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Stay-Put Strategies

How to keep conference attendees from skipping out early

By Connie Jeske Crane

It’s an all-too-familiar scenario: By the time the clos­ing keynote speaker hits the stage, attendance at many events has plummeted. In fact, Jeff Havens, a Michigan-based speaker, professional development expert and principle at The Jeff Havens Company, estimates today’s standard last-day attendance hovers around 40 or 50 per cent: “Easily half of the people don’t stick around to the end.”

How to stop the demoralizing drift at events, given all the time and money invested? Experts say the key is addressing people’s underlying reasons for leaving. Here are some best practices:

Scheduling is Everything
• Arrange flight times that allow delegates lots of time to attend events—plus complimentary shut­tle service to transit connections, says Michelle Planche, president of Toronto’s Paradigm Events. Also factor in travellers’ needs for family time and to get caught up on work.

• Don’t cram in extra education on the last half day before departure. “That’s where you really start to lose a lot of people,” says Havens. Instead, book a closing keynote plus a bang-up social the night before attendees leave.

• Appreciate what attendees want from an event. Allow time for education and networking, plus exploring the destination.

• To maintain enthusiasm, include breaks with healthy snacks, says Alison Silcoff, of Montreal-based Alison Silcoff Events. But avoid empty lag time, so people aren’t tempted to duck out.

• Finally, stick to your schedule, adds Silcoff, and let attendees know you’ll do so.

Build Engagement from the Start
• If people are networking and bonding, they’re more likely to hang in. Silcoff suggests opening with a social session for fun and networking.

• Use technology and gamification. Planche recommends options like photo reveals and Instagram contests.

End with a Bang
• Offering multiple perks at the end—from parties to spa visits and other prizes—can work well, says Silcoff, adding that higher-level employees generally enjoy luxury activities, such as golf or staycation experiences.

• Know your audience. For example, Havens says draws for iPads and similar technology are passé for most people today. “I don’t think it’s an inducement to stay for the final portion of a conference.” To deliver sought-after rewards, he suggests negotiating with and leveraging your vendors.

• Communicate about rewards well in advance, so people can plan ahead and actually enjoy them, says Silcoff.

Should conference attendees be mandated to stay to the end?
Havens says yes: “I think that mandating attendance is still a very important way to make sure that people show up.”  However, Silcoff feels mandating attendance is difficult, particularly at executive levels and beyond. Ultimately, Planche says a reasonable approach, thoughtfully designing your event so attendees want to stay, could be the soundest strategy of all.

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