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Timing is Everything

Rethinking the traditional event agenda

By Laura Bickle

When you have attendees for a finite period of time, it’s tempting to program every moment. But planners are beginning to embrace the benefits that a looser, less traditional model provides. “It’s about giving attendees the power to design an experience that’s healthy for them,” says Jessie States, CMP, CMM, vice-president, MPI Academy, Meeting Professionals International. “It’s helping people map their own journey.”

Read on for more ways to put a new, attendee focussed twist on your event agenda:

Shorter and stronger

Take, for example, the IACC Americas Connect conference in Las Vegas in May. The conference was shorter than in past years, “to allow those who were time-poor to depart at the end of the second day if they needed to,” says Mark Cooper, IACC CEO. “This was out of respect for those whose venues were busy and perhaps running with low staff numbers. It was the right thing to do. But we also added a pre-conference session on the Monday for those who did have the time and wanted more education.”

Fresh starts

In addition, the official first day of the IACC conference began with a one-hour networking session at 9 a.m., later than in previous years, and offering coffee and light snacks as opposed to a full breakfast. Messages from the event app encouraged guests to explore the area for breakfast before the start time if desired. “We knew that the social reconnection part of coming together again remained important and therefore we felt it important to get this happening right up front, from day one. It also allowed our sponsoring vendors an important opportunity to engage with attendees immediately. We like this slightly later start time and in the future it may allow some time to arrive early that morning rather than the night prior.”

Session secrets

States says that, coming out of the pandemic and Zoom call overload, attendees don’t want to sit in huge theatres and be talked to. That’s why MPI took a thoughtful approach to it’s 2022 World Education Conference in San Francisco in July. “We had a couple of large lecture halls, that we call amphitheaters, but aside from that, everything was designed to be a workshop and pure learning. We had nine or 10 sessions running at the same time, but they were designed to be smaller, more intimate conversations.”

Downtime

While many events offer exercise and meditation breaks, States says it’s also important to let attendees know they can opt out of portions of the conference. “You can take time off, and you don’t have to attend everything. It’s about giving attendees the power to realize they can take a break, go out into the city and enjoy.” States recalls when the World Education Conference was in Toronto during the Raptors’ 2019 NBA Championship parade. “There was much consternation about if the attendees would go to the parade instead of our sessions. And my feeling was, what if they do? Isn’t that an experience they’ll never forget? Isn’t that something that’s powerful and meaningful to them? So just let them go, you know?”

End notes

Final sessions are notoriously poorly attended as people are often at the mercy of airline schedules and personal obligations—or just plain spent. States says programming needs to be top-notch and keynote-calibre in order to catch that last group. The IACC Conference wrapped up its program by 2:45 on the final day, allowing attendees to fly out that night or participate in an optional post-event culinary tour of Downtown Las Vegas.

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