Conferences Are a Zoo, Here’s How to Get All the Animals to Show Up

I’ve often marveled at the complete disconnect between what conference organizers and conference attendees think is the purpose of an event. For the organizers, the expo floor offers educational and networking opportunities that simply can’t be found in any other way. It is the culmination of months of work and thousands of dollars, if not more. For some attendees, however, it’s primarily a great excuse to get ridiculously drunk and maybe pick up some swag from vendors.

In fact, let’s look at an all-too common conference attendee’s agenda:

Attendee shows up the day before, checks into room, registers for conference, and receives lanyard. Attendee then heads immediately to the nearest bar, because for the next several days he or she is single–no spouse, kids, chores, or curfew. Attendee celebrates newfound status by drinking excessively and staying out until 3am. Attendee then straggles into the opening session and sits as far away from the podium as possible, as though still in junior high. 

I could continue, but I don’t wish to depress you.  The point is, attendees may have good intentions, but can be distracted. However, you can use their natural tendencies to your advantage. Here are a few ways you can organize your next event to thwart those accidental distractions:

Start an Hour Later

Almost every conference at which I am invited to speak starts at 8 a.m. and ends around 4:30. What about beginning at 9 a.m. and ending at 5:30 p.m. as a gift to those who may not have found their room until the wee hours? You’ll probably have more people showing up to your opening sessions, and you still won’t interrupt their dinner plans.

Rope off Back Seats

Left to themselves, attendees will sit as far from the stage as they can. This makes the room look empty, and it also creates a slight disconnect between them and whoever’s speaking. I’ve learned over the years that conference attendees are terrified of tiny ropes and tilted chairs. If they see either of these things, they will run away from those locations and sit instead in whichever seats are tilt- and rope-free. When the first few rows are full, you can remove the tape and let attendees fill in the “brand new” space. They won’t even know you’ve manipulated them.

Do Giveaways During Breakout Sessions

Everyone does giveaways at the various keynotes when theoretically everyone is in attendance. But if there’s any truth at all that giveaways actually get people to show up, then there’s no reason to limit those giveaways to the main sessions. If attendees are going to skip something, it’s most likely one of the breakout sessions. So, put some giveaways in some or all of those breakouts. The session leaders will certainly enjoy increased attendance, and your attendees will have plenty of time to hang out at the pool later.


Jeff Havens is a professional development expert who addresses leadership, generational issues, and other areas of professional development through a unique blend of content and entertainment. He has been a regular guest on Fox Business News and featured in CNBC, BusinessWeek, and Bloomberg News.

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