First, there are the multi-day industry events, typically hosted someplace warm. You fly in with high hopes, but your enthusiasm tempers quickly when you see the bland conference hall, overflowing with attendees, the vendors so eager to pitch you that you feel overwhelmed and outnumbered.
Next, there are the smaller conferences, held somewhere convenient, like San Francisco or New York. The content is compressed into a half-day format, and everyone goes home in the early afternoon. You talk to no one and leave uninspired.
Finally, there are the company-organized events. More and more former sponsors of industry events have started hosting their own conferences, meetups, happy hours and other organized gatherings. And that's enough to keep you constantly filtering through the invitations in your overflowing inbox — or feeling tempted to forgo the whole task altogether.
Because of this overload, many companies are more selective about what they'll participate in. They want an event with valuable content worth their time and effort. So, as someone who's hosted industry events and attended more conferences than I can count, my main advice to event planners is to put their audience’s needs above all else.
With that in mind, here are my must-do’s for hosting an industry event that doesn’t suck.
1. Build your attendee list thoughtfully.
This seems like a no-brainer, but based on past events I’ve been to, some people are evidently skipping this step. You have to start by clearly defining your target audience. Consider creating attendee personas — detailed descriptions of the type of people you want to attend. Think beyond title, company size or even geographic location. Assemble a group of people who will benefit from meeting one other, and from having meaningful conversations that can have a lasting effect.
Odds are, you're not going to throw the next SXSW or CES, and that's OK. Some of the best events I've been to have been smaller in volume — because 100 decision-makers are likely to be far more relevant than a massive crowd.
2. Choose the right location.
Let’s face it, when people consider which event to attend, location is a major factor. There is a reason why conferences like the Adobe Summit are held in Las Vegas and Ragan’s upcoming Social Media Conference is at Disney World.
So, don't jump to rent a conference hall, because thinking outside the box can help your event stand out. Depending on the size of your event, consider a hip restaurant, a winery or a more creative space, such as this historical train station in Oakland, or even the Magic Castle in LA.
Think about the goals of your event and what location and format would best help you achieve them. Is your event intended to reward your most loyal clients and strengthen your relationships? Choose a destination that is enticing, and perhaps even exclusive.
Are you trying to get a big turnout? Think about your attendees’ ease of travel, and of course be sure to make the logistics as easy as possible.
3. Deliver valuable content in an engaging way.
Take the time to pinpoint what you can offer your attendees that no one else can. Brainstorm internally, of course, but don’t hesitate to consult with others. Ask trusted clients, vendors and friends who fit your attendee persona what they want most from an event like the one you’re planning. Be sure not to spread yourself too thin — decide on a specific theme and stick with it. Events should be hyper-focused, with clearly defined content pillars, so it is clear what people will gain by attending.
For example, iMedia runs global summits all over the world. It always creates a specific theme for each event, based on feedback from the industry. Its upcoming Brand Summit in Bonita Springs, Fla., will cover brand activation in the new economy. In the event’s communication and marketing, iMedia is clearly defining the types of questions its content will answer.
Some additional tips for curating the best content possible for your industry event:
Invest in the right keynote speaker. He or she will help to pique attendees’ interest and set the tone for the rest of the event. This is not the place to skimp.
Keep your sessions short. This will challenge your speakers to focus on their best possible content, and keep attendees interested.
Provide your speakers with clear guidelines and information on your audience. Tell them the types of questions you would like answered. Consider reviewing their content before the event to make sure it is on point.
Don’t make things “sales-y.” If you're allowing vendors to sponsor a session or two, remember that people prefer case studies to straight sales pitches.
Experiment with different formats: panels, breakaway sessions, audience Q&As, games, etc. You want things to be as interactive and engaging as possible.
Make it fun! Some sort of recreational activity, happy hour or creative out-of-the-box session allows people to let their hair down and network in a less formal setting.
What “out-of-the-box” might mean
Here are a couple of meetings where event organizers — or outside organizers — did something unexpected:
During Tableau’s conference in Austin, Texas, one of Tableau’s competitors crashed the event, offered attendees free doughnuts and handed out tickets for its competing party, featuring artists like Flo Rida and Snoop Dogg.
At Trend Hunter’s Future Festival in Toronto, out-of-the box sessions were offered, with titles likeThe Business of Marijuana, DIY Beer & Craft Culture, Yoga with a Mind Reader and Axe Throwing, in order to drive higher attendance.
C2, a creative business conference in Montreal, redesigned its setting in 2016 to include an innovative retail experience for attendees, including street art and handmade tea cozies.
Stockholm’s Global Forum event tried the silent approach, giving attendees a headset in order to switch between multiple speakers and sessions at their convenience.
There is no shortage of marketing conferences, but there is still areal need for events that offer high-quality, curated content and spare attendees the unnecessary noise they so often suffer through.