What works and what doesn’t — through the eyes of an attendee

By Kathy Janich for PlanYourMeetings.

When was the last time you thought about a meeting or event from the attendee’s point of view? You might consider doing so once in a while, just to remind yourself what it’s like for someone coming in cold. Using a recent conference I attended, let’s look at what worked and what didn’t, according to some basic principles of meeting and event design.

Step No. 1: Make sure attendees know where to go

What went wrong: The four-day event was in my city at a location I know well. But when I got there, nothing. No signage, no humans to tell me where to register, find other warm bodies or the first session. If I was flummoxed, how did the 80-plus attendees coming from another state or country feel? Not the best first impression.

Easy fixes: Signage at each entry telling us where to go. The event had plenty of congenial volunteers. Posting one or two in the lobby to direct us to a specific room on an upper floor would have been a welcoming touch and a solution that was both environment- and budget-friendly.

Step No. 2: Make sure attendees know what to do

What went wrong: At least 30 attendees were first-timers. Although welcomed effusively at most sessions and told what a friendly conference it was, it didn’t often feel that way.

Easy fix: A short 15- or 30-minute session on Day 1 that tells newcomers what to expect, where to go, where to get questions answered, how to negotiate various breakouts and plenaries, and what the general etiquette is. Or try the buddy system. Pair a first-timer with a conference pro for the first day, or designate the pro as that first-timer’s go-to resource throughout the event. Then we’re talking friendly.

Step No. 3: Make sure attendees know what’s expected

What went wrong: Generally, these kinds of events are pretty casual — jeans, shorts, T-shirts, sundresses. But the agenda included a president’s pool party and a banquet. Was the party really at a pool? In the pool? Was swimming involved? Or was it just munchies and drinks around a pool? The banquet was at a pretty modest family restaurant, but was it a suits-and-ties thing? Dresses? The dreaded pantyhose?

Easy fix: Communicate. Recommend appropriate attire in the brochure, on the event website, in an FAQ email — and let everyone relax. That way we can enjoy, network and soak up the knowledge without fretting over dress code details.

Step No. 4: Make sure attendees feel taken care of

What went wrong: Parking. Most attendees came from out of town, but some rented cars. In-state and in-city attendees drove as well, and all paid $10 to $15 per day to park in the lot closest to the event (in triple-digit heat, parking was all about location). That added as much as $60 on top of the conference registration, hotel bill, meals, drinks, etc.

Easy fix: Vouchers to defray all or some of the cost. Maps to less pricey lots that truly are open during all days of the conference.

What went wrong: We were hungry! And thirsty! A few snacks were provided along the way with some water, soft drinks and bad, bad coffee. Most meals were on our own, though, with just a few suggestions of neighborhood spots within walking distance. And while this area bustles with business folks at lunchtime on weekdays, it’s a ghost town on summer weekends. Our registration fee included one really good box lunch.

Easy fix: Power snacks like nuts, fruit and cheese, please. Fewer cupcakes. Coffee that isn’t chewy (at least one big chain will donate free coffee to nonprofits, if asked in advance) and another good box lunch or two — maybe even one each day? As Oliver Twist so simply put it, “More, please.”