Conference Improvement Starts With A Focus On The Attendee Experience

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Improving attendee experiences is a top priority for the majority of conference planners.

Yet few of us plan the attendee experience correctly. We approach conference planning from the inside-out. Considering the attendee experience is an afterthought.

Most conference improvement plans look something like this: Systems & Resources → Procedures → Touchpoints → Interactions → Experiences. Although we don’t usually use those words. We look at logistics and tools, operations, methods of contacting potential customers and then the onsite attendee experience.

Applying UXD

User Experience Design (UXD) is the process of enhancing customer satisfaction and loyalty by improving the usability, ease of use, and pleasure provided in the interaction between the customer and the product. [Wikipedia]

For conferences, the entire conference experience is the product. It contains the moment they receive the first invite to the onsite experience to the final post-conference summary.

UXD experts suggest that we flip the order for improvement and start with designing attendee experiences first. Then we should work backwards, dealing with systems & resources (logistics & tools) last.

It’s important to also remember that it’s not about the attendee experiences that you desire. The attendee perspective and perception must be the primary focus.

Effective UXD Built On Empathy

Effective UXD is built on customer empathy.

Customer empathy is not customer service says author Ross Shafer. Customer service is transactional. Customer empathy is emotional.

Applying customer empathy to conferences is the art of seeing the conference experience, including all of its touchpoints, through the customer’s eyes.

In the conference journey, attendees move through a series of emotions. There are highs (best moments), lows (worst moments), and plenty falling between the two extremes. Research shows that attendees remember the peak experiences (best and worst) most of all.

Smoothing Out The Rough Patches

While most conference planners are focused on making the best moments better, what about those worst moments?

Even participants at wildly successful conferences encounter a few terrible moments including travel challenges, standing in long lines, keeping devices charged, accessing reliable Wi-Fi, hunger, exhaustion, and uncertainty as they navigate new terrain.

While it’s impossible to remove every attendee worst moment, there are smart ways to ease their pain. Here are three:

1. Reduce Complexity

Attendees appreciate fast and easy, yet many conferences are rife with complexity. Remove the hurdles. Consider the following:

  • Do you have too many required fields in the registration process?
  • Is your schedule-at-a-glance riddled with committee meeting listings?
  • Are concurrent sessions organized by issues or tracks so attendees can easily plan their schedule?
  • Does your mobile app allow quick access to what’s on now and what’s coming up next?

2. Make It Timely

Often, there’s a soup-to-nuts list of links and resources posted in the app and on the event microsite. But attendees are on the run with little patience or time to sort through the clutter. Help them by teeing up helpful small bites that aligns with where they are on their conference journey.

  • Day 1 – it’s about welcoming and helping them to get acclimated.
  • Day 2 – the priority might be on optimizing learning and networking experiences.
  • Day 3 – provide tips on how to apply their learning back in the workplace.

3. Respond Quickly

There will always be last-minute snag. A quick room change. A weather issue. Or a long line suddenly forming at one of the buffets. Deploy staff and volunteers who can keep their eyes peeled for these trouble spots. Empower them to provide ideas for improving the situation.

What are some ways that you are addressing your attendees’ conference pain points? How are you improving their overall attendee experience? 

Adapted from Dave’s Forward Thinking column in PCMA’s Convene. Reprinted with permission of Convene, the magazine of the Professional Convention Management Association. ©2014.
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1 comment
  1. Fantastic blog, Dave! Start with the attendees experiences first! As a provider of attendee experiences for the last 22 years, I am witnessing first hand the shift towards attendee experience. Where we used to be brought in at the end of the budget process, more and more clients have started involving us at the start of their planning process. They do so because they see the value in caring about their attendees during and AFTER the conference instead of only focussing on before and during. If you care about the after, you automatically start considering how much change you will see in behaviour/thought as a result of your conference. ROI becomes a driver not an afterthought. And ROI is measured, in part, by how much learning occurred. Not just by how many people attended.

    If we want learning to occur at conferences, the attendees experience must be at the forefront of planners’ minds right from the start! Conference design, using new discoveries in neuroscience at your conference, food that enhances thinking, speakers that facilitate learning rather than talking to a darkened room, engaging entertainment that puts the audience at the centre and often where the audience is the stage, etc… There is no shortage of places to start putting the experiences of your attendees first.

    It’s exciting to see these changes happening.

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