Do You Really Have Them at Hello? Rethinking Your First-Timer Strategy

One of my biggest pet peeves is the way some conferences approach first-time attendees. Being intentional and having a plan for how you welcome someone who is experiencing your conference for the first time is not only the right thing to do, it’s also a smart attendee acquisition strategy. It’s a pivotal time to onboard and help them make connections that will last throughout the conference, and, hopefully, throughout the years as they become repeat attendees.

No One Should Eat Alone

Take a page from the Regulatory Affairs Professional Society’s (RAPS) playbook for their recent annual meeting in Philly. They scrubbed their attendance data and realized that 31% of their attendees were solo (the only person from their organization). RAPS already had a strong first-timer experience, but this year they did a special reach out to those attending solo and invited them to join their renamed Convergence Conference Kick-off, which happened the hour before the opening reception. Their goal was that no one walked into the reception alone.

Smaller organizations often rotate who gets to attend annually from the team. RAPS realized if a member did not have a coworker attending with them, and he or she may not have attended in three to four years, they would be just as vulnerable as a first-timer.

Deliver Networking Value

The real secret sauce for RAPS’ successful conference kick-off was the 40 high-influencing, well-connected and long-standing attendees they recruited to act as table hosts and connectors during the session. With a host mentality, these veterans actively helped connect 300 attendees to information, people and resources, which not only helped them navigate their conference better, but made them feel welcomed into the community.

Anyone experiencing your conference for the first time or as a solo is looking for opportunities for facilitated networking. They desperately hope to make new connections, friendships and allies that will last beyond the conference. The more you can assist with that on day one, the better their first impression is. Throwing them into a large ballroom for the opening reception where they don’t know anyone, and hoping some alcohol will help, is delusional thinking.

RAPS opened their session with an engaging ice breaker using WE Connect Cards to facilitate networking and connection. The entire hour of their kick-off was focused on helping attendees identify what problems/challenges they were facing at work and how the conference community, education and resource experts present could support them over the three-day conference and beyond. They also had an engaging member resources area on the show floor where many of those 300 voluntarily went to learn more about RAPS.

Stop Talking at Them

The key to a successful welcoming experience is to encourage Connexity (connecting + community). The focus should be on conversation and connection among attendees, not a bombardment of multiple one-way orientation presentations. RAPS proved that by actively connecting their first-timers and solos through introductions to high-value members, who helped them in small groups with hacks and tips for navigating their conference better, was one of their best recruitment and retention efforts to date.

What have you experienced at a conference that made you feel welcomed?  What are some of your pet peeves for how we treat first-timers?

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