Fix What’s Broken for Attendees at In-Person Events
By Dahlia El Gazzar, DES
Attendee engagement is at the heart of every show. Here, Expo! Expo! IAEE’s Annual Meeting & Exhibition 2022 presenter Dahlia El Gazzar, DES, Owner and Tech Evangelist at Dahlia+Agency, shares ways in which exhibition and event organizers can create the ultimate attendee experience.
Part one of the Changemaker Series of articles, “Events need to change. Let’s start with a survey,” poses a question about the ability of events to transform. Part two kicks off a discussion on what transformation looks like.
Attendees are at the center of every event. Here are ways to address their specific needs.
One facet of the problem is that attendees want to connect in person to build or refresh trusted relationships. It makes sense since almost everything else can be done online. Yet, many events aren’t designed to facilitate connections. Barriers – size, crowds, noise, event objectives, short-term profit goals – keep people apart.
If connection – the one thing that face-to-face events do exceptionally well – is the goal (and it should be), there are changes event designers can make:
Plan smaller events
The more attendees at an event, the less likely it is for them to make the right connections on their own. Fewer people allow event organizers to orchestrate and curate more meaningful connections. For events that are already large, designers can endeavor to plan events within events.
Just because people are together in the same location, doesn’t mean they’re meeting the people they’d like to meet. Deploying structured matchmaking software or planning hosted buyer meetings compel (even require) people to connect.
Create space to meet
Booths aren’t always the most inviting spaces for deep conversations. They’re built to quickly move people in and out. While potentially less lucrative than booth real estate, ample open space apart from trade show booths with comfortable seating designed for small-group interaction (campfires, for example) invites people to connect.
Much is made of the power of face-to-face events to generate impromptu connections that turn into friendships, business relationships, and even an eventual romance. Embedding opportunities for strangers to bond over personal interests they have in common – gameplay, a love of animals, art, classic cars, wine – opens the door to other topics of conversation.
Reframe the role of the organizer
For many decades, the event organizer’s responsibility was to place people in the room. Progressive event producers have begun to take responsibility for what happens in the room: connections made, deals done, pipeline driven—all the byproducts of connecting.
Help attendees feel something
The quote attributed to the poet and activist Maya Angelou, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel,” is instructive for event designers.
If transformation – helping attendees to feel differently leaving the event than they did arriving – is the goal, event designers have to double down on experience. Here’s how:
Rethink the purpose of events
Rather than just convening people in the same place and time, event designers should aim for nurturing shared experiences (small group discussions, sporting events, team competitions, hackathons, highly interactive peer-to-peer education, boot camps) as an event priority.
Co-create the event
Bringing attendees into event design makes them feel a part of something bigger. For example, the SXSW Conference and Festivals uses a PanelPicker system to give “attendees a significant voice in Conference programming.” The system requires the community to enter proposals for conference sessions at all SXSW events and then asks members to browse proposals, leave comments, and vote for sessions they think would be a good fit for the event.
Select family-oriented destinations
Post-pandemic, it’s a more difficult decision for attendees to leave home. Family responsibilities (and the desire to be home) are a deciding factor in whether or not to attend an event, especially for women. Family-friendly destinations and activities can make the attendee experience more enjoyable.
Prepare exhibitors for the new reality
Attendees coming to shows today aren’t the same ones that attended in 2019. Many are fatigued, stressed, and unaccustomed to crowds. Some may not yet be ready for large-scale social interaction. Making exhibitors aware of this level of attendee fragility can help them shape spaces and in-booth experiences appropriately.
Attend to wellness
A certain number of attendees are introverts. Others may become easily overstimulated or tired after hours of smiling and talking. Quiet spaces, whether they are chapels or meditation rooms, nooks or naps pods, can help reduce stress and promote attendee mental health and wellness.
Strive for inclusivity
Diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives are not only popular, but they are also crucial for helping people of color, people with disabilities or any other person from a marginalized community feel as if they belong in an event community. This extended welcome can transform individuals in these groups.
Appeal to attendee values
Reducing paper waste, providing water stations (vs. plastic bottles), serving farm-to-table food, offering carbon offset donations for travel, or selecting green venues and vendors, for example, communicate to people who care a great deal about sustainability that they are heard.
These suggestions are flexible. Your audience will dictate how much creativity to inject into the design to help visitors connect and feel.
The pandemic has changed people. Smart organizers will recognize and appreciate the differences.