question – thanks for asking it!


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